nosaferplace Book Club: Straight Outta Crongton (Will Hill: Guest Post)

Straight Outta Crongton
Author: Alex Wheatle
Publisher: ATOM

Read why Will chose Straight Outta Crongton as his nosaferplace Book Club pick here:

Full disclosure: I did an event with Alex Wheatle at the Edinburgh Book Festival this summer, and until about a week before I hadn’t read anything he’d written.

I knew his work – Liccle Bit was longlisted for the Carnegie Medal and Crongton Knights won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize in 2016 – and I knew people who absolutely swore by his novels, people whose opinions I rarely disagree with. I had meant to read him, but there are so many books and there is only so much time.

But I like to be diligent when it comes to doing events: it feels like basic courtesy to have at least dipped your toe into the work of the person you’re going to be sat next to for an hour.

So I opened Straight Outta Crongton, the third and most recent in his YA series. I finished it about three hours later. Within two days I’d read the first two novels and was fully prepared to spend most of our event demanding that he write faster.

The series is set on a fictional council estate called South Crongton. Wheatle never commits to where in the country it’s supposed to be – as someone who lives in the capital, it’s a south London estate in my head, but readers at our event believed the books were set in Birmingham, or Manchester, or any number of other places – and he populates the estate with characters who struggle and succeed and fail, who are flawed and brilliant and wholly believable. It’s a living, breathing place and a fabulous setting for the stories he wants to tell.

In Straight Outta Crongton, that story is dark. Mo is a teenage girl living with her mum in one of the South Crongton blocks, struggling to deal with school, a complicated relationship with her best friend who used to be more than that (and maybe could be again) and the presence of her mum’s abusive new boyfriend. When a terrible moment of violence shatters her whole world, Mo’s desire for vengeance sees her pulled first into the gangs that dominate Crongton, and then into something even more dangerous…

That’s the brief synopsis. I’m not going to say anything else about what happens, because you really need to go and read the book and find out for yourself. What I really want to talk about is the main reason I loved this novel: the main character.

Mo is – quite simply – one of the best YA protagonists I’ve read in years. She’s hard as nails when she needs to be, loyal, funny, and takes absolutely no crap from anyone. But she’s not a two-dimensional strong female character. She is strong, remarkably so at times, but she’s damaged and hopeful and she makes mistakes and most of the time she owns them. There’s not an ounce of self-pity about her, despite the crappy hand she’s been dealt: she takes responsibility for her actions, and she keeps moving forward. There’s a streak of steel that runs through her, and within about five pages I was entirely on her side.

All of which meant that I really, really cared when bad things started to happen. I mentioned it gets dark, right?

Straight Outta Crongton is about friendship and violence and hope and responsibility and the high price of revenge. It’s a fantastic novel, from one of our very best writers.

Read it. You won’t regret it.

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