Top Ten Books I DNF’d in 2018

Making up my own Top Ten Tuesday topic again. Today I’m going to talk about DNF’s.

There’s a lot of reasons why I choose to stop reading a book. I’ve discussed them in the past in far more detail, though my rule in general is that if a book doesn’t give me a good reason to continue it after 50 pages, I usually close it and don’t come back. There’s also the “how do I feel” test, where I will read for a while and then ask myself how I feel based on the first couple dozen pages. If it’s not making me curious, I generally don’t go further.

So what did I DNF in 2018? Here’s a quick list of just 10 books that I gave the boot to:

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A History of Violence – Edouard Louis

For a book about the author’s sexual assault, I found this book’s tone far too cold and confusing. Large portions are told through the perspective of the author’s sister, and I couldn’t tell where the author’s own voice was. I like Louis, but this one wasn’t for me.

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2. Bearskin – James McLaughlin

Chills and thrills about a man chasing bear poachers on a mountain. Good premise, but there are huge swaths of the book in which literally nothing happens–birds sing, bees make honey, grass grows. Snooze City.

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3. The Lauras – Sara Taylor

A mother and a child (the sex of the child is never given, it may be assumed that they are transgendered) run away from her husband and criss-cross the country. It’s terribly slow. Page 100 and it still really hadn’t gotten off the ground yet. Blah.

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4. The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates – Wes Moore

A successful Black writer and Army veteran investigates the history behind a prison inmate who bears his same name. Seems to draw a faulty premise on a less fortunate outcome based on the existence of his own privilege, particularly class.

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5. The Great Alone – Kristin Hannah

I couldn’t seem to get into this one, even after about 200 pages. I may actually come back to it one day when I’m in the mood. For now though, nahhh…I’m good.

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6. Pretend I’m Dead – Jen Beagin

I don’t know how or why this book has such great reviews. About the life of a quirky cleaning lady, it started off cool but towards the middle I found it to be rather tedious and boring, as if the air went out of a balloon and fell flat. There is a sequel to this book coming in 2019, which I don’t care to read either.

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7. How Are You Going to Save Yourself – J.M. Holmes

I was cool with this book until about halfway in, when three of the four male characters gang rape a female character with indifference. Rape in literature minus a critique, in my opinion, is simply unacceptable. It’s also the very definition of what is meant by ‘rape culture.’

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8. The Incendiaries – R. O. Kwon

Another book with high reviews and I’m not sure why. I loved the writing, but the characters I found to be stilted, cold, and inaccessible. Not for me.

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9. Ohio – Stephen Markley

Overwritten and bloated novel about 4 high school friends meeting up on the same night in–where else? Ohio. For me, there were too many flashbacks for expository purposes. I didn’t care either.

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10. I Stop Somewhere – T. E. Carter

Mashup between “The Lovely Bones” and “13 Reasons Why” about the spirit of a young rape victim, murdered by the town’s hero and doomed to watch further sexual crimes in the same location for all eternity. Unlike “How Are You Gonna Save Yourself” there is a critique on rape here, but the bad stuff is far too detailed to be usable, and it’s all at the expense of plot development.

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Review: The Kill Jar

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Review for "The Kill Jar: Obsession, Descent, and a Hunt for Detroit's Most Notorious Serial Killer" by J. Reuben Appelman (2018)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This is a dark, dark read. It’s so unrelenting in its darkness that reading it for hours on end was simply not possible without walking away for a few just to come up for “air,” if you will. The bleakness here is all the more pronounced due to the author’s revelations about his own life and his constant brooding while on the case. I’ll talk about that more later though.

Anyway, “The Kill Jar” is about The Oakland County Child Killer (referred to throughout the book as OCCK), a series of child abductions and murders in the wealthy outskirts surrounding Detroit in the late 70’s. All four of the victims were abducted and held in captivity for a period of time–in one case, nearly 19 days–before being killed and dumped in wooded areas. A task force was formed, however, nearly 40 years later, the killer remains unknown. For Appelman, who writes this book, the case is very personal–he was almost a kidnapping victim as a child. The experience obviously affected him very negatively, he becomes obsessed with the case. Appelman’s marriage, his relationship with his children, and his own temptations with substance abuse all become a part of his investigation of the OCCK, and this book.

