Half of a Yellow Sun

In 1960s Nigeria, a country blighted by civil war, three lives intersect. Ugwu, a boy from a poor village, works as a houseboy for a university lecturer. Olanna, a young woman, has abandoned her life of privilege in Lagos to live with her charismatic new lover, the professor. The third is Richard, a shy Englishman in thrall to Olanna’s enigmatic twin sister. When the shocking horror of the war engulfs them, their loyalties are severely tested as they are pulled apart and thrown together in ways that none of them imagined…

half of a yellow sun

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is a novel that captivates and rips your heart to shreds. Repeatedly. The narrative is split between two times, the early sixties, right after Nigeria won independence, and the outbreak of the Nigeria-Biafra War in the late sixties.

In the first and third sections of the novel, the early sixties, we are invited to explore middle class Nigeria. Ugwu, moving to Nsukka from a small village to become a houseboy, marvels at the plentiful food in his new boss, Odenigbo’s home. He listens in on the political debates Odenigbo and his university colleagues have every night over the dinner he painstakingly cooked. He is intrigued by London university educated Olanna, who has moved from Lagos to be with Odenigbo.

Olanna moves to Nsukka because she is bored of her life with her parents. She can no longer take being thrust in the path of prominent – and single – political figures and ignored by her twin sister, Kainene, with whom she was once close. In Odenigbo she sees her intellectual equal, and is drawn to his revolutionary beliefs.

Richard is a rich white boy from London who desperately wants to write the great African novel. He is disgusted by his racist peers and their reductive views of the Nigerian people, but ignorant of the problems inherent in his mining of Igbo culture for story ideas.

In the second and final sections of Half of a Yellow Sun we watch the war dismantle their lives. It is a novel that studies what war does to a person. Nsukka, where Olanna and Odenigbo live, is one of the first towns to fall at the beginning of the civil war. Their need to escape arrives suddenly, so they are not able to take most of their belongings with them. Their books, the symbol of their education and their concerns up until that point are left behind to be destroyed by Nigerian soldiers.

In the times before the war, Adichie pauses over long descriptions of food. Ugwu cultivated his own herbs to make Odenigbo’s food tastier. He cooked rice to Olanna’s exact specifications. When Odenigbo’s mother visited she took over the kitchen, not trusting anyone but herself to properly sustain her son. Harrison, Richard’s home help, is proud to present his idea of British cooking, and ridicules those who can’t do it – while they do the same to him for his obsession. When the war comes, it’s all stripped away. One of the war tactics used by the Nigerians to regain Biafra was to block aid from reaching the Biafran people. The prices of things like salt and milk soared. Olanna is forced to queue at relief centres that are forever running out of food. Alcohol is no longer a dinner time companion so much as a numbing medicine against the pain, violence and uncertainty. Harrison starts using beetroot (the British food he was so obsessed with) to fake injuries so he can travel without being conscripted into the untrained Biafran army.

Adichie also uses the parallel timelines to ask who should be telling Africa’s stories. Before the war, Richard is constantly failing to start his novel. He goes on about his obsession with Igbo art – as if the existence of artists in Africa is surprising to him – and begs Ugwu to take him to a ceremony in his village to look for story ideas. His novels never get very far. He goes through various different titles and approaches to the story, convinced that if he assimilates into Igbo culture enough then the perfect narrative will come to him. It is only toward the end of the war, after he proposes a novel called ‘The World Was Silent While We Died’ that Kainene finally points out that which should have been obvious from the beginning: Richard was not a part of that ‘we’. When your government can pull you out as soon as you wish it and the soldiers are never coming for you, present or not, it is not your war. While everyone else is trapped by the war, Richard is ultimately choosing to remain in it.

Through a beautiful twist that comes out of a lot of horror, Adichie makes the political point that Nigerian people should be the storytellers of their country.

