Review: The Longest Night

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Review for “The Longest Night” by Andria Williams (scheduled to be published on January 5, 2016)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Hmm. I can’t go any higher than 3 stars here.

This novel is a historical fiction, based on a true event, the only fatal nuclear reactor incident in the U.S, which occurred in Idaho Falls, Idaho on the night of January 3, 1961. “The Longest Night” is set during this period at the military outpost there, where Paul Collier, the main character, works at the nuclear reactor site. Nat, his wife, is a young stay at home mom with two little girls who has trouble fitting into the socially acceptable role of a military wife.

Most of the story focuses on the nuances of Nat and Paul’s marriage–its history, its breakdown, and his eventual deployment to a remote nuclear station in Greenland for 6 months. In the background is the impending failure of Paul’s assigned nuclear reactor, mostly due to the incompetence of Paul’s narcissistic boss. Also in the background is Nat’s brewing attraction to a local man, which turns their community against them and threatens to rip their family apart.

The writing here is fairly decent. Andria Williams does an excellent job of setting the time and place of the early 1960’s. I could literally feel myself sitting in Paul and Nat’s house, seeing things the exact way in which she described them. Both Paul and Nat are constrained by the stifling roles that society and the military have forced upon them, and the claustrophobic nature of their marriage is completely apparent here. But this claustrophobia and frustration is drawn out in such painstaking detail that I almost didn’t finish this. For a long period in the middle of the book nothing really happens, you’re just stuck with the mundane thoughts of Paul and the ordinary, everyday observations of Nat. The beautiful writing ultimately keep me pushing forward, even though I knew what would happen to this reactor (duh) and I kinda knew what would happen to this couple in the end. For a book so finely crafted, the subject matter was unengaging and the plot was woefully predictable.

I would be interested in reading more of Andria Williams writing, especially with purely fictional subject matter. I would not be surprised if this book ends up on “Best Of” lists or gets selected for multiple book clubs in 2016. To be a first time writer, she definitely has talent.

[NOTE: This e-book was provided to me by the publisher, Random House, and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: This Raging Light

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Review for “This Raging Light” by Estelle Laure (scheduled to be published in January 2016)

Rating 2 out of 5 stars

Special Note: This book is currently available on Amazon, although the publishers’ copy I have in my possession says “January 2016” as the scheduled publication date. For purposes of this review, I will go with the publication date of the copy that I was furnished with.

I struggled to finish this one. Well, ok…I kinda liked it. When I say that, I really mean that I think I liked the idea of it more than its actual execution on paper. So many things in this book just didn’t work for me.

Beware, spoilers abound (#sorrynotsorry)…

Lucille is 17, and her life is turned completely upside down when her mother decides she’s had enough and abandons her and her 9 year old little sister Wren to go “on a vacation.” Her father is in a mental hospital and the supposed cause of their mom’s breakdown. The book begins 14 days after their mother’s departure, with Lucille taking on the role of caring for herself and her sister without alerting anyone to the predicament they are in. She eventually finds a job and leans on her friends to care for Wren while she’s working in the evenings after school.

Which leads me into what I didn’t like about this book. Lucille gets herself into a complicated romance with Digby, her best friend’s twin brother who is very taken by someone else. Her best friend turns on her for some weird reason that’s never really explained. There’s drama at her job. There’s issues with her father, whom she visits several times in the story. There’s also some mysterious benefactor who seems to be aware of Lucille and her sister’s plight and keeps slipping in and doing nice shit around their house (leaving baked muffins, mowing the lawn). It’s far too many plot points and in the end NOTHING is truly resolved. Well, take that back–you DO find out who’s dropping off the damn muffins, but that’s about the only subplot that finds an ending here. Lucille’s mother’s abandonment is the lynchpin of this book, but the reader gets nothing as far as any kind of resolution to this.

The writing style of this book is a bit strange too. A lot of short, short sentences that left me struggling to understand what the author was trying to present the main character as. There is growth in the character of Lucille from the beginning to the end of the book, but I don’t know…I think I just wanted more here. Like perhaps why she is so ga-ga for Digby in the first place. Their relationship is really awkward, and Lucille seems to get no more in return than his general concern about her and her sister’s welfare. Weird, because when this book begins, the main character is quite love struck with this dude. Perhaps if this relationship had more of a backstory, then we’d get why he’s going through the trouble of cheating on his girlfriend with her. Otherwise, it just seems flat.

Ultimately I’m on the fence with this book. It should have been a good story, but it felt unfinished and I never really connected with any of the writing, the events, or any characters here.

[NOTE: I received a free copy of this book from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt as a giveaway through GoodReads. This was my honest review.]

