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.

Review: Welcome to America

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Review for "Welcome to America" by Linda Bostrom Knausgard (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Welcome to America” is a short book with a whole lot going on. The dialogue is minimal, and the reader is always in the headspace of Ellen, a young girl who has stopped talking in the wake of her father’s death. Certain that she has ‘killed’ him by praying for him to die, it is clear that Ellen is in the middle of a serious trauma about which the rest of her family is unaware.

Through flashbacks, it is revealed that shortly before Ellen’s father’s death he had been institutionalized and may or may not have tried to kill his family with a gas leak. Her brother nails his bedroom door shut and becomes angry and abusive. Ellen’s mother, an actress, continually insists that they are “a family of light” is emotionally absent and a narcissist.

There is not so much the focus of a plot line here. Instead, this is a stream-of-conscious window into Ellen’s life at this time period as she muses a lot about death and dying.

This is a decent read, I’ll give this four stars.

Review: Slay

And just like that…I’m back. My dissertation is finished, and I’m furiously overjoyed about it. I’ll upload a nice pic of me in my cap and gown for ya’ll in a few weeks. December 12 is my official graduation date. Yay me!!!

Anyway I’m chock full of reviews. Forgive me as I unload them upon you over the next few weeks…

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Review for "Slay" by Brittney Morris (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

When I first heard of this book being about Black girl gamers, I had to have it. It was on my TBR pile long before it was published, so my expectations were pretty high. It’s rare that a book deals with Black adolescent girls in certain intellectual contexts, even rarer for that focus to be on the world of gaming, which is, whether we like it or not, still a very strongly White male dominated culture.

Anyway, SLAY is a book that celebrates Blackness. No, really, it does. In addition to the storyline, I was pleased to find recent references from Black popular culture memes and such. At the center of the novel is Kiera, a teenage girl growing up in Seattle who is one of the few students of color at her high school. Although she is surrounded by friends and a caring boyfriend, she feels like an outsider. To pass the time, Kiera created SLAY, an MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role-playing game) for people of color to come together, collect cards, and battle for points. Black gamers come together from all over the world to play SLAY to be proud of their identities and to find a refuge against the racism that’s prevalent in the gaming world.

No one knows that Kiera is the creator of SLAY. She keeps her creation a secret from family and friends and her boyfriend Malcolm, who feels like games are a distraction and tool of the “evil White man.” All goes well until a gamer is killed as a result of a conflict related to SLAY. Suddenly SLAY is all over the news and branded as racist. Even worse, a troll with bad intentions begins to stalk Kiera online.

Overall, I had a lot of fun reading this book. There are some deep, intra-racial issues discussed here that I liked, such as what makes an authentic “Black” experience, the need for safe spaces, the ubiquity of Anglo and mainstream ideals. It’s interesting that so many games out there are based on systems of belief and characters that are Eurocentric in nature (wizards, castles, elves, and so on) and no one questions the ubiquity of it. Even sadder still are the experiences of harassment and racism by Black gamers in these White-dominated online spaces. Yet when a Black girl gamer goes to create a game based on Afro-centric standpoint, she is vilified.

The only complaint I have is that most of the side characters were a bit one-dimensional. There are also some other POVs of SLAY gamers sprinkled in at certain places that I would have personally left out. It’s forgivable though, I won’t dwell on it. This is a great book, a must read!