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review 2019-08-12 09:52
Inspiring, tough, appalling. A must read.
The Nickel Boys - Colson Whitehead

I thank NetGalley and Little, Brown Book Group UK for providing me an ARC copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.

In brief, this is an extraordinary book. Beautifully written, haunting, it vividly portrays and era and a place (the early 1960s in Florida), and illustrates the very best and the very worst of human beings and their behaviour. Although everybody should know about the true story this book is inspired by, my only hesitation in recommending this book to all is that it is a tough read, and one that could upset people who have experienced abuse or violence or prefer not to read graphic accounts of those topics. (It is not extreme, in any way, in its depiction of violence and abuse, and much is left to the imagination of the reader rather than being unnecessarily and openly graphic, but then, my level of tolerance is quite high, so it might not be an indication of other readers’ opinion. On the other hand, it is emotionally harrowing, as it should be).

I had not read any of Whitehead’s books before but had heard and read many comments about his recent success with The Underground Railroad, and was keen to see what he would write next. Although I can’t compare the two, based on how much I have enjoyed this story and the style of writing, I am eager to catch up on the author’s previous novels.

I went into this book not having read reviews or detailed comments about it, other than the short description on NetGalley, and I was quickly drawn into the story. After the brief prologue, that sets up the scene and introduces what will become the main setting (and a protagonist in its own right) of the story, The Nickel Academy (previously, The Florida Industrial School for Boys, created in 1899, a reform school in serious need of reforms), we get to meet the two protagonists, first Elwood Curtis, an upstanding boy, determined to make his grandmother proud, a firm believer in Martin Luther King’s philosophy and speeches, a hard student and worker, and later Jack Turner, a boy with a more difficult background whom we meet during his second stay at Nickel. The interaction between the boys, the differences between them, the unlikely friendship that develops, and the ways their lives influence each other, not always evident as we read it, form the backbone of this novel, whose action is set mostly in a momentous era, the 1960s, and with the background of the Civil Rights Movement at its heart. Elwood’s determination to follow King’s dictates is sorely put to the test at Nickel, but he does learn much about himself and about the world there, including some things that should never happen to anybody, no matter their age or colour. Turner, a survivor who has been exposed to a much harsher reality than Elwood from the beginning, learns a new set of values and much more.

As I mentioned above, the story, narrated in the third person but mostly from the point of view of the two main characters (the novel is divided into different parts, and it is clearly indicated which point of view we are sharing), is beautifully written. It lyrically captures the nuances of the period and the place, using a richly descriptive style of writing that makes us feel as if we were there, experiencing the oppressive heat, the excitement of being a young boy going in his first adventure, the thrill of joining a heartfelt protest, the fear of Nickel, the dashed hopes… And later, we also touch base with the main character’s life at different points after Nickel, including the present, when he hears about the unearthing of the story, and we realise that, for him, it’s never gone away; it’s never become the past. The author intersperses the words of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches, of James Baldwin’s stories, and, as he explains in the Acknowledgements’ section at the end, he also quotes from real life accounts from survivors of the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, whose story inspired the setting and much of the story this book narrates. Although I didn’t know the story was based on a real place, I kept wondering about it as I read —it felt true, for sure—, and I was not surprised when my suspicions were unfortunately confirmed at the end. (The author provides plenty of links and information about the real story of Dozier and also includes a bibliography of the other sources he has used, which will prove invaluable to researchers and readers eager to find out more). The author’s use of quotes adds to the true feel of the novel while establishing a clear connection between this story and the troubled history of race (and to a slightly lesser extent class) relations in the USA. Although based on a real reform school, Nickel is a microcosm, a metaphor for the abuse and corruption that has marred not only the United States but many other countries, and a reminder that we must remain vigilant, as some things and behaviours refuse to remain buried and keep rearing their ugly heads in more ways than one. I, for one, will not hear talk about the White House and not think about quite a different place from now on.

The characters are compelling, easy to empathise with, and one can’t help but root for these young men who find themselves in impossible circumstances. Some are complicit in the abuse, some mere victims, but most are just trying to survive. As for the perpetrators… There’s no attempt at explaining why or how it happened. This is not their story. Their story has been the official History for far too long.

Apart from all I’ve said, there’s quite a twist towards the end of the story, which casts a new light on some of the events and on the relationship between the two boys, clarifying some questions that are left answered as the story progresses. This is not a mystery or a thriller as such, but the twist introduces an element of surprise that, at least for me, increased the power of the narrative and the overall effect of the story. The compelling plot of the novel is perfectly matched by the masterly way it is told.

I highlighted a lot of passages from the novel, but I thought I’d share the opening, and another paragraph from the preamble, to give you a taster. (As I mentioned, mine is an ARC copy, so there might be some changes to the final published version).

