Review: Rikers High

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Review for “Rikers High” by Paul Volponi (2010)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Martin Stokes is a likable 17-year-old teenager who gets locked up in one of the nation’s most notoriously violent jails for “steering” (telling an undercover officer where to buy drugs) and is sent to NYC’s Rikers Island. Due to the terrible backlog of the city’sĀ criminal justice system and his family’s inability to pay bail, he is forced to spend several months in custody until his case comes up and is heard by the judge. To make his situation worse, he becomes an innocent bystander during a scuffle between two other inmates and gets slashed on the face, physically scarring him.

Martin is eventually transferred to an area where he is forced to go to school, and it is here when the real action of the story begins. Be warned though, this book is filled with tons of “lock-up” slang that only those who have spent some time in a NY state correctional facility would understand. Even though the author does a decent job of explaining the lingo (a blurb on the back of the book says that he was a teacher on Rikers Island for several years), it still makes an awkward narrative. Riot officers who break up fights in housing units are “turtles,” solitary confinement is “the bing,” the dorms where youth are held are known as the “Sprung,” and members of violent gang crews are referred to as “doldiers” (a combination of the words ‘dummy’ and ‘soldiers’), and so on.

Even though you understand Martin’s plight, his character and everyone else’s in this book was really thin and undeveloped. Part of this may have actually been intentional, due to the fact that we as a society tend to view all prisoners as the worst of the worst, the literal “throwaways” of society. The problem though is that even though this is the case,Ā it’s just not enough to help you care more about what’s going on with the characters here. It’s also woefully unrealistic: Martin, a young black male, serves his time, learns his lesson, goes back home and moves on. This is usually not the case in real life. As we all know, many young black men with a felony on their criminal record are more likely to eventually return to jail: mostly due to factors such as a lack of resources, low employment prospects, poor quality education, etc. Prison is a giant revolving door, and few manage to break this destructive cycle. I would think that the author would use this book to make a statement on the effed-up state of the criminal justice system, but I digress.

I do recommend this book for YA readers, specifically for teenage boys, who we all know are notoriously hard to engage in reading. It’s a fair cautionary tale, and even though I didn’t like it, they will.

Book Q & A Monday, Part 4

A book that made you cry?

Jesus…so many. If I had to name one from recent memory, however, it would be A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. I reviewed it here a while back but was still in a “good book” haze when I tried to write about it a couple hours later and couldn’t think of a thoughtful way to put how I felt about it into words. One day I will write a thoughtful review on it, but man…lemme tell you…that book, if you ever care to delve into it, is deep. It is about the innermost thoughts of a child whose mother is dying of cancer, thus he invents a ‘monster’ to deal with his grief. It is a YA book, but honestly I think it is for anyone who has ever lost someone and does not know how to begin to deal with their feelings about it. Its one of the most honest books on a subject that I’ve ever read in my life.

Most overrated book?

The Twilight series. I only read the first book, Twilight. It was so god-awful that I threw it into the trash when I finished it. Fished it out 30 minutes later and drove up to Goodwill and threw it in a donation bin. When they asked if I wanted a tax credit, I told them ‘nope’ and drove away. I would have left it in the trash had it not been for my overwhelming need to keep books in circulation, no matter what the subject matter is.

Most thought provoking book?

Another doozy here because there’s been so many. In recent years, however, I read and really thought thatĀ There Are No Children HereĀ by Alex Kotlowitz was quite profound. Even though it was written in 1991, it is still timely and relevant, especially because when it comes to poverty and hopelessness in inner cities because not much has changed in 30 years. It is a work of nonfiction about a single mother of 8 children living in a housing project in Chicago. The book follows the family for 2 years as LaJoe deals with raising her 5 youngest children in one of the worst neighborhoods you can imagine–horrifying living conditions, crime, poverty, gangs, drugs, snipers on rooftops, bullets that fly through walls, etc. It is a tragedy, but there is something hopeful about the ending. Ā Very thought provoking.

Favorite classical author?

I’m really into Shakespeare–his sonnets and his plays. I also love Edgar Allan Poe, William Blake, Henry David Thoreau.

Favorite classical work?

Hamlet. I read it in high school and I’ve loved it ever since. I can quote some of those lines over and over and never get tired of them because they’re so damn beautiful. I even found a recording of it and taped it to my belly when I was pregnant with my son and played it before I went to bed, every night until I delivered him. Strangely, he never would kick me during those times (a sign from above that he actually liked it–ha!).

Review: Daydreams of Angels

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Review for “Daydreams of Angels” by Heather O’Neill (2015)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

So I love Heather O’Neill. If you haven’t read her novel ‘Lullabies for Little Criminals’ then you are sorely depriving yourself of great literature. She has another novel out which I have not yet read (will do this) but this book was available at the library first, so I dove right in.