Review: Happiness, Like Water

Merry, Merry Christmas ya’ll!!!

I love Christmas Break, as I get to do nothing but read (and write about what I read) for three straight weeks.

  
Review for “Happiness, Like Water” by Chinelo Okparanta (2013)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Man, this woman can write…

As much as I love short stories, short story collections are always hit or miss. You may find one or a few good stories amongst the pack, or several decent offerings. Very rarely are ALL of the stories in a collection each a strong, workable a piece of art. This book of stories is one of the few exceptions.

“Happiness, Like Water” has 10 short stories, mostly featuring Nigerian woman who are dealing with contemporary issues such as unhealthy relationships, homosexuality, societal pressures, and what it means to be modern African woman in Africa, or, in some cases, America. Each of these stories are unapologetically feminist, with each character in each story making some kind of choice for her own future and taking her own destiny into her hands. In some cases, the choice has disastrous consequences, but in others, the characters find some kind of lasting peace.

The powerful story “Runs Girl” was my favorite in this collection, which tells the story of a young woman’s choice to dabble in prostitution to find the money to cure her mother’s illness. “Wahala!” is the tale of a woman who visits a traditional healer to cure her infertility and is forced to endure painful sexual encounters with her husband in order to have a child to conform to society’s expectations. “Fairness” is about one girl’s quest to be beautiful through the use of a skin bleaching technique that has dangerous consequences. “Story! Story!” is a suspenseful tale of a young woman’s obsession, with a shocking conclusion.

Several of these stories seemed to be companion pieces, ‘twins,’ if you will–two halves of the same event. In “America,” a young teacher tries to get a visa to join her lover in the U.S. In “Grace,” the focus is a romance between an older, divorced African American professor and a young Nigerian woman who is expected to be married. “Shelter” is the story of a young immigrant mother and daughter’s quest to leave an abusive marriage, and “Tumours and Butterflies” picks up that same story 20 years later, with a daughter’s choice to abandon her familial obligations in the face of her father’s cruelty and her mother’s complicity with their abusive past. 

The weakest story here was the only with a male protagonist. As far as characters go, there is not much variety. There is a lot of sameness that gets somewhat repetitive–nearly all except the one mentioned above was about young women, usually serving in the education profession as a teacher. 

Overall, this is a strong collection. It is hard to believe that this is Okparanta’s first book, as she is definitely an author to watch. Her writing is good and descriptions of events are solid. She does have a full length novel that came out several months ago that I will read, and I’m excited to find yet another talented contemporary Nigerian writer (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, A. Igoni Barrett, Sefi Atta are others) that people NEED to be reading right now.

Review: Eleanor & Park

I wrote this review a while back. It’s been through several revisions and may go through a few more. Some spoilers abound, so beware…

  
Review for “Eleanor & Park” by Rainbow Rowell (2013)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I wanted to love this book. It’s been on all of the “Best Of” lists, everybody’s who’s anybody has reviewed it already, and its been damn near impossible to find in the libraries here for the last 2 years. So, naturally I jumped at the chance to read this when I stumbled into the YA section at my local branch and saw it sitting there. 

For everybody who doesn’t know, “Park & Eleanor” is a YA romance novel about the relationship between Eleanor, a slightly overweight girl with red hair and bad clothes whose family puts the capital D in “dysfunctional.” She lives with her mother,  young siblings, and her abusive loser of a stepfather, Rich, who terrorizes and bullies her. At the beginning of the story, the reader learns that Eleanor has been kicked out once before by Rich, and is forced by her long suffering mom to be ‘grateful’ that she has been allowed to return home. She is also bullied at school as well, for her weight and her appearance. Park is a half white, half Korean teen who gets stuck sitting on the bus next to Eleanor and eventually strikes up a friendship with her. From there, the friendship turns into romance. 

Let me start with what I did like first. I loved the music and pop culture references of this book. I’m a total 80’s baby, and all throughout are constant references to bands like The Smiths and Joy Division and other awesome music that I grew up listening to. I loved the references to TV shows like “Solid Gold” (GTFOH–now who remembers “Solid Gold?” I do!) and Walkmans and cassette tapes that were so full of WIN that I wanted to grab this book and never let it go. I’ll take a trip down 80’s memory lane any day. Whew!

