Review: Cutter Boy

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Review for “Cutter Boy” by Cristy Watson (to be published in September 2016)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

As I’ve said earlier, the 10 years I spent as a 7th and 8th grade Language Arts teacher guides my reading choices. In addition to simply liking the genre, I often I select YA books to see how they deal with particular issues in our society. This was one such book. Right now I’m undecided about this. Three stars is out of the question, two is being generous here.

The rundown: Travis is bullied in school and ignored by his parents at home. Cutting himself with a razor blade is the one way he finds relief from his anguish and a way to control his pain. He becomes friends with a girl at school, Chyvonne, and eventually reveals his secret to her. Inspired by an unconventional teacher and his new friend, he eventually takes up the art of paper cutting as a way to avoid harming himself.

While I appreciate the author’s attempt to write a book about boys who self harm (an important subject that doesn’t get written about much) the ending seemed forced and terribly unfinished. The suggestion that art is a better form of therapy than cutting is suggested as a resolution here, but further details beyond this are left out. For such a large problem that cutting can be for a person, the resolution here just seemed too convenient, too simple. I am not a person who self harms, but I do know people who do. Pushing a piece of paper in front of them to cut instead of their bodies is an interesting prospect, but hardly a ‘solution’ to resolving the anger, pain, and depression that drives them to cut in the first place. I also did not like the way that the act of cutting was romanticized either. We don’t need to read about “beauty” swirling down the drain, or the smooth surface of a razor being “like ice, like glass” to understand what you’re referring to. These are tired, boring metaphors that don’t really portray cutting as the harmful action that it truly is. Like just...stop already.

Character development is also lacking here, big time. Travis, Mom, Dad, Chyvonne, and “the twins” (Travis’ sisters) all seem to move about this story with no real solid sense of purpose. I still don’t feel like I know anyone any better than I did when I first started. For a book that aims to engage reluctant readers, this book succeeds, but that’s about it.

[Note: I received a free publisher’s copy of this book courtesy of NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked

Hey there, folks!!

The semester is kicking my arse. I’ve been reading though. I’ll be back with my feature on Monday. Till then…

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Review for “Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked” by James Lasdun (2013)

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

This book is so bad it’s laughable.

Being the curious person I am, the title drew me in. Stalking has always been a subject that’s received considerable attention, so I read it.

Man, I am SORRY I read this.

It’s supposed to be a true story. Sadly, I don’t believe much of it.

Mr. Lasdun is a creative writing professor at some college in NYC when he meets Nasreen, an Iranian student in his class who he believes shows talent in her writing. She asks him to look over her manuscript, and after several refusals, he eventually agrees to, as well as introduce her to his agent. Around this time they begin (in his words, of course) a “friendly” correspondence through email. At some point, Mr. Lasdun feels their conversation has gone too far and he reminds her he is happily married. This is the point where, according to him, all hell breaks loose. Nasreen begins a complicated campaign of online harassment, spreading accusations of plagiarism and rape among his colleagues, threatening him and his family, making anti-Semitic statements, etc.

But all that’s not my beef with this book. Although I do not feel like Lasdun is being completely honest (I do believe a little more happened between him and this student that he is not telling us), that’s not why this book got 1 star from me. You see, I don’t care about the drama. On page 30 I wondered aloud why this so-called ‘intelligent’ man didn’t just change his email and move the hell on with his life. It’s the execution of the story that fails miserably here. Mr. Lasdun tells you the stalking story, along with pages upon pages on extraneous information: musings on architecture, the writings of D.H. Lawrence, a 37 page train ride that had ZERO to do with the story. Oh God, and the last 55 pages of this had almost nothing to do with anything at all, the content is so far afield it’s almost like another book entirely.

I almost DNF’d this sucker had it not been for my extraordinary power of skimming to get to the end.

Don’t read this book. If you do decide to take the plunge, for God’s sake, don’t buy it. Get it from the library. Stand in Barnes and Noble and sip a latte and skim it. Read parts 1 and 3, skip 2 and 4. You’ll have the whole story right there. Guaranteed.

Book Q & A Monday, Part 2

What is your routine for reading?

I always look at page counts. With my current classes and work demands, I can usually do about 50-100 pages of pleasure reading per day. Usually I will select a book based upon its page count and my schedule. For example, I can expect to finish an average length book (250 pages) in about 4 to 5 days. If I select a book that is over 300 pages I either: a) really really wanted to read that book and don’t care how long it is, or b) am on an extended weekend or vacation or time away from work or class and can spend an extended time reading it.