Sadly, for everything the author sacrificed, very little info is actually revealed here. There’s evidence unearthed about a local child pornography ring with prominent community members in the 70’s that’s possibly connected to this case. There’s also evidence that the police withheld information, didn’t follow up on certain leads, and “lost” other leads that would have named a viable suspect. There’s also evidence that the reason why the police did not follow up properly is because one suspect in particular came from a very wealthy, high profile family. But that’s about it. Beyond what’s already mentioned is a whole lot of hearsay not backed by evidence, and all of the ‘definite’ suspects mentioned are either dead or simply not talking. These details are repeated throughout the book over and over again, as if this is all Appelman can come up with. It’s not good.

Then there’s Appelman himself. This book goes heavily into his private life with discussions of childhood abuse, violent thoughts, and the troubled relationship with his father. His depression is quite obvious, I felt bad for him. It is hard to know if his investigation is the cause of his troubles or an indicator of something else that is amiss. The fact that a person went around killing children in the 70’s and never got caught is already terribly unnerving and sad, but the author’s own constant ruminating about his life made this book a slog to get through. Short chapters are great, but they don’t transition well at all. For instance, one chapter is about the porn ring, the next about the author’s tendency to self-harm, the next is about the potential OCCK suspect, and the next about a woman (not his wife) that Appelman is pursuing.

What this book does do, however, is direct public interest back to the OCCK cold case. Comparisons between this and Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (2018) are inevitable, as they both deal with similar themes of cold case murders, an amateur sleuth, and obsession. McNamara’s book is much better though. Three stars.

Review: What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape

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Review for "What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape" by Sohaila Abdulali (2018)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

I can’t say that I “liked” this book because it deals with a topic that isn’t very likable: rape. However, I will say that this is an important book that I would encourage everyone to read. The author, Sohaila Abdulali (also a rape survivor), takes this topic and engages it head on. She covers women’s stories from all around the globe and explores the various cultural contexts of rape. As a person who rejects First/Third Worldism, I found the global perspective here notable, a breath of fresh air. This book is also current, which I liked. The #MeToo movement is discussed, as well as latest political campaign, which gave rise to the public dialogue that has been swirling about rape, toxic masculinity, and the rights of women.

I don’t know, though…if you’re pretty well versed in this topic I can’t agree that reading this will give you any new insights. Although the readability of this book is wonderful, I felt like the chapters were too brief and the topics skipped around too much. Within a 5 page span you get collected personal narratives to political opinions to the author’s input, which never really lingered long enough to offer a lot of in-depth analysis.

Definitely do read this, though. I’d give this a firm 3.5 stars.

Review: Amateur

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Review for "Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man" by Thomas Page McBee (2018)
Rating; 3 out of 5 stars

I’ve been telling myself that in 2019 I’m going to read more books by transgender men and women, so naturally this one caught my eye.

Thomas Page McBee is the first transgender man to box in Madison Square Garden. This book is not only a memoir of his preparation for the important match, but an exploration of masculinity, along with its pitfalls and its promises. Each chapter is headed with rhetorical questions such “Am I a Real Man?” “Am I Passing?” and “Why do Men Fight?” Overall, I found the book to be very self reflective and it definitely brought up some good points, though I did find myself losing interest at times (i.e., skipping pages). Anyway, it’s not a bad book at all.

Definitely read if you are into deep thoughts on masculinity, violence, life as a non-binary person.

Review: My Sister, the Serial Killer

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Review for "My Sister, the Serial Killer" by Oyinkan Braitwaite (2018)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Dark and brilliant work of fiction. I read this in about 5 days, only because I had to pause to savor the words and the plot a ‘lil bit longer than usual.

Anywho, “My Sister, the Serial Killer” is about two sisters living with their mother in present day Lagos, Nigeria. Ayoola, the younger sister, is a beautiful fashion designer with a bad habit for murdering her boyfriends. Korede, the older sister, works as a nurse in a local hospital and resigns herself to a life of boredom and covering for her sister when another one of her paramours winds up dead. When a handsome doctor at Korede’s hospital ends up falling for Ayoola, the sister’s worlds are turned upside down.

