Review: Cuz

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Review of "Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A" by Danielle Allen (to be published on 5 September 2017)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A” is the true life story of the author’s younger cousin Michael, who was arrested at the age of 15 in Los Angeles for the crime of attempted carjacking. He was charged as an adult, served eleven years in prison, and was released in 2009. Three years later, his body was discovered in his vehicle, riddled with bullets.

Danielle Allen, an academic at Harvard University, peels away the layers of Michael’s troubled personal and family life and attempts to find an answer for why her cousin’s life came to such a tragic and violent end. She manages to write a really good background sociological perspective of Los Angeles, with its gangs, segregated neighborhoods, and history of mass incarceration that was very relevant to the discussion of the personal facts she presents. All in all, a very solid work that anyone who is interested in urban sociology would appreciate.

[Note: A free digital copy of this book was given to me by the publisher and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: A Good Country

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Review for "A Good Country" by Laleh Khadivi (2017)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Wow, this was good. Timely. Informative. Scary.

The novel starts in 2009 in Southern California with a peek into the life of 14-year-old Rez Courdee, the son of upper middle class Iranian immigrant parents. He is Muslim by birth but does not practice, identifying more with American culture, surfing, hooking up with girls, and smoking pot. In time, several terrorist attacks occur and Rez, who has never questioned his identity, is ostracized by his mostly White peers as ‘the other.’ He begins to find solace with his Muslim friends, starts to practice his faith, and eventually becomes obsessed with the idea of ‘a good country’ overseas, one in which Muslims are accepted and fight for the establishment of a caliphate. I won’t reveal the end, but when it occurs exactly 5 years later, Reza (no longer ‘Rez’) is a completely different person.

This novel is short but the writing is succinct and razor sharp. I thought the sex scenes were a bit overdone, but the plot was powerful and never lost. As you read this novel you realize how easy it is for someone to become radicalized–not just to religion but to any idea, really. We’ve seen this all throughout history and in everyday life; children turned into soldiers with a deadly purpose, young men and women in America go off to boot camp and become trained combat specialists in a matter of weeks.

I may read this book again eventually because there’s so much here to digest. Like you’re looking at a hundred pieces of something spread out on a table that it’ll take a while to put it together. Anyway, excellent book. Do read this!

Review: Things We Lost in the Fire

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Review for "Things We Lost in the Fire" by Mariana Enriquez (2017)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

It took me a month to get through this book, which is not fitting for a collection of stories that’s less than 250 pages long. The reason for my slower-than-average read time is because “Things We Lost in the Fire” is a very, very dark collection of tales, all set in modern day Argentina. I read my NetGalley copy at first, but the mood was so unsettling that I moved to an audiobook format to finish it. Even with the audiobook, I had to prep myself (i.e., be in a kind of ‘blank’ mental state) to continue it.

Typical of Latin American fiction, there’s elements of magical realism, the supernatural, and surreality in these stories, but that doesn’t counter the macabre subject matter here. In this collection, there are ghosts, hauntings, extreme violence, torture, rape, and girls who set themselves on fire. The central characters are mostly young people and most, if not all, of the stories carry a hint of uncertainty about whether the events the characters experienced really happened or not. In “The Dirty Kid,” a young woman is obsessed with a homeless boy who may or may not have been the victim of a Satanic ritual killing. “The Intoxicated Years” is about a group of teenage girls who spend their time taking psychadelic drugs. “Adela’s House” focuses on a girl who goes into a haunted house and is never seen again. In “The Neighbor’s Courtyard,” a former social worker is convinced that a neighbor has chained up a young boy in his backyard, who eventually eats the main character’s cat. And the title story, “Things We Lost in the Fire” is about a woman who self-immolates before an audience.

For me, this is material that I could not just read. I had to experience it, surround myself in it, and ultimately, suffer through it. Suffering, however, is not always a bad thing, because it is through this collection of stories you realize how much Argentina’s bloody political dictatorship past left its mark on people’s lives. If you’re down explore this, I wholeheartedly recommend this book to you. I give this four stars because the writing is quite good with no flaws to be found.

