Review: Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish

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Review for "Marcus Vega Doesn't Speak Spanish" by Pablo Carteya (2018)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Ah, I liked this book. It’s a great junior high/middle grades story of family, culture, and dealing with adversity. It’s also a love letter to the beautiful island of Puerto Rico, which I had the chance to visit back in 2016 before the hurricane. Because this book conjured up so many great memories for me, naturally I gravitated to this novel.

Marcus Vega is an 8th grader who is 6 feet tall. He uses his size to walk bullied kids to and from school, to impose a littering tax, and keep kids’ cell phones during the day–for profit. He lives with his single mom who works long hours at the local airport, and cares for his younger brother Charlie, who has Down Syndrome. When another student at school makes a comment about his brother, Marcus attacks him and is suspended from school. Marcus’ mom uses the break from school to visit family in Puerto Rico, the place where Marcus was born. Marcus, who came to the mainland as a young child, does not speak Spanish. He also barely remembers any of his family there, particularly his father. He becomes interested in traveling to the island to meet his dad for the first time.

Once the family is in Puerto Rico, Marcus discovers an entire culture, language, and way of seeing his world that he previously knew nothing about. While I won’t reveal the ending of this book, I did feel that the ending was satisfactory, though bittersweet. All in all I loved the scenery of this novel: the colorful streets of Old San Juan, the music, the culture, the chirping of the coqui, the language. Much of the Spanish spoken by the characters isn’t translated, which is ok. This is Puerto Rico’s story.

I highly recommend this book.

Review: The Wicker King

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Review for "The Wicker King" by K. Ancrum (2017)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Honestly, it made a bit of sense. Perception is relative. So is sanity, if you think about it. It’s totally a Minority vs. Majority thing. If you fall on one side of the line, take a ticket and proceed. If you fall on the other, shit gets real. – The Wicker King, p. 99

I finished this book at 4:45 am this morning, and man…I am wrecked.

“The Wicker King” is the story of Jack and August, two teenage boys that have been friends since they were kids. Jack is the rugby player with wealthy parents, August is the kid of a single mom who sells drugs in their high school to keep himself afloat. Early in the novel, Jack begins to see hallucinations, weird visions of a parallel universe with bizarre artifacts, riddles, and strange creatures. In Jack’s world, he is the king that has been called upon to save this fantasy world from destruction. August cannot see Jack’s visions but trusts them, believes in them, and ultimately, risks his very soul to bring it to life.

At the center of this novel is Jack and August’s relationship, which is intense, manipulative, intoxicating, all-consuming, unhealthy, romantic…I could go on and on with the adjectives here. Love sustains both Jack and August as the victims of neglectful parents, attempting to fill the empty places of need inside each other. Although the sexuality of the main characters is never explicitly stated, it’s quite obvious that this is a queer version of wretchedly dark love story. In an echo of the mental state of the characters, the pages of the book get darker and darker as the narrative progresses until they eventually fade to black.

The only thing I didn’t care for here was the heavy romanticization of mental illness, which the author dresses up pretty thick with Jack’s version of a dark fairy tale kingdom. There are plenty of negative consequences for both Jack and definitely August for embracing this, however, and I think that’s made clear in the novel. The message: if you or a loved one is grappling with mental illness, get help.

4.5 stars.

Top Fifteen Tuesday: Reads for 2019

I’m so hyped for some great reads coming down the pipe in 2019 that I couldn’t cull my list down to 10, so here goes:

Nonfiction/Memoir

1. Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive – Stephanie Land

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2. Body Leaping Backward: Memoir of a Delinquent Girlhood – Maureen Stanton

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3. The Bold World: A Memoir of Family and Transformation

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Fiction

4. Queenie – Candice Carty Williams

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5. The Other Americans – Laila Lalami

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6. An Orchestra of Minorities – Chigozie Obioma

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YA

7. The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali – Sabina Khan

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8. Belly Up – Eva Darrows

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9. A Good Kind of Trouble – Lisa Ramee

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10. With the Fire on High- Elizabeth Acevedo

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11. Watch Us Rise – Renee Watson

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12. The Revolution of Birdie Randolph – Brandy Colbert

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13. Internment – Samira Ahmed

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14. Let Me Hear a Rhyme – Tiffany D. Jackson

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15. On the Come Up – Angie Thomas

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Review: Anatomy of a Girl Gang

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Review for "Anatomy of a Girl Gang" by Ashley Little (2013)
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

“Bad bitches don’t die.” p. 108

LOL, I crack myself up sometimes. I also cracked myself up with this book. Anywho, I definitely liked this one.

Stuck in the streets of a gritty neighborhood in Vancouver and fed up with the sexist actions of their all-boy gang, girl gangsters Mac and Mercy decide to start their own crew, which they call The Black Roses. Mac sets strict rules at the outset: there will never be more than 5 girl members, they will never use the drugs that they sell, and they will be their city’s worst nightmare.