This is not so much a story about murder and mayhem than it is about modern Nigerian life and the pitfalls of familial obligation and tradition. Ayoola does not feel remorse for her victims and neither of the sisters are particularly likable. However, you come to understand that Korede is fully overshadowed by Ayoola, so much so that you can’t help but to empathize with her as she is dragged closer and closer into her sister’s murderous web. Each takes their turn manipulating one another and allowing others in their orbit to be manipulated. Overall, it’s a fun story and I honestly enjoyed this book.

I definitely look forward to the next book that Oyinkan Braithwaite writes.

Review: Norte

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Review for "Norte" by Edmundo Paz Soldan, translated from Spanish by Valerie Miles (2016) 
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

TW: graphic scenes of rape, murder, mutilation

“Norte” is Bolivian author Edmundo Paz Soldan’s third novel, originally written in Spanish and translated into English. There are three distinctly related narrative threads within this novel, two of which are inspired by real people. The first is the story of Jesus, a ruthless serial killer based on the life of Angel Maturino Resendiz, who hopped freight trains throughout the U.S. and murdered his victims in their homes near railroads from the mid-80s and throughout the 90s. The second is the story of Martin, based on the life of Martin Ramirez, a self-taught, schizophrenic artist who languished in California’s mental hospitals for thirty years before dying in one in 1963. The third is the present-day story of Michelle and Fabian, a Bolivian and Argentinian artist couple struggling with drugs and depression.

This book is not so much about the immigrant experience, but about the pain of displacement and loss, and being in places unfamiliar and strange and far from “home.” All four of the main characters struggle with madness, a theme that runs prominently throughout the novel. Martin’s and Michelle’s art is inspired by voices and the shifts in their environment, Jesus’ acts are also inspired by voices that command him to kill women. Jesus is a highly repugnant character, perhaps one of the most awful people I’ve ever had the displeasure of reading about. There are very graphic and detailed scenes of rape, murder, and mutilation in this book. The target of Jesus’ violence is women, which he possesses a pathological hatred for. I can see where this would probably turn a good number of readers off, though personally I did not feel that the violence was too gratuitous (reminder: we are talking about a serial killer, after all).

Overall, I liked this book and found it to be very readable.

Four stars.

Review: Paperback Crush

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Review for "Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of '80s and '90s Teen Fiction" by Gabrielle Moss (2018)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Nancy Drew. The Wakefield twins. The Babysitters Club. Christopher Pike. R. L. Stine. The Girls of Canby Hall.

Don’t forget the series. Always in an endless parade of series, people…

If you know any of the names above, you were an 80’s/90’s reader girly like me and read all things mass market, pop teen fiction. My favorite activity at the local mall (after copping a slice of Sbarro’s pizza) was going to Waldenbooks, finding a nice spot on the floor and deciding which paperback I was going to buy with my babysitting money to read that week. I collected these books and wouldn’t let anyone touch them, especially my baby sister at the time (who used to rip up books, yikes!).

“Paperback Crush” is a time machine back to that period, a dive into the history of teen fiction from the late 60s to the early 00’s. The format is excellent and easy to follow, there are tons of pictures of the books I definitely read and remembered. There’s also interviews with some of the authors who changed the game with more diverse characters and situations that teens were reading about.Β The book is split into categories that were also very interesting: love/sex, friendships, family, teen jobs/sleuthing, paranormal, danger, and so on. It’s a pretty broad overview of the development of the genre, complete with a beautiful gem of nostalgia.

This book also brought me back mentally to a time when much of the world to me was very “safe”–suburban, heterogeneous, heteronormative–and of course, White. Of course I still read the books regardless, but it took me back to the very real feeling I got (and still get) often as a Black girl reader: where was I? Why does no one in this entire book look like me? Sure there were characters of color here and there (i.e., Jessie and Claudia in the Babysitters Club), but they were generally ‘otherized’–mystical tokens in a sea of whiteness. This book barely scratches the surface of the deeper discussions of race, class, and representation in literature, which I wish had taken up a larger portion of the book.

I realize now that I owe a tremendous debt to pop teen fiction. Its where I learned not only how to read, but how to analyze, criticize, roll my eyes and yell out “oh please” when a character did something stupid. It made me the reader I am today.

Definitely get this one.