Review: God Help the Child

Review for “God Help the Child” by Toni Morrison (2015)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“No matter how hard we try to ignore it, the mind always knows truth and wants clarity.”

It’s lines like the one above that leave no doubt that Toni Morrison is still the undisputed Queen of African American literature. Every single word she writes is intentional, and the beauty of the wisdom she imparts during her stories is the same feeling that you get when you’re sitting at the table with your grandmother in front of the best plate of soul food you’ve ever had. It took me a while to write this review because there is something about it that is not anything like any of her other books. It is short (less than 200 pages), with some sections were a bit too fast paced for my liking, hence the 4 stars. But there’s still a lot here. This is the story of Bride, a girl with “blue black” skin who is neglected by her lighter skinned mother as a child but manages to grow into a beautiful, successful businesswoman. Immediately I thought that this novel was in the same vein as “The Bluest Eye” (a masterpiece, btw), with its exploration of colorism in the black community, but surprisingly, that is not the main theme here. This novel is more about the psychological trauma of our pasts and ways in which it manifests itself in our adult lives. All of the characters in this book carry burdens, deep wounds that become detrimental to their lives and the people around them.

“Each will cling to a sad little story of hurt and sorrow– some long ago trouble and pain life dumped on their pure and innocent selves. And each one will rewrite that story forever, knowing the plot, guessing the theme, inventing its meaning and dismissing its origin. What a waste.”

I won’t give away this book (I never spoil books I like), so you’ll have to read it for yourself. I wish it had been longer, but this is still great writing here, as Toni Morrison is capable of nothing less.

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Review: Eileen

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Review for “Eileen” by Ottessa Moshfegh (2015)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“I kept in the glove box of the Dodge a dead field mouse I’d found one day on the porch frozen in a tight ball…I think it made me feel powerful somehow. A little totem. A good luck charm.”

When I read these words, spoken by our main character Eileen Dunlop on page 9, I knew that we were going to be friends. Seriously. Not because I approve of people keeping dead animals in their cars, but because this is where the true brilliance of this book began. From the first pages you become acutely aware that you are talking to an older Eileen, reflecting back on the events of one week around the Christmas holiday of 1964, leading up to her permanent departure from her unnamed New England town.

This book goes hard on so many levels. It is one of the most fascinating character studies that I’ve read in a very long time. Eileen Dunlop is mentally unstable and a psychiatrist’s dream: she is lonely, self-loathing, sexually repressed, passive aggressive, and neurotic, living in a filthy house with her abusive alcoholic father and sleeping on a rickety cot in the attic. She shoplifts, does not take regular showers, does not wash her hands, and is fascinated by her own bodily secretions (don’t ask, ok?). She works as a secretary in a juvenile boy’s prison and passes her days entertaining herself with lewd fantasies of one of the guards that works there. All of this is routine for Eileen until a charming, enigmatic young counselor begins working at the prison and changes Eileen’s entire world.

I could not get enough of this novel. I loved her voice, the nuances of the narration. Moshfegh’s writing is so skillfully consuming that despite Eileen’s general unlikeable-ness, I never got bored or tired of her. Eileen obsessively self-scrutinizes under a perfect outward mask of self control, and Moshfegh explores every nook and cranny and cobweb of her character’s brain. She is a perfect train wreck, and I could not look away. Eileen was like some rare, never-seen-before insect: intriguing and repulsing me at the same time. As I finished, my first thought was that this is a modern-day revamp of Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar,” with its beautiful descriptions of a young woman’s slow unraveling, a downward spiral into madness.

Be cautioned, however, that this book is not for everyone. A lot of reviewers find its lack of a definitive plot frustrating, the tension too drawn out, the ending a let down. I won’t spoil it, but for all the criticism, the raw power of the character development here trumped all. I can excuse the ending, because for me it was all about the scenery along the ride. And I love every single moment of it.

Review: Jumping Off Swings

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Review for “Jumping Off Swings” by Jo Knowles (2009)

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

I’ve been on a gloomy reading kick lately, haven’t I? This should lighten the mood for you softies. Spoilers abound, though. FYI–usually when I don’t like a book, spoilers are inevitable, for no other reason but to explain why I didn’t like it.

Anywho, YA books about teenage pregnancy are always kinda risky–on one hand the author wants to avoid glamorization, on the other hand the author can be completely out of touch with the sex lives of real teenagers. I picked this book up on a rainy afternoon at my local library because I was curious how a modern YA author tackled this subject. Needless to say, I was highly disappointed. I didn’t like this book at all.

This book is told through four perspectives–Ellie, the teenage mom and the “town tramp,” Josh, the reluctant virgin and the father of Ellie’s baby, Caleb, a virgin and a friend of Josh’s (who later falls for Ellie’s friend), and Corinne, also a virgin, and a friend of Ellie’s. The perspectives switch throughout the story, which I didn’t like, because the only perspectives that we should be concerned with to develop the plot were of those directly involved, Ellie and Josh. Who wants to read a book about teenage pregnancy where only half is about the parents? There was no buildup of action here, and just when the momentum began, the POV changed again.