Now on to what I didn’t like. The issue of race was kind of, well, strange in this book. Too strange. Park’s mother is Korean, his father is white, and they live smack dab in the middle of the cornfields of Nebraska in the 1980’s. Other than one reference by a classmate referring to Park as Chinese (you know, the “all Asians are Chinese” bullshit), there is never an instance where Park seems to encounter racism, among his peers or anyone else. And other than taekwondo lessons, Park seems to be almost oblivious to his Korean roots. Even his mother struck me as the “whitest” Korean lady I’ve ever read about. Why is Park’s Korean heritage completely whitewashed here? Or is it that Rainbow Rowell knows nothing about Korean culture, so she chose to exclude any thoughtful analysis of it here? One cannot simply say that Park does not encounter racism, or that race is not an issue in this book. If race is a non factor, it would seem that Ms. Rowell would have left this character as Caucasian and went along with the story. However, the added dimension of race is here, and it’s completely devoid of any meaningful commentary. Perhaps the reason why Park’s Asian-ness is in this book is to create a kind of fetishism, which Eleanor’s descriptions of Park completely fall into. She constantly describes the shape of his eyes (“almondy”) and his skin color (“honey”). And she refers to Park as “that stupid Asian kid” in the beginning far too much for my liking, to the point where it made me uncomfortable.

That’s not it either. Eleanor also has two black friends at school, DeNice and Beebi (WTF kinds of names are those?) and man…they are space cadets. They’re ridiculously immature, almost caricature-like, giggling and constantly beginning sentences with “girl,” obsessing over the men in their lives and going out dancing. As a black woman, I found their characterization so fucking ludicrous that I had to laugh whenever they appeared. Is this really what Ms. Rowell thinks young black girls are like? Come on.

Park and Eleanor’s romance is cute, but it seemingly comes out of nowhere. It’s literally like one day they hate each other (to Eleanor he’s the “stupid Asian kid”) and the next they are all over each other. Really? And why does Park like Eleanor anyway? Park’s attraction to her made little sense to me. Emotionally, he gets very little from her. We know she holds back because she is abused at home and psychologically damaged, but the characterization of Park as one who continues to radiate nothing but pure goodness in the face of her nonchalance (often to the detriment of himself) was quite unbelievable to me. Park IS in love with Eleanor, but it’s a blind, self-sacrificing, stupid kind of love and as a reader I knew it wouldn’t  last. I know I’m in the minority when I say that I was glad that it ended the way it did, ’cause good ‘ol Park was gonna run himself mad over this poor gal…

Logistically, this book dragged in the middle and I found myself skipping pages. The back and forth narration was cool at first, but after a while got confusing, because both Park and Eleanor’s voices pretty much sounded the same anyway. I wouldn’t rule out any of Rowell’s books in the future, but this one was a flat 3 stars, no more, no less.

Review: Messed Up

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Review for “Messed Up” by Janet Nichols Lynch (2009)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Aww shucks, I loved this book.

R.D. is a 15 year old Mexican-American kid starting 8th grade for the second time. His father is out of the picture and his mother is long gone away, serving time in prison for a drug offense. He is taken in by his grandmother, but she suddenly leaves him with her boyfriend Earl to go off with another man, a biker. Earl is a kind man, a Vietnam veteran with “Agent Orange” who eventually cares for R.D. in his grandmother’s absence until he dies unexpectedly one day while R.D. is at school.

Even though this book begins with R.D.’s first (or second ‘first’ day) in the 8th grade, the real story starts after Earl’s death. His grandmother is unreachable in an unknown location, and the last thing R.D. wants is for Child Protective Services to get involved and take him away from the only home he’s ever known. R.D. vows to tell no one of Earl’s death and is forced to navigate the world as an adult in her absence–arranging his funeral, having no money for bills, shopping for food. He is also still a child so he also juggles typical teenage issues as well–meeting a nice girl, dealing with gang bangers, handling a crazy girlfriend, etc. There are a lot of subplots here (normally I don’t like a story that’s too complicated) but I did not seem to mind, as they were all completely necessary to show the onslaught of “real-world” decisions that a 15 year old is forced to make in the face of extraordinary odds.

On a personal note this book hit very close to home for me. I taught middle school for 10 years. In my career I saw hundreds of “R.D.’s”–children who have good intentions but due to a chaotic home life and situations that are completely beyond their control (interrupted schooling, poverty, parents who simply don’t give a shit) they lack the adult guidance and resources to make wise choices and be the ‘good’ students that we want them to be. They drift through school until they eventually drop out, usually around 16 or 17, and from there they become unfortunate statistics–caught in a cycle of chronic joblessness or criminals in the prison system. This story moved me to tears because I knew so many kids like this, and even though R.D.’s story ends on a happy note, dozens of them don’t.

