Review: Heart Berries


Review for "Heart Berries: A Memoir" by Terese Mailhot (2018)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Let me start this review off by saying the Terese Mailhot is a sensational writer. “Heart Berries” is a raw, personal account of Mailhot’s life and experiences as a First Nations woman who has witnessed abuse, poverty, addiction, as well as generations of family members who have passed through Canada’s brutal residential school system, which separated indigenous children from their families and, in many cases, subjected them to sexual and physical abuse. Mailhot talks about this and a myriad of other topics in her writing, often taking on the form of missives to former lovers.

There were definitely moments in this book where I found myself underlining passages in my Kindle, saying “yes!” But then these flashes of brilliance would signal the moment when the magic would end, because moments later the author would switch time, location, and subject without warning. I am a bit confused with the classification of this book as a memoir, because the selections together as a whole seemed terribly disjointed and didn’t tell a cohesive story. The lack of cohesion put up a barrier for me–I wanted to understand her and the writing was certainly drawing me in, but the lack of a solid story here made this something I couldn’t access.

I almost feel bad for giving this two stars, because this book has gotten glowing reviews in the mainstream press. I definitely like the way the author writes, but I just don’t think this is my kinda book.


Top Ten Tuesday: Books on my Spring TBR

Alas, a Top Ten Tuesday topic I can love with my entire heart. I’ve always got some good reading on the horizon, so here’s my Top Ten picks for this spring:

  1. Sometimes I Lie, Alice Feeney (currently reading, NetGalley ARC). This book comes out on this Friday, March 23rd. I’m going to try to get the review up before then. I haven’t gotten too far into this, but I think that there’s gonna be a really good twist here. Hmm.
  2. The Hunger, Alma Katsu (currently on reserve at the library). From what I’ve gathered, this book is a zombie-ish take on the Donner party story. I’m here for it.
  3. Social Creature, Tara Isabella Burton (NetGalley ARC). This book comes out June 5th, so I probably won’t read it until close to Memorial Day. It seems to be a thriller-type story with some “The Talented Mr. Ripley” vibes to it, so I’ll take it.
  4. Tyler Johnson Was Here, Jay Coles (currently on reserve at the library). A book that’s captured my entire interest lately, and not just because it has a beautiful Black man on the cover. My dissertation is all about critical YA lit by Black authors, so this book fits in perfectly with what I’m researching. I cannot wait to read this.
  5. The Comedown, Rebekah Frumkin (NetGalley ARC). This book comes out on April 17th, so I will probably read it and review it here closer to its release date. It’s gotten some really good press, so we’ll see.
  6. Monday’s Not Coming, Tiffany D. Jackson (waiting waiting waiting). I’m planning to purchase this book, another YA title that I’m discussing in my dissertation. It comes out on May 22nd and explores the topic of Black girls caught in the school-to-prison pipeline. Should be very interesting and informative.
  7. Let’s Talk About Love, Claire Kann (currently on reserve at the library). Another YA book that I’ve been dying to read lately that’s being discussed in my dissertation. The beautiful girl with the curly ‘fro on the cover is just a plus.
  8. The Poet X, Elizabeth Acevedo (currently on reserve at the library). YA novel in verse about a young Dominican girl and poet growing up in Harlem. Of course I’m discussing this in my dissertation too, this is a must read.
  9. Number One Chinese Restaurant, Lillian Li (NetGalley ARC). I’m trying to incorporate more contemporary Asian authors into my reading life, and this book seems to be a good one. It comes out on June 19th, I can’t wait to read it and have a review for you here closer to that date.
  10. Wrestling with the Devil: A Prison Memoir, Ngugi wa Thiong’o (on ILL reserve). This book came out for American publication for the first time earlier this month, but Thiong’o wrote and published this overseas back in the early 80’s, after he was released from a Kenyan prison after being held there as a political prisoner from 1978-1980. I’m always interested in these kinds of topics, so this promises to be a really good read.

Ya’ll know I can’t stand commonplace, boring books, so I try to keep things fresh on 29chapters. So many exciting things (and more) coming up soon here, stay tuned.



Review: Speak No Evil

Review for "Speak No Evil" by Uzodinma Iweala (2018)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Nah, I didn’t like this book. Thankfully it’s a short one (about 200 pages), so I was able to muster the courage to get through it quickly without chalking this one up as a DNF.

“Speak No Evil” is the story of Niru, the first generation, American-born son of conservative, upper class Nigerian parents. Although he lives a life of material wealth, he cannot escape the realities that cause him considerable distress: impossibly high standards set by a successful older brother, police harassment due to driving while Black, the racist microaggressions by White classmates at the prep school he attends. The one person he relates to is Meredith, a classmate to whom he confesses that he is gay. His father discovers his secret and, after a violent confrontation, takes his son to Nigeria to visit a special preacher to “pray the gay” out of him. Niru returns to school but his spirit is even more troubled, restless, and confused. He is a shadow of his former self.