Do you skip ahead while reading/peek at the last pages?

I’m almost embarrassed to say this…but yes, if it’s boring. Sorry, I have low tolerance for books that aren’t stimulating enough to keep me engaged to wait and find out what happens at the end.

Finish it or quit it?

I’ve posted on this before…but I say that if you are reading for pleasure (as in, not for a class assignment) then you have the right to stop reading that book at any time, for any reason. Reading that you do in your spare time should always be enjoyable to you and never feel like a chore or an assignment. 50 pages is usually my cutoff for any book, if it still bores me to tears I will start skimming it first. If that doesn’t work I will put it down and not pick it back up.

Depending on how far I got with a DNF’d book determines whether or not I will rate it. If it’s early in the book, I leave it blank. If it’s after the middle, I do give it a starred rating.

To spoil or not to spoil?

It depends. As a rule, if I generally like the book, I will not spoil it. If I don’t like it, spoiling it is the least of my concerns. The urge to explain an epic fail goes back to my days as a teacher, where the best practice has always been that if you are going to give a student a failing grade, you should always have a compelling reason why. It’s not enough to simply say in a review that a book has “uneven writing” or “poor character development” because the person reading it has no context to base your critique on.

How do I acquire books?

I love getting advance copies from publishers, but about 90% percent of my books I review here come from my city’s public library. Charlotte, North Carolina has 10 branches all over the city and they’re all fairly accessible with a pretty decent and diverse selection of books. When a book is not available I usually do interlibrary loan, or check it out through my university’s library.¬†Occasionally I also buy popular bestsellers and other books on my Kindle because it’s convenient and cheaper than going into a bookstore and buying it in print.

Review: Far From You

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Review for “Far From You” by Tess Sharpe (2014)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I didn’t like this as much as I probably should have. On the surface, it is quite perfect: a contemporary YA novel in which the main character is a bisexual teenage girl fighting an addiction to prescription pain meds, the suspicion of her parents, and solving the murder of her best friend. I should have been impressed. But I was only half-thrilled.

This is the story of Sophie, a teenaged girl living with her parents who is sent involuntarily to rehab after the murder of her best friend, Mina. She is clean at the time of the event, but because she is a recovering addict and cops found pills in her jacket at the scene of the murder, her parents and the rest of the community assume that the two girls got themselves in trouble, caught in a drug deal gone bad. Once she gets out of rehab, Sophie goes about solving the murder of her best friend and clearing her and her best friend’s name.

The book switches a lot between Sophie’s past, where we learn she was seriously injured in a car crash (her injuries are the reason for her subsequent painkiller abuse) and her present, where she tries to live with the trauma of losing her best friend. While I understand the author’s intention, every time the ‘time’ switched I almost felt like I was reading another, separate book. The novel moved from past, to present, to further past, to furthest past, back to present, back to further past, etc. Although there was a label whenever this happened (i.e., “two years back,” “now/June”), it was not a very cohesive narrative here at all. I am not arguing that this book need be presented chronologically, but the back and forth here was more of an annoyance than anything else. Add in the current murder mystery plot and it seemed as if there was way too much here being juggled at once.

Despite my problem with the logistics of the story, I did actually like the main character here. Sophie is strong, outspoken, and a survivor. This is also the first YA novel I have read with a bisexual female main character. I thought that Miss Sharpe did an excellent job with this–the character’s sexuality never overshadowed the narrative, and the narrative never overshadowed character’s sexuality–somehow these two components synced up and worked together perfectly. After reading the novel, I could totally understand how Sophie loved Mina and also had relationships with boys. In today’s society where a lot of teens are discovering their sexual identities, I thought the author’s choice to present a character in this way was a bold move, and a good one.

I must say, though, that the ending was kind of anti-climactic. You get to the end and you’re just like: really? As several other reviewers have pointed out, the larger point here did not even seem to be the answer to the whodunit, but the way Sophie handles life after trauma. All of which is cool, but why call this a mystery if the mystery wasn’t the point to begin with? Hmmm.

Solid 3 stars here. Read with caution.

Review: The DUFF: Designated Ugly Fat Friend

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Review for “DUFF: Designated Ugly Fat Friend” by Kody Keplinger (2010)

Rating: none (did not finish)

DNF, dah’lings. Around page 55, I think.

I could practically feel my brain cells shrinking as I read this.

