Review: Efren Divided

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Review for "Efren Divided" by Ernesto Cisneros (2020)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Woww…this one’s a tearjerker. A powerful and timely middle grades fiction novel about a relevant issue that affects so many children and their families in America.

Efren Nava is a likeable middle schooler living in Los Angeles with his parents and two younger twin siblings. Though the family lives modestly in a one-room apartment, their warmth and togetherness is cherished by Efren, who marvels at his hardworking father and the way his mother makes¬†milagros¬†(“miracles”) happen with little money. Although Efren and his siblings are citizens, his parents are undocumented and he knows that they face an uncertain future if their status is discovered. He keeps this fact a secret from everyone, including his closest friends and teachers.

Efren’s life is upended when he leaves for school one morning and returns to discover that his mother has been taken in a sweep by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and that she has been deported to Mexico. His father begins working non-stop to hire a coyote to bring her back. Efren is left in charge of his siblings, often late into the night. He is overwhelmed and in a constant state of anxiety, his school demeanor suffers. Eventually he and his best friend stop talking, crushed by the fact that he is afraid to reveal his parent’s status to anyone outside of his home.

I won’t reveal the end of the book, other than to say that there is no happy ending here. I respect the author for doing this, because the fact remains that nothing good comes out of separating parents from their children and splitting up families. Whether its Border Patrol placing children in cages in a detention center or ICE rounding up their parents in widespread sweeps, the damage of separation and deportation is devastating and irreparable.

I loved this book because it highlights the struggle of what it is truly like to live as an undocumented person, constantly looking over your shoulder and expecting the worst. There is no political rhetoric, just a child’s story that calls on readers to be compassionate and understand what they are going through. This is definitely a must-read in 2020 and a perfect book for both children and adults.

Review: Darling Rose Gold

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Review for “Darling Rose Gold” by Stephanie Wrobel (2020)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The name of this book should be called “Crazy and Crazier.” It’s good though, ya’ll. Really good.

When the story opens, Patty Watts, the single mother of daughter Rose Gold Watts, has just been released from prison. Although it is never explicitly stated in the text, all indicators point to Patty having Munchausen’s syndrome, a mental illness that results in her abusing Rose Gold who had been under her continuous care for years, poisoning her through phony stomach ailments. As her release date nears, Rose Gold desires to reconcile with her mother and invites her to live with her and her infant son.

Once Patty comes home, the real action begins. Rose Gold has recovered physically, but it is evident early on that she has deep seated psychological issues, much like her mother. Mother and daughter attempt to reconcile in their time together but both are far from healed. Told in alternating chapters of both Patty and Rose Gold’s points of view, you get a glimpse into the twisted psyches of both.

I will not go into specifics of the plot because it will completely spoil the book. I will say though that when I finished reading it I closed my Kindle, looked at the wall and said: “well damn!”

This book is fast paced and fairly easy to read. Both of the main characters are unreliable narrators and in their own ways completely wretched, there are no real redeeming qualities for either. Both voices are flat and emotionless, and even though I hate that kind of storytelling in other books, here I loved it and thought it worked really well.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this book is greenlit for tv or a Netflix series. The level of drama here definitely insures an audience. Either way, I loved this book. 4.5 stars, friends…

Review: Black Girl Unlimited

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Review for "Black Girl Unlimited" by Echo Brown (2020)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Trigger Warnings: sexual abuse, sexual assault/rape, suicide ideation

Echo is a Black girl growing up on the East Side of Cleveland in the late 90’s. Although she is academically gifted and goes to a special school, her family life is in turmoil. Her father is an alcoholic and her mother is crack addict, wounded by deep trauma in her past. Her brothers fare no better, caught up in street life and criminal activity. Despite the dysfunction around her, Echo learns early on in her life that she is a wizard and possesses a collection of psychic abilities that she’s inherited from her mother. Echo’s abilities include bending time and space, predicting the future, astral projection, the ability to see people’s ‘veils’ (a psychic kind of ‘darkness’ that invades their being), and perform miracles (hypnosis/mental suggestion, etc).

