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Riot Baby

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Enjoyed Onyebuchi's novella and the complexities woven in this form that looks at voice and history and family trauma.
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Riot Baby is the type of novel that you wonder how its all going to come together and then suddenly at the end it all makes sense.

Its a tale of hardship, sorrow, familial bonds and found family. Underlying (and blatantly stated) themes include those of systemic racism, police brutality, slavery and wanton abuse. 

With a lot of novellas, I get a sense that portions were skipped in order to come under that all important word limit. With Riot Baby, everything feels vast and expansive, especially when things are considered from Ella's POV.

My main qualm with this was attempting to wrap my head around the continuously changing time line and point of view. After a while it seemed like each break would swap POV but then, i was proved wrong. 

If you are after a novella with a purpose, that purpose being to shine a light on the criminal justice system, and occasionally society in generals, treatment of non-white citizens, this is it. If you're after a novella that deals with abuse, racism and discrimination, this is it. If you want a happy tale where everyone could be a resident of Stepford, maybe give it a miss
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Rooted in foundational loss and the hope that can live in anger, Riot Baby is both a global dystopian narrative an intimate family story with quietly devastating things to say about love, fury, and the black American experience.

Ella and Kev are brother and sister, both gifted with extraordinary power. Their childhoods are defined and destroyed by structural racism and brutality. Their futures might alter the world. When Kev is incarcerated for the crime of being a young black man in America, Ella—through visits both mundane and supernatural—tries to show him the way to a revolution that could burn it all down.
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”We don’t get where we’re going by matching hate for hate.”

This is an odd little story. I’m not sure I understood it all. But I hope I got enough of it that I know what Toni Onyebuchi is trying to say. It jumps around a lot. So be prepared to really pay attention.

My favourite part is when Onyebuchi describes using algorithms that are coded to persecute POC as the same as cops making conscious decisions. This is very powerful to me. Thus stating, systematic racism is no different than allowing a computer to run a program and determine the outcome. It’s 100% predictable. Sadly I think this absolutely true. People have been coded to react a certain way based on the colour of someone’s skin.

My privileged white girl self is completely at a loss on how to break things down and fight back to help all POC most days. Certainly understanding is the obvious first step. I desire to do more and so am trying to consume ownvoices fiction and truly listen to what is being said. Questioning my own thoughts and actions regarding race; and no longer letting family or friends make casual racist remarks. It’s long past time to call people out for what they say and how they say it. I certainly felt that part of Riot Baby was about driving home how many riots and times this issue has crept to the surface; and then been beaten down again with no change. I hope that this 2020 riot push back doesn’t go away until true progress can be made.

No one story or book will change everything; but like The Hate U Give, I think Riot Baby is a wonderful contribution to stating the issues in a way to give a different perspective. It’s very important we continue this conversation and change the delivery to get to more people. I recommend reading this, even if you feel a bit lost like I did, just so you can experience a perspective you’ve likely never seen/heard before. Thank you to Onyebuchi for providing this unique and moving story.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.
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This was a short book that accomplished so much in so few pages.  It tackles big themes, such as racism, and it does it well.
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Tochi Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby (, 2020) tells the story of two siblings—Ella, who is gifted with powers of precognition and telekinesis, and her younger brother Kevin, whose exuberant resistance to systemic racism earns him a one-way ticket to jail.

Onyebuchi’s first novel for adults is as much a tale of the siblings’ bond as it is a portrait of white supremacy, police brutality, and the anger of Black Americans at centuries of injustice.

The book’s publication just months before the murder of George Floyd and the Covid-19 pandemic might seem prescient, yet the novel could have been written at any point in the last several decades (or centuries) and still felt timely.

Kev is born during the riots in Los Angeles that followed the acquittal of the police officers who brutally beat Rodney King. A few years later, the police killing of Sean Bell leads Ella to run away from home, afraid that her anger, harnessed to the supernatural powers she can’t yet control, might cause her to hurt those she loves.

