Review: Kinda Like Brothers

I’m going to be reviewing some older books for a while. While I am always reading new books, ARCs, and what’s coming straight off the press, I find myself pouring back over some reads that have been on my TBR list for a while lately. So today, I present you with a children’s lit book that I think is pretty darn impressive.

First off, lemme extol the virtues of children’s lit. As a former middle school teacher, I believe it’s important to give kids access to all varieties of literature for their success. Not only is literature important for cognitive skills, it’s where I believe that kids first learn to really truly appreciate culture–not just theirs, but others’ as wellIt’s also where we develop emotional intelligence around life events such as death, tragedy, happiness, etc.

So I’ll never stop reading kid’s books. I find them fascinating, because many of them ‘teach’ the values that kids learn. It’s like coming home full circle for me.

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Review for "Kinda Like Brothers" by Coe Booth (2014)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

This is a really great book–not just for its intended audience of children’s/middle grades readers, but for adults as well.

“Kinda Like Brothers” is the story of Jarrett, an 11-year-old from Newark, NJ, whose mother routinely takes in foster children. While they are often babies in need of dire care after being removed from abusive homes, Jarrett is shocked when a special needs infant named Treasure arrives with her 12-year-old brother, Kevon. Immediately, Jarrett is angry that he must share his room with a stranger and irritated that he isn’t privy to the reason why these children have come into his family’s lives. Kevon is highly guarded over Treasure at first, but slowly begins to let Jarrett’s mother physically care for her. In time, the boys form an unsteady truce.

Jarrett’s life is also beset by other problems. He doesn’t read very well and must take a remedial summer reading program in order to pass the 5th grade, which brings him embarrassment among his peers. He secretly wishes that his mother would stop taking in foster children and spend more time with him. He also has a crush on a classmate, who barely knows he’s alive or that he’s failing the 5th grade. His best friend is hiding a secret from him and has been acting strangely since his return from a trip home to Jamaica. Jarrett is also taken with his mother’s boyfriend, who also wishes that Jarrett’s mom would stop taking foster children too. All of these things swirl around in the story until the end, when Jarrett’s meddling into Kevon’s family situation brings bad consequences.

I thought this book very realistically portrayed the life of an urban youth, who are very often dealing with multiple sensitive issues at once (foster families, school failure, etc). I also liked how everything wasn’t necessarily ‘solved’ at the end, because, let’s face it, many of the problems that Jarrett has cannot be safely tucked away by the end of a book. In Jarrett’s world, having a foster brother and sister sharing your small apartment is not just a temporary problem, it’s part of reality. There are also discussions about homosexuality and police brutality that are very well constructed and presented in this book.

I’d read this again and again. Definitely 4.5 stars.

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Review: The Good Demon

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Review for "The Good Demon" by Jimmy Cajoleas (2018)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Set in a small Southern town, “The Good Demon” is the story of Clare, a teenage girl who hasn’t been the same since her exorcism by a local preacher. The demon (named ‘Her’) wasn’t evil, but protected Clare from danger: the trauma of her dad’s death, her stepdad’s abuse, an attempted sexual assault. Her leaves behind a mysterious note, which Clare is compelled to follow. It reads: “Be nice to him. June 20. Remember the stories.”

Eventually, Clare falls for the son of the preacher who performed her exorcism. After following many clues, she learns about a secret cult in her hometown practicing a sinister form of magic. After a visit to the enigmatic cult leader, Clare is forced to make a choice to be reunited with her demon.

I liked the premise for this story. It’s very Southern gothic, with mystery and some fantasy thrown in for good measure. The tag line mentions True Detective (the first season, of course) as an inspiration and the plot is very much in that same vein, which I liked as well. The bad part is that it took me nearly two months to read this book, and that was no accident. I’d read 20-30 pages, lose interest, come back a few days later, repeat. Perhaps if there had been more character development I would have been more engaged, more history of the town. A lot of characters and situations here seemed thrown together and happenstance. Hmm.

