The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead’s previous novel, The Underground Railroad, won a Pulitzer prize and was endorsed by Barack Obama. It conveyed the testimonies of former slaves who had escaped the American south, neither exaggerating the brutalities endured nor pulling any punches when depicting the attitudes of the white slave owners. In his new novel, The Nickel Boys, that same raw depiction of the harsh realities of being black in a white world is utilised to stunning effect.
The main protagonist, Elwood, is thrust into The Nickel Academy, a reform school where education is minimal and work in the form of cheap labour for the white population is par for the course. Elwood’s crime: simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As the novel progresses, we begin to understand that very few of the ‘students’ at Nickel Academy have done much to merit their stay there, as the seemingly arbitrary arrests of black youths provide a constant stream of free labour to fulfil a plethora of manual tasks, bringing in a handsome profit for the white governors of the school. Students are regularly beaten, isolated for days at a time, as well as simply disappearing.
For students who have really overstepped the mark there is The White House, a building in the middle of the complex where boys are taken at night and beaten to within an inch of their lives. This is the fate Elwood suffers not long after arriving at The Nickel Academy, intervening in a fight and getting caught up with the rest in a group punishment. He is inspired by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, and is determined to overcome oppression through non-violence, just like his hero. Whitehead describes the ensuing brutal beatings briefly and the injuries and long-term damage is catalogued, but these stark, sparse accounts are actually a more effective way of conveying the true horror of what went on, where others could lean towards ghoulishness or gratuitous gore.
The novel opens with a grisly find by construction workers on the site of the former reform school, so we know from the beginning the fate that often awaited these boys. What makes this novel so terrifying is that it’s all based on real events, as the endnote confirms. The inspiration for this book is the Dozier School for Boys, which was a reformatory school in Florida which ran for more than a hundred years. Just recently, Florida officials announced that they would begin the search for more bodies on the site.
There was a lot of hype surrounding the appearance of this book, mainly because of the huge popularity of The Underground Railroad, and many saw this as a sequel. Whilst that’s not entirely true, it is certainly a continuation of Whitehead’s exploration of black history in America and what underlies the still simmering racial tensions plaguing that land.
Top Marks For Murder by Robin Stevens
Top Marks for Murder is book 8 of the Murder Most Unladylike series, a series which focuses on a group of high school super sleuths. I must admit, I’m new to this series but if number 8 is anything to go by, many younger readers will find this series highly entertaining.
The novel is set in Deepdean, a private school for girls – girls of the highest echelons of society only, don’t you know? There is the usual banter, cattiness and snobbery you would expect from this setting (fans of Malory Towers will enjoy this) before a murder rocks the school to its foundations.
One of the group of sleuths, better known as the Wells and Wong Detective Society, spots a murder from their dorm window and the game is afoot. Through dogged determination, guile and wit, the girls, with the help of a friendly local Police Inspector, manage to narrow down the list of suspects by a process of elimination. Another murder along the way only serves to complicate matters.
Do they catch the culprit in the end? What do you think? It’s not going to tax the brains of any young readers, but they’ll enjoy the chase. The characters are amusing, the plot speeds along with many twists and turns along the way, and the concept of teen detectives will appeal to many younger readers. This would be an ideal stocking-filler and will entertain the youngsters during those long winter nights.
My Brother’s Name is Jessica by John Boyne
Jason announces after years of silence that he identifies as a girl and wants to live life as a girl. He starts to grow his hair and wear more feminine clothes, and these very visible changes lead to consternation amongst his family and friends, despicable name calling and online comments, as well as support from some surprising quarters.
The novel focuses primarily on his younger brother, Sam, who struggles to deal with the loss of his big brother and can’t accept that his big sister is essentially the same person with whom he loved spending time. Sam is bullied mercilessly at school for his brother’s situation and takes this out on Jason, who is now known as Jessica.
To add to this tension, his mother is a high-profile cabinet minister who is vying for the top job, and this situation is at best a distraction and at worst an embarrassment to her and a real obstacle to her chances of becoming Prime Minister, as her rivals use this as ammunition against her.
This book has caused a bit of a backlash from the trans community over Boyne’s representation of a trans teenager and he was criticised for making the focus of the novel the family, rather than the person transitioning. However, others have commented that this is the book’s strength, and I’d agree. The ending is perhaps a bit too neat. Nevertheless, this is a thought-provoking book for any teenager to read, whether cis or trans.