The Everlasting Rose

What would you do to be beautiful? Camellia and her sisters are Belles. Only they can be beautiful.
All our lives, my sisters and I have served the people of Orleans.
For years, they’ve held their abilities over us. Not anymore.
Now the queen hunts us, because we know the truth about the rightful heir.
Camellia murdered our princess and fled with her sisters.
The princess is still alive, and we’ll help her take back the throne.
Together, we will return the Belles to their rightful place.
The queen wants us caged. But we will not go quietly.
Then they will give us what we deserve: beauty, everlasting.
We demand our freedom. No matter what the cost.

I was a MASSIVE fan of The Belles from Dhonielle Clayton. I became pretty obsessed with it when it came out and was all over again when I reread it in anticipation of The Everlasting Rose, the sequel. The rich and complexly imagined world; the complicated dynamics between the women who loved each other but, regardless, had been raised to compete; the stark ridiculousness and horror of the way that the beauty industry overtook the importance of any other single thing in Orleans; the way the Belles had been raised to believe they were basically Goddesses on earth so they didn’t notice they were actually slaves – all of his came together in a fantastic slow burn novel that utterly captivated me. Also, Remy – sigh – the stern and watchful but also adorable with his younger sisters sexy soldier of my dreams.

So, when I picked up The Everlasting Rose, obviously my expectations were high, as were my fear levels – I knew not everybody was getting out of this situation alive.

I was right about the latter*, if not the former.

*Come on – barely a spoiler. Someone always bites the dust in a series like this.

Unfortunately, where its predecessor completely took over my brain and immersed me in its strange and morally bankrupt world, The Everlasting Rose was comparatively a little… all over the place. For a start the romance with Remy goes from nought to one hundred in, like, the first chapter. Which was fine – as I have mentioned, I am a big fan of Remy – but it felt a little rushed. And rushed, as it turns out, would be the theme for this entire novel.

The pacing just felt off. Admittedly I hadn’t understood it was a duology, so had assumed this book would be the middle of the series rather than the end. Even putting that aside, though, you get to the last 50 pages or so and everything looks terrible and you have that moment you always have – or, at least, I always have – where you think wow this writer is clearly planning on pulling off something pretty amazing so this ending isn’t a disappointing clusterfuck and then, they don’t. The Everlasting Rose, I’m genuinely really sad to say, was one of those.

There were a lot of things in the book that I really liked – Dhonielle Clayton continues to take complex ideas and live in the grey with them through her characters. It just felt like those moments weren’t as fully developed as they were before. The Everlasting Rose is a lot about complicity – it’s a reckoning, really, for those people in Orleans that have held up the system for so long, the people whose various acts of passivity or wrong in the hope of gain had paved the way for a monster like Sophia, the main villain of the piece, to be born. Perhaps most intriguingly – and I can’t get too far into this because spoilers – she looks at how the Belles themselves can be complicit in their own imprisonment by the state. How a person can grab for power wherever they find it – even if it isn’t truly power at all – rather than seeking to dismantle the system that oppresses them. Can you blame that person? It’s hard to say, and it’s a major aspect of the book I would have liked to see explored further.

Like so many series like this built around a single female lead – ‘the special one’ – I wanted more development from the side characters. The Belles were separated for most of book one, but even in that time you had a sense of their love for each other, even when that was complicated by the competition to be the best they had been forced to play in their entire lives. In The Everlasting Rose, we finally had some time for these women to actually be together and that sense of the depth of their relationships kind of vanished. Particularly between Camellia and her best friend Amber – what could have been one of the most complex dynamics in the book – there is no time or real detail given to the situation. I know Amber isn’t a likeable or even good person most of the time, but I was intrigued by her (as we know I love a mean girl), and at the end of book one really interested to see what she would be like once she was thrown back into the mix. She never really gets her moment though, and I was disappointed by that.