Bianca is senior in high school with a mega-crush on another very-taken classmate named Toby. She hangs very closely with her gorgeous and very beautiful friends, Jess and Casey, and is eventually appointed as the DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) by a hot guy (more like a man-whore, if you ask me) named Wesley Rush. Bianca hates Wesley because he’s the one who designated her as the DUFF in the first place, but eventually she starts to like him.

I stopped reading here.

I won’t criticize this book. It is YA, written for a teen audience, so obviously their tastes are totally different than my 30-something tastes. But Jesus, even when I was 17, this book would have been trash-worthy. It’s nothing in particular I can bitch about here, it’s just way too ‘trendy’ for my liking. It’s like one of those wildly popular, annoying songs that come on the radio every 10 minutes that defy any rational sense because it has the same IQ as a watercress sandwich. So you sing along to the chorus ad nauseam and hope it passes quick. God, I hope it passes quick…

Book Q&A Monday, Part 1

Every Monday, I’m going to start posting the answers to 5 questions about reading that I’ve gleaned around the net. In the process I hope that you will get to know me more as a reader, as well as the reason behind the choice of books I choose to review here.

Best sellers or no?

As with most readers, I am into popular fiction. If a book is on the best seller list, or people continually rave about it, I am generally obliged to look it up, read a review on it, and see if it’s something I’m interested in. If it doesn’t sound interesting to me, I won’t read it–and I don’t care if God or Oprah herself said it is a great book.

What are my literary interests?

I like literary fiction, I like YA. I love ethnic writers–Asian fiction, African American writers, Caribbean writers, Latin writers, Middle Eastern writers. I feel like reading is all about discovering some kind of mystery or the perspective of another person whose life is not like yours. I am always fascinated by the stories of marginalized people–the poor, the incarcerated, the mentally ill, the people with special needs–people whose voices the mainstream completely disregards. If your book choices always make you feel good, then you’re probably doing it all wrong. If you believe writing has to take risks, and it does, then your reading has to do that too. Or else you ain’t learning much.

What book have you never read and never will?

I have never, ever read a Harry Potter book (which is strange, because my son loves Harry Potter). I’ve never read any of the Hobbit series either. I have nothing bad to say about either, it’s just not my kind of story.

Favorite classical works?

I love Shakespeare. My favorite play is Hamlet, followed by Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Troilus and Cressida, Othello. I also love love love Edgar Allan Poe.

Book I’ve read the most number of times?

Ntozake Shange’s “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf.” Every time I read that book I make a tally mark and write the date in the front cover. So far there are 8 dates in that book that go back about 10 years.

Review: Sputnik Sweetheart

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Review of “Sputnik Sweetheart” by Haruki Murakami (originally published in 1999, translated into English and published again in 2002)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

First off, lemme say that this wasn’t a bad book. Like other online reviewers have previously stated, I too think that the reason that I didn’t rate this book higher is because I’ve read too many Murakami books already (this one, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage, Norwegian Wood, After the Quake).

Murakami’s books are definitely an ‘acquired’ taste. One of the most frequent complaints about his writing is that it is dreadfully boring, but therein, in my opinion, lies the magic. Guys, this man has the power to make a damn phone book sound interesting. His characters are usually lonely men with well-paying jobs living with some kind of unrequited sexual desire, along with highly detailed minutiae of their lives. I am continually mystified by his ability to craft the ordinary written word into the extraordinary, because any other writer that would dares to write a book with subject matter this simple I would have stopped reading in 5 minutes flat.

So the basic outline of “Sputnik Sweetheart” is this: K is a lonely schoolteacher stuck in the friend zone with Sumire, a quirky wannabe novelist who’s currently in a writer’s block. Sumire falls in love with Miu, an older businesswoman, and eventually accompanies her on a trip to Greece. While in Greece, Sumire disappears, and K is left to discover through her writings what happened to her. He eventually concludes that Sumire will not return. The end.

There you have it again: same kind of character (K is a single guy, sexually frustrated up to the wazoo), same unrequited love issues (Sumire never gives him the time of day). I just think I’m tired of the parade of Murakami Manic Pixie Dream Girl characters this time. Sumire never seems to have a life of her own, beyond developing K’s awareness of well, whatever (still not sure of what, but hey). The ending is hopeless, as are most Murakami endings. I haven’t had enough of reading him forever, but for now I’m just…done this trope.

