Review: Loving Donovan

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Review for “Loving Donovan” by Bernice McFadden (2015)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This is a male-female love story with a unique structure–a section for “Her” that follows the female character, Campbell, from childhood to young adulthood; another for “Him” that follows the male character, Donovan, for roughly the same period in his life, and finally a section for “Them,” that documents Campbell and Donovan’s romance.

First off, there are no secrets in this book. We know from the first page that this is a couple that’s doomed and ultimately not going to work out. This is not the story of what happens in the end, but how and why each character gets there. Each in their 30’s, both characters are wounded, hurt, and just plain wrong for one another. Both have had lives full of disappointment–abuse, adultery, divorce–and each character’s family and friends’ lives don’t fare much better. It’s a uniquely African American story about a circle of dysfunction; a generational curse. It’s a reminder that each of us carries around a personal history,’ghosts’ from the past, that ultimately influences the success or failure of future romantic relationships.

It’s an engrossing story, but I wish it had gone a little more in-depth. The ending felt kinda rushed and another 30 pages of detail would not have spoiled this book in the least. It’s a decent book, which never stopped moving from start to finish. As I’ve said in some other reviews I’ll be publishing here soon, Bernice McFadden is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. This book doesn’t disappoint.

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Review: Dear Nobody: The True Diary of Mary Rose

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Review for “Dear Nobody: The True Diary of Mary Rose” by Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil (2014)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Dear Nobody was published after the 1999 death of the author, a girl named Mary Rose, who reportedly kept a 600+ page journal. This condensed version of her diaries chronicle roughly about 3 years of her life in harrowing detail as she struggles with low self esteem, drug addiction, sexual assaults, and living with cystic fibrosis. As a writer I was impressed with her ideas, the complicated pattern of her thoughts, the intricate way she expressed them. There’s not much of a narrative flow here, but that’s ok. I came into this fully expecting for Mary Rose to be happy one moment, and completely subdued in the next. Welcome to adolescence, folks…

With that said, this journal had a lot of extremely disturbing content. Mary Rose had a shitty home life, shitty parents, and no one to talk to about it. For 75% of the book, she’s either drunk or thinking about drinking, high or under the influence of some other drug. Her addiction is sad to watch. You watch her move from tragedy to tragedy in an increasing fog of drugs and alcohol and in the company of people (including her own family) who could have cared less about her. In between all of the drama she’s constantly in and out the hospital, fighting infections and just plain fighting for her life. You desperately want to hug her, to help her, to stop her from falling into an abyss. Whew.

I felt like the book was realistic, but I’m not quite sure if I believe that what’s presented here is exactly as she wrote it. The spelling is perfect, there’s no typos. Although the collaborators who put the book together claim that not a single word of text was changed, I have a hard time believing that it wasn’t touched by an editor in some form or another. If she was in the impaired mental state that she constantly refers to being in, I’m sure there’s a hiccup somewhere. But I’ll digress…

Anyway, do read this. This book is the Go Ask Alice for all of us who laughed and rolled our eyes 25 years ago at the end of that book and were still waiting for a real journal to happen out there. Look no further.

Review: The Summer that Melted Everything

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Review for “The Summer that Melted Everything” by Tiffany McDaniel (to be published on 7.26.16)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Fascinating, incredible book. In her first novel, I must say that Tiffany McDaniel hits this one right out of the park. It reads like a classic with all of the quirks of Flannery O’Connor with a twist of Shirley Jackson to match.

The story follows the eccentric Bliss family who live in the fictional small town of Breathed, Ohio. The year is 1984. Autopsy Bliss (I love their names!), the patriarch of the family, writes an ad in the local paper inviting the devil into town. Several days later, a green eyed, 13-year-old black boy calling himself Sal (“the beginning of Satan and the first step into Lucifer, Sa-L”) appears to Fielding Bliss, the youngest of the family, claiming to be the devil himself. Although the book never explicitly confirms that Sal is who he claims to be, he certainly carries an air of mystery and wisdom far beyond his years, speaking in strange parables and telling lengthy stories about God, Heaven, and Hell. Despite his shocking proclamation, Sal is taken into the Bliss family’s home and the two boys become best friends. In the midst of a record heat wave, accidents begin to happen and the townspeople eventually come to blame Sal, the ‘devil’ who has come to live amongst them. I won’t tell you any more to avoid spoiling this novel, but I will say that it involves flashbacks, with Fielding telling us this story from 70 years into the future, the events of this particular time stealing his innocence and ultimately turning him into a broken, bitter man.