The novel follows Echo on her journey as a wizard from age 6 until she goes off to college. Each chapter is a lesson she learns along with the help of other women wizards about living with the darkness and becoming a better person. Despite the fact that I really liked this book, there were some issues here. Although I was able to suspend disbelief and accept Echo’s identity as a wizard, the text transitions between the past and present during certain scenes where the ‘magic’ was taking place was a bit hard to follow, with breaks occurring in paragraphs and picking up elsewhere as if it was the same thought. Cool technique, just not executed as well as it could have been.

Another issue was the over-burdening of the text with soooo many peripheral characters. Brown’s main focus seems to be sexual abuse, religion, drugs, and colorism. However, there’s a myriad of characters that pop in and out of the book that seem to represent other issues and didn’t add much to the story. There’s a friend who’s a Black Panther who spouts Black nationalist rhetoric on a whim, a Muslim friend who wears a hijab, the hostile, middle class husband of her mentor, and a gay Asian friend who’s just kinda…there.

Some of the more graphic scenes made this book very tough to read but I appreciate Brown for writing about them. I’m not sure how the publisher is marketing this, but I would not consider this a book for YA readers. Older adolescents and adults are the more ideal audience here. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone under 18 unless they’re super mature.

Overall, I really really liked this. 4 stars.

Review: The New David Espinoza

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Review for "The New David Espinoza" by Fred Aceves (2020)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

“The New David Espinoza” is a very well written book about a topic that’s rarely explored in YA fiction. The story centers around David, a Latino teenager dealing with past trauma, specifically, the recent death of his mother. Compounding his troubles is the fact that David is relentlessly bullied in school due to his small size. When a viral video surfaces of him being assaulted by classmates, David decides that he’s had enough and begins to change his diet, work out obsessively, and join a gym. He gives himself one summer to build his physique and ‘unveil’ his tougher, more muscular look to his peers. His path takes a dark turn when he befriends another aspiring bodybuilder and gets involved in steroid use to achieve his transformation.

Once again, I liked this book because it explores a topic that’s rarely explored in a lot of YA books I’ve read. Body dysmorphia is very real, yet a lot of books don’t explore the male side of this highly misunderstood psychological disorder. There’s also a lot of very thoughtful explorations on bullying and toxic masculinity here that I think teens will benefit from.

This is the second book I’ve read from Fred Aceves. I will continue to read his work in the future.

Four and a half stars.

Review: Hillbilly Elegy

I’m probably the last person in the world to read this book (it came out in 2016), but since I’m quarantine’d up like the rest of the world, I finally got around to getting a digital copy from my library. It didn’t go so well. Anywho, here goes:

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Review for "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis" by J. D. Vance (2018)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Oh hell no…I didn’t like this book.

J.D. Vance, a self described “hillbilly,” grew up poor and disadvantaged in the Appalachian Rust Belt of Ohio. His parents were divorced before he could talk, his mother had addiction issues, and his Mamaw took most of the responsibility for raising him. He eventually goes off to the Marines, on to Ohio State, and graduates from Yale Law. He carries emotional baggage from his childhood experiences, but honestly umm…Mr. Vance is not a hillbilly. With his Ivy League education and newfound book fame he’s probably among the top 10% of wage earners in the country. So umm, a hillbilly? I don’t think so.

This book points to meritocracy as the answer to every problem that deep poverty brings. If J.D. Vance can achieve the American Dream with a quality education, a decent job, and hard work, then why can’t you? The virtue signaling of this book is loud and unmistakable, that if you’re still poor in the richest and best country in the world, you deserve to be. It’s interesting that Mr. Vance has adopted a conservative political viewpoint to coincide with this fallacy, which completely ignores the social, racial, and gender inequities that have been present since the day this country was founded. He absolves the government of blame and espouses personal responsibility for ourselves and our communities, yet stops short of any kind of real solution for the poverty, drugs, and loss of manufacturing jobs that plague his beloved working class.

And then there’s race. Other than once or twice, there is very little discussion of the obvious, and that’s the fact that Appalachia is still a very racist place with a long history of hatred and violence towards black people and other minorities. I find it interesting that people look to this book as “the reason why Trump won,” but there’s no acknowledgement of the white supremacy that was already long present among the working class that made his win possible. His avoidance of this topic is cowardly and telling; a refusal to see simple facts.

This book was also boring. Who cares about J.D. Vance’s agony at figuring out which fork is which at his first big fancy dinner party?

I gave this book two stars, because one star seemed cruel. I still might go back and subtract one. What the hell.