The story doesn’t end there. Niru goes continues struggling with his sexuality before meeting a violent end, the circumstances of which did not seem to go with the premise of the book. It is obvious that the author wanted to prove a point about race with Niru’s demise, but I dunno…this kind of “switch” seemed uncalled for. There is also a shift in narrative–when Niru stops talking, Meredith steps in and ends the book. I didn’t like this either. I think he could have stayed with the original voice. The inclusion of Meredith’s voice seemed rather sloppy to me, kinda like he originally drafted two novels and put them together in the same book.

Strangely, I also found this book terribly hard to read. I shouldn’t have, though. Iweala writes this book in the same way he did his last, “Beasts of No Nation.” There is no speech punctuation in that book either, whole conversations appear within huge blocks of text. Though the lack of punctuation didn’t bother me in BoNN, for some reason, it bothered me immensely here. Perhaps it is because there was more description and internal thoughts with “Beasts of No Nation,” less dialogue. I don’t know. Hmmm.

I won’t give this book one star, I respect Iweala greatly as a writer. I just don’t think this particular book was my cup of tea.

Review: The Triangle: A Year on the Ground with New York’s Bloods and Crips


Review for "The Triangle: A Year on the Ground with New York's Bloods and Crips" by Kevin Deutsch (2014)
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Good Lord this book sucks…where do I start?

“The Triangle” is a reporter’s ‘first hand’ account of a year in the lives of Crips and Bloods gang members in the community of Hempstead, Long Island, NY. Both gangs, long associated with the urban center of NYC, have now moved out into the suburbs. Priced out of their former boroughs through gentrification, the suburbs of Long Island and its surrounding towns are now the setting of murders and gang warfare, as well as open air drug markets run by both gangs.

Much of this book takes place during a gang war between the two sets. It’s not a pretty picture. There are accounts of beatings, rapes, and murders on both sides, reported with the same mind-numbing, casual tone as one would describe a routine activity such as making a sandwich. The Crips strike the Bloods by gunning down one of their high ranking members, Bloods then retaliate by kidnapping and raping a Crip female associate. The circle repeats itself over and over as each gang goes back and forth, back and forth. By page 75, I was completely annoyed with this.

Which brings me to the major problem here: the tone of this book. There’s nothing here. For narrative-style nonfiction to be effective, there has to be emotion conveyed, somehow. Yeah it’s a true story, but it’s still a story–the people in it have to live outside the page. Otherwise, reading about them is just boring, pointless facts. This book is just boring pointless facts.There’s no emotional investment in this story by the author or by me in reading it. Here, the main players sling drugs, smoke weed, terrorize their community, then die in a hail of bullets. An awful lot. At no point did I feel any emotion over this, just irritated at the voyeuristic nature of the violence.

Another problem: much of the action of this book takes place through dialogue. In a note at the end, the author mentions that only about 40-50% of the events were witnessed by him first hand. This means that the majority of this book’s events were constructed or inferred by the author, or solely based on the verbal accounts of the subjects (even the author admits that gang members have a tendency to lie or embellish details to bolster their reputation on the street). How much, then, of this story is really true? A quick Google search of the author’s name turns up several accusations of suspicious journalism practices for work he did on a later book. For all we know, this book could be mostly fiction too, passed off as nonfiction with the use of fake/nonexistent sources.

I don’t recommend this book at all. If you really want in-depth, emotionally gripping stories of gang related violence and the urban drug culture beyond just play-by-play tales of violence, I would check out the work of David Simon. He’s written “Homicide: Life on the Streets,” “The Corner,” and, of course HBO’s show “The Wire.” Much better writing too. Check those out. Not this.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books that Surprised Me

Books that surprised me, for particular reasons I’ll share below:

  1. Billy, Albert French – I found this book in a used bookstore in Madison, Wisconsin in 2001. I’d never heard of Albert French before, so it sat on my shelf for almost 15 years before I bothered to read it.  When I did get around to reading it, it truly chilled me. It’s a series of vignettes around the execution of a ten-year-old Black boy named Billy Lee Turner, convicted of murdering a White girl in Mississippi in 1937. Not one word is wasted here, it’s one of the finest books I’ve ever read.
  2. Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland, Dan Barry – Another book I half-heartedly picked up at the library. Once I opened it, I could not put it down. This book is a fine work of investigative reporting about a group of men with developmental disabilities who were kept in a dilapidated rooming house and forced to work on a chicken farm for over 30 years with limited pay and no recourse for leaving their employer. The group eventually sued the company who abused their rights–and won.
  3. Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, Jessica Bruder – Another nonfiction pick I consumed via audio. It’s about older Americans (mostly those who have lost their jobs and savings in the 2008 financial crash) that have chosen a kind of “off the grid” lifestyle, living in mobile homes and tents and working odd jobs (Amazon warehouses are a popular job among them). Great investigative reporting.
  4. See You at Harry’s, Jo Knowles – This is a YA book that I read for one of my doctoral classes about YA lit and trauma. I remember this book surprised me not because it was particularly well written, but because of how amazingly sad it was in the way it dealt with the death of the main character’s younger sibling. If you decide to tackle this book, have tissues handy.
  5. Down City: A Daughter’s Story of Love, Memory, and Murder, Leah Carroll – Another nonfiction pick that I picked up at the library somewhat half-heartedly, but ended up really getting into. Leah is a young girl when her mother is murdered by two Mafia-affiliated henchmen. She does not find out about the circumstances of her mother’s death until much later in her life because her father refused to tell her, attributing her death instead to a car accident. Many years later, Leah’s father, an aging alcoholic Vietnam veteran, is found dead in a seedy hotel. Despite the bleak content, I completely loved this book.
  6. Ru: A Novel, Kim ThuyRu (Vietnamese for “lullaby”) is a collection of short vignettes that describe the author’s growing up in Vietnam before, during, and after the war, her experiences as a refugee in Malaysia, and finally, in her new life as a mother and a writer in Quebec. It’s a short book, but man…every single page packs a punch. Loved this immensely.
  7. The Insides, Jeremy Bushnell – Fantasy like book about a dangerous man in search of a special knife with the power to change destiny, and a girl chef who possesses it and must keep it safe. It’s a nice mix of magic and realism and real-life like characters. Once I started reading this book I couldn’t put it down, it was a very suspenseful read from start to finish.
  8. Crimes in Southern Indiana, Frank Bill – I was surprised that I actually liked this book of short stories, despite the fact that it is full of the male-dominated violence that I completely abhor these days. All of the stories in this volume are connected, the head that got blown off in the meth lab explosion in the second story belongs the same guy who murdered two crooked cops in the first story. Despite the fact that these men are all pathetic, there is a kind of reckoning for all of them, which is one of the factors I think I responded to most. I also think what drew me to this book back in 2014 was the fact that I liked this book for the very reason I shouldn’t–because it is full of drugs, guns, and men fighting over them–a guilty pleasure, if you will.
  9. Inside Madeleine, Paula Bomer – Another audiobook I loved. All of these stories revolve around girls and their relationships with their bodies. They are amazingly brave and hide nothing. Whew.
  10. Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, Laila Lalami – A short book of less than 200 pages that begins with four characters riding in a shoddy, makeshift boat across the 14 kilometer strait that connects Morocco to Spain. Each character, we learn, has a reason they are escaping their fate in Morocco in pursuit of a better life. Some of them find happy endings and some of them don’t. This book is really really good though. A must read.

On to dissertation writing for today, ya’ll. Good morrow…

Review: An American Marriage

Review for "An American Marriage" by Tayari Jones (2018)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Because there’s such a long waiting list to check out this book at my city’s library, I ended up getting a hold of the audiobook version of this through Hoopla. Ultimately I’m glad I did that, because I thoroughly enjoyed the audio version. The two actors reading the story breathe a kind of life into it that I don’t think I would have experienced had I chosen to read it.

“An American Marriage” is the story of Celestial and Roy, a newly married couple residing in Atlanta. For all intents and purposes, they are a mismatch: Celestial is well-grounded and from an urban upper class family; while Roy has a roaming eye for trouble and is from a rural working class upbringing. Despite their differences, they are happy. The couple is only a year and a half into their marriage when Roy is falsely arrested for rape and sentenced to 12 years in prison. From here the novel goes into epistolary form, with the separated couple writing letters back and forth to one other. Roy finds himself adjusting to prison life, while Celestial makes the most of her loneliness and despair in Roy’s absence by creating dolls with her husband’s likeness. She also finds success as an entrepreneur, traveling the country and selling her dolls.

Eventually, Roy is released from prison after 5 and a half years due to a technicality with his trial. He returns home, but both Celestial and Roy find that the terrain of their marriage, as well as who they are as people, have vastly changed. I won’t give away the rest of the story, but I will say that Roy’s release from prison happens early on, at about 35% into the book. There is literally an entire story line after this event that gets very messy for both Celestial and Roy, and not in a good way.

This novel is not a quick read. It’s a slow burn of emotion, with a marriage disintegrating at the center. Both the motives and lives of Roy and Celestial are explored in detail, both characters take turns being both right and wrong.

This book is a solid 4 stars. I can definitely understand why it’s getting the press it’s getting, because it’s definitely well deserved. This one’s a triumph, definitely read it!

Review: Gun Love

Review for "Gun Love" by Jennifer Clement (2018)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Meh, didn’t really like this book.

“Gun Love” is the story of Pearl France, a 14-year-old girl living with her mother in a parked car in a derelict Florida trailer park. Intriguing characters abound in and about the Indian Waters Trailer Park: Pearl’s best friend April May and her parents, Rose and Sergeant Bob, the clergyman of gun buy-backs, Pastor Rex, and Corazon, a Selena-loving, gun toting Mexican woman.

Pearl and her mother share a special bond until she forms a relationship with a mysterious man who hangs around the trailer park named Eli. I won’t tell you what happens specifically with this character for the purposes of this review, but I will say that after he comes into the novel (about 30% of the way in) the narrative begins to fall apart completely. Characters come and go after this point, and none of them are fleshed out enough to move the story along. I also skimmed the last 10% of this book, the events of which seemed totally pointless.

Overall, I liked the writing here but I think the plot could have been handled better.

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