Passing – Nella Larsen

Spoilers ahead!

I picked this book up on a whim because it was half-price at the bookstore. I assumed based on its title and reputation that it would be mainly about race in 1920’s New York. And it is, but it’s also the mother of all the toxic friendship followed by murder and coverup novels, which I think make a distinct subgenre, especially in YA (this book is not YA at all, though).

Irene, our narrator, is a light-skinned African-American, a married mother of two in Harlem. When she reconnects by chance with her childhood friend Clare, she finds out that Clare is passing for white and has married a racist, but longs for the culture of her childhood. Irene is unwilling to put up with what she considers Clare’s selfishness and desire to have it all, and for the first third of the book, my sympathies were with Irene, who’s dragged into an embarrassing situation by Clare’s carelessness.

Then you see Irene’s own marriage, and how she manipulates her husband coldly in order to keep him from fulfilling his dream of moving to Brazil. This is the first clue that something is wrong with Irene. She’s become so obsessed with safety that she’s willing to manipulate and worse to keep her life the way she likes it.

When she starts to suspect, based on no evidence, that her husband is having an affair with Clare, a chain of events is set in motion that ends with Irene murdering Clare in a moment of fear and rage, and making it look like an accident. Whether the affair actually happened is never confirmed or denied.

Irene herself is both repelled and attracted by Clare, and I can see why this makes Clare seem like the charismatic main character. But the book isn’t really about her. It’s about Irene, a picture of a woman who becomes a villain and gets away with it. The book is entirely from her point of view, and she’s fascinating in a trainwreck way–though she seems at first to be and presents herself as the sensible, responsible one.

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

f043712f-4655-4c8a-b60f-fca1e4c6ca9fAngie Thomas’s debut novel about the Black Lives Matter movement rocketed to the top of the NYT Bestseller list when it came out recently. And while I have some quibbles with it, I can certainly see why.

Starr Carter lives in the majority-black poor neighborhood of Garden Heights, in an unnamed city, but she attends a wealthy prep school outside it. Her worlds collide when a childhood friend is wrongfully shot by police as she watches. She will have to face down her trauma, a grand jury, a media quick to vilify her friend, and King, a gang leader who’s trying to claim the victim as one of his own.

Meanwhile, the effects of Starr’s political awakening and traumatic experiences ripple through her life, affecting her relationships with her prep school friends Hailey and Maya, and her white boyfriend, Chris.

Some positives about this book:

-The characterization of Starr’s family, particularly her larger-than-life father, an ex-convict who’s left the gangs behind but finds himself making more compromises than he’d like with King, until the moment King goes too far. Starr’s father is also politically committed and keeps living in Garden Heights, where he owns a small business, because he believes that moving would be selling out his people. Above all, he loves his kids. Over the course of the book, he changes in many respects, but not that one. He’s an example of well-done character development of an adult character in YA fiction. This is one YA where the parents aren’t absent.

-I also loved the plotline involving Starr’s half-brother, whose mom is dating King. Starr’s brother wants to protect his mother from her abusive and murderous boyfriend, but as Starr points out, it’s she who should be protecting him.

-The relationship between Starr and Chris was a great example of a supportive interracial relationship. They had awkward moments, but Chris ultimately is willing to put himself in uncomfortable situations for Starr and Starr is willing to let him into her life. It’s hard-won but beautiful.

-Starr’s relationship with Khalil, the victim of the police shooting, struck a chord with me because despite her love towards him, circumstances have pushed them apart by the time the shooting happens. It’s more complicated than “her best friend got shot” and yet the intensity of feeling is still there.

The negatives:
-Okay, this is a minor thing, but Maya (not me, but Starr’s Taiwanese friend) basically exists to be a Good Minority Friend to Starr and validate her feeling that Hailey is a Bad White Friend. Neither of them is super-developed, but Hailey felt real–Maya is very thinly characterized. As she’s one of the few characters who’s neither white nor black, it felt like a missed opportunity.

-Sometimes the author seems worried the reader won’t get it without her explicitly summarizing what’s going on emotionally and politically in the book. The “telling” outweighed the “showing” at times.

-The plot was a bit episodic, though it comes together really well at the climax, the night the grand jury decision is handed down.

Overall, the excellent characterization and relationships, as well as an exciting climax, outweighed some problems with didacticism and pacing. Plus, the book has an important message, and I’m not going to pretend that didn’t affect my view of it.

The Winged Histories – Sofia Samatar

This is easily the best fantasy novel I’ve read since The Traitor Baru Cormorant.

9781618731142_bigIt shares many of that novel’s concerns- the protagonists include queer women of color, the plot revolves around an effort to break up an empire, and it will wreck you emotionally. But where the earlier book deals with a 19th-20th century style overseas empire, a violent rupture, The Winged Histories deals with a land empire, with the kind of foundational violence countries try their best to bury and forget. It’s also a gentler, more hopeful book, playing with tragedy without consummating it.

Structurally, Samatar’s novel is composed of three first-person narratives, one after the other, followed by a third person narrative. We know the circumstances of the composition of the first three narratives. The implication is that the fourth character’s tale is never recorded, that that point of view is lost to history. It contains the key which, unknown to the other three pov characters, unlocks many of the mysteries of their narratives. A powerful statement about what is and isn’t remembered.

I don’t want to spoil the ending of this book; it’s too powerful. I will say that some things come too easily– privileged outsider Tav integrates into a marginalized nomadic group and finds a lover, Tav’s country gains the independence she seeks for it even as her war plans crumble on other fronts. But there are always consequences shown on the page, nonetheless.

The book contains both f/f and f/m romances involving pov characters– I know that will recommend it to some of my readers. It’s a very character-driven book; I was left with a lot of unanswered questions at the end and yet felt that each of the characters had achieved a satisfactory resolution. It’s a sequel to A Stranger in Olondria, but I hadn’t read that book, which focuses on different characters, and didn’t feel lost at all.

The writing is lovely, even when it talks about ugly things. That’s a trick I’d like to learn, how to include crude and bodily realities without breaking the aesthetic spell.