No Virgin by Anne Cassidy*
I'll admit I was a little cynical when I picked this up; I think it's important that young adult fiction (or any fiction, really) addresses issues of sexual assault and rape but after reading some very hard-hitting books of this ilk recently, I was worried that it was becoming a bit of a trope, a way to short-hand deep feelings and trauma into a novel without always acknowledging the realities of such a traumatic experience. I needn't have been so worried; this is an stark portrayal of sexual assault and the ways that class and power allow perpetrators to get away with it. Stacey Woods is your typical teenage girl; she worries about her best friend abandoning her for someone else, about her prying younger sister, about her Dad getting serious with someone new, about exams and finding a career she's passionate about. When it all gets too much one day, she finds herself in a café being chatted up by a posh boy, who takes her on a whirlwind adventure. It's the most exciting thing that's happened to Stacey, until it all takes a dark turn. Stacey's experiences of rape are raw and unflinching, without being gratuitous, and highlight some important issues that I think it would benefit everyone to think about more.
Small Great Things: 'To Kill a Mockingbird for the 21st Century' by Jodi Picoult*
This book is a punch in the gut, especially given the current political climate in the USA. (I'm sure the publisher couldn't have planned it, but now more than ever are books like this important). Ruth is an experienced labour and delivery nurse, but during a routine shift she is abruptly told that she can no longer care for a particular newborn. The parents are white supremacists and they don't want Ruth, which is African American, to touch their child. When an unfortunate incident leads to the baby's death, the parents accuse Ruth of a serious crime and the life that she has built up around her starts to crumble. Kennedy, a white public defender, takes the case and the two struggle to see eye-to-eye as they confront racism, privilege and prejudice in order to win Ruth's freedom.
I think this book will make for some pretty interesting book club discussions; I'd be interested to see how others have read it. I admit to fluctuating between being completely hooked by the story, compelled by the characters' journeys and also a little reticent at the sometimes simplistic way that the novel laid out the realities of racism in America. At times I felt it was spoon-feeding the morality of the tale, but that may have just been my reading and, as I mentioned, I'd love to know what others thought. It's difficult to talk about a book like this without becoming mired in a lot of history and politics (don't get me wrong, that's exactly where I like to be mired, if I am to be mired at all, but it's not always great to be mired). I think it's an important read, as well as one that is interesting and emotionally smart. However, at times it felt very black and white, if you'll excuse the pun; I loved Ruth and wanted only the best for her, and she felt like a very rounded character to me, but the white supremacist couple were almost cartoon-ishly bad to me. They were consumed by their obsession with white supremacy; it infected everything they did, even the ordinary mundane things, and whilst I don't doubt (having seen the evidence in the coverage of Trump rallies) that people like that exist, I thought it made it almost too easy to draw a line between right and wrong. Perhaps the hope is that white people reading this book will identify more with the white lawyer, so sure that she is not racist until her own privilege and prejudice are presented to her starkly by Ruth and by the facts of the case. Either way, whilst I think it would be hard to do, there is room for a little more nuance on each side.
I am maybe biased because when looking up some facts about the book, I stumbled across the sub-title given to it by Amazon: 'To Kill a Mockingbird for the 21st Century'. Don't get me wrong, I really liked this book; maybe even loved it. It's definitely one of the best books I've read this year and will stick with me for a long time. But to compare it to To Kill A Mockingbird, which is very subtle, and therefore perhaps more powerful and long-lasting, in its messaging is mis-leading, I think. I know those were not Picoult's words, but I think it's worth thinking about nonetheless. With everything that has happened, are we ready now for a more heavy-handed portrayal of racism in America? Is subtle no longer going to work on us; do we need something more to hit the message home? I urge you to read this book and find out for yourself (especially since it's just £4 on Amazon at the time of writing - you've got no excuse not to!).
To All the Boys I've Loved Before by Jenny Han
What a contrast to the other books on this list! If you spend any time on bookstagram, you'll probably have spotted the cover of this sweet book. When it popped up on Kindle for just 99p, I couldn't resist and I'm so glad I didn't. It's heart-warming in the best way; if you want to lose yourself in a teen romance then this is an excellent one to pick. Lara Jean is one of three sisters; after her mother died, her older sister Margot took on a lot of the responsibility but now she's off to college in Scotland and it's Lara Jean's turn to pick up the slack. In a year that's already going to be full of change and turmoil, something disastrous happens; the letters that she wrote to each of her previous crushes and stashed under her bed have been posted and everything has gone awry. As her crushes start to confront her about the content of the letters, Lara Jean starts to learn a little something about love... Whilst the romance in this book was touching and definitely had me squealing with joy at the end, it was the relationship between the sisters, and with their father, that I really loved the most. Definitely one to pick up on a dreary day!
Uglies by Scott Westerfield
In Tally's world, sixteen is the age when you are turned from an 'Ugly' into a 'Pretty'; when you're a Pretty, everything is wonderful and you can forget all of your problems. Your only job is to have fun and hang out with other Pretties. Tally can't wait to join her best friend Peris across the river after her operation, but when she meets Shay everything is turned upside down. Shay isn't sure she wants to be Pretty and when she runs away, Tally begins to learn more the ugly truth about being Pretty. If you're into young adult dystopia, then this could be one for you but it didn't grab me as much as I thought it would. Tally was a bit of a nothing character; somehow she managed great feats without previously demonstrating any particular drive or intelligence, which made it difficult to care about her eventual fate, and there was something a little bit obvious about the big reveal (if you've read any dystopia before, you can probably guess pretty quickly...). There were a few action scenes, but they were not as exciting as others I've read, and a bit of a romantic storyline that, again, didn't capture my imagination. It ended on a cliffhanger, and I'm in two minds about picking up the next one; I hate to leave a story unfinished but I find myself not caring all that much about what happens to Tally and her gang.