Half of a Yellow Sun is a difficult novel. It doesn’t give you what you want – I wanted to scream when I realised the page I had turned was the last – but it gives you something else. In choosing authenticity over closure, Adichie has created a story that will be stuck in my head for a long time.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Everything Everything

Maddy is sick. She has SCID. It’s a chronic condition that can basically be described as an allergy to everything. She hasn’t been able to leave her house in seventeen years. The only people in her life are her mother (who also happens to be her doctor), and her nurse, Carla, who is pretty much her best friend in the world.

That is, until one day, a new family move in across the street. Until, specifically, Olly moves in across the street.

Suddenly Maddy’s life inside isn’t enough anymore.

Maddy is sick. She has SCID. It’s a chronic condition that can basically be described as an allergy to everything. She hasn’t been able to leave her house in seventeen years. The only people in her life are her mother (who also happens to be her doctor), and her nurse, Carla, who is pretty much her best friend in the world.

That is, until one day, a new family move in across the street. Until, specifically, Olly moves in across the street.

Suddenly Maddy’s life inside isn’t enough anymore.

EverythingEverythingCoverFor whatever reason, I waited a really long time to read Everything Everything, by Nicola Yoon. It arrived ages ago, but for a month or two it has been sitting on my shelf, underneath Why Not Me?, Asking for It and Six of Crows. I think I did this because I knew that this book would either be a colossal disappointment, or one of those reads during which I would become nostalgic about it before it was even over.

It was the second one. I loved this book. Nicola Yoon handled her subject matter well. She wrote Maddy as your average eighteen year old. That she wasn’t ever allowed to leave the house was just happenstance. It wasn’t something Maddy especially dwelt on, because it was her normality. I loved Yoon’s presentation of family time, particularly the games like phonetic Scrabble that Maddy played with her mother. Small moments like that build up the truth of your family life. It had the effect of showing us the loving relationship between Maddy and her mother while also showing us how small Maddy’s world was. That game came up a lot – I swear at times it was all Maddy and her mother did. They even played it when Maddy wanted nothing but to be as far from her mother as she could get.  The constant game of phonetic Scrabble (that Maddy didn’t win until right near the very end), was like a symbol of the suffocating relationship Maddy and her mother had. When Maddy won the final game they played in the book, it was a signifier for the change that was finally coming in their relationship. Getting out from underneath someone else’s suffocating love is difficult and painful, but something that had to happen for Maddy or her mother to have even a chance at their best future.

One the criticisms I have seen levelled at this book most frequently is that we don’t get enough of Maddy’s mother. I completely disagree. Whether she’s there or not, she is a looming presence throughout the book. She is the walls of Maddy’s prison. I think the reason for her relative disappearance in much of the book is that, for the first time ever, Maddy’s life is about herself.

Carla was the foil to Maddy’s mother. Without her influence I don’t think the Maddy that we read about would have been possible. Where Maddy’s mum restricts her, Carla is all about setting her free. She is the one who teaches Maddy that her life is her own. Carla knows that it is a person’s one job during their time here to live their life, even when doing that is scary.

You’re not living if you’re not regretting.’ – Carla, the best nurse ever.

Obviously I can’t end this review without talking about Olly. Oh, Olly. Why didn’t you move in across the street from me? Granted, I am not trapped in my house owing to chronic illness, but it’s very difficult for me to leave the village most of the time because the public transport is so bad. That counts, right? I’m basically Rapunzel in the tower until a friend with a car shows up.

Anyway. Olly was everything I like in a boy: hyper-active energy, emotional damage and the sort of flirtatious attitude that puts an instant, embarrassing and totally unavoidable grin on my face. I’ve heard Maddy and Olly’s attraction described as insta-love, but I don’t agree at all. It’s insta-sexual tension, which is way more acceptable. As I have made clear before, I am a big fan of sexual tension. It’s insta-sexual tension that turns into a real relationship. As far as I’m concerned, Olly totally seems like a guy worth leaving the house for.

I guess my one criticism of this book is that I would have liked to have read more about Maddy’s life post-twist. The resolution came so quickly after, I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get to see more of how Maddy dealt with the situation. I would have liked to have seen Olly’s reaction, too.

