Review: The Dreamers

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Review for "The Dreamers" by Karen Thompson Walker (2019)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

In the small fictional college town of Santa Lora, California, a virus spreads among the students on campus. The victims fall into a deep, coma-like sleep from which it appears that they will never wake. They are alive, but dreaming.

“The Dreamers” is told through an omniscient narrator and follows several people throughout the town, each grappling with the epidemic. There is Mei and Matthew, two quarantined freshman who breach the barrier and fall for one another, Anna and Ben, a married couple with a new baby, and Libby and Sara, two young sisters coping with life after their doomsday prepper dad falls ill. As with any medical based mystery, as the virus spreads, fear among the residents increases and the town becomes more and more isolated by quarantine as more people fall asleep. What is it? What is going on?

An interesting thing about this novel is that there is no background info given on the source of the virus or how it is spread; you as a reader are just as clueless about what’s going on as the town’s residents. I didn’t necessarily mind the lack of a solid back story here, though I admit that this was the only thing that kept me reading. Other than this, I wanted more from this book. Characters are too brief, events are fleeting, emotions aren’t explored as deeply as they could have been. There’s echoes of Jose Saramago’s “Blindness” here, but this doesn’t come close.

I liked reading this and I definitely like Karen Thompson Walker, but her first novel, “Age of Miracles” much much better.

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Review: The Love Prison Made and Unmade

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Review for "The Love Prison Made and Unmade" by Ebony Roberts (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Curiosity drove me to this book, particularly after reading the author’s former partner, Shaka Senghor’s book “Writing My Wrongs.” From Senghor, we learn the story of a troubled young Black man growing up in inner city Detroit in the 1980’s, eventually becoming a drug dealer to earn a living. At barely 19 years old, he turns to violence and ends up on the criminal end of a murder case. For his crime, Senghor earns himself a lengthy prison sentence. While on the inside, he begins to correspond with a brilliant young scholar by the name of Ebony. They fall in love through letters and visits, and continue their relationship for several years after Senghor is released.

“The Love that Prison Made” is Ebony’s side of the story, beginning from her childhood. After witnessing domestic abuse in her childhood, she tells her narrative of meeting Senghor behind bars and falling in love with him. The narrative continues after he is released, when all doesn’t go as planned and the couple is confronted with cold realities and real problems.

I really liked this. There is a lot of focus on the couple’s courtship through letters, which makes up most of this book. Although Senghor is not released until about 75% in, you immediately know early on that this pair is not going to make it. Although she is careful not to generalize about the fate of all prison relationships, I appreciate Ms. Roberts’ choice to be transparent about why her prison romance failed. All too often we hear about the ‘happily ever after’ and the happy couple life of inmates and persons on the outside. What about the people who do the same and it doesn’t work out perfectly? Hmm.

This story is also important from a social justice perspective. Due to the mass incarceration rates of Black people, the question becomes one of how to interact with these men and women. Large numbers of the prison population will eventually get out one day, and not only will they need employment and support, they will seek emotional attachments as well. What is to be expected? What is inevitable? These are questions to consider.

Four solid stars.

Review: The Apology

Hey lovelies! Happy Labor Day! Pardon my latest absence, I’ve been busy with a few things: preparing my dissertation defense (later this month!), my own classes for the semester, the two classes I’m teaching. I’ve still been reading feverishly, however, so I’ve got a bunch of reviews lined up for the next couple weeks.

Anywho, on to the review…

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Review for "The Apology" by Eve Ensler (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

In this book, Eve Ensler, author of the famous “The Vagina Monologues” writes the apology from her abusive father that she imagines she would have received, had he been alive to do so. Sexually abused beginning from age 5, Eve’s dad also physically abused her. Though she finally escapes him as a young woman, his influence continues throughout her life through bad choices and her pick of abusive partners.

This is not an easy book to read. There are very detailed accounts of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. Though it falls at under less than 120 pages, it took me days to get through it. I had to stop at times to catch my breath and far more than once I had to just walk away and scrub my brain of what I had read. Though I’m glad I read this, I would not read this again. No way.

On a final note, I have to say that I disagree with the premise of this book. Writing an entire treatise to an abuser as disgusting as Ensler’s father does little to disempower him and more to magnify his actions. However, if Ensler found healing from this act, I can’t let my disagreement cloud my review of this book, so I didn’t.

Four stars. Trigger warnings abound, so take caution.

Review: The Body in Question

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Review for "The Body in Question" by Jill Ciment (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“The Body in Question” is a short novel that centers on a sensational murder trial in Central Florida. The defendant is a wealthy teen girl accused of murdering her brother. Six jurors and an alternate are chosen from the public and later sequestered, one of them being the narrator, C-2. C-2 is a 52-year-old photographer who is married to an older man. Another juror, F-17, is a non married, 40-ish anatomy teacher. Throughout the novel, we only know these characters only as C-2 and F-17 as they begin a torrid, but passionless affair during the murder trial.

Although the focus of this book is the trial, this comes to a shocking conclusion around the middle of the novel. The rest of the book deals with grief and other plot twists, as well as difficult choices that C-2 makes.

I gave this book four stars because it is very well written and readable. I didn’t care for the characters though. Everybody in this book is to some degree obnoxious, selfish, and completely self indulgent. Normally how I feel about the characters isn’t part of my reviews, but in this case there is a detached, sterile quality in this novel that I couldn’t penetrate. Being that the subject matter deals with a murder case, I figured that it carries over into the overall tone of this book.

I definitely recommend this.

Review: Body Leaping Backward

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Review for "Body Leaping Backward: Memoir of a Delinquent Girlhood" by Maureen Stanton (2019)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

“Body Leaping Backward” is a memoir of Maureen Stanton’s life growing up in the mid-70’s in a working class family in Walpole, Massachusetts. Throughout the book, the shadow of the maximum security prison in the area looms large, in both the author’s mind and in the warnings her mother gives her to behave herself, lest she end up on the inside of the gates.