Together, Mac and Mercy recruit 3 more girls. Each member is distinct in their personality and serves their own purpose within the gang. Mac is the leader, mastermind, and the O.G. of the gang (that’s ‘original gangster’ for you squares). Mercy, a “Punjabi princess,” is Mac’s right hand with a special aptitude for theft (cars, store merchandise, you name it). Kayos is from a rich family and has a special flair for violence. Sly Girl, who comes from a hard life on a reservation, is a master of the ups and downs of buying, selling, (and later using) drugs. The final recruit, Z, is a young Chinese graffiti artist whose job it is to market The Black Roses’ message of mayhem by tagging their name on street signs and bridges all across the city.

At first, the Black Roses are wildly successful. Although they run into some problems with other gangs, they quickly solve them with violence. They begin to save their money and dream of leaving the streets. There’s even time for a romance to develop between two of the members. All continues to go well until a devastating blow leaves them without hope or the money they’ve saved to plan an escape. Desperate, the girls come up with an ill-advised plan which sets into motion a chain of events that eventually destroys them all.

This book is told in alternating narratives of all five of the characters. Interspersed throughout the story is the voice of Vancouver, an eye in the sky that “sees” all. Honestly, the writing of this book is not all that excellent but the story managed to be quietly devastating enough to keep me turning the pages. The mid-90’s hip hop language, explained to the less-than-wary with the aid of a glossary in the back, is also funny too with definitions for words like “slinging,” “burners,” and “gat.”

This is YA, but I’d recommend for adults too.

Four stars, yo…

Review: Bang

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Review for "Bang" by Daniel Pena (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

A dark story, indeed…

“Bang” is the story of a Mexican-American family with ties on both sides of the border. Araceli, the matriarch, lives with her two sons near a fruit grove in Harlingen, Texas. She sits and waits daily for her husband, who’s long since been deported back to Mexico. She lives with sorrow in her husband’s absence, as well as frequent nosebleeds and blackouts from the constant exposure to pesticides. Cuauhtemoc, the more troublesome elder son, flies crop duster planes for the fruit farm while her younger son, Uli, struggles to complete high school.

After a late night flight with Uli, Cuauhtemoc crashes one of the farm’s planes onto the Mexican side of the border. Both brothers are injured but manage to survive, and eventually become separated and trapped in Mexico. A new chain of disastrous events are then set into motion when Araceli, who hears of the crash, crosses the border to look for her sons. Cuauhtemoc is forced to fly drug deliveries for a violent local cartel, while Uli searches for his father but ends up getting caught up in a local dogfighting ring and boosting copper for cash.

This novel is presented in alternating narratives among the main three characters. This slows down the pace considerably, so there is an extraordinary focus on the human suffering taking place on both sides of the border, as well as the violent drug war taking place there. It’s an uncomfortable story, but one that definitely needs to be told.

Four stars.

Top Ten Tuesday: The Best of 2018

Even though 2018 isn’t officially over, I wanted to take the time to do a quick round up of all of the five star reads I’ve come across this year. Most of these have been previously reviewed here (as shown with a link), and if they haven’t, the review will be forthcoming in the next few weeks.

BTW, there are more than 10 here. In no particular order, they are:

  1. American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment – Shane Bauer
  2. The Circuit – Francisco Jimenez
  3. We the Animals – Justin Torres
  4. In My Father’s House: A New View of How Crime Runs in the Family – Fox Butterfield
  5. What Girls Are Made Of – Elana K. Arnold
  6. Any Man – Amber Tamblyn
  7. The End of Eddy – Edouard Louis
  8. A Lucky Man – Jamel Brinkley
  9. My Year of Rest and Relaxation – Ottessa Moshfegh
  10. Heavy: An American Memoir – Kiese Laymon
  11. Brother – David Chariandy
  12. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? – Kathleen Collins
  13. Illegal – Eoin Colfer

Review: Detroit: An Autopsy

3 inches of snow here today in Charlotte, North Carolina. Any kind of snow accumulation of over an inch is fairly rare here, so naturally the city shuts down. Major roads are ok but side streets are impassable, schools close, and necessities like grocery stores aren’t open. I’m huddled under a blanket on the couch with hot tea, because cold weather is a great time to read.

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Review for "Detroit: An Autopsy" by Charlie LeDuff (2013)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Today’s review takes me to a cold weather place: Detroit.

I liked this book. It’s written by a native of the city who comes back home after spending years away as a reporter and finds it gone completely to hell.

The scenes of this book are what make it interesting. There’s a homeless man the writer finds frozen solid inside an abandoned house. There’s the city’s woefully underfunded fire department, who spends most of its time putting out the work of arsonists because it’s cheaper to start a fire than it is to go to a movie. There’s a porn-style tv political ad with a corrupt lady politician at the center. There’s the author’s brother, who, after being laid off from a well-paying car manufacturing job, is doomed to put together useless parts for a low wage. And, because this is Detroit, there’s all manner of political corruption. Failing schools, corruption, racism, corruption. It’s depressing as hell. But such a good read.

Charlie LeDuff positions Detroit as a microcosm of America, when consumerism, debt, aging infrastructure, and just plain bad policy decisions go wrong. He’s sympathetic toward his city but he pulls no punches as he calls out politicians, local leaders, family members, and even himself on his own bullshit. His premise? Want to know what’s wrong with Detroit? Look in the mirror.

I wholly recommend this book.