Review: Stray

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Review for "Stray: Memoir of a Runaway" by Tanya Marquardt (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Hmm…I listened to the audio version of this, read by the author herself. Not bad at all.

Lemme start here: it’s always tricky when you write a review for a memoir because you never want to write too harshly, as if you are evaluating the ups and downs of someone’s life. This book is a doozy because while good, it never altogether felt ‘right’ to me. Although “Stray: Memoir of a Runaway” is about the author running away from home at 16, this is only a singular event in the book. Yes, she grows up in a highly dysfunctional home and becomes rebellious, but she never truly runs away–she remains in the same town as her mother and lives with friends, partying and clubbing and eventually returning to her mother after 6 months and living for a while with her father.

To me, “Stray” was more of a life history, told from a much older and wiser woman. Marquardt talks about any and every thing a teenager with minimal supervision does: party, go to goth clubs, smoke, discover boys, and drink. But this is it. She never really has an epiphany or changes course, she continues her lifestyle and the story ends shortly before her graduation from high school and her acceptance into college.

If the writing had not been so engaging, I probably would have stopped listening this around 50%. For this reason, I’m giving this 4 stars.

P.S – I’d be interested in how Tanya Marquardt does fiction. Hmmm….

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Review: Friday Black

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Review for "Friday Black" by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (2018)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Friday Black” is a unique short story collection with stories that range from sci-fi, dystopian, horror, and a couple of other genres that don’t really get talked about much because not enough people write in them yet. Adjei-Brenyah’s writing brims with creativity and satire, it takes raw imagination to even conceive of stories like this.

Each of the stories are set in plain, everyday environments–however, Adjei-Brenyah takes this and twists this and his characters into something else entirely. Comparisons to the anthology sci-fi series “Black Mirror” are accurate and appropriate here. In the collection’s best story, “The Finkelstein 5,” a young Black man named Emmanuel prepares for a job interview against the backdrop of a controversial court verdict in which a White man has been found not guilty of using a chainsaw to decapitate five Black children outside of a library. The verdict sparks protests by ‘Namers,’ Black people who commit violent acts against Whites in revenge for the killings. Emmanuel’s response to his friend’s participation in the Namers is a decision that will ultimately change the course of his life.

Another standout story, “Zimmer Land” (a clever play on the name of George Zimmerman, the murderer of young Trayvon Martin) features a theme park where participants can role play scenarios in which they are attacked and kill a Black perpetrator. “Lark Street” is about a man haunted by the aborted fetuses of his girlfriend. A trio of stories–“Friday Black,” “In Retail,” and “How to Sell a Jacket as Told by IceKing” are set within a mall and take place around the daily monotony of retail work. Stampedes at the mall during Black Friday regularly occur and kill large numbers of people, yet the business of buying and selling goes on unabated.

I gave this collection 4 stars because all of the stories aren’t perfect, and the sheer grandiosity of most of them seemed better suited for a novel. I would love to see “The Finkelstein 5” expanded into a novel, it’s just that great. Not a bad problem to have though. I definitely look forward to reading more from this writer.

Review: Juliet the Maniac

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Review for “Juliet the Maniac” by Juliet Escoria (to be published on 7 May 2019)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

I’m a bit biased on this review because I love Juliet Escoria’s writing. I read her other book of fiction, “Black Cloud,” a few years ago, loved it immensely, and knew that I had to have more of whatever she writes. This book was no exception. I got an advance digital copy on Edelweiss and read it in a few days.

“Juliet the Maniac” is a fictionalized account of the author’s struggles with mental health issues as a teenager. The story begins when her bipolar disorder emerges around age 14 and continues for two years, chronicling a downward spiral of drugs and mental illness. The book covers Juliet’s two suicide attempts, medications, as well as stints in hospitals for “treatment.” Despite these measures, her problems continue. There’s extensive discussion of her history of self medication, mostly through drugs, reckless behaviors, and self harm.

This reads like memoir, but it is a novel. The more I got into this story, however, I didn’t really mind if it was true or not. Overall this book is a very raw reading experience–the more the drugs and the self harm went on, as a reader I became desensitized, much like Juliet’s response to “treatment.” I put treatment in quotes because there was considerable debate within myself while reading this whether it made her better or worse. Interspersed throughout the story are doctor’s prescriptions, pictures of relevant objects, and ‘notes’ from the author in the present day, reflecting on aspects of her past. I thought that inclusion was a beautiful touch.

The only thing I didn’t like about this novel is the fact that most people will have to wait until May to read this. When it does come out, however, do read it. 4.5 stars, highly recommended.

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

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.

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.