For the first several years of her life, Stanton grows up in a happy home with her six siblings. Around 11 or 12, her parents divorce amicably and thus begins the family’s slide toward poverty, dysfunction, drugs, and criminal behavior. Stanton’s mother, left with 7 children to raise, begins to steal food from local grocery stores. Maureen becomes depressed, the confusion of which leads her into taking drugs, mostly angel dust. A significant amount of the book details her drug use, which come to an end right around the time she finishes high school. Although she commits many petty crimes during this period, Stanton never actually spends time in Walpole Prison. She credits her turn away from a destructive life to counseling and positive friendships with non-drug users.

This book has some interesting parts. In addition to details about her childhood, Stanton writes extensively about what the suburban drug culture was like in 70’s-era Massachusetts and feeds in informational tidbits about the War on Drugs, Walpole prison and its famous inmates, and other things. There are also her personal diary entries throughout the narrative, which read like some angry girl manifesto. Unfortunately, none of this ever really gels into a cohesive, consistent narrative. The overall pacing is slow, and the sections where I wanted details there were few (i.e., like where her parents were during all this drug use) and where I didn’t want details there were many (i.e., the family’s installation of backyard pool). Also absent from this book was any kind of discussion about the external forces that really kept Stanton and her family out of prison–namely, their socioeconomic status and race. She lists all the “crimes committed” during the time period in the appendix, yet fails to mention the obvious fact that had she been a few shades darker and living within the Boston inner-city limits, she would have undoubtedly served time in jail and/or prison. It would have been inevitable.

All in all, this book is just ok for me.

[Note: Thanks to Edelweiss for a digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: Rani Patel in Full Effect

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Review for "Rani Patel in Full Effect" by Sonia Patel (2016)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Took it back to 2016 with this one, though I read this a little over a month ago. It’s a worthwhile but tough YA read, content warnings abound for rape and sexual abuse.

Rani is a 16 year old Indian American girl (Gujarati) living with her parents on Moloka’i, a remote island in Hawaii. Despite being a person of color, she is an outsider among the locals. She finds common ground with her peers through writing and performing raps under the alias MC Sutra in a hip hop collective about a variety of topics–racism, sexism, colonialism, female empowerment, etc. Often Rani’s raps about female empowerment are in direct conflict with her actions and decision making, which have been damaged due to her chaotic home life. Rani’s mother is emotionally absent, her father is out cheating on her mother with a much younger girl (in addition to some other foul things I won’t mention here in order to not spoil the book).

As far as the writing, this book seemed kinda thrown together. Some editing would have been nice here, at times it felt like sentences and different scenes were just strung together with no transitions at all. There’s also a lot of Gujarati and Hawaiian words that just show up organically with no translation at all. I don’t mind this (I’m in their story–remember), and the glossary at the back is a huge help. Just know that there’s a LOT of unfamiliar words here. You will work reading this.

Also, I strongly encourage you to read the author’s note in the back of the novel. The author details why Rani is so frustrating and makes unhealthy choices time and time again, despite all warnings to the contrary. It’s critical to understanding the book.

I gave this three stars–no more, no less.

Review: My Life as a Rat

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Review for "My Life as a Rat" by Joyce Carol Oates (2019)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I’ve read numerous Joyce Carol Oates books over the years (The Sacrifice, Evil Eye, Lovely, Dark, Deep, Black Water, you get the picture). She’s ridiculously prolific, there’s about 60 novels to her credit and that’s not even counting her short fiction and other writings. Like any other writer, she definitely has her hits and misses, so every now and then I’ll take a Joyce Carol Oates book off the shelf and see what she’s writing about now. My Life as a Rat is her latest fiction novel.

This novel is the story of Violet, a 12-year-old girl living in upstate New York in the mid-90’s in a working class Irish American family with four brothers and two sisters. Although the children are physically cared for, expressions of emotion and love are minimal and her father rules over everyone with an iron fist. The boys in the family are clearly valued over the girls, with the oldest two sons Jerome and Lionel getting themselves into occasional trouble around town (one occasion being the rape of a mentally handicapped local girl). As always, Violet’s parents always get their boys out of trouble by hiring lawyers and protecting them from consequences or any severe punishment.

Eventually, Violet’s brothers graduate from rape to an actual murder. A popular Black student is riding his bicycle home one night and, because he appears ‘suspicious’ (there’s echoes of the Trayvon Martin case here) Jerome and Lionel run him off the road and beat him to death with a baseball bat. Violet sees the bloody bat and puts the two together, and, after an agonizing choice, tells administrators at her school what happened. She is instantly banished by her family for being a ‘rat’–placed into the custody of an aunt and told that she is not welcome to come home. Her brothers are jailed for their role in the crime.

Overall, this is a very difficult book to read. The novel goes into detail with how family violence and banishment shapes Violet over the course of her life, eventually leading to her being raped and sexually abused by a series of men during her teenage years. The book changes points of view and narrators and shifts from 1st, 2nd, and 3rd POVs. Violet’s thoughts wander often, as if she has had a split in her state of being. You really get the full impact of the tragedy and more.

This book is not badly written, but I think it was a little over the top. There is a such thing as TOO MUCH happening to a character, and this is one of those examples. There’s a lot of descriptions of sexual abuse that I think could have been left out–I got the point over 150 pages ago. The end hints at some kind of hope for the future, but not really. I kept reading because I did care about the main character, but by the end of the book I felt tired and demoralized, much like Violet.

I give this book three stars. Trigger warnings abound for rape, sexual abuse, and violence.