Review: Girls Like Us

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Review for "Girls Like Us" by Randi Pink (2019)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

This YA story follows four girls dealing with pregnancy in the summer of 1972, right on the eve of the historic Roe vs. Wade decision which resulted in the decriminalization of abortion in America. To understand this story, it’s very important to take in the social climate of the time, which gave unmarried women very few choices when faced with an unplanned pregnancy. Having a child out of wedlock was not socially acceptable, those who could afford to could hide out in an unwed mother’s home until the birth and then place their child up for a closed adoption. The other option was to visit a person who performed abortions using questionable and often unsafe methods. Many women died in these botched, ‘back alley’ abortion procedures from blood loss, poisoning, infection from unsterile instruments, etc. It’s a sad, horrific history that, in 2019, certain people in political power would like to see women return to. I’ll step off of my soapbox for now, however.

“Girls Like Us” first introduces us to sisters Ola and Izella, the older of which, Ola, is expecting. Their mother, Evangelist, is a religious zealot and they make a pact to not tell her about the pregnancy. Ola and Izella visits a neighbor, a conjure woman who offers a quick home remedy to get rid of the baby. Meanwhile down the street, another young girl, Missippi, is pregnant from a rape by an older relative. When her father discovers what has happened to her, he sends Missippi up north to a woman who runs a home for young unwed pregnant women. In the home for pregnant women, Missippi meets a White young woman named Susan, the free-spirited daughter of a politician. Although their lives are different, they are in many ways the same. Their stories intersect with those of Izella and Ola, later on, in a dramatic way.

Overall, I liked this story, but I wasn’t engaged with any of the characters. I understand what the author was trying to do by universalizing the stories of women pre-Roe vs. Wade, but I think the writing was rushed here and a bit bland. Also, the ending was just kinda…there. I definitely get the connection to modern day stories, but felt this could have been written better.

I give this a 3.5. I’m very interested in what this author does next.

Review: Quiet Until the Thaw

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Review for "Quiet Until the Thaw" by Alexandra Fuller (2017)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I went into this book fully aware of the controversy around it, a story about a pair of Oglala boys on a Lakota reservation written by White British woman raised in colonial Africa. I was curious about this novel because I wanted to answer a very important question for myself: does a writer have to be a member of a race or culture in order successfully write about its traumas?  I already answered this question somewhat in my last review with Edna O’Brien’s Girl, a historically based novel about the plight of 276 Nigerian girls kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram in 2014. Although O’Brien is a White Irish woman, I felt that her knowledge of the sensitivities of her subjects were appropriate, given the long, racist history of African colonialism. However, I wanted to take my consideration of this question a step further. It’s apparent that White writers can write about the traumas of people of color, but when does it become exploitative? When has the line of cultural appropriation been crossed? I had this debate with students in my children’s lit class, and I think there are important arguments to be made on both sides.

Hence, I read this book. In the back, the author, Alexandra Fuller, mentions a visit that she made to the Pine Ridge reservation in 2011 to commemorate the murder of Crazy Horse. Being on the reservation, she writes, was like an “unexpected homecoming.”

Well alrighty then…

Anyway, “Quiet Until the Thaw” is the story of two Lakota boys growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in the 1960’s and follows them over the course of the next 30 years of their lives. Orphaned at birth and raised by the town midwife, Rick Overlooking Horse speaks few words. As a young man he is sent to the Vietnam War, where he suffers a devastating injury from a friendly fire napalm bomb. He comes home and builds a teepee on empty land and resigns himself to a quiet life as a farmer. You Choose Watson, the other boy, becomes a rageful man, leaving home to dabble in drugs and odd jobs before returning to the reservation, rising to the level of tribal chief elder. Once in power, he uses his political position to pilfer funds and terrorize the residents, leading to a terrifying standoff with the U.S. government. You Choose is sent to prison, yet his rage continues into another generation.

This book is not a conventional novel, it’s more of a series of vignettes. The chapters are short and language is spare. While most of the book focuses on the characters, other parts cover the struggles of an oppressed people through incidences like the 1492 conquest, Disneyland, and so on. Although this inclusion is thoughtful, I think that Alexandra Fuller is misguided here. There’s tons of annoying Indigenous/Native American stereotypes in the book, such as the “noble” savage, the smoking Indian, the lazy Indian, the drunk Indian. They all go to boarding schools, bear children afflicted with fetal alcohol syndrome, live in “tar paper lean-tos,” and, when in a group, are referred to namelessly with empty titles as “Extended Relations.” Worst yet, the Native people in this book put up racial degradation, such as being called “Red Nigger” and “Diesel Engine” by White characters. It’s also peppered with Lakota words, which I wonder are even translatable given the context in which Fuller is using them.

