Review: Universal Harvester

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Review for "Universal Harvester" by John Darnielle (2017)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

This book is weird, man…

It’s the 1990’s, and someone is placing disturbing images on VHS tapes at the local Video Hut in the small town of Nevada, Iowa. At first Jeremy, a young employee, brushes it off, but when he watches the videos for himself it greatly disturbs him. The scenes appear to be poorly shot home movies with people being controlled by others in masks. He shares the videos with the store’s manager, Sarah Jane, and she eventually becomes drawn into the discovering their origin, the farmhouse where it was made, as well as the mysterious woman behind them.

The only word I can think to describe this book is cerebral, because the disturbing imagery it describes does manage to rattle your brain and leave you with a sense of impending danger. The ominous tone of the book reminds you of the feeling you get when you watch a David Lynch movie or The Ring, though the plot is not as straightforward. In a lot of ways this is a successful tactic, because even though I didn’t get this book completely I found myself continuing to read it just because I wanted to know what was behind the videotapes.

The major problem is that this book never really makes that answer clear, or tells you what the hell it really is. Perspectives shift as the book meanders back and forth through time and between characters and I was stuck trying to figure out what it all means. Is it a horror story? A human drama? Even after 200 something pages, I’m still not sure. Not that I’m a person that likes labels on everything, but a real resolution and an actual plot would have been reasonable. Harrumpf.

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Review: Inside Madeleine

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Review for "Inside Madeleine" by Paula Bomer (2014)
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Oh snap…five stars.

I did the audiobook for this and for the first time since I’ve started consuming books this way, I found myself listening intently to every. single. word. that was read: staying in my driveway with the AC running, leaving my headphones on longer in the evenings, you get the idea. This collection of stories is highly engaging, smutty, and just plain grotesque. And I loved it.

Each story deals with female characters and the complicated relationship they have with their bodies and the people around them. All of the characters are young, all of them desperate, and all (if I’m not mistaken) are from South Bend, Indiana. “Eye Socket Girls” is about an anorexic girl’s stint in a hospital, “Down the Alley,” is the tale of a teenage girl’s self-discovery and rebellion, and the novella-length title story, “Inside Madeleine,” is a tour de force about the complex relationship between a teenage girl and her body.

I loved the way that these stories seemingly hide…well, nothing. None of these characters are particularly likeable, but they weren’t supposed to be. Even the sex scenes were raunchy and vulgar, but they clearly weren’t meant to titillate the audience. All of the characters in each story came across as relatable and achingly real and I had no choice but to feel them.

Did I tell you I loved this book?

Must read.

Review: Aftercare Instructions

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Review for "Aftercare Instructions" by Bonnie Pipkin (to be published on 27 June 2017)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I liked this book. A couple of online reviewers have called this book “brave,” and I will capitulate on that. This IS a brave book. There is friendship, heartbreak, an abortion, and a teenage girl in the middle of it all just being herself. What more can I say? I get it, and it’s great.

“Aftercare Instructions” is about Genesis Johnson (called ‘Gen’ throughout the book), a high school senior who is abandoned by her boyfriend immediately following an abortion at an NYC Planned Parenthood clinic (wtf?). Her father has died of a heroin overdose and the whole school has found out. Her mother is not handling his loss well (pill popping, locking herself away, etc). She can’t stand her grandparents, who take care of her sister and whose faux-religiousness she despises. Genesis’ life is pretty much her friend Rose and her boyfriend Peter. And Peter has just left her in the middle of Manhattan and won’t take her calls.

To top all of this off, another friend has been cozying up to Peter in Genesis’ absence. There’s drama. There’s a catfight. Genesis is suspended from school. In the meantime, she discovers herself and her true passion: theater. As the story flashes back to the past, it is completely in play dialogue. I liked it.

I loved the fact that Genesis was a strong character, yet unafraid to be vulnerable. She has issues, and yes, those issues hurt. I liked that. I can’t tell you how many YA books I’ve read in which the author seems so stuck on the idea of a strong female voice that he/she forgets to make the character believable. I also liked the fact that abortion was explored in the book, minus any yay or nay political message or proselytizing by the people in the character’s orbit.

Anywho, read this book when it comes out. You won’t regret it.

[Note: A free digital copy was provided to me from the publisher, St. Martin’s Press, and NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion and review.]

Review: Allegedly

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Review for "Allegedly" by Tiffany D. Jackson (2017)

Rating: 3.75 out of 5 stars

I seem to be stuck at 3.5 -3.75 stars with my reviews lately.

I must admit, “Allegedly” is a page turner from the start. We first meet pregnant teenager Mary Addison in a group home, having just got out of ‘baby jail’ for the killing of an infant in her care at nine years old. In a non-linear narrative throughout the novel, other details of the crime and her background come to us: her mother’s mental illness, Mary’s relationship with her boyfriend Ted, recollections of abuse by her mother and stepfather. It’s a tough read, and you can’t help but root for Mary as she tries to fight for her rights as a mother and a better future for her child.

What I didn’t like: the ending. I won’t give it away, other than to say that it didn’t go with the rest of the novel. I understand that Mary is an unreliable narrator, but what happens here is a total reversal: getting through nearly 98% of the book only to have the main character completely change her course of action. I also didn’t like the presence of one too many improbable events, no matter the fact that this is a fictional story. Like Mary’s recollections of ‘baby jail,’ for instance. In what state is it legal to house a nine-year-old in an maximum level adult correctional facility on permanent lock down because they “don’t know what to do with her”? Umm, I don’t think that’s likely.

Recommended? Yes. Ignore the YA label and let this one take you down the rabbit hole. You’ll be glad you did.

Review: The Hate U Give

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Review for "The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas (2017)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

I don’t know, ya’ll. 3.5 stars for me.

This is probably one of the most authentic books I’ve read this year. It deals with a very timely issue: the police killing of an unarmed Black man during a traffic stop. “The Hate U Give” is the story of 16-year-old Starr, a Black teenager who lives in a predominantly Black neighborhood who goes to a mostly White prep school. Starr has difficulty fitting in at school but she manages to maintain friends, a relationship with her boyfriend Chris, and hold down family life until she witnesses the death of her childhood best friend, Khalil, by a White cop during a traffic stop. Khalil, of course, was unarmed.

After the shooting, Starr’s life goes into a tailspin. She is torn between wanting to speak for Khalil and maintain a social status among her mostly White upper class friends, who believe the media accounts that Khalil was a drug dealer. She also deals with violent riots in her neighborhood, gang conflicts, and the problems that come from having dysfunctional family members.

Overall, this is a good book. I won’t entertain the arguments of some online reviewers who call this book racist (privileged readers who can’t understand the historical implications of institutionalized racism in America), a heavy handed promotion of the Black Lives Matter movement (who were never mentioned once), or “anti-cop” (failing to recognize that the main character had a positive relationship with an uncle who works in law enforcement). What makes this book 3.5 stars for me was its structure, which in my opinion wasn’t very good. At nearly 464 pages, this book waffles along and dabbles in far too many extraneous details. It could have been cut by about 200 pages and it would not have suffered at all for lack of information. It’s almost as if the author followed every single detail of an already overloaded plot to its own end, so much so that by the middle I found myself skipping pages. Yeah.

For those of you who follow my reviews, you know that there are some books I don’t like and don’t recommend, because I truly feel that they would be a waste of your time. This one is not the case. Regardless of how I felt about this book’s structural issues, I do recommend that you read it and form your own opinion about the issues that are explored. There is a movie deal in the works, so it would be beneficial to read it before seeing it on screen.