Overall, still love Dhonielle, but a little confused by what happened here. I don’t know if it’s that this should have been three books rather than two – something I would very rarely advocate for – or something else, but The Everlasting Rose just fell flat for me. Underdeveloped and rushed – if ultimately somewhat saved by how much we love the characters because of an absolutely fantastic book one – this was still ultimately an enjoyable read, if not the experience I was hoping to have.  

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The Book Thief

Here is a small fact: you are going to die.

1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier.

Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with a foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.

Some important information: this novel is narrated by Death. It’s a small story about a girl, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, A Jewish fist fighter and quite a lot of thievery.

Another thing you should know: Death will visit the book thief three times.

I can’t really get into why, because it’s a massive spoiler, but The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak is without question one of the most traumatic experiences I have put myself through by choice in recent history.

If you have read it, I have only one question for you. And it is this: what the fuck?

For everyone else, The Book Thief is one of those very famous international best seller types that you think you should read, but put off for ages because it’s long and it’s about Nazi Germany, so you know it’s going to be traumatic (but how traumatic you truly cannot imagine. Okay, I did only finish it yesterday, so I’m still in the first phase of my response but what. The. Fuck.), but eventually someone in your life pushes you (in this instance my housemate) and you finally pick it up, because It’s Time.

And you know what, trauma aside, it is an incredible book. Told by Death, in combination with the Nazi Germany of it all, means there is a constant sense of impermanence, of the looming end of it all that we all do our best to ignore day-to-day. That sense of something looming grows in time with the hate and aggression life under Hitler brings to the community. From Jewish-owned shops destroyed before closing down completely – and their keepers vanished – to the lady in the corner shop who will only sell you food after you first Heil Hitler, the bubbling fanaticism and anti-Semitism form a sinister undertone to Liesel’s every day – but as a nine-year-old it’s not something she thinks about a ton. Mostly, she’s concerned with where she and her best friend Rudy are going to go steal some extra food because her foster mother has been cooking nothing but pea soup for months.

But a normal childhood isn’t a luxury children in Nazi Germany get to experience, and there is something uniquely harrowing about the ways Liesel and Rudy lose their innocence as the war wages on, gradually wending its way toward their homes on Himmel Street. From Liesel, hiding the secret of the hidden Jew in the basement to Rudy, fighting the war with the Nazi Youth but actually fighting the war against the Nazi Youth, both children have a strong sense of justice instilled in them that the misery of their circumstances never quite manages to beat out. Their actions aren’t exactly powerful – reading to a huddled group inside a bomb shelter, standing up for your friend the Nazi Youth would call weak – but small as they are, in the depths of the despair of the situation, they mean everything.

The Book Thief is really a book about changing the world in small ways: saving the life of one Jewish man, even if only for a time; protecting one kid from the fists of the Nazi Youth bullies; leaving the window open so a young girl can sneak inside and steal your books; giving a dying man a teddy bear. It’s about one small street in Nazi Germany and how its inhabitants survived the hatred – and how they didn’t. People can change each other’s lives in ways large and small, and you see all of them throughout the scope of this expansive novel. When one person loses hope for a while another person picks it up and runs with it until they can do so again, and so on and so forth, until Death comes to visit.

The Girls

TRIGGER WARNING: sexual assault/coercion

Evie Boyd is fourteen and desperate to be noticed. It’s the summer of 1969 and restless, empty days stretch ahead of her. Until she sees them. The girls. Hair long and uncombed, jewellery catching the sun. And at their centre, Suzanne, black-haired and beautiful.

If not for Suzanne, she might not have gone. But, intoxicated by her and the life she promises, Evie follows the girls back to the decaying ranch where they live.

Was there a warning? A sign of what was coming? Or did Evie know already that there was no way back?

I know I need to find another space to take a photo, but I’m short on options in my new house

I can tell you the exact moment I fell in love with The Girls by Emma Cline.

It was about 100 foreboding pages in. I was waiting for a late-running train back to Devon for the weekend. I had resentfully purchased a £5 pasty from Bristol Temple Meads train station because my just under two-hour journey had suddenly become much longer – so long that there wasn’t even a projected arrival time – and I was hungry. The signs read only: delayed.