I hate to dismiss this book but I’m afraid I have to here. The abject poverty and hopelessness of the people is written about reverently, as if it is unconnected to 500 years of racist genocide that preceded it. And speaking of genocide, the author treats this as a romantic notion, much in the same fashion as ridiculous movies as Dances with Wolves or some other outdated Western novel.

Does Alexandra Fuller have any idea about the inner lives of Native/Indigenous people? I get that she lived “on the rez” for three months, but there’s quite a few very good Native American writers out there that have exclusive rights to this narrative and I would rather hear it from them directly. As a White woman born and raised in a colonized and oppressed country as a member of a privileged class due to her Whiteness, I don’t feel that Fuller has any right to this story.

Cultural appropriation, theft, stealing, or whatever the hell you want to call it is here to the umpteenth degree.

Review: Girl

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Review for "Girl" by Edna O'Brien (2019)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

On April 14, 2014, approximately 276 school girls in northeastern Nigeria were kidnapped by the extremist terrorist group Boko Haram. The news was shocking and the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag went viral across social media, however, very little was done by the international community to help or rescue the girls. Although some of them have since been released or escaped, it is worthy to note that as of 2019, 112 of girls remain missing. They are presumed to be alive, held captive by the active terrorist group.

The author of this novel traveled to Nigeria to speak to the survivors. She collected their stories and wrote this fictionalized account of the school girls’ plight. In this story the main character is Maryam, a young girl (her actual age is never given, indicators in the text hint that she is a young teenager, about 13 or 14) who loves school and longs for a bright future outside of her small Nigerian village. Very early in the novel, she and her schoolmates are kidnapped in their dormitory by men armed with guns and led deep into the forest. There, they are repeatedly raped, beaten, forced to do manual labor, and embrace Islam. Those who do not comply are punished by murder. They are also forced into marriages to Boko Haram soldiers. Many of them, including Maryam, bear children as the result of their rape.

Fortunately, at about a quarter of the way into the novel, Maryam manages to escape from her captors. She and her infant daughter attempt to seek shelter in a nearby village, but they refuse to help because they are afraid of retaliation from Boko Haram. Eventually she is reunited with her mother, though this reunion is contentious and bittersweet. Her mother refuses to talk to Maryam and family members turn their backs on her, due to the stigma of being a ‘wife’ of Boko Haram. I won’t give away the ending, but it does end with hope, with Maryam gaining some sense of control over her own future and that of her daughter.

Though this was a tough book to read, I feel fortunate to have read it. Initially I was skeptical of this book because it is written by a White Irish woman, though I can only assume that these girls trusted Ms. O’Brien to tell their stories, and that she sought their permission before publishing it. It would be nice to see the proceeds of this novel donated to some kind of charity dedicated to assisting these young women with their lives, but I don’t know if that is the case here.

This is a very triumphant 4.5 stars. Definitely a must-read.

Review: Full Disclosure

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Review for "Full Disclosure" by Camryn Garrett (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Finally, a YA book that takes on race, sexuality, and HIV infection in an educated and meaningful way. Like, finally…

Simone Garcia Hampton is an ordinary Black teenage girl growing up in San Francisco–obsessed with directing plays on Broadway, embarrassed by her parents, and totally crushing on a boy she likes. Adopted as a young child by her two gay fathers, Simone is HIV positive, passed to her in utero from her birth mother. Although Simone is outwardly healthy and successfully takes medication to keep her viral load down, she lives in constant fear of her ‘secret’ getting out. Once Simone begins to show interest in Miles, a boy in her school’s drama club, she begins to receive notes from an anonymous source, threatening to publicly reveal her HIV+ status. Not wanting to give up what she’s got with Miles and risk losing her friends, she struggles with whether or not to continue keeping her status a secret.

I really liked this book. There’s tons of recent information here about living with HIV that I was not aware of, which has the power to educate younger readers without coming off as boring or preachy. There’s also a lot of progressive, sex-positive talk that I think teens will appreciate–frank discussions about masturbation, sex toys (Simone and her friends go into a sex shop), ob/gyn visits, etc. Simone is also pretty open with her sexual desires, a pretty taboo topic in YA. This book also spot-on with various forms of racial and queer representation: Simone, Miles, and her Pops are Black, her Dad is Latinx, one of her friends is Asian and bisexual, another is a lesbian and asexual.

This book is all around pretty rad, so definitely read this one.

Review: Ordinary Girls

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Review for "Ordinary Girls" by Jaquira Diaz (2019)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I loved this book fiercely. I was pretty much hooked from the first page, a done deal.