[Note: A free digital copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher, Hogarth Press, as well as NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: The Education of a Coroner

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Review for "The Education of a Coroner" by John Bateson (to be published on 15 Aug 2017)

Rating: 4 out of  5 stars

If “CSI” on CBS is a little too sunny for you and you prefer darker, grittier shows about real forensic science like HBO’s “Autopsy” or HLN’s “Forensic Files,” then this is the book for you. Right away it grabs you with its painstaking attention to detail about everything you want know (and more!) about the day to day life of a real coroner. Holmes opens his case files and discusses dozens of cases he’s worked in and around Marin County, California, where he served as the official coroner for many years. He discusses death investigations, how the cause and manner of a person’s death is determined, the evidence of various methods of homicide on the body, the ‘how’ of suicides (i.e., what really happens when people jump off the famed Golden Gate Bridge). Call me weird, but as a self-confessed forensic science fan my fascination with the subject matter here spurred be to finish it pretty quickly.

There were a few errors in the writing, but since this is an advance copy, I won’t mention them here. There’s really nothing bad I can say about this book. Definitely recommend if this is a subject of your interest.

[Note: A free, digital copy of this book was provided via the publisher, Scribner, and NetGalley in exchange for an honest opinion of this book.]

Review: Chemistry

Ahh, welcome to summer, lovelies. Even though I’ll be working for most of it and don’t plan on doing much travel, I’ll still be reading, as always.
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Review for "Chemistry" by Weike Wang (2017)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

An unnamed Chinese-American female grad student cuts her hair, goes into her lab and breaks five beakers, then proceeds to go on a quest to find herself. Unaffected by her indecision to accept her bf’s marriage proposal, she deals with her perfectionist parents and takes on a job as a chemistry tutor (definitely not the future her parents envisioned).

With that said, this book was just ok for me. Thankfully it’s a short book, as well as an interesting take on life, love, and work in higher education. I could certainly relate to the unnamed narrator’s struggles (I am also a full time Ph.D. student). However, this was not a very entertaining book. The writing here is sparse and there’s a lot of light-hearted, stream of conscious self-dialogue which is cool for the first part of the book, but after the first third had passed it just got to be too much, an overkill. I desperately wanted the character to come out of her head and give more of a story here.

I would read this author’s future work though. Just not my cup of tea here.

Review: Universal Harvester

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Review for "Universal Harvester" by John Darnielle (2017)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

This book is weird, man…

It’s the 1990’s, and someone is placing disturbing images on VHS tapes at the local Video Hut in the small town of Nevada, Iowa. At first Jeremy, a young employee, brushes it off, but when he watches the videos for himself it greatly disturbs him. The scenes appear to be poorly shot home movies with people being controlled by others in masks. He shares the videos with the store’s manager, Sarah Jane, and she eventually becomes drawn into the discovering their origin, the farmhouse where it was made, as well as the mysterious woman behind them.

The only word I can think to describe this book is cerebral, because the disturbing imagery it describes does manage to rattle your brain and leave you with a sense of impending danger. The ominous tone of the book reminds you of the feeling you get when you watch a David Lynch movie or The Ring, though the plot is not as straightforward. In a lot of ways this is a successful tactic, because even though I didn’t get this book completely I found myself continuing to read it just because I wanted to know what was behind the videotapes.

The major problem is that this book never really makes that answer clear, or tells you what the hell it really is. Perspectives shift as the book meanders back and forth through time and between characters and I was stuck trying to figure out what it all means. Is it a horror story? A human drama? Even after 200 something pages, I’m still not sure. Not that I’m a person that likes labels on everything, but a real resolution and an actual plot would have been reasonable. Harrumpf.

Review: Inside Madeleine

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Review for "Inside Madeleine" by Paula Bomer (2014)
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Oh snap…five stars.

I did the audiobook for this and for the first time since I’ve started consuming books this way, I found myself listening intently to every. single. word. that was read: staying in my driveway with the AC running, leaving my headphones on longer in the evenings, you get the idea. This collection of stories is highly engaging, smutty, and just plain grotesque. And I loved it.

Each story deals with female characters and the complicated relationship they have with their bodies and the people around them. All of the characters are young, all of them desperate, and all (if I’m not mistaken) are from South Bend, Indiana. “Eye Socket Girls” is about an anorexic girl’s stint in a hospital, “Down the Alley,” is the tale of a teenage girl’s self-discovery and rebellion, and the novella-length title story, “Inside Madeleine,” is a tour de force about the complex relationship between a teenage girl and her body.

I loved the way that these stories seemingly hide…well, nothing. None of these characters are particularly likeable, but they weren’t supposed to be. Even the sex scenes were raunchy and vulgar, but they clearly weren’t meant to titillate the audience. All of the characters in each story came across as relatable and achingly real and I had no choice but to feel them.

Did I tell you I loved this book?

Must read.