But me and my pasty-greasy fingers were utterly absorbed in this creepy, gut-wrenching, cult-joining, sexuality-exploring, absolutely gripping read.

I wouldn’t recommend reading The Girls if you want to feel comfortable.

“’You ever hear anything about Russell?’
The question didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t understand that she was trying to gauge how many of the rumours I’d heard: about orgies, about frenzied acid trips and teen runaways forced to service older men. Dogs scarified on moonlit beaches, goat heads rotting in the sand. If I’d had friends besides Connie, I might’ve heard chatter of Russell at parties, some hushed gossip in the kitchen. Might’ve known to be wary.
But I shook my head. I hadn’t heard anything.”

The Girls is about bored teen Evie Boyd. Apathetic about her friends, her upcoming transfer to boarding school, her parents’ recent divorce and well… just about everything. She mostly hangs out by herself, masturbating and thinking about all of the sex and excitement – though to her those things are one and the same – that are yet to come into her life.

Despite the madness of the scenario – charismatic cult leader, Manson family-style murder – everything that happens in The Girls feels grounded in reality. For however crazy her situation becomes – and it really does – Evie’s experiences and her thoughts about them never felt anything short of authentic.

Cline takes a razor sharp (read: painful) look at emerging sexuality and how it is so often experienced by teenage girls. A whole mess of influences like patriarchy, gender roles, coercion and the drive to always be pleasing play out in upsetting ways as Evie begins her sexual life. There is a sense that she is passive in her sexual experiences, manipulated by older men and complicit women in ways she isn’t yet able to understand. Won’t understand, in fact, until years later, when she is in her middle age and forced see the toxic patterns playing out again for another young girl. A tale as old as time – and a super fucking depressing one.

As so many cult reads (by that I mean literal cult), The Girls is a book preoccupied with power. Who has it – but more, really, about who doesn’t. It looks at the way masculinity can be wielded like a weapon – men who want to take advantage, men who think they know best, men who just want you to feel uncomfortable in the world, for no reason other than it makes them feel good. Men who really don’t care whether you want to have sex with them or not, so long as they get to have sex.

Watching Evie navigate that, from her teen girl summer to the snatches of her life as an adult we’re offered hurt to read, because it felt so familiar.

But this book isn’t all about men – it’s called The Girls, after all. Ultimately, though he is the sun around which everyone else orbits, cult reader Russell doesn’t really do it for Evie. He never did. What brought Evie into the fold was the unreachable Suzanne, who Evie wants in complex and ever-changing ways. From the beginning where she wants to be her – or at least the thing that she appears to be – Evie falls hard for a woman so deep in the cult that she is unable to love her back. Suzanne is too far gone, and watching Evie come to terms with that is a heart-breaking tale of unrequited love as cringe-inducingly familiar as everything else Cline writes in this novel.

“I was happy to twist the meanings, wilfully misread the symbols. Doing what Suzanne asked seemed like the best gift I could give her, a way to unlock her own reciprocal feelings. And she was trapped, in her way, just like I was, but I never saw that, shifting easily in the directions she prompted me for.”

Evie enters a bad world from one where the word’s previous definition came with an air of unreality. She says it herself at various points in the book: nothing bad ever really happens. That’s why she waltzes oddly thoughtlessly on in this never-ending investigating-the-noise-in-the-cellar book. We spend the entire time waiting for a monster, as yet invisible, to appear – and consume her.

It’s hard to get this one out of your head.

A Great and Terrible Beauty

It’s 1895 and, after the death of her mother, 16-year-old Gemma Doyle is shipped off from the life she knows in India to Spence, a proper boarding school in England. Lonely, guilt-ridden, and prone to visions of the future that have an uncomfortable habit of coming true, Gemma finds her reception a chilly one. She’s not completely alone, though… she’s being followed by a mysterious young man, sent to warn her to close her mind against the visions.

