Haunted by the past

We’ve got two solid contenders up next, both realistic fiction, both with characters haunted by the past. It’s not entirely fair to pair titles up like this, and it’s not really how RC talks about books at the table — they are trying to consider the strengths and weaknesses of each title individually, after all. […]

We’ve got two solid contenders up next, both realistic fiction, both with characters haunted by the past. It’s not entirely fair to pair titles up like this, and it’s not really how RC talks about books at the table — they are trying to consider the strengths and weaknesses of each title individually, after all. But we have a blog schedule to keep and a lot of books to cover, so while it’s not exactly legit, this is done in the spirit of “make it work,” and thus we get these two books and two haunted characters, working through past violence and trauma.

And while I keep using this word, haunted, I want to be clear: these are realistic titles and not in any way supernatural. But they both depict people shaped by, tortured by, painful pasts. They’re both first person narration, and they’re both thematically ambitious titles, talking about major social issues through the lens of their protagonists’ experiences.

bangBang by Barry Lyga
April 2017, Little, Brown
Reviewed from an ARC

This is a hard week to talk about gun violence and gun control, and both of these issues are centered in Bang. I am going ahead with this review in part because Lyga works very hard to put the human face on these issues; Sebastian is a compelling character carrying a heavy burden. His first person narration carries us through the story. The chapters are quick, sometimes only a sentence or two. It’s a read that flows fast, carrying the reader through Sebastian’s emotional experience. We watch him break from his regular routine, find a new friend, learn some life lessons, and take some real risks in talking with his family about their horrific past. This is a compelling character journey, and the three stars it’s received reveal that.

Lyga is careful to work in many current issues: Islamophobia, income gap, and especially mental illness and toxic masculinity. They’re (especially the latter two) thoughtfully handled and an important element in a book about gun violence.

There are a few things that will (I think) hamper this title at the table, though. Sebastian’s narration doesn’t always feel like a 14-year-old; he’s too self aware, too removed, and sometimes too mature to consistently read like such a young teen. Lyga gives him a love of retro stuff that (for me) only adds to that impression.

The pacing is a bit uneven as well. The first half of the book focuses on his new relationship with Aneesa and their youtube project. This allows for a change in Sebastian’s experience and gives him a reason for the emotional leaps and upheaval that is to follow, but it also forces all of that growth into the second half of the book. As a result, the conclusion feels rushed and too simple — a bit unearned.

allegedlyAllegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson
January 2017, Katherine Tegan Books
Reviewed from an ARC

Karyn mentioned math, talking about how this year a four star title is one of 16 (at least at this point in the year). Allegedly is in the top 24 titles this year, and deservedly so. It’s an enthralling read, suspenseful, surprising, and rich. I’ll try to avoid too many direct spoilers, but there will be some vaguely spoiler bits and of course all bets are off in the comments. If you haven’t read it yet, give it a go before reading more here!

Mary Addison is just as haunted by her past as Sebastian, but her present is even more constricted. Jackson gives us an unsentimental portrait of foster care, of the very flawed juvenile justice system, a life touched and shaped by racism, and — for the majority of the book — a sympathetic portrait of just how high the odds are stacked against someone in the system. Mary’s efforts to take control of her life allow readers to root for her, even as they wonder about her past. These are real life issues, and we read about them with empathy and with sympathy, and that’s good fiction doing an excellent job.

The tension between the twist of the present and the mystery of the past is well balanced. We worry for Mary now — want her to not forget her ID, not be left alone with New Girl, want her to take care of Bean. The details of the present are huge, overwhelming. Every time she attempts to cross an item off her list, another roadblock appears. It’s staggering reading, really. The moments where Jackson illuminates the past are fewer, but just as full of impact; there’s a ton of tension there. We want to know what will happen just as much as we want to untangle what did happen, and all of it is in service to get this girl into a better place, whatever that might be. Jackson’s ability to tell a story both forward and backward is impressive.

And once the past is untangled, our read is even more complicated. I’m still not sure what I think about that final twist. On the one hand, it was planted from the very first page and so maybe in retrospect it felt somewhat inevitable.

On the other hand, this twist is so shocking, it feels almost like a physical punch. Does it go too far? Is it just thrown in for the OMG factor? It absolutely complicates the narrative, and brings up the possibility of talking about likability and respectability politics. But does it actually fit the story as written? Can we even get past our shock to assess that question? (Or maybe I should say, “Can I even get past my shock to assess that question?”)

So let me try: I think that the twist is interesting and keeps me thinking about the book and engaging with it. Which maybe means it worked? I also think that it’s a bit clumsily handled. So, both? I’d need to do a re-read to say for sure, but I didn’t notice a ton of foreshadowing throughout the entirety of the book to tie the ending in better. A more careful re-read could probably convince me that the seeds were successfully planted for this ending, so RealCommittee might be having some very serious conversations about this title. In that case, I’d be pretty delighted, because this really is a gripping, thoughtful, and volatile read.

These are both solid novels: absorbing, interesting, and thoughtful. Allegedly has one extra star, which I think reflects the masterful blending of true crime with realistic fiction with rich thematic content. I don’t know that either will be around for the “final five” conversation with RealCommittee, but I do think Allegedly has a strong chance in the smaller Morris pool. I’d love to see it get a medal there!

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