Monday, May 27, 2019

The Hate U Give

The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas

Starr Carter is 16 and lives in Garden Heights, a black ghetto neighbourhood. With a close family and neighbours, it’s rough but it’s home. Her dad is an ex-con, ex-gang member who with his wife is lovingly raising their children to be above the violence and gangs, while still very aware of racist prejudice in their lives. When she was 10 best friend Natasha was gunned down in the street by a gang shooting. Now she goes to a private school on a scholarship an hour away in Williamson, and has white friends there and a secret white boyfriend, Chris.

Good friend Khalil has started to sell drugs to help his family, trapped in a cycle that many young men easily fall into. Starr and Khalil are on their way home from a party and are stopped by a young white police officer. Khalil is unarmed and while a bit stroppy is no threat, but one wrong move means that he is shot dead by the officer and dies in Starr’s arms.

As the neighbourhood starts to react to the news that yet another black life has been lost, Starr is torn. It’s easier to stay quiet and not stand up for Khalil, for they all know justice is rarely served in these cases. Does she tell the truth about what happened and risk the riots that will result in her neighbourhood? Does she name the drug kingpin who forced Khalil to sell for him? And how does she even begin to explain this part of her life to her school friends and Chris, who have no idea about where she lives or what it is like.

As she and her family ponder what to do, they are aware of the implications:
“The truth casts a shadow over the kitchen – people like us in situations like this become hashtags, but they rarely get justice. I think we all wait for that one time though, that one time when it ends right.”
This is a tense and challenging read about racism, inequality, policing and the legal system. It shines the spotlight on the issues facing poor black communities in America and champions the Black Lives Matter movement. Even the title is making a point; it originates from rapper Tupac Shakur’s “THUG LIFE” idea, which is an acronym for The Hate U Give Little Infants F… Everybody.
“Daddy once told me there’s a rage passed down to every black man from his ancestors, born the moment they couldn’t stop the slave masters from hurting their families. Daddy also said there’s nothing more dangerous than when that rage is activated.”
At the same time, there are really strong family role models for Starr, and a familial sense of love and protection for those you love. There is a fair amount of swearing and references to sexual activity ,but nothing that older teens won’t already hear at school. There’s also a fair amount of violence, mostly referred to rather than actively described, including beatings, shootings and domestic abuse. While I’m sure this book has great value to those living in similar communities, I can’t speak from that experience. What I can say is that this is a very worthwhile read for those not in these communities. Mr 16 found it interesting, challenging and eye-opening. We had resultant conversations about gun ownership in the US and the level of violence that exists in some areas.

I’m not sure how many schools will take this book on as recommended reading for teenagers but they definitely should consider it.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Growing in Gratitude

Growing in Gratitude, Mary K. Mohler 

How thankful are you? As you progress in the faith are you growing in gratitude? Mary Mohler wants to encourage Christian women to consider whether their faith in God results in overflowing thanksgiving, for it certainly should.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if gratitude was one of the first things that comes to mind when people think about believers in Jesus Christ... The world should be struck by how grateful we are for the gifts we wholeheartedly believe we possess from God alone.”

Mohler introduces us to two types of gratitude:

  • Natural gratitude: thankfulness for blessing received, for good gifts. This is often the reaction to good news, or a near miss, ‘Thank God!’ There is no real foundation for this thanks.
  • Gracious gratitude: thankfulness to God himself, for who he is. This focuses on praising God for his character and love, and that we can be in a relationship with him.

I found this to be a very insightful point, to consider whether you only thank God for his gifts or you truly thank him for who he is, that being one of the marks of true Christian gratitude. It has struck me as I consider some of the things we thank God for when we say grace before meals.

Over four chapters she then covers four life circumstances with hindrances to gratitude: a burden for the lost, busyness, discontent over circumstance or suffering, and doubt. All are good starting points for each topic, but I really felt each was a bit light, considering the subject matter. I did appreciate her dealing with our burden for the lost upfront, it’s not something that would always be mentioned in this context.

Mohler then turns to how we can thank God for the challenges of life as well as the blessings. Using the language of thorns, echoing Paul talking about the thorn that plagued him, she gives ten ways we can thank God for challenges. These are really helpful for they encourage us to see beyond our current situation and to what God might doing through it, through biblical promises. So we can thank God that whether or not we escape this affliction, our life is hidden with Christ in God, he will not leave or forsake us. We can thank God for the lesson we are learning, that God promises it will not overwhelm us, that it may encourage others, and so on.

The final chapter gives some practical ideas for thankfulness and encouraging others, including expressing thanks to your family members, general courtesy, teaching children to be thankful, and taking the time to communicate with people through written notes and proper thank you cards. Finishing essentially with letter writing seemed an odd place to end, and while she is correct at many levels (and I agree about the lack of effort people make with thank you cards, for mass produced cards are not a proper thank you), I found myself wondering, really, this is where you want to leave it?

