Review: The Hunger

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Review for "The Hunger" by Alma Katsu (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

First of all, I have to admit that frontier-sy stories have always appealed to me. Like many kids, I grew up reading “Little House on the Prairie” books, stories about Daniel Boone, and playing “The Oregon Trail” in school. “The Hunger” has got all of that and more in this retelling of the infamous Donner party.

In April 1846, a group of settlers left Independence, Missouri headed for a better life in California. The party was led by George Donner and his brother, Jacob. For the first several months, they followed a well established wagon trail, The California Trail, and reached Fort Laramie, Wyoming without incident. There, they took the advice of a trail guide who suggested that he knew of a quicker route. This route proved treacherous and hard to navigate, and the settlers wasted much-needed time chopping their way through dense forests and idling through deserts to get to the other side. They reached the Sierra Nevada mountains late in the year, and became trapped by snow. After killing all of their oxen and horses, they ran out of food. Those who survived the famine ate the bodies of those who died in order to survive. In the end, only half of the original group of settlers arrived in California.

Anywho, this is what history tells us what happened to the Donner party. “The Hunger” fictionalizes this account and gives you a much more terrifying version of the journey. In Katsu’s version, the na’it, or the hunger, is a contagion that causes men to become monsters and cannibalize one another.

This book is strongly character based. There is no romanticizing of historical figures, they are realistically portrayed as flawed, people with secrets. I wouldn’t call this a ‘scary’ book per se, but the tone is definitely a creepy one. People disappear, animals are attacked, and bodies are discovered, picked clean of flesh. The horror took a while to build as the settlers realize that not only are they running out of supplies and hope, but that they are being hunted by an unseen force.

This is an easy 4 stars for me. This book is definitely not one to miss. A blurb on the author’s website reveals that the film rights have been purchased for this book, so I look forward to seeing this on the big screen soon.

Review: The Grip of It

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Review for "The Grip of It" by Jac Jemc (2017)

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

This book is the cliche of all cliches: the Haunted House. Of course I was aware of this before proceeding, because who knows, perhaps there was Something New in these pages, a grand twist on The Oldest Plot Known to Man. Needless to say, I was grandly disappointed. Not only is there nothing added to this classic genre that’s worthy of note, there’s really nothing here at all.

James and Julie are a pair of married yuppies who move out of the city and into the perfect country house. There’s a small beach nearby, room for a garden, surrounded by quiet woods, and to top it all off–the house is practically a steal. Immediately after they move in they notice strange things–ominous breathing sounds, secret passageways, child-like drawings on the walls, an old journal with indecipherable writing. Julie develops strange bruises all over her body. Their creepy old man neighbor can’t stop watching them from across the street. I have to admit that I did get swept up in the weirdness of this tale, because the occurrences are never really explained. Are they really experiencing something supernatural? Or is it just a dream?

But anyway, that’s where the enjoyment of this book ended. The story is told in short, alternating chapters of the POVs of Julie and James. There is very little discernible difference between the voices of the two. There were many times where I had to stop, flip back a few pages, and figure out who was speaking. There are also long passages where the characters’ actions run on and on and nothing’s really gained as far as knowledge to what’s going on.

And oh yeah, the writing…I didn’t like that either. The tone here was too objective, too matter of fact, and far too emotionally detached. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this kind of storytelling, but I don’t think it fit this narrative. There are no real thoughts or emotions given with either character, it’s just a kinda hmmm…there’s drawings on the wall we didn’t put there and the other’s nod of agreement. It’s weird.

The horror here is rather PG too. At no point in this book was I even remotely scared (pronunciation: “scurred”). I was just weirded out, counting the pages left, and wondering when it would be over with.

Review: When My Heart Joins the Thousand

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Review for "When My Heart Joins the Thousand" by A.J. Steiger (2018)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I really really liked this book.

Alvie Fitz is a 17-year-old girl with Asperger’s syndrome. When the book begins we learn that her mother has died several years before, and after a series of unsuccessful stays in residential care centers and foster family placements, Alvie now lives alone in her own apartment and works a stable job at a local zoo. She is checked on weekly by a psychologist, Dr. Bernstein, in preparation for her request to be legally emancipated. Typical of people with Asperger’s, Alvie has above-average intelligence but difficulty with the most basic of social interactions. She has an obsessive interest in animals, scientific facts, and the book Watership Down (where the title of the novel is from). She also suffers from anxiety and depression, which she copes with by turning to animals and avoiding people altogether.

At its core, this is a love story. Despite Alvie’s difficulties bonding with other people, she falls for Stanley, a very shy college student also with a disability. Life has not been kind to either of them, yet what they find together is extraordinary.