The friendship between Sal and Fielding is the foundation of this novel, upon which a complicated, layered narrative is built. Even though the story is set in Ohio, there’s a strong hint of the southern Gothic element here. There’s also thought-provoking, well placed quotes from Milton’s Paradise Lost, along with powerful meditations on the meaning of family, racism, homophobia, religion, and mob mentality. I loved how this book never felt as if it were addressing some predetermined ‘checklist’ of issues, it just focused on the characters and the story in rich, beautiful language without being preachy or sounding false.

I finished this book a few days ahead of schedule because I couldn’t stop reading it. There is a lot of emotion packed in here and the ending was just the tip of that iceberg. Just when I found myself thanking God I didn’t live in a small town in Ohio, I read this and contemplated its message (along with present day’s headlines) and realized that “normal” people become monsters everyday and that not much has changed. This novel functions as more of a modern parable, an old-fashioned morality tale that’s been updated for today’s day and age.

I was emotionally exhausted after reading this, because it was THAT deep. The writing here hovers somewhere between fantasy and reality, so be prepared to suspend your disbelief. There’s a lot of thinking that comes with this book, so I will not say that this a novel for everyone. I do, however, wholeheartedly recommend that people read this, because you will definitely fall in love with it, like I did.

[Note: Thanks to NetGalley, St. Martin’s Press, and Tiffany McDaniel for a free digital copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: Uses for Boys

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Review for “Uses for Boys” by Erica Lorraine Scheidt (2013)

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Yo, this book is pure shite….

Everything about this book is a disappointment, a trainwreck, a failure. Even the cover is an utter disgrace, because it’s awkward and has nothing to do with the words inside.

The story is told by Anna, the neglected child of a single mother who’s way too busy chasing men and money to have any kind of meaningful relationship with her daughter. After going through several of her mother’s failed marriages as a child, Anna enters her teenage years with all of the wrong ideas on how to get attention from the boys around her. She develops a reputation among her peers and she eventually drops out of school. I won’t tell any more of the plot here, but I will say Anna goes further and further down a dark path and that her mother remains just distant enough to continue not to care. It doesn’t end well for her.

The worst part about this book is that I actually DO get it. I understand the author’s intention to write about a neglected girl who uses meaningless, empty sex with losers as a source of comfort. I also came into this book knowing that it would have a large amount of *mature* content, so that’s not my criticism here. My problem is that there is no compelling message here, no theme, just a bunch of sex scenes with a supposed teenage girl narrator and not much else.

And the writing here is effin’ terrible, ya’ll. Choppy and uninspiring. I wouldn’t be surprised if the author took a bunch of Post it notes, strung them together, and spat out this book. The chapters and sentences are short, but this only seems to make sense with the beginning, with the 7-year-old voice of Anna. The problem here is that her voice never ages nor changes throughout the novel. It’s flat and monotone, the only indication that Anna is getting older is an occasional sentence where she states her age (“I’m thirteen,” “I’m fifteen.”).

Case in point:
“I’m fourteen. I go to school. I dress the way all the other kids dress. I wear my Levi’s with expensive twill shirts. I wear the right tennis shoes, the white leather ones with the green stripes. But the outfit buys me nothing. Everyone has heard how I let Desmond Dreyfus feel around under my shirt while Carl Drier and Michael Cox watched. Everyone knows about Joey. The boys make V signs when they look at me and tongue the crack between their fingers. The girls call me a slut.”

And because the whole novel is in the unchanging voice of a 7-year-old, the sex scenes take on a icky, perverse kinda quality. Judge for yourself.

“I angle my body, arm outstretched, and stuff my right breast into the warm depression under his arm. His ribs press against mine. I penetrate him with my breast. We’re boob fucking. It’s awkward and mysterious. Fulfilling.”