But this is a backhanded criticism. Essentially my complaint is that the book ended.

To which I have to say, good job, Nicola Yoon. I can’t wait to see what you do next.

Six of Crows

Six of Crows, by Leigh Bardugo is so much fun. It’s a classic heist, told from the perspective of five of the six participants. The cast of characters are diverse, coming from all areas of the land of Grisha familiar to us from the previous books in the series. They are of differing backgrounds, abilities, sexualities and motivations, and yet the group gelled straight away.

Kaz Brekker plans to do the impossible: He’s going to break into the Ice Court, a prison famed for its impenetrability. With thirty million kruge at stake, he reckons he and his gang of criminals, The Dregs can pull it off.

Kaz: Notorious criminal mastermind. He controls vast areas of Ketterdam at only seventeen.

Inej: Also known as the Wraith. Silent as a ghost, she can scale any surface. You never know when she might be nearby, listening.

Jesper: A crack shot with a weakness for the card tables.

Nina: Grisha. A heartrender who can choke a man at twenty paces.

Matthias: A lost fjerdan with a weakness for a certain Grisha.

Wylan: A merchant’s son looking for adventure in all the wrong places.

23437156Six of Crows, by Leigh Bardugo is so much fun. It’s a classic heist, told from the perspective of five of the six participants. The cast of characters are diverse, coming from all areas of the land of Grisha familiar to us from the previous books in the series. They are of differing backgrounds, abilities, sexualities and motivations, and yet the group gelled straight away. The changes in perspective that came with each new chapter really added to the coherency of the gang. For much of the novel, we knew how they felt about each other even when the characters themselves were unable to see it. Experiencing each character in such an immersive way made the novel a totally absorbing experience. Now that I’ve finished reading, I actually miss these imaginary people and – in a way that is highly out of character for me – I can’t wait for the sequel.

Like I’ve mentioned, getting both characters thoughts on a relationship – as well as the judgements of everybody else in the group – meant that we were really allowed to experience all the complexities of the feelings everybody had about each other. What this also meant, is that this book is simmering with potential romance. And I’m not referring to cringe-ey instalove either. Sometimes I worried that the weight of all that sexual tension might sink the boat before they even made it to the Ice Court. We get some forbidden love, complicated bad boy love and the slowly emerging crush that comes from flirty, shipboard banter.

I also loved the scenes exploring Inej and Nina’s friendship. There are few moments where it is only the two of them, and fleeting as they are, I was the left with a concrete sense of how much these two girls cared for each other. They are totally different people – Inej is quiet and reserved where Nina tends toward the loud and dramatic, but rather than conflict they seem to draw mutual strength from their differences. I have read so many adventure stories where the only two girls involved totally hate each other, so it was refreshing to see such a deep friendship that had not emerged from a place of aggression. Plus it leads to my favourite exchange in the book, between Inej and Matthias:

“Are you worried about Nina being out there?” Inej asked.

“No.”

“She’s very good at this, you know. She’s a natural actress.”

“I’m aware,” he said grimly. “She can be anything to anyone.”

“She’s best when she’s Nina.”

“And who is that?”

“I suspect you know better than any of us.”

He crossed his huge arms. “She’s brave,” he said, grudgingly.

“And funny.”

“Foolish. Every last thing needn’t be a joke.”

“Bold,” Inej said.

“Loud.”

“So why do your eyes keep searching the crowd for her?”

“They do not,” Matthias protested. She had to laugh at the ferocity of his scowl. He drew a finger through a pile of crumbs, “Nina is everything you say. It’s too much.”

“Mmm,” Inej murmured, taking a sip from her mug. “Maybe you’re just not enough.”

I don’t think I need much further evidence to prove that Inej is the best.