I have to admit that I struggled with Alvie through a lot of this book. During certain scenes where she attempts to interact with people I found myself shaking my head in frustration, sighing. Her difficulties interacting with people are extreme, and even though I was aware of how large her hurdles would be, I don’t think I was prepared for just how much of her motivations, reactions, and thoughts are due to Asperger’s. Stanley has an incredible amount of patience with Alvie, even though her efforts to be “normal” at times seemed like acts of self sabotage.

I think this book really challenged me to move past my ableism and develop empathy, as well as understand what life is like for people with autism. The author has incredible insight into this disability, and although I’ve read many books about people with them, this one really moved me.

Do read this book.

Review: Tyler Johnson Was Here

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Review for "Tyler Johnson Was Here" by Jay Coles (2018)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

From the moment I saw this book I knew I had to have it. I’m always down for YA books by and about people of color that are overtly political in nature, as well as books that challenge young people to think critically social issues. And yes, THAT cover. Gor-juss…

“Tyler Johnson Was Here” is just such a book that is destined to provoke conversation, particularly on police killings and the role of Black Lives Matter movement. The novel centers on the lives of twins, Tyler and Marvin, growing up in the fictional town of Sterling Point. The twins are raised by their single mother while their father, who is incarcerated, makes frequent appearances throughout the book in the form of letters written to Marvin.

Even though this is the story of twins, the story is told through Marvin, the more grounded of the two. Marvin hangs out with his friends Guillermo and Ivy, makes decent grades, watches reruns of “A Different World” and hopes to get into MIT. Tyler is the more restless twin, directing his energies toward social pursuits and hanging with a tough crowd. Much to Marvin’s dismay, he notices a rift between him and his brother and cannot convince Tyler to stay away from trouble. One night, after a party thrown by a local drug dealer, Tyler does not return home. Several days later, he is found deceased. A leaked video reveals that Tyler was unarmed when he was shot by police. As Marvin deals with his grief and anger over his brother’s death, he turns his efforts to protest and making sure that his brother’s memory isn’t forgotten.

What’s wrong with this book? A lot. Hell, I’m just going to bullet point here:

— The pacing of this novel was a problem for me. We’re told on the front flap of the book that Tyler is going to disappear and later be discovered dead. However, the characters do not discover Tyler’s death until well over halfway into the book. I felt as if the author could have skipped the ‘missing’ part, because it slowed the pace of the novel significantly. You’re literally just sitting around waiting for the inevitable for the first 150 pages. That’s not fun.

— Characterization fell a bit flat in this book as well. Even though I felt I understood Tyler, when I finished this I realized that I really didn’t. The limitations of a single perspective (Marvin’s) is apparent here. We know he was a good kid who got mixed up in a troubled crowd, but we’re never told the exact nature of his last days, his dealings with his friends. The author spends a great deal of time making the point that although Tyler may have been troubled, this was no reason for the manner of his death. While this is true, I think this point would not have required so much emphasis with more character-building as far as Tyler was concerned.

— There’s also a side character that goes absolutely nowhere: an aunt who’s a police officer, mentioned several times in the novel, who’s “always on the phone” with Marvin and Tyler’s mom. Considering that the police are the bad guys here who murdered Tyler and all of law enforcement in this book is portrayed as the epitome of evil, a relative of Marvin’s who happens to be a cop may have added to the complexity of this book. But that’s never explored. Weird.

— Marvin meets a girl, Faith, through his attempts to discover his brother’s whereabouts after the fateful night at the party. They eventually become involved with one another, but I never got a sense of their chemistry, her relevance to the story beyond the standard YA romance requirement, or really why she is in the book at all.

— The multitude of references to the tv show “A Different World”: Marvin is obsessed with this show, viewing it as a way to “understand” diverse Black characters. I’m not sure why this is, especially when there are more modern (and diverse!) shows with Black characters that could have been referenced here. I’m an 80’s baby, so I watched “A Different World” as a teenager (it went off the air in 1993, right as I went into high school). A teenager in 2018 still fixated on characters from a show from well over 25 years ago seemed strange, kinda like a kid who watches a dated show like “Hogan’s Heroes” expecting to find enlightenment. Yikes.

Comparisons to “The Hate U Give” are inevitable (both have Black main characters, both are about the subject of police violence), and if I had to pick between the two I’d say in a heartbeat that “The Hate U Give” is the much better book. Despite my criticisms, however, I won’t go lower than 3 stars for “Tyler Johnson Was Here.” I also wholeheartedly recommend this to other people to read. Even though TJWH has problems in its execution, I respect what it does accomplish successfully, and that’s place the narrative surrounding police violence in the hands of Black youth, within the context of their own language and culture. The value of those things in and of itself is immeasurable, respectable, and deserves notice.

And yes, the cover. It’s quite beautiful.

*sigh*