Review: One of the Boys

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Review for "One of the Boys" by Daniel Magariel (2017)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

“One of the Boys” is the story of an unnamed 12-year-old boy, his older brother, and his father who move from Kansas to New Mexico after they win the “war” (his father’s term for his divorce and custody battle). As they settle into their new lives, it is apparent that the boy’s father has deep seated issues, which the narrator becomes more and more aware of as the story unfolds. While the boys go to school, Dad stays in his room for days at a time snorting cocaine, shooting heroin, and doing a myriad of other drugs. Exposed to a parade of weird strangers in their home, the boys are also subject to periods of abandonment and violent physical abuse by their father. Wanting to be “one of the boys,” the narrator desperately wants his father to protect him, but as his father become more and more paranoid, he gradually loses all trust and hope.

This is a nasty, brutal little book. I won’t say that it’s the most disturbing book I’ve ever read, but it comes close. There are some pretty graphic scenes here, so I would recommend reading this all in one sitting, as I did. At 176 pages its more novella than novel, though it still packs quite a punch. I thank God for this book’s brevity, as I would not continue to torture myself by going back to read it over and over had it been even 10 pages longer.

P.S. – This is the third book I’ve read recently where the main characters are unnamed. While I can understand why some characters aren’t named in a story, to not give the main character one is kind of odd. Is this a trend or something? If so, I wish it would go away. Pffft.

Review: What We Lose

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Review for "What We Lose" by Zinzi Clemmons (2017)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I have a confession to make. Like several other online reviewers, I too thought this was a memoir. About halfway through the book, I realized that the author is named Zinzi, and the character’s whose story is within these pages is named Thandi (*smacks forehead*). Though they are two different women their backstory is essentially one in the same, both are born of a South African mother and an African American father. Thandi navigates through life negotiating both identities, never really fitting into one or the other. The book chronicles her life from childhood all the way to adulthood as she stumbles in and out of relationships, loses her mother to cancer, marries, and eventually has a child of her own. The loss of her mother, however, is the clear focal point of this book.

This novel is written in sparse language and presented vignette style. There are photos, poetry, and snippets of nonfiction text, which is a pretty distinctive of a lot of the ‘new school’ memoirs that have come out over the past few years. Clemmons choice to present fiction in this way is interesting, though one of the drawbacks of this style is that all of the ‘space’ left me wanting more Thandi. It’s ok, however, because the words are powerful enough.

Do read this book. Clemmons is definitely a writer to watch.

P.S. – I’ll be disappointed if this book doesn’t win some kind of award this year. It’s that good. 🙂

Review: Bad Romance

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Review for "Bad Romance" by Heather Demetrios (2017)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

It took me a while to read this book. Despite the content I jumped in head first, and perhaps that was the wrong way to read this. Regardless, I found this book dead on in its accuracy of how emotionally abusive relationships work.

Grace is a teenage girl from a troubled home. Her mother is an obsessive nitpicker and neat freak, her stepfather unrelenting in his own dominance and control over her mother and the rest of the family. She eventually meets Gavin, an emotionally unstable rocker who, through jealousy, threats of suicide, and his own insecurities, begins to control everything about her: what she wears, where she goes, who she can talk to. There is no physical abuse but there is a steady emotional violence here, an erosion of her dignity, a trampling of her personhood. It’s hard to watch. It’s even harder to read about.

The ghost of my 16-year-old self made this book so difficult to read. I was Grace in high school–insecure, eager to please, in a relationship for 3 years with a person who was very much like the Gavin of this book. I think the genius of this novel is the way the author shows how impossible it can seem for the victim to get out of these kind of relationships. Thankfully Grace has a support network in her friends, who act as an anchor for her.

I definitely recommend this book to teens, as well as adults.

Review: Cuz

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Review of "Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A" by Danielle Allen (to be published on 5 September 2017)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A” is the true life story of the author’s younger cousin Michael, who was arrested at the age of 15 in Los Angeles for the crime of attempted carjacking. He was charged as an adult, served eleven years in prison, and was released in 2009. Three years later, his body was discovered in his vehicle, riddled with bullets.

Danielle Allen, an academic at Harvard University, peels away the layers of Michael’s troubled personal and family life and attempts to find an answer for why her cousin’s life came to such a tragic and violent end. She manages to write a really good background sociological perspective of Los Angeles, with its gangs, segregated neighborhoods, and history of mass incarceration that was very relevant to the discussion of the personal facts she presents. All in all, a very solid work that anyone who is interested in urban sociology would appreciate.

