Orangeboy – Patrice Lawrence

For a moment, I saw inside Mum’s head. A pretty blonde girl had died. And me, I was the Hackney youth with the gangboy brother. The papers would be quick to pick up on it, probably scanning Facebook for a photo already. Drug-Toting Gangboy ‘Kills’ Innocent Girl, with pictures of us both underneath for compare and contrast.

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Sixteen-year-old Marlon Sunday is, by his own admission, ‘Not cool enough, not clever enough, not street boy enough for anyone to take notice.’ He reads non-fiction about the brain and listens to old funk records. When Sonya Wilson, seventeen, blonde, gorgeous, comes knocking at his door, he’s not asking why, he’s down the local fair taking ecstacy with her and riding the ghost train, despite all his promises to his mum that he’d stay home, work hard and definitely not find himself in the sort of trouble his older brother Andre did.

Things take a turn for the worst when Sonya gets on the ghost train alive but is dead before they’ve reached the other end of the track. Not only that but just before they embarked, she convinced Marlon to pocket her stash of pills.

Marlon’s convinced that the boys who spoke to Sonya a few minutes before her death have something to do with all of this. When he goes to visit her grandmother and give his condolences, he leaves with Sonya’s Blackberry. Soon he’s getting calls about Mr Orange and, despite his mum’s best efforts, finds himself having to finish something his brother Andre appears to have started.

Marlon’s best friend Tish is a brilliant, straight-talking counterpoint to him. She takes no shit and makes sure people know it.

‘Look what that girl dropped you in!’ Tish’s eyes were wide and furious. ‘All this crap landing at you mum’s house, just because you were following your dick…’

But this isn’t really about Sonya, she’s as much a victim as Marlon.

Lawrence takes the reader into the ganglands of South London, to the young men and women who control their territory through drugs, knives, guns and fear. Where loyalty is everything and betrayal comes with the highest price.

Three things about the novel are particularly impressive: the first is the plotting. I’m not a fan of the ‘I couldn’t put it down’ cliché but every chapter ends at a point that makes you desperate to continue reading. I left the house late for work and to meet friends; I propped up my eyelids with matchsticks and kept reading long after I should’ve been asleep.

The second is the way in which Lawrence shows how easy it is for a kid from a comfortable background to be drawn into gang culture. Marlon has a stable home life – his mum and her long-term partner – a good friend in Tish, he does okay at school and yet his loyalty to the people in his life and his desire to protect them is exactly what lures him in.

Thirdly, and connected to the previous point, Lawrence explores the part class plays; how structural inequality and poverty exacerbates gang-related crime.

After Tayz was arrested, the police raided his Mum’s flat and found money, weed, knives, a gun. She lost her home and D-Ice was kicked out.

Jesus, if me, Mum and Andre had been in a council place, that could have been us. Who knew what Andre used to have in his room? But we weren’t in the middle of an estate, we were here, in this road, with tidy hedges and Tesco deliveries and the bus going up and down.

Orangeboy is a fantastic book. Gripping, smart and a nuanced portrait of a world that’s easily open to stereotyping. If I was still teaching in secondary schools, I’d be pushing it into the hands of every kid I came across. 

Orangeboy is on the longlist for the Jhalak Prize; I’d be delighted if it makes the shortlist on the 6th February.

The Girl of Ink and Stars – Kiran Millwood Hargrave

On the 5th of January, the longlist for the inaugural Jhalak Prize was announced. The prize, launched to award the best writing from UK writers of colour, has a list which spans young adult and adult fiction – including short stories – as well as non-fiction. Of the eleven longlisted titles (there were twelve but Shappi Khorsandi, author of Nina Is Not OK, withdrew from the prize), six are by women. I intend to review all six and, purely because they were the first titles available at my local library, I’m starting with the young adult novels.

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‘You’re a boy. And so what? Girls can go on adventures too.’
‘Have you ever heard of a girl going on an adventure?’
I flushed in the darkness. I had only heard of one. ‘Arinta.’

The Girl of Ink and Stars is set on the isle of Joya. When the Governor – Governor Adori – arrived on the island, he closed the ports and made the forest between the village of Gromera and the rest of the island into a border. Anyone who resisted his rule was banished to the other side. The only map that exists of the island is one passed down the narrator Isabella’s mum’s side of the family, even though it is her father who is a cartographer.