It’s at Spence that Gemma’s power to attract the supernatural unfolds, as she becomes entangled with the school’s most powerful girls and discovers her mother’s connection to a shadowy, timeless group called The Order. Her destiny awaits… if only Gemma can believe in it.

I was recently inspired to re-read Libba Bray’s first novel, A Great and Terrible Beauty – a book I haven’t read since my actual teens, which were, um, a while ago – by one of Sophie @ Blame The Chocolate’s recent Theme Thursdays. I am so glad I did. I’m such a fan of Bray’s more recent works, so it’s hardly a surprise that returning to her back catalogue was a joy.

A Great and Terrible Beauty is a book consumed by the question of power: what different power looks like to different kinds of people, who has it, how they use it, and whether it is ultimately a force for good or for destruction. For Gemma and her friends – a group of 19th century schoolgirls whose options are, to put it lightly, limited – it’s a question they are consumed by.

“No one asks how I am doing. They could not care less. We’re all looking glasses, we girls, existing only to reflect their images back to them as they’d like to be seen. Hollow vessels of girls to be rinsed of our own ambitions, wants, and opinions, just waiting to be filled with the cool, tepid water of gracious compliance.
A fissure forms in the vessel. I’m cracking open.”

Each of the girls is confined by the expectations placed on them by the restrictive society they’re growing up in. For Gemma, Felicity and Pippa, girls born rich and upper class, their only options are marriage and children. For Ann, the only scholarship student at Spence and a poor orphan, it’s a life of servitude as a governess or similar that awaits when she leaves school. Though they are all definitely interested in romance – and deal with the shame and confusion that comes along with the desire to express their sexuality as a Proper Young LadiesTM – the often forced marriages to much older men they see their friends doomed to are very far from the lives they have fantasised about. Like, sexual freedom isn’t even a concept yet, let alone a conversation you’re allowed to have with your friends.

So when they discover The Realms – a magical alternate universe that only they can access, a place in which everything they wish for becomes a reality – you can imagine their response.

Um, they want to live there.

But accessing the realms – something that the gang can only do with the help of Gemma’s magical powers – comes with consequences. There is a creeping darkness to the power they’ve accessed – one that raises some interesting questions about what parts of themselves they are willing to sacrifice to gain the control over their destinies that society will not allow them.

“Felicity ignores us. She walks out towards them, an apparition in white and blue velvet, her head held high as they stare in awe at her, the goddess. I don’t know what power feels like. But this is surely what it looks like, and I think I’m beginning to understand why those ancient women had to hide in caves. Why our parents and teachers and suitors want us to behave properly and predictably. It’s not that they want to protect us; it’s that they fear us.”

There is a simmering rage that underscores this series. From the eventual villain – who I won’t go into because spoilers – to Felicity’s explosive personality and Gemma’s dogged need for solutions to the story’s various mysteries, no matter the cost, each of the characters is somehow on the edge of a precipice to some unknown darkness. It lends the book a sense of anxiety that the persistent wrongness of the realms – which are, btw, full of strange and grotesque characters the girls are peculiarly unbothered by (at least, initially) – only increases. One of the lessons I think we all have to learn the hard way is that it’s shocking how much you can ignore when you feel like you’re onto a good thing. But those things you’re ignoring? They’re growing – something as the reader you’re waiting for the Gemma and her friends to realise all along.

It’s creepy and delicious. I know that in the blogosphere we spend most of our time on new releases, for obvious reasons, but if there was ever an author whose back catalogue it’s worth revisiting it’s Bray. The Diviners didn’t come out of nowhere. For Bray, ghostly territory has been well traversed for a good few years now.

The Astonishing Colour of After

When Leigh’s mother dies by suicide she leaves only a scribbled note – I want you to remember.

Leigh doesn’t understand its meaning and wishes she could turn to her best friend, Axel – if only she hadn’t kissed him and changed everything between them.

Guided by a mysterious red bird, Leigh travels to Taiwan to meet her grandparents for the first time. There, Leigh retreats into art and memories, where colours collide, the rules of reality are broken and the ghosts of the past refuse to rest…

But Leigh is determined to unlock her family’s secrets.