Three stars.

Review: Adele

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Review for "Adele" by Leila Slimani (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Adele is a mess. A hot, raging dumpster fire of disarray. But despite this, I couldn’t stop reading. Oui…

Adele is a Parisian (oui, oui!) woman with a nice surgeon husband and a small son. She has a career as a journalist, money, a nice home, and on the surface, everything in life that is desirable. We come to learn that this is the face that she shows to the outside world, because secretly, Adele is addicted to sex. The seedier the better–restrooms, hotels, back alleys. Sometimes the men are nameless, other times they’re coworkers, acquaintances, the husbands of friends. She has no desire to love these men or to see them again once the act is over. In addition to Adele’s mishmash of a life, there’s the portrait of a marriage with no value, as well as glimpses of the relationship with her family, which is dysfunctional as well.

This novel is very well written. Throughout this book Adele enraged me, shocked me, and inspired my deepest sympathy. The ending is also highly subjective, there’s no indication on whether Adele decides to change her ways or not. I am surprised to see the plethora of one-star reviews on Goodreads, perhaps those who expected to find some kind of closure here, a happy ending. This book is about sex but it definitely isn’t porn, it leans toward the erotic. Perhaps erotic writing bothers people. I don’t know.

As far myself, I took this book for what it is, a psychological study of a person with an addiction. The word “addiction” is never written or explicitly named, but it is certainly there. I think the author is careful to simply write the ‘how’ of Adele and leave the judgments to us.

I definitely recommend this book. I certainly found it to be interesting, and its content pleasantly debatable.

Review: Praise Song for the Butterflies

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Review for "Praise Song for the Butterflies" by Bernice McFadden (2018)
Rating: 4.5 stars

Aye, a great book.

“Praise Song for the Butterflies” takes place in the fictional African nation of Ukemby with Abeo Kata, a middle class young girl being raised by loving parents. Her life is filled with joy and happiness until a streak of bad luck hits the family: Abeo’s father is investigated for embezzlement on his job, her baby brother falls ill, and financial strain sets in. To alleviate the bad luck, Abeo is taken in the middle of the night by her father to a remotely located shrine to become a trokosi, a ritual slave to a local priest.

Abeo spends most of her teenage and young adult years as a trokosi, a life filled with hard labor, rape, and daily physical abuse. I won’t tell you how the story ends (I don’t spoil books I like), but there is hope, a definite light in the darkness for Abeo as well as the thousands of women like her who are still victims to this awful practice.

Although the African country in this novel is fictional, the author’s notes make it clear that trokosi does still take place in parts of Africa, despite many governments ban of it. Before this book, I had no idea that this practice was in existence. Young virgin girls (and in some cases, boys) as young as 5 are taken to religious shrines as a living sacrifice to atone for the crimes of a family member or ancestor, or as repayment for services rendered from the shrine. The girl stays at the shrine for a lifetime, forced to have sex with the priest, or in Abeo’s case, local men who pay to visit. It’s a horrifying life that Abeo is forced into, and the author does an excellent job of weaving together all sides of the practice, whether one is involved directly or indirectly.

Definitely read this book. 4.5 stars.

Review: Stray

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Review for "Stray: Memoir of a Runaway" by Tanya Marquardt (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Hmm…I listened to the audio version of this, read by the author herself. Not bad at all.

Lemme start here: it’s always tricky when you write a review for a memoir because you never want to write too harshly, as if you are evaluating the ups and downs of someone’s life. This book is a doozy because while good, it never altogether felt ‘right’ to me. Although “Stray: Memoir of a Runaway” is about the author running away from home at 16, this is only a singular event in the book. Yes, she grows up in a highly dysfunctional home and becomes rebellious, but she never truly runs away–she remains in the same town as her mother and lives with friends, partying and clubbing and eventually returning to her mother after 6 months and living for a while with her father.