Her concluding comments did bring it back to Christ again,
“As we grow in maturity in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus, we will discover new reasons to praising even as we find new ways to thank God for characteristics he has held since eternity past.”
This is a short, primer book which starts the reader on the path of gratitude. It is by no means extensive, but it is a very helpful beginning point. Her biblical referencing points us to to God and Christ and the wonderful reasons we have to be thankful. She raises hindrances to gratitude honestly and carefully, and encourages us to think about our own gratitude, and why it may not be so strong at times. All in all, an encouraging little book for those that long to rediscover the joy of a thankful heart.

Monday, May 13, 2019


Temeraire, Naomi Novik 

After having enjoyed Spinning Silver and Uprooted, I then turned to Naomi Novik’s established nine book series, Temeraire.

It opens with English naval captain, Laurence, taking control of a French vessel in the Napoleonic Wars. The French have fought admirably, and it soon becomes clear why - they are in possession of a rare dragon egg intended for the Emperor.

Dragons are highly valued by by both countries, as they are used in the Air Command to control the skies of battle. The egg is about to hatch and all attention is focussed on it, for a dragon must be harnessed upon hatching or it will run wild. The value of dragons for England is so high, there is no question of not attempting the harness; yet for the person from whom the dragon accepts the harness, it means loss of all previous livelihood and a requirement to enter the Dragon Corps, a rough and undervalued legion of the armed forces.

When the dragonet hatches it’s eyes meet Lawrence’s and he speaks to him, forming an instant bond. Lawrence is initially horrified and distraught, for all plans of continuing in the navy are now dashed and he must make his way to join the Corps.

Yet it very quickly becomes apparent that Temeraire is no ordinary dragon. He is very quick to learn, understand and reason. His high level of language ability and relational skills mean a strong and permanent bond quickly forms between him and Lawrence.

As he moves to the training school and gets to know other captains and their dragons, it seems the rumours about these men are false, and these are good, honest men who truly love the dragons in their care.

The book charts their Lawrence and Temeraire’s friendship as well as those around them, as they train and prepare for a major battle against Napoleon.

It’s a great idea, introducing the concept of dragons into a world we are already familiar with and into a time of history that is already well documented. I have commented before (The Rain Wild Chronicles) on Robin Hobb’s books that I find the regular writing about dragons fascinating - why do they occupy such thought in human minds? In fact, these books would be enjoyed by anyone who has also enjoyed Hobb’s series. There are some strong similarities between them and there is an ‘old-fashioned’ style to both, that is: no bad language, really only allusions to sex, and the violence is all in acts of war. As such, they would be perfectly suitable to younger readers too (aged 14+) who enjoyed some old fashioned warfare ideas with a mythical element woven in. In fact the writing even feels like it was written at the time it is set, and there are strong elements of honour, valour and doing the right thing, even at great personal cost.

Later books include travel to China and amazement about the different dragons there. There are ongoing skirmishes with France in warfare, and travels throughout Africa, Australia and South America. As time goes on, Temeraire increasingly wants to fight for the rights of dragons, and there are parallels to the push to end slavery which is being championed at the same time by Wilberforce.

I really enjoyed this series, and each book captured my attention in different ways. Sometimes the battle scenes or warfare were extended, and at times the political implications were a little harder to grasp, but overall it is a wonderfully interesting and creative tale about the bond between Laurence and Temeraire and the choices they made as they fought for their country.

Friday, May 10, 2019

I Can Only Imagine

I Can Only Imagine

This movie tells the story behind the #1 single by Christian rock band, MercyMe. For those that know the song, you are already aware it talks about what it might be like when we meet Jesus in heaven:
Surrounded by Your glory
What will my heart feel?
Will I dance for You, Jesus
Or in awe of You be still?
Will I stand in Your presence
Or to my knees will I fall?
Will I sing hallelujah?
Will I be able to speak at all?
I can only imagine
I can only imagine
It’s a song that has resonated with many believers as they try to grasp what heaven may be like. Written by lead singer Bart Millard, apparently the song lyrics were written in about 10 minutes, but not surprisingly, there is a life of experience behind them.

At this point, if you want to just watch the movie for what it is, don’t read any further (I had no idea going in what it would be about). But if you want the same amount of information you would get if you read any other review online, here goes.

Millard had a very difficult childhood with his abusive father. His mother left when he was about 13 and it seems the only thing that held Millard together was his faith, having been part of youth camps and church. He left home as soon as he possibly could, joining with other musicians to create band MercyMe. His father however, is being challenged by his own life and is seeking redemption from Christ and his son. When he is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he and Bart are forced to confront the past and figure out their future.