Each of us carries the map of our lives on our skin, in the way we walk, even in the way we grow. Da would often say. See here, how my blood runs not blue at my wrist, but black? Your mother always said it was ink. I am a cartographer through to my heart.

Thirteen-year-old Isabella lives with her da. Her mum and brother, Gabo, are dead from sweating sickness. She has two friends, Pablo, the fifteen-year-old who lives opposite and is known for his strength, and Lupe, the Governor’s daughter.

We made an odd set, Lupe and I: she as tall as a near-grown boy, and I barely reaching her shoulder. She seemed to have got even taller in the month since I had last seen her. Her mother would not be pleased. Señora Adori was a petite, elegant woman with sad eyes and a cold smile. Lupe said she never laughed and believed girls should not run, nor have any right to be as tall as Lupe was getting.

On the day the story begins, Isabella goes to meet Lupe to walk to school, as usual. On the way to their meeting point, she is grabbed by the mother of one of her classmates, Cata Rodriguez. Cata is missing. It’s soon revealed that Lupe sent Cata into the forest to get her some dragon fruit. Isabella speculates that Cata will have been caught and thrown into the Délado, the labyrinth which serves as a prison beneath the Governor’s house. It turns out to be much worse than that: Cata is dead and there are claw marks on her body, ‘Deep gouges, thick as my thumb’.

A combination of the Governor’s decision to leave Joya for Afrik with his family, the dark forces that appear to have been unleashed on the island, and Lupe’s ignorance at her father’s behaviour culminate in harsh words between her and Isabella. The consequences of this exchange are that Lupe leaves for the forest to discover who killed Cata. Soon, Isabella, disguised as a boy and serving the Governor, is following in an attempt to save her best friend and possibly the entire population of Joya.

In Isabella, Hargrave has created a character who is both smart and, when she needs to, kicks arse. She stands up to inherited, insecure power and points out its shortcomings. She journeys into unmapped territory and maps it herself. She channels her hero Arinta, using her stories for guidance when she needs to survive.

The Girl of Ink and Stars is inventive, fast-paced, thrilling and a hugely satisfying narrative. Girls can indeed go on adventures and turn out not only to be the hero in their own story but in other people’s too.

Nina Is Not OK – Shappi Khorsandi

To drink to this level, to stay this fucked up, you need focus and determination and stacks of willpower. If it wasn’t so awful, I’d insist on a medal.

Seventeen-year-old Nina has a drink problem, although she’s not going to acknowledge it any time soon. We meet her being thrown out of a nightclub after giving a guy a blow job by the bar. She’s lost her friends but the guy and his mate come to look for her and walk her down the road to an alley. Sometime later, Nina’s in the back of a taxi.

I clutched my knickers in my hand. They were nice ones. Part of a set from Topshop. Thank God I’d retrieved them. I wanted to put them on but I couldn’t move. Why were my knickers in my hand? Did I fuck one of them? Both of them? Oh dear God no! Shit. No condoms. Not good. The gluey tang of spunk was in my hair.

It doesn’t occur to Nina that she’s been raped. When she returns home, her mum pulls her out of the taxi – alerted by the driver after Nina fell asleep and he couldn’t wake her. The following morning, Nina’s mortified at the thought of her six-year-old sister seeing her and her mum lectures her about her ‘party animal’ behaviour, comparing her to her dad who was also an alcoholic.

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Nina’s finding life particularly difficult of late after her boyfriend, Jamie, left to spend a year in Hong Kong with his dad. He went promising to message every day and then nothing. Eventually he let her know he’d met someone else. Nina’s not taking it well, sending emails to him that veer from total hatred to declarations of undying love. And then he posted pictures of himself and his new girlfriend on Facebook.

Beth had said, ‘Well, that’s a kick in the cunt.’ But it hadn’t been like that. It had been like a thousand kicks in the cunt and a giant fist around my heart squeezing until it burst, again and again and again.

Nina’s friend, Beth, is a feminist. She disagrees with Nina’s attempts to put Jamie’s new girlfriend down, refuses to let Nina be slut-shamed for giving a guy a blow job in a club, and thinks glossy magazines are ‘trash’. She’s a good foil for Nina’s thoughts about pretty much everything. Their other friend, Zoe, is completely gorgeous and really nice. That is until she begins dating Alex, the guy Zoe gave a blow job to.