The Astonishing Colour of After

I was lucky enough to win a copy of The Astonishing Colour of After by Emily X R Pan in a giveaway run by one of my absolute faves, Marie @ Drizzle and Hurricane Books. Thanks Marie!

And I am so glad because 1. I NEVER win anything so it was very exciting and 2. I absolutely adored this beautiful book, even though by the end it had me sobbing. SOBBING.*

*for the sake of transparency I should note making me cry is very easy. Like, if I’m watching a TV show, even if I don’t even really care about what’s happening, if one of the characters starts crying I will get choked up. Yeah. There might be something a bit wrong with me. That said, this book is very emotional and if you don’t cry… well, I might judge you a little bit for that.

The Astonishing Colour of After is a heart-rending, magical read about grief, love, family, art and identity. Leigh’s world is shattered when her mother dies by suicide. Things between her and her dad are strained – they were before her mother’s death – as they come to terms with their loss, and her relationship with her best friend Axel is in a strange, confused place. They kissed on the day of her mother’s death and ever since she has found herself totally unable to deal with him. With anyone, really.

So Leigh finds herself isolated, grief-stricken and in complete confusion when her mother returns to her in the form of a bird, a streak of scarlet dancing away into the sky whenever Leigh gets close.

This is just the start of the mysterious magic that creeps into Leigh’s life.

Emily X R Pan expertly weaves the story through various different timelines – Leigh in Taiwan, struggling to connect with her mother’s estranged family, the two years leading to her mother’s suicide and her journey into her mother’s family history, which she can access by burning photographs, a necklace or a letter, and be transported into the memory by the flames. As grief and insomnia take their toll on Leigh’s own mental health, as the reader you find yourself constantly questioning what’s actually happening, or what is just in Leigh’s mind as she isolates herself and spirals down under the weight of her pain and trauma.

It’s a novel consumed by grief, but The Astonishing Colour of After is also a mystery. Leigh’s mother was long estranged from her family in Taiwan to the point that she refused to even teach her daughter to speak Mandarin. The reasons for this are slowly revealed as the novel progresses, and watching Leigh navigate her own racial identity without her mother as her guide was a uniquely painful experience to read. Leigh is mixed race, and often called “exotic” by her white peers in America. In Taiwan, she’s dismayed to find that she is exoticised in much the same manner as in the US – people point and whisper, hunxie, a word she soon learns describes someone biracial. This, combined with the language barrier between herself and her grandparents she is meeting for the first time only adds to her sense of isolation and loneliness.

I loved the way that Pan included Chinese mythology in the story – particularly Ghost Month, the seventh month in the lunar calendar, when ghosts roam the earth like “brushstrokes across a canvas”.  I also really appreciated the way that she wrote about suicide. One of my various jobs is with a CIC that deliver suicide awareness and suicide first aid training, and since I’ve become more involved with media representation of suicide I’ve become very concerned with the way it is often over simplified for the sake of a clickable headline. Pan doesn’t do that. She pointedly makes the choice not to assign a reason for Dory’s suicide. She has had some traumatic life experiences, yes, but her depression is an illness, not something that can be blamed on any one person or event.

I was happy to see that Pan also avoided using the phrase “committed suicide”. It’s one of those things that we say without really thinking about it, but it’s actually very stigmatising. “Died by suicide” or even “suicided” are much better terms to use. There’s a pretty good article here for anyone interested in learning more about this.

The Astonishing Colour of After is an unforgettable, emotive novel that handles its subject matter with compassion and understanding. It delves deep into family estrangement and how that pain can echo across generations decades later. It is probably my favourite YA read so far this year.

Internment

Trigger warning: Islamophobia

It’s been one year since the census landed seventeen-year-old Layla Amin and her family on the registry. Five months since the attorney general ruled there was precedent for relocation of citizens during times of war. And one month since the president declared that ‘Muslims are a threat to America’.

Now, Layla and her parents are suddenly taken from their home and forced into an internment camp for Muslim American citizens.