“She’s changed as a result of having seen [Sean Bell’s murder] in a way that I think a lot of people were changed when they saw footage of Laquan McDonald’s death or Philando Castile’s, these immensely traumatic visual experiences,” Onyebuchi tells me on the latest episode of New Books in Science Fiction.

Onyebuchi rejects the notion that anger must be productive. “When I started writing Riot Baby, I was very angry, and I feel like one of the things that happens during these periods of American unrest, particularly along a racialized vector, is this idea of productivity, that the anger has to be productive,” he says.

“And there was a part of me, a very large part of me, that was essentially ‘Screw that. I’m not here for respectability politics.’ Black people have been playing the respectability politics game since time immemorial. And in the history of modern America, what has it gotten us? And that was a lot of what powered the omnipresence of anger in the book, this idea that it doesn’t have to be productive.”
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I enjoyed reading several aspects of this book! The pacing was wonderful, characters were well drawn, and the reading experience on the whole was delightful.
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A tour-de-force from a rising star in the fiction scene and a powerful voice we need during these times.
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Damn. Just. Damn this was good. Is good. Should be required reading.

As a white woman, I only know so much. I know so little.

I'll never understand what it means to be black. Or what it means to be terrorized by a broken system. But this helps me see a slice of it.

How I wish Ella and Kev were real. Burn it all down to build something new.
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This book was small but mighty gut punch. Since it is so short I don't want to give anything away more than the synopsis does, but let's just say that Onyebunchi delivers with this book.
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Riot Baby is a stunningly brutal, yet powerful adult debut from Onyebuchi. 
It is unflinching in its prose and scorching in its delivery.
You will not be unmoved.
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It starts off slow and kind of dense, but once the action begins, it's hard to resist the story as it drives forward. It reads as a true epic, one that makes you feel the world really has been reshaped as you read it. Would recommend.
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WOW!  After reading this book, I've waited a couple of days and read the other readers reviews before I tried to write my review.  One thing you will pick up from every review is that this book affected every reader.  No one read the book and walked away without a definite opinion on it's contents and how they felt it should have ended.  So, that being said, here I go,

The book synopsis gives a good overview of the story arc, but says nothing about the skillful writing of Tochi Onyebuchi that tells the story of inter racial lives and how reactions say so much about the character of a person, neighborhood and ultimately the systems that bind us all together.  The central characters are a brother and sister, each trying to take care of the other with the limited options available to them.  But the sister has within her means to punish at will and make huge changes through violence.  Her brother is often the victim of the prevailing culture but understands that his sister's power, while it could be effective, may also not make changes for the good.  His choices show more compassion and morality than his surrounding neighbors but do not save him when he's sent to prison.  His voice is the driving force in the book, one that definitely makes an impression on everyone who reads this book.
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This book was ok. It moved pretty quickly. I enjoyed being with these characters from childhood to adulthood. It's interesting to see them change because of their personal choices and societal expectations. There is a lot of tension which makes this read a quick one.

However, the fantasy and sci-fi elements feel underdeveloped. Ella seems overpowered (OP) from the beginning. Her abilities are godlike, so why doesn't she use them to save people on a molecular level? Why doesn't she influence high-powered politicians and billionaires to fix institutional powers? Why is she just flitting around the world and watching people die? Her character seems a little too passive and overpowered simultaneously. And I LOVE overpowered characters. My canonical OP favs are Miss America, Jean Grey, Quentin Quire, the blue dude from the Watchmen, the Flash, etc. Then, the Sci-Fi dystopian world felt flat. Perhaps Tochi Onyebuchi's intention is to make a more realistic world, something feasible considering today's technological trends, but I wanted the world to really go there. I wanted an obscene amount of surveillance and for the chips to shock the former inmates and control more aspects of their life. 