Throughout the novel, Nina continues on a path of self-destruction, drinking more and more and sleeping with a range of guys in a variety of scenarios. Khorsandi writes without judging Nina although, of course, society has conditioned us to. It’s very difficult to read some of the situations Nina finds herself in and not blame her for failing to keep herself safe. Again, this societal construction wouldn’t apply if the sex of the protagonist were reversed and, as the novel progressed, I found myself increasingly angry at the men who didn’t acquire enthusiastic consent from Nina or, when they did, failed to give any consideration as to how intoxicated she was.

Khorsandi doesn’t shy from putting Nina in a whole range of plausible scenarios in terms of her abuse of alcohol, her sexual encounters, and the role that social media plays in teenagers’ lives. This is a complex, gripping look at a young woman struggling to come to terms with who she is and how society treats females who go against the virginal, nice girl stereotype they’re expected to conform to.

Khorsandi’s a comic so expect some laughs along the way too, although I found that some of the parts that were supposed to be funny – and a teenager would probably laugh at – I couldn’t find amusing: they were just too close to a reality that I find horrifying in my late 30s.

The book’s so compelling that I found myself having to finish reading it in a taxi queue at 1.15am following a trip on the last train home from London on which I usually fall asleep. I highly recommend it whatever age you are but I really think Nina Is Not OK should be handed out on Freshers’ Week and taught in schools as part of sexual consent classes. Not only is Nina Is Not OK a great read, it’s an important one too.

 

Thanks to Ebury for the review copy.

Butter – Erin Lange

Butter is a 423lb teenager who bounces ‘between bingeing and purging’ and has ‘a handicapped sticker’ for the school car park, requested by his mum, so he can park right at the edge of the student allocated spaces. But that’s not his only problem.

At school, Butter’s largely ignored by his fellow students, including ‘the fake blonde and fake tanned’ Anna who Butter has begun an online relationship with. Well, I say Butter, what I mean is that his alter ego, the private school attending, sport loving JP has begun an online relationship with Anna. The only thing Butter and JP have in common is their saxophone playing and the piece that they’ve composed for Anna.

But things change for Butter when he steps in to try and support Anna after she argues with her best friend in the middle of the school canteen. Firstly, Jeremy one of the ‘cool’ kids gets to her at the same time and tells Butter to ‘waddle on back to the big and tall section’. Secondly, Anna’s reaction to this is to turn red and Butter realises that she pities him. Thirdly, when Anna tells JP about the fight later online, she reduces Butter to a footnote and tells him that the row was over a ‘most likely to’ list that someone has posted about students at their school. When Butter clicks on to the list, he discovers that he’s been listed as ‘most likely to have a heart attack’.

Butter’s response to all this is to set up the website ButtersLastMeal.com:

You think I eat a lot now? That’s nothing. Tune in December 31st, when I will stream a live webcast of my last meal. Death row inmates get one. Why shouldn’t I? I can’t take another year in this fat suit, but I can end this year in a bang. If you can stomach it, you’re invited to watch…as I eat myself to death.

Menu to be announced, but I can tell you right now – it ends with one full stick of butter.

The upshot of this is that Butter becomes the most noticed kid in school:

Kids I didn’t know going out of their way to talk to me; kids who I thought hated me risking detention to stick up for me – what’s a guy supposed to do with that?

And, of course, Butter likes the attention – most teenagers would. Not only does he get to be a part of the ‘cool’ crowd at school, he gets to talk to Anna, as himself. But, as an adult reader, we know that some teenagers can be cruel and unthinking. Even Butter comments:

All their laughter and curiosity and encouragement wasn’t completely evil. It was just the result of some teenage sense of immortality mixed with that thing that makes you slow down and watch a car crash, even when you don’t want to look.

Or does Butter say that? It seemed to me that there were a handful of moments where Erica Lange’s authorial voice crept through. That seems a very astute observation for a teenager in the midst of an incredibly emotional time, particularly when there are a couple of revelations at the end of the book that someone as emotionally intelligent as the person revealed in that quote would have spotted much earlier.

However, don’t let that put you off reading the book. It’s very well written, multi-layered narrative that does put you in the position of one of those voyeurs who watch car crashes. You’ll feel grimly compelled to keep reading to discover whether Butter goes through with his last meal even though you know the consequences could be fatal.

Thanks to Faber and Faber for the review copy.