It’s a very powerful movie, obviously with strong themes. Anyone with a history of domestic abuse should be warned that there could be triggers in this movie. Having said that, it is not shown too overtly (although it is present), and as such, we watched it as a family. While it was serious subject matter, and not a topic we have viewed on the screen as a family before, the representation of it was suitable for Miss 11.5 and up, with Miss 14 and Mr 16 grasping even more.

In the end, it’s a movie of great hope, with a marvellous reminder that God’s amazing grace is available for all who will receive it, and change in this life is truly possible for those that seek it.

Monday, May 6, 2019


Homes, Abu Bakr al Rabeeah with Winnie Yeung

Homes: A Refugee Story is written by now 18-year-old Abu Bakr al Rabeeah, with the assistance of his teacher Winnie Yeung, charting his childhood as a refugee. Born in Iraq in 2001, his memories of his homeland are happy:
“My childhood in Iraq was a sweet one. There was laughter and joy: rich, just like the syrupy knafa cheese pastries I loved so much. And my red bike… That’s what life was: friends and soccer.” 
Abu Bakr’s father’s family was Shi’a, but he raised his own family as Sunni, and “where we lived the divisions between the two denominations of Islam hung heavy in the air...He couldn’t ward off the disapproving grumbles of his own family; instead, he taught us to meet those painful arrows with love and acceptance, to leave it in God’s hands.”

When the neighbours started finding bullets taped to their front door, threats of beheading came to extended family, and finally a death threat that named Abu Bakr arrived on the doorstep, his father decided it was time to leave and they moved to Homs in Syria. Syria was an interim step assuming things were likely to get worse and the family applied for refugee status, and then opened a bakery in Homs.

The next four years were spent in Syria as things slowly unravelled. The family were there for massacres, bombings and multiple shootings:
“That’s how it was in Syria: when we heard an explosion, we ran towards the chaos. Often the police and ambulance was late arriving, if they arrived at all, so we took care of each other. After every explosion, streets were clotted with civilians doing whatever they could to help, binding wounds, driving the worst cases to hospital.”
“When most people hear massacre, they picture body bags and blood. But this is what massacres felt like for me: the tense, stale air of a bedroom with too many breathing bodies in it. Finding quiet ways to pass the frightful hours, trying your best to block the sounds from flooding your brain.”
The times of violence are intertwined with daily life: school soccer, video frames, mosque and family.  Cousins played FIFA 13 and Grand Theft Auto and texted regularly. There was a time he collected the bullet casings he found on the street. When his father found out he said “Do you know what this casing means? It means someone shot a gun. They shot at another person. That bullet might have hurt someone, or killed someone... I don’t want you playing with the anymore. I don’t want any of these in our home, in the bakery. This is not who we are.”

There is an honesty as he came to terms with what was around him:
“The sad truth was, you could not live in Syria and have a clean heart. How could you, when you live in a place where you’re randomly shot at and car bombs explode outside your home? I wanted my heart to be pure, but already I hated people and I hated parts of my life. Sometime I even hated my family. I questioned my faith and my religion.”
“Knowledge that we never really wanted to know filtered into our lives. Our ears could pick the out the differences between mortars, Grad rockets, and car bombs. We could tell the high notes of the metallic smell of fresh blood on the streets from the low reek of a corpse waiting for days to be found in the rubble… We became sensitive gazelles, always stopping to scan and listen. It wasn’t a conscious choice – it simply became part of our walking and being.”
In 2014, the family’s refugee status was approved and the UN arranged their resettlement in Canada. Their travel, new schools and language learning are described as the family tried to make a new home:
“Even though Father was doing his best to hold us together, we were each so wrapped in our own kinds of loneliness that we got used to our little islands of grief… It was a relief to be in a place free of the shabiha and snipers, but none of us had ever imagined the solitude we would face. We had traded the raucous, tearing war for a suffocating, quiet safety. No one could tell which was better, which was worse. It was both and neither.”
In Year 9, Ms Yeung is his ESL teacher, and having started to grow in his English language confidence, she asks him, “what is your secret wish?” After admitting it is to be a soccer player, he then confides, remembering “my friends, the soccer games, the bombs, my cousins who are my brothers. How they told me to never forget. I realize I carry Syria in my heart. I’m not sure if I’m ready to do this yet but I decide to trust and so, softy, I tell Ms. Yeung, “I want to share my story.””

This is an honest, raw, short, heart-warming account from the perspective of a boy growing up in a war-torn nation. As such, at times it was simpler than I was expecting when I started. Upon reflection though, he has provided just what we need to know – what life is like for children in these regions. For those of us (and our children) who have absolutely no understanding of what it would be like to live in a place like Syria, it is still a childhood we recognise, but through a very different lens of experience. He has written with a pervasive hope and optimism despite the situation, and portrays his own faith in a positive, tolerant way. I highly recommend this for young teens right up to adults, and I imagine it will soon be placed on many high school reading lists.