Overall, I think I wished this book that was a little wilder and less grounded in reality.
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Be forewarned. This novella is brutally honest about the lives of many blacks. Kev is born during the Rodney King riots in LA, thus the title. The book may be short, but the words are meaningful. Ella, Kev’s older sister, has her Thing, special mind powers that can do things like explode the head of a rat that has come into their apartment. Told from two points of view, Ella’s and Kev’s, its clear that growing up around violence and gangs is terrible. When Mom moves the family to Harlem, Kev is arrested and sent to Rikers. The section on prison is horrifying. I’d call this dystopian fiction, except that in the end there is hope for a better future.
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Published by Tom Doherty Associates/ on January 21, 2020

When nine African Americans who gathered for Bible study in a Charleston church were gunned down by a white supremacist, the shooting solidified a long-standing understanding that black lives only matter to some. That massacre, the Rodney King beating, and police shootings of unarmed African Americans around the nation are recurring images in Riot Baby. Black Lives Matter is a dominant theme, but the story indicts not just white violence against blacks but institutional racism that Tochi Onyebuchi imagines will soon be embedded in supposedly race-neutral algorithms. In the novel’s near future society, algorithms determine who gets out on parole, who gets shot or arrested by mechanized police. The algorithms are just a way to mask the race-conscious desire to control blacks, to assure their subjugation.

Ella Jackson has a Thing. She can balance a ball of light in her palm. She can make a rat’s head explode. She can make toilet paper fly off a bodega’s shelf. She can wrap a blanket around her Mama’s neck and lift her until her legs dangle in the air, all without touching the blanket or her Mama. Something is eating Ella from the inside, something that makes her leave home. Only years later does she realize the good that her Mama does, working in a hospital, standing next to trauma surgeons and wiping up the stomach acid that spills from open wounds.

Ella hates South Central, hates that Rodney King can be beaten like all her neighbors are beaten and nothing ever happens to the cops who beat them. Until she moves to New Haven, she protects her brother Kevin, but when Kev goes to prison, he protects Ella by telling her to visit in person, not as a ghost. He doesn’t want anyone to see what she can do. On bad days, though, he wishes she would burn Rikers to the ground.

Kev was born in South Central during the 1992 riots. He decides to live in Watts when he is paroled from his sentence. The parole board sets him up in a community that it controls, puts a monitoring chip in his thumb, and assigns him to a job. Kev chose Watts because it is as far from the East Coast and the trouble that sent him to prison as he can get. Ella is less sanguine about his choice.

After listening to the news in prison — more riots, rising hate crimes, “Nazis in the street killing black folk” — Kev expects to find a post-apocalyptic world. Instead he finds “refugee-type kids walking barefoot with pieces of glass in the bottoms of their feet, not even flinching because living through the End of the World enough times does that to you.” Through Ella, he soon learns that he is seeing change at its advent.

Riot Baby is largely Kev’s story, but the central moral question belongs to Ella, who wonders whether she should use her Thing to punish. A pastor tells her, “We don’t get where we’re going by matching hate for hate,” but Ella considers the reality that slaves were freed at gunpoint. Civil rights legislation followed protest that wasn’t always nonviolent. If she has a chance to be “the locust and the frogs and the rivers of blood,” what should she do? The pastor’s take is appealing, but anger motivates. From that perspective, the Rodney King riots were useful, maybe even a necessary cleansing. If people aren’t angry about living in a society that devalues them, and if they don’t show that anger, their value might never be recognized.

Riot Baby is not a comforting novel. Onyebuchi nevertheless tells a powerful story that invites serious thought about racial oppression and violence. It is possible that a future utopia might follow a dystopia founded on anger. Readers can differ as to whether a utopian outcome of revolution is either likely or worth the pain, but readers who are both rational and compassionate cannot argue with the need for change that Riot Baby dramatizes.