[Note: A free digital copy of this book was given to me by the publisher and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: A Good Country

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Review for "A Good Country" by Laleh Khadivi (2017)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Wow, this was good. Timely. Informative. Scary.

The novel starts in 2009 in Southern California with a peek into the life of 14-year-old Rez Courdee, the son of upper middle class Iranian immigrant parents. He is Muslim by birth but does not practice, identifying more with American culture, surfing, hooking up with girls, and smoking pot. In time, several terrorist attacks occur and Rez, who has never questioned his identity, is ostracized by his mostly White peers as ‘the other.’ He begins to find solace with his Muslim friends, starts to practice his faith, and eventually becomes obsessed with the idea of ‘a good country’ overseas, one in which Muslims are accepted and fight for the establishment of a caliphate. I won’t reveal the end, but when it occurs exactly 5 years later, Reza (no longer ‘Rez’) is a completely different person.

This novel is short but the writing is succinct and razor sharp. I thought the sex scenes were a bit overdone, but the plot was powerful and never lost. As you read this novel you realize how easy it is for someone to become radicalized–not just to religion but to any idea, really. We’ve seen this all throughout history and in everyday life; children turned into soldiers with a deadly purpose, young men and women in America go off to boot camp and become trained combat specialists in a matter of weeks.

I may read this book again eventually because there’s so much here to digest. Like you’re looking at a hundred pieces of something spread out on a table that it’ll take a while to put it together. Anyway, excellent book. Do read this!

Review: Things We Lost in the Fire

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Review for "Things We Lost in the Fire" by Mariana Enriquez (2017)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

It took me a month to get through this book, which is not fitting for a collection of stories that’s less than 250 pages long. The reason for my slower-than-average read time is because “Things We Lost in the Fire” is a very, very dark collection of tales, all set in modern day Argentina. I read my NetGalley copy at first, but the mood was so unsettling that I moved to an audiobook format to finish it. Even with the audiobook, I had to prep myself (i.e., be in a kind of ‘blank’ mental state) to continue it.

Typical of Latin American fiction, there’s elements of magical realism, the supernatural, and surreality in these stories, but that doesn’t counter the macabre subject matter here. In this collection, there are ghosts, hauntings, extreme violence, torture, rape, and girls who set themselves on fire. The central characters are mostly young people and most, if not all, of the stories carry a hint of uncertainty about whether the events the characters experienced really happened or not. In “The Dirty Kid,” a young woman is obsessed with a homeless boy who may or may not have been the victim of a Satanic ritual killing. “The Intoxicated Years” is about a group of teenage girls who spend their time taking psychadelic drugs. “Adela’s House” focuses on a girl who goes into a haunted house and is never seen again. In “The Neighbor’s Courtyard,” a former social worker is convinced that a neighbor has chained up a young boy in his backyard, who eventually eats the main character’s cat. And the title story, “Things We Lost in the Fire” is about a woman who self-immolates before an audience.

For me, this is material that I could not just read. I had to experience it, surround myself in it, and ultimately, suffer through it. Suffering, however, is not always a bad thing, because it is through this collection of stories you realize how much Argentina’s bloody political dictatorship past left its mark on people’s lives. If you’re down explore this, I wholeheartedly recommend this book to you. I give this four stars because the writing is quite good with no flaws to be found.

[Note: A free digital copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher, Hogarth Press, as well as NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: The Education of a Coroner

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Review for "The Education of a Coroner" by John Bateson (to be published on 15 Aug 2017)

Rating: 4 out of  5 stars

If “CSI” on CBS is a little too sunny for you and you prefer darker, grittier shows about real forensic science like HBO’s “Autopsy” or HLN’s “Forensic Files,” then this is the book for you. Right away it grabs you with its painstaking attention to detail about everything you want know (and more!) about the day to day life of a real coroner. Holmes opens his case files and discusses dozens of cases he’s worked in and around Marin County, California, where he served as the official coroner for many years. He discusses death investigations, how the cause and manner of a person’s death is determined, the evidence of various methods of homicide on the body, the ‘how’ of suicides (i.e., what really happens when people jump off the famed Golden Gate Bridge). Call me weird, but as a self-confessed forensic science fan my fascination with the subject matter here spurred be to finish it pretty quickly.

There were a few errors in the writing, but since this is an advance copy, I won’t mention them here. There’s really nothing bad I can say about this book. Definitely recommend if this is a subject of your interest.

[Note: A free, digital copy of this book was provided via the publisher, Scribner, and NetGalley in exchange for an honest opinion of this book.]