When I looked on the back of the book and saw that the author was a middle-aged woman I was completely floored because her use of voice was extraordinary. R.D. talks like most kids do, for example, “says” is spelled “sez” and the observations that he makes about the world (which are pretty funny) are completely consistent with a child his age. Loved this.

I could picture this book specifically for picky teenagers who are reluctant to read because they complain that all books are “boring.”

Anyway, great reading experience. A+.

The Why’s of a Common Place Book

Recently, I was up one night Google-ing (c’mon, you do it too) and I saw this article on ThoughtCatalog on common place books. “A common place book,” the article writes, is “a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits. The purpose of the book is to record and organize these gems for later use in your life, in your business, in your writing, speaking or whatever it is that you do.”

Wow. Because…well, I have been doing this for years. Even in middle school I can remember doing this: coping passages of books I liked, poems, and writing down other things I liked. Now, it actually has a name. I never called my collection of antedotes a ‘common place book.’ Matter of fact, I never called it anything, just my notebook. Inside this notebook I’d always hand write song lyrics, quotes, lists, general observations, notes, and attempts at poetry. It is not a journal/diary and I’ve never used it for that purpose–my journal is a separate thing altogether and kept in another notebook. I’ve always used moleskines for common placing because they’re inconspicuous (no one is looking over your shoulder while you’re writing in a small black book), sleek, and easily portable. The paper is high quality and doesn’t bleed through with gel pens, which is what I prefer to write with.

Down below I will show you pics of my current common place book. However, I want to make some distinctions here between a common place book and a journal/diary, because in my opinion they are not one in the same.

  1. Journals generally consist of narrative entries, may be typed, and can be kept online. Common place books are not narrative, are usually handwritten, and are not kept online.
  2. Entries are not random, but rather, placed with premeditation. A nice pen and an attempt at neat handwriting may be used, because chances are the writer will want to come back to it later.
  3. Common place books are not scrapbooks, which are usually made and created for an audience. A common place book is only for the reader, and the items inside put there for specific interest and use for the reader alone.

A couple of shots of my current common place book. I tried to pick some of my neater pages, because my cursive can be hard to read while I’m in the “moment”:

Some notes I was taking on sci-fi genres.

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A list of animal collective nouns. Why did I write this? I’m not sure.

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In this case, whole quotes copied out of a novel I was reading. This was Ethan Hawke’s “Ash Wednesday.” A very good book, btw.

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A list of albums I like for a music Tumblr I was thinking of doing. It never came to fruition.

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Some Radiohead lyrics I was too lazy to write, so I printed them out, cut and pasted them. Yup.

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Does anyone else out there have a common place book? Inquiring minds here would like to know…

[Note: It occurred to me just now that a Pinterest board is kinda the electronic equivalent of a common place book. I whole-heartedly agree with this.]

Review: The Accident Season

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Review for “The Accident Season” by Moira Fowley-Doyle (2015)

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Umm, don’t read this.

I went into this book based on the title alone. Accident. Season. Two words that don’t go typically together, because accidents are usually random events and they aren’t seasonal. Hence, I jumped into this book. Needless to say, I am not pleased.

Cara and her family are ‘cursed’ during a period every October in which they become extremely accident-prone. They clutch the railings of stairs, they pad the edges of tables, they wear extra layers of clothing to protect against potential injury and death. It happens so regularly during this particular time of year that Cara and her family accept this as a normal part of life. That is, until one day, Cara discovers a childhood friend eerily present in her family photos. She recruits her tarot card reader friend Bea to help her with her friend’s mysterious disappearance, as well as the source of her family’s accident season.

Sadly, the first 100 pages of this book are a complete waste. There is literally NOTHING that happens here to compel you to give a damn about any one of the characters. Luckily I picked up on this around page 25 and skimmed my way to the middle, and boy am I glad I did. I didn’t miss much.

Miss Dowley (bless her heart) muddles this book with a lot of vivid imagery–broken bridges, old bookstores, a mysterious typewriter, etc. There is a gothy kind of appeal here…it’s lush and dreamy, but it does absolutely nothing for this book because you’re too busy trying to figure out when the hell the subplots (the disappearance, the accidents, etc) are all going to come together in any kind of meaningful way. It’s terribly confusing, and confusion while reading fiction is never a good thing. And yes, for those that ask: I’ll take a bad book (bad writing, weak characters, bad everything) over a confusing book any day, ok?

There is a romance in this book (it’s YA, people!) but even that is, umm…confusing, weird, awkward, strange. I won’t say any more about it. Matter of fact, I won’t give away any details here, because honestly, it doesn’t benefit me to spoil it for those who really want to read it. Like really, what would be the point? It just sucked.

The cover’s nice though.