Review: I Stop Somewhere

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Review for "I Stop Somewhere" by T.E. Carter (to be published on 28 February 2018)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I didn’t like this book. It’s kind of a mashup between “The Lovely Bones” and “13 Reasons Why,” neither of which I liked either. I read this fairly quickly, not because I was engaged with it, but out of desperation to get it over and done with.

Ellie is a quiet, shy teenage girl in a small New York town being raised by a single father. She comes from a working class background and quickly becomes enamored with a wealthy local businessman’s son, Caleb. From frequent flashbacks, we know that Caleb is not what he seems. He is cruel and sadistic, as well as the main perpetrator in a string of brutal assaults and rapes of local girls, one of which ends Ellie’s life.

The first 100 pages of this book are unbearable. Ellie is a spirit, trapped in the location of the last moments of her life, watching from the afterlife as girl after girl is taken to the same abandoned house and brutally assaulted and raped. She drifts back and forth between each act of violence she witnesses to narrate events in her former life, which quite frankly, doesn’t have much plot depth or character development.

Let’s pause and talk about this for a moment. This is one of my greatest pet peeves in fiction–authors who overemphasize rape and acts of violence through excessive narrative detail, with very little to no character development (the film equivalent to this is known as “torture porn”). It’s gratuitous, it’s voyeuristic, and worse, it does absolutely nothing to challenge the rape or the rapist, nor does it shift power in favor of the victim. You cannot conquer rape culture or violence through “torture porn”- style writing. It only serves its own end, which is to capitulate on the sexist notion that to keep people interested, women must die or be somewhere in the act of dying. It’s wrong.

Thankfully, the tone of the book does shift in the second part, which turns to the voices of the victims. There is a kind of reckoning in the end that’s somewhat hopeful, along with a thoughtful commentary on victim-blaming and why Ellie’s disappearance was ignored for so long (i.e., she’s from a lower social class and not from the “better” side of the tracks). I still don’t like this book though. Even though the sun does comes out in the end, there was too much bleakness, too much of a lingering dark cloud here. If I hadn’t have read the first part I think I would have felt better about it, or maybe even given this a higher rating.

This book is categorized as YA, btw. If I was troubled greatly by reading this, I cannot imagine what it does to the psyche of a younger person, who may or may not possess the insights to deal with this level of realism. Proceed with caution.

[Note: I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher and NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

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Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Could Re-Read Forever

Ahh…another Top Ten Tuesday. I’ve been away for a few weeks because the topics presented didn’t really appeal to me. But hey–what’s past is past, right?

  1. The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison. I read this book on my own when I was in high school, and I must admit that it was one of the first books by a Black woman author I’d ever read. Later on I would realize that this was completely unusual, being that I had been through 11 years of education in school and none of my teachers had ever bothered to teach a book written by a Black woman. I was completely enthralled with this novel. I still am. This book is one of the reasons why I am who I am, a Black woman educator who is earning a Ph.D. in literacy education, to make sure that ALL students have access to books that are culturally relevant to them.
  2. Manuscript Found in Accra, Paulo Coelho. In this book, a philosopher answers questions from people on life and the connections we make to other humans and just existing in general. It’s a very simple format, but the knowledge it imparts is essential reading. When I first read this I was going through a hard time in my life and found this book illuminating. I’ve read it twice since.
  3. I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Iain Reid. I’ve reviewed this here before and could read and review it again a few more times, just to give it the justice it deserves. Normally I don’t care for books that are too grainy, too ambiguous in their execution but this one is one of the few that actually succeeds in that task. There’s even a website where people can type around and talk about what they think this book means. It’s not the what or the how, but the interpretation of both that’s interesting here.
  4. The Color Purple, Alice Walker. This is the book I read after The Bluest Eye that continued to open up the world of Black women’s perspectives and ultimately my own. Even though I love the movie, the book is much better.
  5. The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros. Every now and then I read this book to marvel at its beautiful complexities and remind myself that I’ll never be as good of a writer as Sandra Cisneros.
  6. Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, Warsan Shire. If you watched Beyonce’s “Lemonade” visual album, then you’ve already heard this woman’s words. Most of the spoken word on that album was written by Shire and published in her first volume of poems back in 2011. I copped this book back in 2013 after reading Warsan’s poems on Tumblr and kept it in my backpack for the next 3 years, I needed it that much. I read this book often, as a matter of fact, I’ve bought this book for other people several times as gifts.
  7. A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness. I’ve reviewed this here before and still don’t think I’ll edit it to say anything more than what I have. It’s just something about this book sticks to your bones and won’t let you forget it. It’s truly extraordinary.
  8. Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White. I read this book so much as a kid that I remember I broke the spine. My mom bought me another one, and the pages became so dog-eared it was barely readable. Needless to say, I truly loved this book growing up. Still do.
  9. Wonder, R. J. Palacio. I remember reading the last pages of this book in a Panera restaurant and crying so hard that one of the employees approached me and asked if I was alright. I pointed to the book and told her, “you gotta read this.”
  10. Fly Away Home, Eve Bunting. The first couple words of this picture book completely grab you and shake your soul: “My dad and I live in an airport. That’s because we don’t have a home and the airport is better than the streets.” It’s a book about a young child named Andrew who lives with his dad in the terminal of a busy airport in an unnamed city. The ending brings no resolution but a hint of hope. Needless to say, its definitely a book worth buying.

