BOOKMAIL

Today’s book mail comes courtesy of Nic Stone, who read a less-than-glowing review I did of one of her books and still offered to send me an advanced reader copy of her latest. Because some authors are class acts. ⠀

She also totally and utterly sassed me out about said review, because some authors are also as mischievous as they are tactful. Which I love, obviously.

Thank you, Nic, for the books and the banter. And for making my week. Looking forward to reading this!

DEAR MARTIN by Nic Stone

dear-martin-1So while Nic Stone’s first foray into the world of middle grade fiction left me feeling somewhat underwhelmed, I enjoyed aspects of it enough to leave me feeling like giving another of her books a shot. And wow am I glad I did. ⠀

Dear Martin is Nic Stone’s first published work, and where the writing in Clean Getaway feels stilted and hesitant, here it flows with a smooth, confident swagger. Which makes for a curious dichotomy: the prose is imminently readable, but the topics discussed are heavy, all too real and sometimes hard to read. But it’s a balance that Stone strikes splendidly.⠀⠀

Dear Martin follows Justyce McAllister, a brilliant student at an exclusive and privileged private school, whose life, at the start of the story, consists of excelling at school in order to get into the Ivy League, and trying to figure out a tumultuous relationship with his on-again/off-again/on-again girlfriend. Until one night, when trying to stop said girlfriend from driving home drunk, he is harassed by a racist cop who predictably assumes the worst. The experience leaves him shaken, enough that he starts to become increasingly aware of just how much he is judged by the color of his skin. ⠀

Justyce doesn’t know how to deal with this, so he starts a project with the goal of emulating Martin Luther King, Jr. in a series of letters that soon become the outlet for his fear and frustration. A project that comes to a tragic, screeching halt when he and his best friend are involved in a shooting, the fallout of which puts Justyce in the cross-hairs of the media and the general public, who insist on degrading and demeaning him.⠀

Nic Stone has written a heartbreakingly real and painfully relevant novel about the plague of systematized racism and how it continually, relentlessly tears down and dismantles Black youths. Justyce feels all too real, as a young Black man who has to work twice as hard as everybody else in order to stand on the same stage as his more privileged colleagues; as a less-than-perfect teenager just trying to figure out the trials and tribulations of adolescence, which is hard enough without the prejudice of others; as just this kid who just wants, like Martin, to face a world that never, ever lets up with all the grace and dignity of a king and just do good.⠀

The cover for my copy features a blurb by Angie Thomas, which is appropriate since this book explores the same theme as her excellent debut The Hate U Give. But whereas that book presents a more idealized conclusion of a community coming together to fight injustice, Dear Martin is, I think, a bit more realistic in its ambiguity — which just adds another layer of tragedy to the story. The ending of Dear Martin caught me off-guard, since it felt to me like there was more to the story. But there’s no neat resolution to be found here, no uplifting ending wrapped up in a bow. It ends like real-life situations often do: with uncertainty. We don’t know what’s going to happen to Justyce any more than he does. But Stone reminds us that, like Martin, we can hope, and we can dream. And maybe one day we’ll find our way towards justice.

CLEAN GETAWAY by Nic Stone

clean-getaway-1Clean Getaway tells the story of William “Scoob” Lamar, an eleven year old black kid, and G’ma, his white grandmother, and the road trip they embark upon across the American South. A trip for which they have their own motives: Scoob leaves behind serious punishment following a school suspension, and a severe father whose severity only increases after said suspension. He just wants to get away from it all and clear his head. G’ma wants to show Scoob places where history has been made — but also to deal with some unfinished business from her past. Issues that cause her to act increasingly erratic and shady.⠀

It’s a great premise (love me a road trip tale), but I felt the story just didn’t live up to its potential. Scoob at times felt like a real and modern kid, dealing with things while still trying to keep his cool, while at others he seemed too unrealistically passive. His G’ma’s strange behavior introduces a mystery in the first few chapters of the novel, which is an effective way to hook a reader — having the main character endlessly wonder about said mystery without actually doing anything about it for the remainder of the books is an equally effective way of losing one. But it’s the character of G’ma that I found the most problematic. She started off fine — quirky and goofy and lovable. As someone who grew up watching The Golden Girls, I love seeing elderly women as main characters. As the story went on, however, and her eccentricity increased, she just made me uncomfortable. Which I get is sort of the point. Scoob grows more and more suspicious of his grandmother, and we are supposed to be on the same page as him. Only there’s no real actual payoff to this. ⠀

Look — this is a story that deals largely with racism. A theme that is explored almost exclusively through the eyes of this old white woman, who lived through the civil rights movement as the wife of a black man, in a place where this sort of relationship was still largely frowned upon. There’s a wealth of subjects to explore, and Stone does an admirable job with what she does delve into. But then we finally learn the secret she’s been keeping and how it affected her family, and it’s quite a bombshell. You’re left wondering how the rest of her family will deal with the shock waves. But it’s all ultimately brushed off, the aftermath left to the margins of the story. G’ma is given a simple send-off, and the consequences of her actions are never properly explored. Which is a shame, really. G’ma is a character that is deeply loved and idolized (and idealized) by her grandson and her son. Nic Stone wrote that this was a novel about finding out your heroes are human — flawed to a fault. It just would have been nice to actually see what that entailed right on the page. Clean getaway, indeed.

But while the overall concept didn’t work for me, there were still aspects I really enjoyed: this is a fast, fun read, full of interesting facts that I suspect will lead young readers down interesting, awareness-increasing rabbit holes, and that can only be a good thing. Nic Stone’s prose has a few missteps (it sometimes falls into that common and condescending trap of writing simple for a simple audience), but it is mostly clear and sharp. This is the writer’s first foray into middle-grade fiction, though, and I’m sure she can only get better from here.