With the help of newly made friends also trapped within the internment camp, her boyfriend on the outside, and an unexpected alliance, Layla begins a journey to fight for freedom, leading a revolution against the internment camp’s Director and his guards.

Set in a horrifying near-future United States, Internment is a heart-racing and emotional novel that challenges readers to fight the complicit silence that exists in society today.

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Internment by Samira Ahmed is a chilling and powerful peek into a potential future America. Muslim Americans are forced to sign up to a so-called ‘Muslim registry’, book burnings of Islamic texts and literature by Muslim authors are a regular occurrence and exclusion laws are in place preventing Muslims from entering the country. People live under nightly curfew. Lots of Muslim parents have withdrawn their children from school, fearing for their safety in institutions that have turned against them. Muslims working in the public sector have all been fired from their jobs.

Soon the hostile environment moves into its next horrifying phase: internment. Layla and her parents are removed from their home at gun point and sent to a camp in the middle of the desert. There, people are separated into ethnic groups (classic colonialist move), given no access to the internet or any kind of news outside of the camp’s electrified fences and forced to adjust to a life of imprisonment and all the terror, random acts of violence and isolation that come with that.

Internment is very much Layla’s story. It’s an introspective look at her experience of internment: her constant fear, her frustration with her parents and their obedience to the rules of the camp – born only of course of a desire to remain safe, but nonetheless awful to Layla – and her growth from regular teenage girl to an activist and freedom fighter under duress.

Ahmed expertly crafted this book so as you read every page with baited breath, tense and unable to relax. It’s a relentless novel filled with dangers known – and perhaps even more frightening, mysterious. Some people are beaten by guards for all to see, others vanished from the camp without explanation. Even in moments of relative calm there is no escape from the ever-present feeling of danger. This is no more evident than in Layla’s developing relationship with one of the camp’s guards. A solider seemingly sympathetic to the plight of Layla and her fellow inmates, Layla’s relationship with Jake made me very uncomfortable. While Jake does act like a friend and an ally, he still works for the regime and the extremity of the power imbalance in their relationship makes every early scene between the pair – to me, anyway – almost unbearably tense and, for lack of a better word, icky. Yes, right now this man is acting as Layla’s ally, but it is impossible to forget that ultimately, he has power over her – in the form of a gun and a climate of disregard for the Muslims imprisoned in the camp. Basically, he could do what he wanted to her and no one would stop him – and even when he behaved kindly, that was impossible to forget.

Jake, unfortunately, is where my problems with Internment began. While it is a powerful story, I couldn’t help but feel that it could have been more. Though they would have been difficult to read, there were elements of life in the camp I felt could have been better fleshed out. The way internees had the potential to turn against each other, for example, was touched upon but not fully explored; different Muslim identities were acknowledged, but without much depth; in perhaps the part that upset me most, the sexual abuse almost certainly happening in the camp was acknowledged by Jake in a way that felt almost… throwaway. I think perhaps the reason these missing elements bothered me quite so much is because of the amount of the narrative that is dedicated to Layla’s relationship with Jake, the white guard. His arc of redemption was probably the least interesting to me, and, in my opinion, was dedicated far too much time and yet still not enough complexity – or criticism.

Then there was the novel’s tendency to fall into some of the tropes of YA. Layla took massive risks throughout to spend time with her boyfriend, David that felt… kind of unrealistic to me. Being forcibly separated from your partner is a kind of pain I couldn’t even imagine, but sneaking your boyfriend into an internment camp where both your lives are in danger for what basically amounted to a quick make out sesh… really?

Ultimately, Internment is an upsetting and necessary read about the impact of Islamophobia taken to one of its most extreme possible outcomes. It’s chilling because it’s realistic. I read Internment the week following the Christchurch shootings, in which there was an increase in Islamophobic hate crimes in the UK. A few days later there was a report in The Guardian from the UNHCR that 15 refugee children, mostly from Afghanistan, being held in Calais by the UK awaiting family unification – some of them for up to a year are currently undertaking a hunger strike out of desperation to have their cases finally heard. What’s upsetting about Internment is what could happen – but it’s also what’s happening now.