 

Review: Brass

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Review for "Brass" by Xhenet Aliu (2018)

Rating: none (DNF)

DNF. Got to about the 35% mark before deciding not to continue.

In the 90’s, Elsie is a working class teenage waitress who falls for a married Albanian cook at the diner where she works. In the present day, her daughter, Luljeta, gets an rejection letter from NYU. The novel is told in the dual perspectives of both mother and daughter, living and loving in the their working class Connecticut town.

It’s not the writing here–it’s actually quite gorgeous. It’s just the story itself that I didn’t find very compelling. I kept putting the book down after several pages or so and coming back to it, not quite remembering what had happened before. It then occurred to me that perhaps this story is less about the plot and more of a character study–which is fine, but I think that sometimes that approach has its drawbacks, the down side being that I couldn’t seem to get into the characters either. The 2nd person perspective of the daughter also threw me for a loop. Instead of drawing me in, it completely distanced me from her story.

I may try this book again at a later time. For right now, though, I’m going to have to pass on this one.

Review: My Name is Venus Black

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Review for "My Name is Venus Black" by Heather Lloyd (to be published on 27 February 2018)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Meh, I didn’t care for this book.

“My Name is Venus Black” opens with 13-year-old Venus locked up for a crime that she refuses to elaborate on. For the sake of not spoiling the novel I won’t tell you what the crime is either, other than to say that she spends a little over five years in a juvenile facility for it. During Venus’ incarceration, her younger brother Leo, who is developmentally disabled, is kidnapped by a family member (this is not a spoiler–part of the novel is told from his perspective). Her mother Inez, with whom Venus has a contentious relationship, blames her for Leo’s disappearance and the police do not succeed in locating him. Eventually, Venus emerges as an adult from juvenile prison. She proceeds to get a fake name, a job, rents a room in a boarding house, and tries to acquire some sense of normalcy. She does not get past her longing to find her brother, which grows as the story goes on.

This is a novel about moving on from the past and finding forgiveness. There are problems here though, and none of them have anything to do with the plot. First, this book has an identity problem. The publisher is clearly marketing it as literary/general fiction, but the tone, characterization, the language (and yes, the plot) very much read like a YA novel. Not that I have a problem with YA–I love YA–but this book does not seem as if it were written for adults. As a matter of fact, I could put this book and pretty much any YA novel out right now side by side and find about 10 points of similarity to rest my case on. The categorization of this book seems like an glaring error, like maybe it was originally intended as YA and someone stuck it in the general lit category at the last minute.

There’s also strange shifts in points of view here. Venus’ POV is always first person, but everyone else’s thoughts are presented in a third person omniscient voice, which changes often–sometimes in the same chapter. And oddly enough, at least 3 of the perspectives told consistently here are of adults. Which brings me back to the genre problem I was just talking about. Could it be that some editor made a suggestion and stuck this in the general lit category just because of the inclusion of adult perspectives? If so, that was an ill-advised decision.

And oh yeah, the ending. The details of Venus’ crime aren’t revealed until the last few pages of the book. By then, with all the hints dropped, I pretty much already knew what had happened anyway. This delay seemed unnecessary, like bad suspense. The end was also kinda Lifetime movie-ish. You know, like when you’ve watched the drama go down and then all the so-angry-at-each-other characters end up sitting around drinking lemonade together while the credits roll? Zzzz.

Overall, it’s not a bad book, but there were too many issues here to give it more than 2 stars.

This book has a pretty cover. I like stars.

[Note: An advance electronic copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher, Dial Press, as well as NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: Annihilation

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Review for “Annihilation” by Jeff VanderMeer (2014)

Rating: None (DNF)

I DNF’d this at about 50% percent.

I have to admit that this novel did spark my curiosity at first. The setting has a definite creep factor and it fits squarely in the sci-fi genre, two things that I like. As far as the story itself, “Annihilation” is about four women explorers–a biologist, a psychologist, a surveyor, and an anthropologist–commissioned by a presumed government agency known as the “Southern Reach.” The team is the 12th expedition to the area, all other efforts to explore the region have failed and ended in the deaths of the explorers. The names for the women are never given, they are only there to work together, explore Area X, and report back to the agency with their findings. The story, however, is told by the biologist, who writes her findings in a journal.

Immediately upon entering Area X you know that things are not what they appear to be. The land is uninhabited, though there is evidence that humans lived there. Upon entering, the team discovers a tower (or is it a tunnel?) that is not on the map, with strange plant-like spores and cryptic writing inside. The mystery of the tower (tunnel?) is obviously the crux of the book (there are pages and pages of descriptions about it, veering dangerously into Big Dumb Object territory) but it all got so boring that it just wasn’t enough to sustain my interest in continuing.