It’s rare when I’m so negative with a review, but I’m still trying to figure out what the point of this book was. Steer clear of this one, don’t bother.

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Facts About Me

Today I decided to break from tradition a bit and post a weekly tidbit from The Broke and the Bookish’s “Top Ten Tuesday” feature. Today’s (July 12th) designation is “Ten Facts About Me,” which I shall proceed to post in no particular order:

  1. I cannot swim. No particular reason why, I just never really bothered to learn or try. Of course I’ll sit on the beach and chill, or post selfies of myself by the pool in my swim gear, but me in the water? Hell to the no.
  2. I have an obsession with owls. On my Google drive are hundreds of pics I’ve collected on the web, I also have a Pinterest board dedicated to the same. I have mugs, jewelry, figurines, and t-shirts with owls on them. I would explain this obsession with a simple response but I really can’t. I just think owls are pretty kick ass creatures.
  3. I’ve watched the movie Purple Rain about 200 times. I’ve been a Prince fan since I was a small child and I was immensely upset when I learned that he passed away. I still don’t think I’ve come to terms with Prince being gone yet. I don’t think I ever will.
  4. My first job was a gift shop clerk at a local amusement park, which has since shut down. A couple of my HS friends worked there with me in the summer of my sophomore year. If you’ve ever watched the movie Adventureland, I swear it’s the story of my life, lol.
  5. I am terrified of snakes. And spiders. Eww.
  6. I hate the smell and look of mayonnaise. Needless to say, I’ve never touched the stuff. Other foods I’ve never eaten and never will: onions, relish, tomatoes, Snickers bars.
  7. I’ve been the same height (5’2″) since 7th grade. When I used to be an 8th grade teacher, most of my students were taller than me.
  8. I am the oldest child in my family. I have 2 younger sisters.
  9. I knew I wanted to be a teacher pretty early on, around 6th grade. I knew I wanted to be a writer even earlier than that, when I was about 7 years old. Of course, I’ve ALWAYS loved reading. I always knew that my adult life would contain some combination of those three activities.
  10. I stopped eating meat completely (except for fish) when I was about 18. I stayed this way for about 2 years. Not for any particular reason, just wanted to try a different lifestyle.

Trailer: The Summer That Melted Everything

Happy Monday!

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Fielding Bliss has never forgotten the summer of 1984: the year a heat wave scorched Breathed, Ohio. The year he became friends with the devil.

Here’s a trailer for “The Summer that Melted Everything,” a literary fiction book coming out on July 26th! I’m reading it right now and I’ll have a review up for you guys in a few weeks. Meanwhile check out the trailer, and definitely check out the author’s website for more info (p.s – she’s also really really nice!)

Review: Problems

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Review for “Problems” by Jade Sharma (2016)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Jade Sharma’s literary debut follows the life of Maya, a twenty something married graduate student living in New York City who cheats on her husband, does heroin, and occasionally ponders what she wants out of life. It’s a cautionary tale of heroin abuse (I noticed a lot of parallels between this and Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream”), but more for a modern, hip craigslist era.

There’s not a lot that happens in this book. Events come and go, the POV shifts from 1st to 2nd person. There is a plot, but it’s pretty thin. It’s more of a documentation of Maya’s inner thoughts as her situation gets more and more desperate and she goes from bad to worse, to the very worst, and back again to just plain bad. No thought is really off limits either. There’s a lot of sex here–but it’s not fun to read about. We experience Maya’s self loathing, dope-sickness, degrading sex adventures, and bowel movements all in equal degree. She’s also an immensely unlikeable character, but I suspect that that’s exactly the way the author intended her to be. The discomfort goes on for pages and pages, but I was compelled to continue reading just to witness Maya pull herself together. It’s a short book (only 186 pages), yet for the reasons above it took me almost a week to read this. Had it been 10 pages longer, I don’t know if I’d still be giving it four stars.

If you can get past your squeamishness, there are some jewels here. Despite its bleakness, there’s loads of dark humor, with occasional nuggets of greatness that kept me underlining passages in my Kindle device. I’d definitely give this book a try.