‘Daydreams of Angels’ describes itself as ‘twisted fairy stories’ and that description is very accurate. There are stories about floating babies, talking bears, gypsies, and cloned Russian dancers. Most of them are flights of fancy (as I said earlier, there is a talking bear) but some feature real people and events. This book as a whole, however, was lackluster. Some of the stories I liked immensely: ‘Holy Dove Parade’ is about a girl member of bizarre cult who commits a crime, ‘Where Babies Come From’ is a weird grandmother’s version of natural events, ‘The Gospel According to Mary M.’ is modern story of Jesus’s life in middle school. Most of the stories though I didn’t really like and I struggled through, like ‘The Story of Little O,’ which I’m still not sure what it was about. Out of all 21 stories here I only liked about 5, the rest didn’t make much of an impression on me. The voice was too monotone, the plots too similar. All in all: meh.

I DO recommend reading Heather O’Neill, but don’t start here. Try reading “Lullabies for Little Criminals” and you’ll thank me for this later.

Book Q & A Monday, Part 3

I’m backkkk…

Do you eat or drink while reading?

Drink, yes. Eat, no. Perhaps it’s because the coordination it requires to chew and read simultaneously is simply not there for me. But I generally don’t eat and read at the same time.

Do you read, chat, listen to tv while reading?

I do listen to music. Usually it’s something mellow like NIN (ok, Nine Inch Nails is far from mellow!) but there are some tracks NIN has that go well with reading. I also listen to classical, Lana del Rey, Radiohead, Bjork, tons of other bands while reading I won’t list here because there would be too many to name. I typically don’t talk to people while reading, and even though TV may be on in the background, I’m usually not watching it during that time.

Is there a certain spot you prefer for reading?

Hmm,not really. I read on my couch at home, at the library at school, at my desk at work. I am a bed reader–I sit on my bed and read, or lie under my covers and read until sleep sadly overtakes me. I know, I know. Zzzz…

Bookmark or scrap of paper?

I have to have a bookmark. I hate scraps of paper stuck in pages and dog-eared books. Now I will dog-ear a book if nothing is available, but I’ll always make a note to go back and mark it with a bookmark at my earliest convenience and gently ‘flatten’ back out the fold like I found it. I have hundreds of bookmarks I’ve collected over the years from libraries, reading programs, vendors at school conferences, etc. Whenever I see a display with them at a library or something I’ll usually go by and swipe a handful, place it in my bag, and then casually act as if I did nothing wrong.

Do you highlight or write in your books?

With nonfiction books I read for school–yes. It’s just easier for me to digest the information and retain it that way. I highlight in those books, I also write notes in the margins because these are ones that I will usually keep and never get rid of. I never write in fiction books, even if I buy them. Something about my fiction must remain pristine, just in case I want to give it away to someone or sell it used to get credit for a new book.

Review: What Lies Between Us

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Review for “What Lies Between Us” by Nayomi Munaweera (scheduled to be published on February 16, 2016)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

It’s hard to quantify this book. There were parts that I loved, parts I hated. A novel that makes you run the gamut of these emotions, however, is probably a good one.

“What Lies Between Us” is the story of an unnamed narrator’s (we don’t know her name until the very end) journey from childhood to a prison cell, where we meet her for the first time. The novel is split into five parts–the first is the narrator’s comfortable life as a child of privilege in Sri Lanka, the second part is how she adjusts upon arriving in America. The last three parts deal with her adult life and the events that led to her shocking crime.

I won’t lie to you, now…the beginning of this book started off s-l-o-w. Once it did get interesting, though, I could not stop reading this book. The writing here is spectacular. Ms. Munaweera can definitely move you with words, and in that regard this book didn’t disappoint.

4.5 stars because there were some passages that could have been taken out, because they didn’t really propel the story forward. I won’t fuss too much about it though, this was a uncorrected/galley copy and it will probably undergo a final edit before publication.

But…I would definitely like to check out this author’s other novel. Ms. Munaweera is an author to watch.

[This book was given to me free, courtesy of NetGalley and the St. Martin’s Press in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: The Fishermen

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Review for “The Fishermen” by Chigozie Obioma (2015)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is one of those books that you pick up and time stands still, because you’re so engrossed in what’s going on that nothing else seems to matter. I picked this up at the library on a Friday afternoon and sat right down on the couch there and dove right in, not realizing that an hour had passed and librarian dude was standing next to me, about to tap me on the shoulder to warn me they were about to close.

“The Fishermen” is the story of four brothers–Ikenna, 15, Boja, 14, Obembe, 11, and Benjamin–who is 9 years old when the story begins. The novel is told from the point of view of the youngest child, Benjamin, who looks up to his brothers and decides to join them when they begin skipping school to fish at the local river. At the river they encounter an outcast, a local madman who makes a terrifying prophecy: that Ikenna will be murdered by one of his brothers.

From this point onward, nothing is ever the same. Each of the brother’s fates change for the worst and the entire family as a stable unit gradually becomes undone. But this is more than just a retelling of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, this book has all of the complexities of a Shakespearean tragedy. There is a lot of violent imagery in this novel, coupled with beautiful words that I found myself going back and reading over and over again. There are also thoughtful references to the work of Chinua Achebe, and one can’t help but to read this book as an allegory of the African continent–ravaged from the outside and left to corrode through corruption, greed, and other inside forces.

When I checked the Internet for some info on this book I saw that it had been long-listed for the 2015 Man Booker Prize. I do hope it wins a major prize, it’s really that good. Loved this, A+