For the first 10%, I was willing to suspend my disbelief long enough to give this a chance but by the middle, it no longer seemed worth it. The characters have no real personality and are so frustratingly neutral that I was disengaged from about the 10% mark onward. For my time invested, I felt like all of the weirdness went nowhere. Hence, I stopped reading.

I probably will see the movie for this one, which is due in theaters in a few days. Though I am in the the “I Didn’t Get It” crowd, I’m still, in some ways, curious about the Area X mystery. I probably won’t read the rest of this series though to find out. I do want to know what it is, I’m not that damn curious. Not by a long-shot.

Review: The House of Impossible Beauties

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Rating for "The House of Impossible Beauties" by Joseph Cassara (2018)
Rating: 4.5 stars

Aye, this book will simultaneously soothe your heart and break it into a million pieces.

“The House of Impossible Beauties” is a fictionalized account of the House of Xtravaganza, the first legendary all-Latinx ballroom house immortalized in the seminal 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. We follow a cast of gay and trans women performers on the Harlem ball circuit as they escape abusive homes, love and lose one another, and deal with the devastation of the early AIDS epidemic. Some of the characters are instantly recognizable from the the film (Dorian Corey and Venus Xtravaganza, for starters) while others appear to be composites of other known characters in the film.

I loved the beginning of this book, which starts in 1979. Angel is a young Puerto Rican teen who realizes that she is transgender. She feuds often with her mother, who refuses to accept her for who she is. She is taken under the tutelage of a well-known local drag queen, Dorian, and later falls in love with Hector, a dancer. Hector eventually recruits Angel to start their own house in the ballroom scene and the iconic House of Xtravaganza is born. Back stories are also given for other house members–Venus Xtravaganza, a trans girl who escapes a miserable home life, Juanito, an abused gay teen with a knack for sewing beautiful clothes, and Daniel, a banjee boy with major issues.

While the beginning of the book pulses with energy, the middle of it is terribly dull, veering dangerously close to misery porn territory. There is no way this should be so, given the vibrant real-life characters that this book is based on. I also have issue with the fact that, other than one scene in the middle of the book, we never actually SEE the inside of a ball. This is unacceptable. For a book that claims to be so much about the key people of this particular fashion and dance era, shouldn’t we be at the ball with them too? I’m outraged.

*flips hair*

If you’re familiar with Paris is Burning, then you know that most of the individuals featured in it are now deceased–mostly casualties of the AIDS epidemic, and, in one case, murder. Thankfully the author handles this and other subjects surrounding them with care and a compassionate heart, which shows in the writing.

Also: to those who haven’t seen the documentary Paris is Burning, please do. It’s on Netflix and YouTube, the last time I checked. Whether or not you see it before reading this book is your choice, but I think that the film serves as a good companion piece to this novel. The film grounds you in the knowledge and illuminates the characters of the ballroom scene, while the book gives you the back story of their lives.

Needless to say, I love this subject too much to give it a bad rating. 4.5 stars, dahlings

Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story

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Review for "The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story" by Douglas Preston (2017)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

If you like pulpy, Indiana Jones-ish kind of stories, then this book will probably appeal to you.

“The Lost City of the Monkey God” is about a 2015 expedition of researchers to the Mosquitia region of the Honduran rainforest, a remote, inhospitable jungle landscape where the legendary La Cuidad Blanca (or “White City”) was known to exist. The author participated first hand in the expedition, writing and documenting the story of the team.

The first third of the book is all about previous expeditions to the area and why the White City has remained undiscovered for so long. This section is not very interesting and reads like a textbook. I can understand why it’s included here, but I skimmed through most of this. It gets more interesting in the middle portion, which is about the expedition itself, including finding the White City and the team’s handling of the numerous dangers of the region (poisonous snakes, mosquitoes, dangerous drug cartels, etc). The last section of the book is about leishmaniasis, a face-eating parasitic disease that Preston and several of the members of the team contracted while in the jungle. It’s really gross, but I guess it makes great fodder for those who believe that curses follow ancient things and the people who disturb them. Oooh.

Since this expedition has been made public, there’s been extensive debate among scientists and archaeologists over whether or not the discovery made by this team is actually the legendary White City or not. First, the very existence of a “White City” is a myth–and one that’s been debunked by scientists. Second, there are many locations already marked on maps of the region as having archaeological ruins. How do we know that this is one is the fabled White City? Third, there were no actual archaeologists on the team making this ‘discovery,’ though it is mentioned that they “worked with” them. Well ok. Fourth, most of the team’s claims of finding the White City go back to images they discovered on LiDAR (a remote sensor that surveys the land with lasers). While no one is debating that there is indeed Something in the area resembling ancient architecture–is this Something really a new discovery? Is it really the legendary “White City”? For all we know, this could be a known (and previously) excavated site.

Preston does address some of these arguments here, but I don’t think his critique goes deep enough. He makes it plain that this is his story and he’s sticking to it. Given the shouts of foul from the scientific community, however, you have to ask what this book’s real knowledge contribution is. Even after reading this, I’m not sure. Whatever it’s trying to tell me, I’m not convinced either.

There’s some really cool venom-spitting snake stories in here though. Three stars.