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This book didn’t work for me, which was unfortunate. The writing was a little disjointed and hard to connect with, I kept trying to pick up and read it, but found it uninteresting, which is surprising because the content seems to be exactly what I typically enjoy.
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This book really defies any adjectives I could use to describe it, so I won't even try. Everyone should read this. I think it'll particularly appeal to fans of Carmen Maria Machado because of the way this sort of dystopian dread builds in the background of a family's story.
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Ella's little brother Kev is a riot baby, born during the LA riots that happened just after the Rodney King beating. The speculative fiction part of this book is that Ella has a Thing. She can make things happen sometimes, really a sort of telekinetic power. This Thing sets her apart from the world around her.
Most of the book takes place either in Harlem or in the poorer parts of LA. Really, this novella is social commentary on what society makes of young black men and what they make of what little they are given. Reading about how Kev grows up, you can see how he slides into gang culture after being surrounded by it all his life. When he goes to prison, you then see what prison makes of him. There are bits of technology, mostly about the surveillance state, thrown in as well. How do people use technology to oppress each other, to manage each other? Isn't this just an extension of how people have always used tools and laws to oppress and manage each other?

Ella, meanwhile, goes her own way. She begins to teach herself how to use her Thing instead of letting it control her. She learns to travel and she learns how to bring someone with her. At the end of the book, she possesses a combination of extreme power and ultimate detachment that make her extraordinarily dangerous for the status quo. Kev might be the riot baby, but she's seen all of it too. And burning it all down to see what might come after doesn't seem so bad.

How far are we from burning it all down? After reading this, I was spooked and feel like it's closer than most of us would like to think.
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Reading a Tochi Onyebuchi work is guaranteed to be intense, unflinching, moving, and memorable. Riot Baby checks all those boxes. It’s Onyebuchi’s first book marketed to general adult audiences rather than the YA fiction market.

Riot Baby gets its name from one of its protagonists, Kev, who was born during the 1992 riots after the trial and acquittal of four police officers for brutality in the arrest of Rodney King. Kev’s older sister, Ella has special gifts and powers. She has foresight and knew her mother would have a baby boy. She can make it warmer or cooler, she can make rats explode, and she can even travel through time and space and reality (seeing others’ thoughts and memories). Her powers are volatile and fueled by anger. And nothing makes her angrier and feel more powerless than realizing that even her gifts are insufficient to protect her brother from racism and oppression. 

Author Onyebuchi uses the novella format to great effect, covering a lot of ground and packing a lot of punch into a lean 176 pages that sharply confront the long-standing problem of institutionalized racism. The novella’s four parts take place in four settings following Kev and his family from South Central Los Angeles to Harlem, and subsquently showing Kev imprisoned at Rikers Island, and later released to Watts, a fictionalized near-future version of the LA neighborhood. Onyebuchi has imagined Watts as a controlled parole colony where parolees are still far from being freed men. (As one example of how much Onyebuchi can pour into this work, look up the Watts riots. You’ll see Watts was a very informed choice.) 

Onyebuchi’s pen gets creative with form through skilled use of multiple narrative voices and a fluid narrative timeline that stretches from before the Jim Crow era into the imagined future. The use of multiple voices and the fluidity of past, present, and future reminded me of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Indeed, Onyebuchi is quickly establishing himself as being worthy of inclusion into the canon of Black literary greats. 

Riot Baby will not leave readers unmoved and unchanged. It is a work that will engender discussion and examination of our society and the structures that keep oppressed people down. It’s informed by anger, yet not devoid of hope. A kind of hope that is more Malcolm X than Martin Luther King, Jr. And that brings me back into Black History.  In 1951 Langston Hughes asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?” In 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr. gazed hopefully into the future toward a glorious day of freedom. He was speaking approximately one hundred years after emancipation, and I don’t imagine Dr. King dreamed our society would still have so far to go nearly sixty years later. Onyebuchi gives voice to the anger that has been boiling over in so many disenfranchised. In contrast to Dr. King, Riot Baby envisions Mr. Hughes’ deferred dream exploding, but with a Black phoenix rising from the ashes.

5 of 5 Hearts: A Fiery, Unblinking Look at Racism.
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