Obviously, I can’t end this review without talking about the heist. I love a good heist. Even in my sort-of adulthood, I still daydream about getting caught up in some ridiculous scheme. The adventure Leigh Bardugo takes us on does not disappoint. Kaz’s primary heist technique is pretty much to be as vague as possible. No one can wreck the plan, he supposes, if they don’t quite know what it is. This philosophy has varying levels of success. The Dregs simply have to believe that Kaz always knows what he’s doing. I’m not going to lie – their trust in this definitely wavers. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that some serious shit goes down. There was not a moment where I didn’t feel like everything was about to go catastrophically wrong. Again, the shift is perspective did a fantastic job of maintaining this. So many times Bardugo would end a chapter with someone in peril, before starting a new one from a different perspective and place. Reading it was the best kind of pain.

This book grabs you by the shoulders and drags you ever forwards. Sometimes you’re running to keep up. No matter the circumstances, for me at least, I was simply happy to be there.

Asking For It

‘Our society may not appear to support sexual violence, but you don’t need to look very far past the surface to see how we trivialise rape and sexual assault. Sexual assault (from unwanted touching to rape) is so common that we almost see it as an inevitability for women. We teach our girls how not to get raped with a sense of doom, a sense that we are fighting a losing battle.’ – Louise O’Neill.

Trigger warning: The following post contains discussion of rape and sexual assault.

Emma O’Donovan is the most beautiful girl in school. And she knows it. Everyone wants to be her friend, or more if they are able. She sees a bright future ahead of her. Then one night there’s a party. There are drugs and alcohol. When Emma wakes up the next day, dumped on her porch without her underwear, she finds she can’t remember a thing from the night before. It isn’t until school on Monday that she learns of the horrifying truth. She was raped by four boys, and the whole night has been broadcast to everyone she knows through the deeply disturbing photographs her attackers posted on Facebook.

In the months that follow, everywhere she goes, Emma is called a liar and a slut. Local people blame her for ruining the lives of her attackers. Meanwhile, online she is invited to share her story on feminist blogs, and #IBelieveBallinatoomGirl is always trending.

25255576Asking For It, by Louise O’Neill, is probably the most important young adult novel to come out in a long time. Louise O’Neill fearlessly tackles the issue of sexual consent, victim-blaming and rape culture.

‘Our society may not appear to support sexual violence, but you don’t need to look very far past the surface to see how we trivialise rape and sexual assault. Sexual assault (from unwanted touching to rape) is so common that we almost see it as an inevitability for women. We teach our girls how not to get raped with a sense of doom, a sense that we are fighting a losing battle.’ – Louise O’Neill.

Emma is not a likeable girl. She is, however, a product of a society in which we tell girls that their sexuality is their only currency. Emma’s thoughts are consumed with her own attractiveness. She constantly compares her own physical appearance to that of her friends. But it’s what she has been taught to do by every single person who has ever told her that she’s beautiful with the implication that’s all she ever need be. Which is pretty much everyone in her life, by the way. Creating Emma as this vain and arrogant person only served to increase the intense sense of disconnection with her body she experienced after her rape. We see Emma transformed from someone wanting to be the centre of attention to a girl who can’t leave the house, who sees her body only as a thing to which her darkest experience occurred. Before the rape she spent endless time caring for her body, smoothing creams over her skin to moisturise it and protect it from the sun, afterwards, she doesn’t even shower because she can’t bear to see herself naked. Her body is a vessel that carries her sadness from room to room, but it is not her own anymore.

The victim blaming that Emma suffers made me want to start tearing my hair out, I was so angry. Not only local people, but journalists and television presenters, couldn’t wait to tell everyone that Emma’s attack was her own fault because of the way that she was dressed, because she was under the influence of alcohol and drugs, because she had a promiscuous reputation anyway. All these awful words only confirmed to Emma what her mind would not stop telling her: It was her own fault.

To be clear: a short dress is not a justification for rape. A girl being under the influence is not a justification for rape. The responsibility for rape lies with the attacker, not the victim. I don’t understand why our society makes something so simple seem so complicated. Emma is clearly unconscious in the photos circulated online and yet her town seems immune to the implications of this fact, namely that there was no consent. And sex without consent is rape.