Another semester begins…

Class begins for me on Monday. And this isn’t even all of my required text books for this semester, I still have 5 more I need to locate, somehow. My classes are all pretty reading-intensive this time around (Research and Stats, Power, Privilege, & Education, and Literacy and Public Policy).

I always tell people who would like to work toward a PhD that they’ll be writing most of the time, however, reading (especially writing about what you’re reading) is a close second place. Professors don’t want to hear about what you read but rather, YOUR ideas on what you read. Fortunately I always look forward this process in my classes, I have yet to get bored.

Review: Girls Like Us

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Review for “Girls Like Us” by Gail Giles (2014)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Sooo…I cried while reading this book. That’s twice in one week now, and the week’s not even over with yet. Darn.

“Girls Like Us” is the story of Quincy and Biddy, two “Speddies” (their term for special education students) who graduate from high school at the same time and are placed in a living assignment together by a school caseworker. The girls live together in a small apartment above Miss Lizzy, a wealthy elderly woman, in exchange for cooking and cleaning and helping around the house with physical tasks. At the beginning of the story, Quincy and Biddy are not friends and are polar opposites. Biddy is white and, we learn, was born with her mental disability. Quincy, a mixed race girl, was ‘normal’ until around the age of 6 when she was physically assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend and brain damaged as a result. Biddy is shy and timid, and Quincy is outwardly aggressive and opinionated. Quincy is slightly higher functioning than Biddy and holds a job at a local grocery store, Biddy helps Miss Lizzy around the house. Eventually they settle into their lives together and uncover the pain of their pasts and work through the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse that they have endured.

This book is presented in alternating chapters between the perspectives of Quincy and Biddy. One of the problems with this technique in other novels is that multiple voices sometimes have a tendency to get muddled and begin sounding the same–but fortunately, this problem never once happened in this book. Ms. Giles does an excellent job of maintaining a clear, distinctive voice for both characters. There were colorful spellings and pronunciations that were spot-on, it was evident that Ms. Giles knows this population (a blurb in the back of the book says that she taught special education students for 20 years) and is familiar with the inner thoughts of special needs people.

Although this was a short book with simple narration, it is not an easy one to read. There were definite adult themes of physical and sexual violence. The characters’ stories were so heartbreaking that there were a couple of times that I had to close it and I almost didn’t finish. The author did a fantastic job of demonstrating the struggles of young people with disabilities. Powerful stuff.

Before I end this review, I wanted to say that I think the reason why this book was so powerful for me was because my mother was a special education teacher for over 25 years. She’s no longer in the classroom, but when she was, she taught students with severe mental and physical disabilities. I could see the stories of so many of her students reflected here. Her choice to work with the disabled is the reason why I will always have a heart for special needs people, because they deserve our compassion and respect. ‚̧

Review: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

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Review for “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” by Gabrielle Zevin (2014)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“We read to know we are not alone.”

I can’t stand books that intentionally seem to break out the violins and Kleenex just for the sake of inducing tears. I can’t love a so-so story simply because it is sad, its got to hold its weight in terms of an actual plot line and characters that actually DO something for me. This was one such exception.

This novel is the story of A.J. Fikry, a widowed curmudgeonly middle-aged man who owns an independent bookstore on a fictional small New England island. Sales are down, and A.J. spends most of his time chasing away his customers and drowning his sorrows in alcohol. He is content to live this life in this manner until one day when a mysterious customer abandons a small child in his bookstore. He eventually adopts the little girl, and his entire life turns around for the better.

This would be well and good if this book weren’t so, I don’t know…cheesy? There are several plot twists and turns that just seem to be there because they’re well…there. The dialogue all throughout was somewhat contrived, and the characters never rose above behaving exactly as they were ‘expected’ to. However, when I got to the end of this book, I was actually crying big ol’ crocodile tears.

This is ultimately a book lover’s book. Once you take this into context, the pieces of the story I didn’t like really did not matter in the grander scheme of novel. I chose the quote above to begin this review because aloneness and the desire to be a part of something is the reason I found hours of pleasure reading as a little girl, and thirty years later, it is the reason why I still love reading today. There are thoughtful literary references all throughout the book from stories that I’ve read before and I completely related to. This book takes the love affair that we book nerds have with indie book stores and ups the romance factor 100x, and for that reason (given that I now have to drive 30 minutes from home to find a bookstore that’s not connected to some corporate chain), this gets four stars from me.

This book is not perfect, but it’s a book that makes you feel wonderful, exciting things in wonderful, exciting ways. Yassss….