Twilight – Reviewed by Charlotte Rodgers

We ran a series of competitions in school to celebrate the Reading Week we were staging across our ‘family’ of schools. Charlotte Rodgers won the KS4 Book Review category and was the overall winner, as chosen by our head teacher. She won a Kindle and the opportunity to have her review published. So here it is:

Vampires: Undead, widow-peaked blood-suckers that leap out from coffins and prey on the innocent, right?

Wrong!

Thanks to the bestselling series Twilight by vampire expert extraordinaire Stephanie Meyer, this obviously false stereotype is completely done away with and replaced by what is most definitely a more correct alternative; they now sparkle, live in huge modernised houses and lust after teenaged girls! Oh, how Bram Stoker’s face must be red.

The series follows 17-year-old Bella Swan as she moves away from sunny Phoenix in Arizona to the dreary little town of Forks, Washington. It is there that she meets the brooding, mysterious, somewhat icy (pun intended) and sparkly Edward Cullen along with his equally glittery family. Whilst the hormones of just about any other teenaged boy in school are going wild at the sight of the sullen beauty that is Miss Swan, copper-haired (her words, not mine) Edward shows no interest whatsoever, even appearing to be disgusted at the very sight of her! Poor dear, life is just too cruel.

But anyway. We are treated to a dismal nine chapters of Bella and the chronicles of her adventures in Forks, including meeting the Quileute boy Jacob Black (later revealed to be a werewolf-human boys in this book are rarer than the supernatural ones), who tells her a rather interesting tale about wolves and vampires fighting and killing each other and so on, so forth…

…yadayadayda. It makes Bella suspect that Edward is a vampire. And thanks to a handy little thing called Google, she is able to research the walking/talking icicle before an almost-rape encounter leads to a not-so coincidental meeting between the two.

In other words, he was stalking her. And she finds it incredibly romantic.

She later outs him as a vampire and, despite his warnings (which could have saved a later three sequels and a hell of a lot of paper) the two begin a relationship. A relationship which, according to the National Domestic Abuse hotline, ticks the boxes of all fifteen criteria for an unhealthy relationship. These little gems include: threatening to commit suicide (book two, check.), making all the decisions for the two of them (uh, every book, mega check.), and, of course, threatening to kill you. Something Edward likes to remind Bella he could do at every chance he gets.

Let me put it this way; if I had a penny for every time Mr. Sullen reminds his air-headed amour that he wants to drink her blood, I would have enough money for a refund, as well as something with which to gouge my eyes out and save myself from reading this pile of drivel.

Unfortunately, many other girls my age (and embarrassingly so, mothers of these poor dears) do not share my sentiments. As a series, Twilight has sold over 116 million copies worldwide and appeared on the New York Times Best Seller lists for over 235 weeks. Oh, and have been adapted into five immensely popular films, starring the marvellously miserable Kristen Stewart as Bella. Personally, I think half the time she appears on screen, she is finding the story just as bland and tasteless as I.

Ridiculed and mocked online and in forums, it has even spawned the “still a better love story than Twilight” meme, a comment commonly used as a response towards pairings, animals, or even day-to-day objects, saying that the connection between them is better than the relationships portrayed in the series.

The majority of Twilight’s audience is preteen to teenage girls, and so would not have an inkling of a clue as to how adult relations work, even more so than Bella Swan herself. This, I think, has contributed towards the book’s popularity; because they only see it as a silly, supernatural love story, they continue reading and fuelling sales whilst simultaneously filling Meyer’s pocket. The poor plotline cannot even be saved by decent writing, either. A suitable comparison to Twilight would be that of a fan fiction written by a half-educated tween girl, fawning over a couple and treating the gloomy male protagonist like some kind of statuesque Greek Adonis.

Around 40% of the book is our damsel in distress feeling the need to remind us of just how damn good looking her man is. This is not an exaggeration.

Overflowing with enough lines to make you cringe in embarrassment and a cast full of paper-thin characters, I would only recommend Twilight to those who have but a single brain cell remaining, and for some reason would like to brutally torture it before exposing it to a cruel, slow and painful death.

As for me, I think I’ll stick to Harry Potter, thanks

Geek Girl – Holly Smale

You know a book’s good when you spend your drive to work wondering where you can find 20 minutes in your day to sneak into a quiet corner and finish reading it. The book in question was Holly Smale’s debut young adult novel Geek Girl.

Harriet Manners is a geek. She knows so because she’s checked it in the OED and because someone – probably Alexa, the school bully – has drawn it on her satchel.