Louise O’Neill examines in excruciating detail the experience of a rape victim. The endless wait for the legal battle to even reach court and the knowledge that even if it does, in Ireland at least, the conviction rate for rape is 1%. She takes us through the horror of having to see your attackers when you attempt to simply go to the shop, and the endless torture via social media. She shows how a world can shrink to nothing when you know deep in your heart that even your closest loved ones don’t believe in you, that even they think what happened is your own fault. Reading about Emma was almost physically painful in its reality.

I know educated people of my age who are guilty of victim-blaming. Last year a lecturer at my university was convicted of the sexual assault of a sixteen-year-old girl. He pled guilty. And yet still the prevailing conversation around my university campus – even now – is that the girl shouldn’t have put herself in the position in the first place, she shouldn’t have been drinking and shouldn’t have been alone with him. A lot of people are saying she probably made it up. Even though he has pled guilty and been convicted, the community still absolves him of any responsibility. It’s disgusting.  

Read this book. It’ll tear your heart out and leave you hopeless, but it sparks a conversation we desperately need to have.

‘We need to talk about rape. We need to talk about consent. We need to talk about victim-blaming and slut-shaming and the double standards we place upon our young men and women.

We need to talk and talk and talk until the Emmas of this world feel supported and understood. Until they feel like they are believed.’ – Louise O’Neill.

Lair of Dreams

After bringing down the supernatural evil, John Hobbes, only to be faced with Uncle Will’s plans to eject her from New York and back to Ohio, Evie makes the decision to share her diviner powers with the world. The resulting fame and fortune provides her with all the independence she ever wanted. She has a radio show on which she demonstrates her object-reading powers and her fame is growing fast.

Meanwhile a mysterious and deadly sleeping sickness is spreading through Chinatown. People go to sleep and never wake up. Mysterious burns spread across victims’ bodies as they slumber, and after a few days, they die.

After bringing down the supernatural evil, John Hobbes, only to be faced with Uncle Will’s plans to eject her from New York and back to Ohio, Evie makes the decision to share her diviner powers with the world. The resulting fame and fortune provides her with all the independence she ever wanted. She has a radio show on which she demonstrates her object-reading powers and her fame is growing fast.

Meanwhile a mysterious and deadly sleeping sickness is spreading through Chinatown. People go to sleep and never wake up. Mysterious burns spread across victims’ bodies as they slumber, and after a few days, they die.

96b01dade1f8b017bf1228145ffe61b8It’s quite difficult to write an accurate synopsis for Lair of Dreams, the second book in Libba Bray’s Diviners series. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, and some who were very visible in the first book play a much smaller role in the latest offering. Jericho and Mabel, Memphis and Isiah, and even to an extent Sam and Evie, are much less central to the narrative of the sequel.

This was not totally okay with me. I fell in love with Evie’s character completely during book one, and her relatively small role in the sequel was something I found frustrating at times. I definitely wanted more from her story than I got.

We spend much of the book with Henry and a new character, Ling. Ling is a dream walker, like Henry. She lives in Chinatown with her Chinese father and her Irish mother. She’s recently recovered from infant paralysis, which has left her having to wear leg braces to walk. When she dream walks her body is as it was before her illness, so dream walking is how she spends a lot of her time. Even dreams however, become tainted when her best friend George falls victim to the sleeping sickness.

This series is the set in 1920s New York, the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act. This act made it pretty much impossible for labour workers from China to travel to America. It was a time in which immigrants were blamed for high levels of unemployment and incidence of racist hate crime was high (I don’t know why I’m even talking about this like it’s past tense behaviour. It is depressing how times don’t change). Chinese immigrants had to carry their visas with them at all times, as the police were big on spot arrests. The rise of the sleeping sickness only serves to make the situation worse, to the point where Ling is often no longer safe on the street.

I really love how well researched this series is. In the first book we were given a sense of the flapper lifestyle as a retaliation against the previous generation. They established themselves in direct conflict with the values they grew up with, because, as they saw it, those values led to the death and destruction of the First World War. In Lair of Dreams, the focus zooms out, away from flappers, to study of the experience first generation immigrant kids have navigating a world hostile to their very existence.