To me, “Stray” was more of a life history, told from a much older and wiser woman. Marquardt talks about any and every thing a teenager with minimal supervision does: party, go to goth clubs, smoke, discover boys, and drink. But this is it. She never really has an epiphany or changes course, she continues her lifestyle and the story ends shortly before her graduation from high school and her acceptance into college.

If the writing had not been so engaging, I probably would have stopped listening this around 50%. For this reason, I’m giving this 4 stars.

P.S – I’d be interested in how Tanya Marquardt does fiction. Hmmm….

Review: Friday Black

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Review for "Friday Black" by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (2018)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Friday Black” is a unique short story collection with stories that range from sci-fi, dystopian, horror, and a couple of other genres that don’t really get talked about much because not enough people write in them yet. Adjei-Brenyah’s writing brims with creativity and satire, it takes raw imagination to even conceive of stories like this.

Each of the stories are set in plain, everyday environments–however, Adjei-Brenyah takes this and twists this and his characters into something else entirely. Comparisons to the anthology sci-fi series “Black Mirror” are accurate and appropriate here. In the collection’s best story, “The Finkelstein 5,” a young Black man named Emmanuel prepares for a job interview against the backdrop of a controversial court verdict in which a White man has been found not guilty of using a chainsaw to decapitate five Black children outside of a library. The verdict sparks protests by ‘Namers,’ Black people who commit violent acts against Whites in revenge for the killings. Emmanuel’s response to his friend’s participation in the Namers is a decision that will ultimately change the course of his life.

Another standout story, “Zimmer Land” (a clever play on the name of George Zimmerman, the murderer of young Trayvon Martin) features a theme park where participants can role play scenarios in which they are attacked and kill a Black perpetrator. “Lark Street” is about a man haunted by the aborted fetuses of his girlfriend. A trio of stories–“Friday Black,” “In Retail,” and “How to Sell a Jacket as Told by IceKing” are set within a mall and take place around the daily monotony of retail work. Stampedes at the mall during Black Friday regularly occur and kill large numbers of people, yet the business of buying and selling goes on unabated.

I gave this collection 4 stars because all of the stories aren’t perfect, and the sheer grandiosity of most of them seemed better suited for a novel. I would love to see “The Finkelstein 5” expanded into a novel, it’s just that great. Not a bad problem to have though. I definitely look forward to reading more from this writer.

Review: Juliet the Maniac

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Review for “Juliet the Maniac” by Juliet Escoria (to be published on 7 May 2019)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

I’m a bit biased on this review because I love Juliet Escoria’s writing. I read her other book of fiction, “Black Cloud,” a few years ago, loved it immensely, and knew that I had to have more of whatever she writes. This book was no exception. I got an advance digital copy on Edelweiss and read it in a few days.

“Juliet the Maniac” is a fictionalized account of the author’s struggles with mental health issues as a teenager. The story begins when her bipolar disorder emerges around age 14 and continues for two years, chronicling a downward spiral of drugs and mental illness. The book covers Juliet’s two suicide attempts, medications, as well as stints in hospitals for “treatment.” Despite these measures, her problems continue. There’s extensive discussion of her history of self medication, mostly through drugs, reckless behaviors, and self harm.

This reads like memoir, but it is a novel. The more I got into this story, however, I didn’t really mind if it was true or not. Overall this book is a very raw reading experience–the more the drugs and the self harm went on, as a reader I became desensitized, much like Juliet’s response to “treatment.” I put treatment in quotes because there was considerable debate within myself while reading this whether it made her better or worse. Interspersed throughout the story are doctor’s prescriptions, pictures of relevant objects, and ‘notes’ from the author in the present day, reflecting on aspects of her past. I thought that inclusion was a beautiful touch.

The only thing I didn’t like about this novel is the fact that most people will have to wait until May to read this. When it does come out, however, do read it. 4.5 stars, highly recommended.

[Note: I received a free digital copy of this book from the publisher, Melville House, and Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.]