When we meet Harriet, she’s in bed, sick. She’s pale with red spots on her face. It takes her best friend Nat a matter of minutes to point out that Harriet’s created this illness with talcum powder and red spots because she wants to get out of that day’s school trip. A trip that Nat’s looking forward to because it involves her greatest love – fashion. They’re off to The Clothes Show in Birmingham and Nat’s hoping that this is the day she gets spotted – she’s wanted to be a model forever.

Well, you can probably guess what happens next…

But not the whole story.

Yes, Harriet gets spotted. Right at the moment she manages to destroy a series of stalls causing £3000 worth of damage. And the moment she has her photos taken by Wilbur from Infinity Models, she sees Nat heading towards her and dives under a table to hide, bumping into Lion Boy aka Nick:

He’s about my age and he looks like a dark lion. He has large black curls that point in every direction and slanted eyes and a wide mouth that curves up at the edges. He’s so beautiful that all I can hear in my head is a high-pitched white noise like a recently switched-off television.

If, at this point, it’s all sounding a little predictable, don’t be fooled. This is not your archetypal Plain Jane story.

For starters, the story’s not just about Harriet. It’s about her family and friends too. And what it’s like to be a typical teenager (regardless of anything untypical that might happen to occur for Harriet).

There’s her friendship with Nat:

Nat and I are not in perfect harmony at all. We’re definitely close, and we spend all of our time together, and we definitely adore each other very much, but there are moments now we’ve almost grown up where our interests and passions divide a teensy bit.

Or – you know – a lot.

Her stalker, Toby, who has his own bush to hide in outside her house and is possibly geekier than she is; the school bully Alexa, who’s determined to make Harriet’s life a misery, and Harriet’s parents – her dad and step-mum, Annabel. Her dad and step-mum’s relationship and their relationships with Harriet are as a central to the book as her friendship with Nat.

So when Harriet finds that her and her dad are lying to Nat and Annabel and Toby about where each of them might be going for the next two days, life starts to get very complicated indeed. In fact, the transformation from geek to cool that Harriet thinks modeling is going to achieve for her might just be the end of her closest relationships.

Geek Girl is feisty, laugh-out-loud funny and heartwarming. It made me jealous of today’s teens who get such high quality literature written for them (it was a leap straight from Sweet Valley High to Jilly Cooper in my day) but that shouldn’t stop the rest of us from reading it as well and Geek Girl is definitely a book to investigate.

Thanks to HarperCollins for the review copy.

Maggot Moon – Sally Gardner

Standish Treadwell.
Can’t read, can’t write.
Standish Treadwell isn’t bright.

So sing the school bullies as they give Standish yet another beating. The beatings that make him believe school is invented:

…just so the bullies, with brains the size of dried-up dog turds, could beat the shit out of kids like me.

Standish Treadwell is the protagonist and hero of Maggot Moon. His old teacher, Miss Connolly and his best friend, Hector recognise him as ‘an original’:

There are train-track thinkers, then there’s you, Standish, a breeze in the park of imagination.

and even the leather-coat man who comes from the Motherland tells Standish:

I don’t think for one moment you are as stupid as you would like us to believe.

He’s not. Standish knows that:

If you are clever, know more than you should, you stand out like a green sky above a blue field, and, as we all know, the President of the Motherland believes that artists who do those sorts of paintings should be sterilised.

It is 1956 but not the 1956 we know for this is the dystopia that could’ve existed had Germany won World War II. This is never openly stated but there are enough clues – the Motherland, the salute, the children with ‘impurities’ who are ‘sent away’.

Standish lives with his granddad because his own parents have been taken by the Greenflies. He makes friends with Hector when Hector and his family are sent to live in Zone Seven and end up in Standish’s family’s old house. They’ve been banished from Zone One after Hector’s father has refused to do something for the government, something he keeps secret to protect Standish and his grandfather. But when Hector and Standish’s red football goes over the back wall, they all end up involved in something they shouldn’t.

This is a tightly plotted novel with a brilliant narrator. It has a beautiful friendship at the heart of it and a dyslexic boy who proves that finding reading and writing difficult doesn’t mean you’re stupid or afraid to stand up for what you believe in. It’s also beautifully written – I kept stopping to quote lines to my partner.

Maggot Moon deserves every ounce of praise that’s been heaped upon it. It’s perfect for teenagers (and slightly younger if you don’t mind the swearing and occasional violence) and adults alike. A superb book.

Thanks to readingzone.com and Hot Key Press for the review copy.