Even in death the boys were trouble. (A fantastic opening line that will become one of my favourites from now on).

When they found the secret graveyard, he knew he’d have to return. The clutch of cedars over the TV reporter’s shoulder brought back the heat on his skin, the screech of the dry flies. It wasn’t far off at all. Never will be.

A great novel, inspiring, appalling, tough, lyrical, fitting homage to the victims of a corrupt, merciless, and racist institution, and an indictment of the society that allowed it to exist.  Highly recommended, with the only reservations mentioned above about the subject matter.

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review 2019-08-03 23:37
THE NICKEL BOYS by Colson Whitehead
The Nickel Boys - Colson Whitehead

This is one time I cannot give a short synopsis of the book because I would give the story away.  I didn't know what to expect as I opened the book but I read the majority of it in one afternoon.  The Nickel Boys is well written.  I knew it would be a difficult book to read especially since I have been reading a lot of non-fiction lately about the prison system and the Jim Crow laws.  I expected it to be more graphic than it was.  It is different from Mr. Whitehead's The Underground Railroad--no magical realism in sight.  I am still absorbing so much of it as I write this.  It is a powerful piece of writing and should be on everyone's list to read sooner rather than later.

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review 2018-07-27 01:05
Mini-review of "Flunked" (Fairy Tale Reform School, #1) by Jen Calonita
Flunked (Fairy Tale Reform School) - Jen Calonita

This was just a fun, middle grade romp.  I really enjoyed and will be reading more in the series.

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review 2016-03-08 15:53
Charmed (Fairy Tale Reform School #2) by Jen Calonita
Charmed - Jen Calonita

Another wonderful entry in the Fairy Tale Reform School series! Look, it's no secret that I have a soft spot for these kinds of stories. I'm a Middle Grade reader, trapped in an adult's body. I love magic, mischief, and stories about great friendships. It's no wonder, then, that I also love Jen Calonita's writing. I enjoyed the first book, Flunked, immensely. So I couldn't wait to get my hands on Charmed and see what Gilly was up to now.

 

The first thing I noticed about this sequel was that Gilly has grown up. Oh, sure, she's still a rascal. She and her friends get up to all sorts of silliness. At the heart of it though, Gilly knows what true evil looks like now. She understands that people can get hurt, and that the choices we make affect others. I loved how Calonita didn't just let Gilly sit at this new point in her life though. Instead, she grows even more throughout the course of this book. Middle Grade readers need good role models and, as feisty as Gilly is, she definitely fits that bill.

 

Plus, there were so many more fairy tale references to fall in love with! I can't deny that I'm a sucker for a fairy tale pun. Those abound here, and if I'm finding myself giggling I have no doubt that young readers will too. I also appreciated the addition of new, and interesting characters. Most notably, Blackbeard makes his debut here. The idea that a new reader might want to discover the history of that dreaded pirate? Well, it makes me all giddy. He also adds a nice lightness to everything, what with his pirate manners and all. Pirates aren't exactly known for their manners.

 

I'm being completely honest when I say that I hope there's more of these stories to come. The ending had me a bit teary eyed, and truly hoping that this isn't the last I'll see of Gilly and her friends. If you have a young reader at home, especially one who enjoys a good fairy tale, this is a series you should get them started on. Jen Calonita's writing is wonderful.

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review 2016-02-19 22:25
Flunked (Fairy Tale Reform School # 1)
Flunked (Fairy Tale Reform School) - Jen Calonita

I'd had high hopes for this book and by the end...most were met. But for the first half or more, I found this to be cliche and a bit disappointing. Though that might be partially the fault of the audiobook. I had to give up on it slightly before half way and switch to the book; the narrator's voice made half of them sound like whiny teenagers. Now they may be just that but I will not listen to that if there's anyway to avoid it, so the audiobook had to go.

 

The country of Enchantasia (ha, ha - eye roll) is ruled by the famous princesses: Ella, Snow, Rose (Sleeping Beauty), and Rapunzel. Though Gottie (Rapunzel's villian...I think) and Alva (Sleeping Beauty's villian) are still loose, everyone is fairly safe and doing well - though the cobblers are in a downturn as Ella gave Glass Slipper creation rights to Fairy Godmothers. The rest of the villains are reformed. The Stepmonster (Flora), Wolfington (best not to mention Grandmother), Madam Cleo (the Sea Witch), and Harlow (Snow White's Evil Queen) live in an enchanted castle where they have turned their lives around and now help young people who are on the path to villainy.

 

Yep, they run Fairy Tale Reform School!

Their Mission: "To turn wicked delinquents and former villains into future heroes."

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