16 year-old Starr is on a razor's edge.
Growing up in Garden Heights, she' s used to hearing gunshots at night, seeing her friends turn to a life of crime in order to survive and being wary of the police.
At the same time, she's got a stable home life. Her father runs a well respected and popular convenience store and her mother works as a nurse. Starr goes to an almost entirely white school in the suburbs, something her parents put into motion not too long after her best friend, Natasha, was accidentally killed in a drive by shooting six years previous.
Starr has two brothers, Seven & Sekani. Seven often acts as a father figure, as does her uncle Carlos, who happens to be a police detective.
While attending a party Starr runs into Khalil, a friend she's known since she was three but hasn't seen in a while. Khalil is sporting new clothes and expensive shoes. Starr suspects he might have turned into a drug dealer because the sad reality is youth in Garden Heights don't get a lot of opportunities for well paying jobs. Starr decides not to push it, though.
When the party is interrupted by gunfire, Khalil and Starr flee in Khalil's car. They are soon pulled over by the police for a busted taillight. Khalil has no weapons or drugs on him yet he is removed from the vehicle and patted down three times. When he leans into the door to ask Starr if she's ok he's shot to death by the policeman, who will eventually claim that he saw Khalil reach for a gun.
The policeman then aims his gun at a shattered Starr until more police and an ambulance arrive.
What follows is Starr's attempt to survive the anguish of seeing her friend murdered while still attending an upscale white school. Throw in the mix her need to be loyal to her home neighbourhood, the threat of violence against her if she reveals the identity of the drug lord that Khalil may or may not have been working for and the breakdown of her family from the pressure of living in a world of violence and uncertainty.
It's a very well written story with some truly chilling scenes, especially those involving the police and how they view and interact with the people of Garden Heights. Within this microcosm Thomas has exposed the anxiety, frustration and all out rage that African Americans must come to terms with on a daily basis when living in communities that are labelled by the authorities, the media and the ignorant as "ghetto" or "slum" or whatever term is thrown at it.
Starr has to make some seriously tough decisions in this novel, things that most teenagers wouldn't dream of having to make. This book is superb not only because it lets you walk a mile in someone else's shoes for 400-plus pages, but it does so in a way that keeps you laughing, crying and engaged throughout.
Read it. It will knock you back a few feet, in a good way.