Jaquira Diaz was born on the island of Puerto Rico, living in the housing projects there until her family moved to Miami Beach when she was a little girl. There, Diaz witnessed the dissolution of her family: her father sold drugs and became emotionally distant, her mother’s declining mental health cause her to eventually descend into severe drug use. There is also physical violence present in the home, mostly from her older brother and her drug-addicted mother. The only stability Jaquira finds is in her paternal grandmother and her younger sister, who is stuck in the same hellish familial nightmare that she is in. In addition to all of this, there’s the quagmire of young Jaquira trying to figure out her racial identity. Even though she is proudly Puerto Rican, her mother (blonde haired and green eyed) is White, her father is dark skinned, curly haired, and unapologetically Black. This causes much family conflict, as Jaquira recalls, with her maternal grandmother mocking her darker skin color and the first in her life to call her the n-word.

As a teenager, Jaquira channels her family dysfunction into full-on rage. After a suicide attempt at 11, she is stuck in a cycle of going nowhere: fighting with other girls, getting suspended from school, drinking, drugs, and running away. After several stints in juvenile for violent behavior, she drops out of high school at 16 (though she later earns a GED). Married at 17, she eventually enlists in the Navy, though her attraction to women doesn’t earn her any friends there either. After more family dysfunction and personal strife, Jaquira finds her voice as a writer.

Once again, I loved this book. The writing here is organized thematically and less around a structured, linear narrative order. This is all ok though, as I think it takes the most extreme level of courage to even begin to write like this. Diaz does not flinch or shy away from some very deep, dark truths.

Five stars. I’d read this again if I could.

Review: Pet

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Review for "Pet" by Akwaeke Emezi (2019)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

I will start this review by first saying that this is not the book for everyone. It’s marketed as YA, but I don’t think its intended for a general mainstream YA audience. I certainly think that that’s perfectly fine because anyone who stumbles upon this gem of a book, whether child or adult, will definitely love it like I did.

“Pet” is a novel about evil, particularly one that silences its victims and is ‘hidden’ in plain sight. I won’t be more specific than that because I’d give the novel away. The main character is Jam, a Black trans girl who lives in a Lucille, a futuristic, utopian version of an American city in which bad things have been banished and ‘monsters’ no longer exist. Jam is accepted and loved by her parents and her best friend, Redemption, as well as Redemption’s family.

One night, while exploring one of her mother’s paintings, Jam brings a monster to life. At first she is afraid, but then the monster explains the reason for its existence: to hunt a real-life monster. The creature, which Jam calls Pet, confuses her at first, until it is revealed that the location of the monster to be hunted is within her best friend Redemption’s house.

Right at about 200 pages, this is a short book that packs a heavy punch. It has a surreal feel to it, but the deeper questions it asks are based in a gritty, everyday reality. What are monsters made of? Who or what are angels? How do you tell the difference between the two?

Earlier in this review I said that this is not a book for everyone. I say that because I think we’ve become too used to YA with “grown” teenagers (kids who are 16-18 years old who seem to know every damn thing that’s going on around them). “Pet” is not such a novel. Jam is a 15-year-old girl and her naivete about the danger around her matches every bit of her age. Perhaps some readers will find this frustrating, but I found a book that speaks to the sensibilities of an actual child refreshing. Also, this book is all about queer representation, as I said before Jam is a trans girl; Redemption’s family is portrayed as possibly polyamorous (there’s a woman, a non-gender conforming person, and a man), in addition to several aunts and uncles living with him and his brother who also function as his parents.

I could type all day about this book. Definitely read it though, 4.5 stars.

Review: Tinfoil Butterfly

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Review for "Tinfoil Butterfly" by Rachel Eve Moulton (2019)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

A bizarre book that reminds me less of a novel and more of a David Lynch movie.

As this story begins, a late adolescent girl named Emma is attempting to escape her past by hitchhiking to The Badlands of South Dakota. She is picked up by a man named Lowell who tries to violently kill her. She gets the best of him and escapes, driving to an abandoned diner in the Black Hills mountains. Emma wakes the next morning in the diner to find a boy wearing a tin foil mask with a gun pointed at her. The boy introduces himself as Earl and says that his mother is dead and he will help her, but she must help him bury his father first.

I know, I know…it sounds crazy, but all of this happens in the first 30 pages or so. The rest of the book is a mass of twists and turns and flashbacks to past traumas. There is never a dull moment in this book or a period where you can rest assured that the two main characters are ok. Earl and Emma come to love and trust each other and I really liked that about this book, emphasizing that it is not so much about the trauma but the hope that two damaged people can find in one another.

I definitely recommend this, if you don’t mind writing with surreal elements and books about how people deal with the bad things that happen to them.