Internment, though imperfect, points out the ways that we are complicit in crimes being committed right now and challenges you to finally step into the fight.

On The Come Up

Sixteen-year-old Bri wants to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. It’s hard to get your come up, though, when you’re labelled “trouble” at school and your fridge at home is empty after your mom loses her job. But Bri’s success is all that stands between her family and homelessness, so she doesn’t just want to make it – she has to. Even if it means becoming exactly what the public expects her to be.

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Angie Thomas’s second novel, On The Come Up is one of my favourite teen coming-of-age stories in a very long time. Thomas writes characters that reach right out of the pages and into your heart, and Bri was no different. Bri is the kind of girl I always wished I was as a teen (as an adult too, if I’m being totally honest). She’s funny, smart, driven and unapologetically herself. This girl takes no shit, and even as her situation gets out of hand and her sense of self becomes complicated by her intense (and totally justified) desire for success, fast, there is a piece of her heart that she always keeps for herself.

In On The Come Up, Thomas once again places her black characters in majority white spaces, using high school as a base to explore the racism Bri experiences on a daily basis as a young black woman. Bri is every inch the typical teenager – loud and with some serious attitude. For a white student, these things are pretty much allowed and expected. But Bri is forever getting suspended, sent out of class and accused of “aggressive behaviour” for actions that would earn a white student little more than a glare from a teacher. She and her black friends are consistently harassed by school security with bag checks, pat downs, and – the event that becomes the catalyst for many of Bri’s actions during the novel – physical restraint. Bri is thrown to the floor and restrained by her school’s guards over nothing more than a rucksack full of “illicit” chocolate bars.

At school Bri is called “hoodlum”, and she fears this is all she’ll ever be seen as. In response she does the only thing she can – she keeps making her art. She writes a song – ‘On The Come Up’ – about her experiences with the guards, the violence in her neighbourhood and the stereotyping she fights against. She takes this idea of the “hoodlum” and she uses the song to play with that identity and unpick the expectations placed on her by white priviledge. ‘On The Come Up’ is a battle cry for self determination and a rejection of the “hoodlum” narrative – unfortunately it is interpreted as exactly the opposite.

As Bri advances her career, her identity is hijacked by forces that recognise the exact narrative Bri rails against as one that will make them the most money. Suddenly instead of being a space that is expansive, one where she can communicate herself and her experiences in a complex and nuanced way (AKA the thing that white artists take for granted), rap becomes another space in which Bri’s possibilities begin to shrink. The money and fame she so desires are accessible to her – but only if she plays to expectations based in racism and ignorance.

Bri is trapped. If she expresses her anger she is stereotyped as the ‘angry black woman’, the hoodlum by white bloggers who write of songs instigating violence side by side with posts about why they’ll never give up their guns – but silence is not in her nature. Nor should it be. What makes On The Come Up such a remarkable read is the amount of obstacles Bri encounters in trying to assert her own voice.

For Bri, claiming her identity in a world that imposes its ideas on her – both in words and through acts of violence – is a constant battle. And she gets tired – she gets exhausted – but she always gets back up.

If you’ve been around this blog for a while you’ll likely have noticed that identity is the focus of a lot of my reviews. I’m obsessed with the ways that people become themselves, and while On The Come Up is a story about that, it’s also so much more. If you’ve read The Hate U Give, you’ll know Angie Thomas knows how to write a family you want to immediately be adopted into, and Bri’s is no different. From her complex relationship with her mother to her lovely interactions with her brother, every family scene had my heart in my mouth. The love Bri’s family have for each other is real and tangible – it’s only when I read Thomas’s books that I reflect on how rare it is to read that narrative of family life.

On The Come Up is a remarkable novel, and however long I make this review its unlikely I’m ever going to do it justice. Angie Thomas is a force within YA literature, writing timely and necessary stories of complicated black lives we need to read.