The characters here were mostly thin and underdeveloped. For the first half of the book Ellie doesn’t say or do much other than cry while Corinne feels sorry for her and tries to help her. There is an indication that Ellie’s home life isn’t all roses, but beyond the standard, upper middle class dysfunctional stereotype (right down to the stoner older brother), there’s not much that is said about Ellie. Josh’s home life is a little bit more fleshed out, but not by much, as he stays isolated and wondering what the hell is happening with Ellie for most of the story. He doesn’t even find out about the pregnancy until the middle of the book, long after all of the other three main characters do. Also, there isn’t one single scene of Josh and Ellie so much as breathing the same air after she gets pregnant at the very beginning of the book, which I found to be completely bizarre. It’s almost as if the author completely shut the door on these two characters ever speaking again after they procreate. Even if they weren’t boyfriend/girlfriend at the time of the pregnancy, why are these two characters completely isolated from each other after such an occurrence? This made no sense at all.

I did come away with a full picture of Caleb, a child raised by a single mother. However, I never got a decent sense of Corinne beyond her interest in Ellie. Her home life seemed to be normal, but it’s only vaguely mentioned in the book. At the end there was the indication Caleb and Corinne will embark on a relationship, fully aware of the “mistakes” of their friends and without the pressure of sex.

I put “mistakes” in quotes in the last paragraph because I completely loathed the message of this book. The message that Knowles is sending here seems to be that premarital sex is bad, unwholesome, and leads to not only a bad reputation (if you’re female), but misery, isolation, and shame. This is simply ridiculous. It seems that there still cannot be a book where a teenaged female character has sex without some kind of horrific consequence—either getting pregnant, ostracism for being a “slut,” or being forced to do something she completely disagrees with. In this book, all three happen to Ellie. Eventually she gives her baby up for adoption, but she clearly doesn’t want to. And why does it have to end that way anyway? Plenty of teenage parents keep their babies and go on to live productive lives. Why is adoption presented as some horrifying fate that awaits the wayward, pregnant teenager? Arghhh…

Although the cover of this book was cute, I don’t recommend this book to anyone–teens or otherwise.

Review: Violent Ends

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Review for ‘Violent Ends’ by Shaun David Hutchinson, et al (2015)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

After I finished this book I spent about 10 minutes staring up at the ceiling, thinking: Wow.

This book takes a very unique narrative approach–it is a novel told in 17 different short stories, all centered around one terrible and tragic event, a school shooting. Each story is by a different author of YA literature, some of whose names I’m familiar with, but many of which I’ve not yet read. The stories are non-linear. Some take place over various periods before the shooting, some after, and some during the actual shooting.

The unifying thread throughout all of the stories is Kirby Matheson, the teenage shooter who kills a teacher, several of his classmates, and injures a dozen more before finally killing himself. Kirby never speaks to us directly, but the people connected to him do–friends, acquaintances, family members, his classmates–some that knew him intimately, some that didn’t know him at all. You never really get a sense of who Kirby was or why he did what he did, but the gaps in your understanding are precisely the point of this book. After such tragedies occur, we pause to wonder why seemingly “normal” people become violent. Was he bullied? Was he mentally ill? Were there signs? Did his parents know? “Violent Ends” offers no clear answers, just a picture of an American tragedy and the people left in its wake.

Be cautioned that all of the stories in this book are not created equal, however. Some were quite forgettable, but there were several standouts. “Grooming Habits” was sensational, as well as “Survival Instinct,””History Lessons,” and “Presumed Destroyed.” The authors of these stories I will most definitely be reading in the future, just because the writing was that damn good.

Read this book. Once you start it you won’t be able to put it down.

Review: Brother

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Review for “Brother” for Ania Ahlborn (released on September 29. 2015)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Creepy, horrifying, disturbing, gross. And excellent.

Did I mention that I am giving this book 4.5 stars?

This book is horror at its best. The Morrows are a West Virginian family living deep in the Appalachian wilderness (think: “Deliverance”), so deep that “no one can hear the screams.” And for good reason. The Morrows–mom Claudine, dad Wade, and their son Rebel–are a family of psychotic killers that prey on young women that are unfortunate enough to cross their path. This book follows the thoughts of nineteen-year-old Michael, Rebel’s “adopted” brother and the polar opposite of the Morrows. Although he participates in his family’s gruesome “activities,” he gets no pleasure from them. He dreams of other possibilities for his life and contemplates running away when he meets an attractive girl in town named Alice.

[Pause.]

To tell you more about this book is to completely spoil it, which I won’t do. There are flashbacks throughout this novel, that, when taken as a whole, make the events you’re reading about all the more disturbing. There is also a sickening, depraved twist in this novel that I won’t give away either, other than to say that I did not see IT coming, even from a million miles away…

I don’t think I want to know where Ania Alhborn got the idea for this book. A lot of the details harken back to the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” but in the Acknowledgements section, the author says she didn’t get her inspiration from that movie. Regardless, I was completely engrossed in this book. It’s a must read, especially if you like horror, and extremes are your thing. Highly recommended!

[NOTE: I received an advanced publishers’ copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]