Overall, Libba Bray does a really good job of representing diversity of experience in her characters. From Evie the hedonistic flapper, to Ling the well behaved child of immigrants, to Memphis, numbers runner from Harlem living under his aunt’s restrictive conservatism, points of view within the novel are vastly different. It is refreshing to read a YA novel with such a diverse cast of characters.

Speaking of difference life experiences, watching Ling and Henry’s friendship develop was one of the greatest joys of the novel. I’m talking about Henry the wannabe musician who plays piano at raunchy dance shows. Henry, who has been searching in dreams for his long lost boyfriend, Louis. Ling and Henry’s bond is unlikely to say the least. Ling isn’t interested in Henry’s humour and she doesn’t approve of the flapper lifestyle he leads or the recklessness that comes along with it. Watching Henry work his way under Ling’s skin is a lot of fun. However, I did find that the very long dream walking sections of the book began to drag. It took a long time for the Ling/Henry storyline to meet up with the sleeping sickness thread, and during some chapters I found myself wondering what exactly the point of their meetings were.

I hate saying this because of how much I loved the first book, but for much of Lair of Dreams I found myself wondering when the action was going to start. There are so many characters in the world now and each of their stories took time to build to the point that by the end of the book, most had hardly achieved anything. I know that it’s a series, and presumably as such all my questions will at some point be answered, but Libba Bray began a lot of threads in this book that by the end hadn’t really gone anywhere.

That said, Lair of Dreams kept and even expanded on many of the elements that made me fall in love with the series in the first place. I remain quietly hopeful about the next book in the series.

The Walls Around Us

The Walls Around Us is creepy, unapologetic, vengeful, sad and full of longing. It’s a great way to pass a lazy summer evening alone.

Violet is a ballet dancer. Her best friend Ori is dead, and it’s Violet’s fault. Ori died because of what happened in the smoking tunnel. If it weren’t for that awful day, Ori would never have been sent to the juvenile detention centre in the first place. She’d still be alive.

Amber is locked in Aurora Hills Juvenile detention centre indefinitely. She was sentenced for the murder of her step-father. Most of the other girls in the centre believe Amber to be innocent.

the walls around usAmber just got a new cell mate, Orianna. Orianna is different from the others, from Amber herself.

The Walls Around Us, by Nova Ren Suma is a ghost story. It deals in hauntings by the dead and by the consequences of actions. It’s full of unreliable narrators.

I love unreliable narrators.

The Walls Around Us is a book about guilt and innocence. It’s about girls who convince themselves of innocence, despite the obviousness of guilt. It’s about what it is to be perceived as innocent while guilty at heart.

It shows what destruction the presumption of guilt wreaks on the lives of the truly innocent.

The prose intrigues. Reading Violet, we are forced to unravel her lies, to view her from a distance even as we experience the workings of her mind. The girl is crazy. Nothing about her is likeable.

I loved every second of her.

It takes real talent to attach an audience to a character who is heartless, controlling, manipulative and selfish, but Nova Ren Suma does it seemingly effortlessly. A less delicate hand would have made her character over the top, but Suma has written her in such a way as to make her utterly believable. She’s an unassuming sociopathic ballet dancer, and I had great fun being disgusted by her.

The scenes taking place in the prison, from Amber’s point of view, were also wonderful. Each line echoed with the girl’s loneliness and anger and grim acceptance of the present. I really enjoyed the collective voice often used during Amber’s sections of the book, as if Aurora Hills were a character of itself. It makes sense, the building looms large in book both when it is full and empty.

There were times however, particularly toward the end, where I found events and revelations a little confusing. I also find reading books like this, where from the get-go we know that a character has died, a little difficult to read, as I’m so preoccupied by the ending that I find myself less focussed on the present. Even before I finished, I found myself thinking that such a layered novel would probably seriously benefit from some rereading.

The Walls Around Us is creepy, unapologetic, vengeful, sad and full of longing. It’s a great way to pass a lazy summer evening alone.