Review: Tyler Johnson Was Here

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Review for "Tyler Johnson Was Here" by Jay Coles (2018)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

From the moment I saw this book I knew I had to have it. I’m always down for YA books by and about people of color that are overtly political in nature, as well as books that challenge young people to think critically social issues. And yes, THAT cover. Gor-juss…

“Tyler Johnson Was Here” is just such a book that is destined to provoke conversation, particularly on police killings and the role of Black Lives Matter movement. The novel centers on the lives of twins, Tyler and Marvin, growing up in the fictional town of Sterling Point. The twins are raised by their single mother while their father, who is incarcerated, makes frequent appearances throughout the book in the form of letters written to Marvin.

Even though this is the story of twins, the story is told through Marvin, the more grounded of the two. Marvin hangs out with his friends Guillermo and Ivy, makes decent grades, watches reruns of “A Different World” and hopes to get into MIT. Tyler is the more restless twin, directing his energies toward social pursuits and hanging with a tough crowd. Much to Marvin’s dismay, he notices a rift between him and his brother and cannot convince Tyler to stay away from trouble. One night, after a party thrown by a local drug dealer, Tyler does not return home. Several days later, he is found deceased. A leaked video reveals that Tyler was unarmed when he was shot by police. As Marvin deals with his grief and anger over his brother’s death, he turns his efforts to protest and making sure that his brother’s memory isn’t forgotten.

What’s wrong with this book? A lot. Hell, I’m just going to bullet point here:

— The pacing of this novel was a problem for me. We’re told on the front flap of the book that Tyler is going to disappear and later be discovered dead. However, the characters do not discover Tyler’s death until well over halfway into the book. I felt as if the author could have skipped the ‘missing’ part, because it slowed the pace of the novel significantly. You’re literally just sitting around waiting for the inevitable for the first 150 pages. That’s not fun.

— Characterization fell a bit flat in this book as well. Even though I felt I understood Tyler, when I finished this I realized that I really didn’t. The limitations of a single perspective (Marvin’s) is apparent here. We know he was a good kid who got mixed up in a troubled crowd, but we’re never told the exact nature of his last days, his dealings with his friends. The author spends a great deal of time making the point that although Tyler may have been troubled, this was no reason for the manner of his death. While this is true, I think this point would not have required so much emphasis with more character-building as far as Tyler was concerned.

— There’s also a side character that goes absolutely nowhere: an aunt who’s a police officer, mentioned several times in the novel, who’s “always on the phone” with Marvin and Tyler’s mom. Considering that the police are the bad guys here who murdered Tyler and all of law enforcement in this book is portrayed as the epitome of evil, a relative of Marvin’s who happens to be a cop may have added to the complexity of this book. But that’s never explored. Weird.

— Marvin meets a girl, Faith, through his attempts to discover his brother’s whereabouts after the fateful night at the party. They eventually become involved with one another, but I never got a sense of their chemistry, her relevance to the story beyond the standard YA romance requirement, or really why she is in the book at all.

— The multitude of references to the tv show “A Different World”: Marvin is obsessed with this show, viewing it as a way to “understand” diverse Black characters. I’m not sure why this is, especially when there are more modern (and diverse!) shows with Black characters that could have been referenced here. I’m an 80’s baby, so I watched “A Different World” as a teenager (it went off the air in 1993, right as I went into high school). A teenager in 2018 still fixated on characters from a show from well over 25 years ago seemed strange, kinda like a kid who watches a dated show like “Hogan’s Heroes” expecting to find enlightenment. Yikes.

Comparisons to “The Hate U Give” are inevitable (both have Black main characters, both are about the subject of police violence), and if I had to pick between the two I’d say in a heartbeat that “The Hate U Give” is the much better book. Despite my criticisms, however, I won’t go lower than 3 stars for “Tyler Johnson Was Here.” I also wholeheartedly recommend this to other people to read. Even though TJWH has problems in its execution, I respect what it does accomplish successfully, and that’s place the narrative surrounding police violence in the hands of Black youth, within the context of their own language and culture. The value of those things in and of itself is immeasurable, respectable, and deserves notice.

And yes, the cover. It’s quite beautiful.

*sigh*

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Review: Hell is a Very Small Place

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Review for "Hell is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement" by Jean Casella, James Ridgeway, & Sarah Shourd (2016)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

As an educator I’ve always been interested in the criminal justice system–how so many people get caught up it, how they survive there, and of course, how they can stay out. This book is a collection of essays about the subject of solitary confinement, otherwise known as administrative segregation (ad segs), special housing units (SHUs), and various other names depending on the state and institution responsible for their use. Regardless it’s all the same–23 or 24 hours a day in a small cell alone, often with no books, tv or radios, communication with outside people, papers to write with, or any form of stimulation other than the concrete walls. It is such a mind numbing and soul crushing experience that the UN has declared it torture and countless doctors and mental health experts have denounced its use. Yet, it continues on an unprecedented level in our nation’s jails and prisons.

There’s a really good historical perspective on solitary confinement in the U.S. in the beginning of the book. Solitary confinement was used widely in the 1800’s and then abandoned due to its terrifying psychological effects. In the 1970’s, the practice was picked up again, mostly due to prison overcrowding, lack of educational and training programs, higher levels of violence, etc. The essays in this volume are particularly powerful, all of them either from people currently in solitary who have been there for long periods of time (20 years or more) or from people who are now free individuals, living with the psychological effects of this practice. The last section is a series of articles by experts, all of which condemn the practice and offer solutions.

It is easy to dismiss this book and the issues it brings up with the Trump-era view that criminals are terrible people who belong in prison. It’s even easier to say that these terrible people deserve punishment on top of the punishment they’ve already received for not following the rules. This is simply not true. Many of the people who are sent to solitary are sent there for non-violent offenses, sometimes for something as simple as “possessing too many postage stamps,” “associating with known gang members” (California), or in New York state, for “wearing shower shoes outside of the shower” or “using profanity.” Time in the SHU is usually given by prison officials and the prisoner often has no right to a defense. And the punishments can be as long as the officials deem necessary–weeks, months, even years. Or, in some cases, life.

I definitely recommend this book. Despite what we think of the people in the correctional system, the fact remains that many of these “terrible” people will get out–someday. They will live next to us and share our social spaces. The question becomes one of whether we would prefer someone who’s been rehabilitated with kindness or someone who’s been locked in a cage like an animal. I personally prefer the former.

This is a great book. Read it!

Review: Sometimes I Lie

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Review for "Sometimes I Lie" by Alice Feeney (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Ahhh…man. THIS book.

To tell you anything specific about the plot or the characters of this novel is to ruin it–so I won’t. It’s gotten really good reviews online, and this time I must say that the hype is well deserved. There is a blurb on the author’s website that this book has been green lit for television, which is cool because as I read this I could totally picture this on Netflix or Hulu or something. Bingeable TV. There’s also a sequel being written, which is set to come out in 2019.

So here’s the basic “basics”: When the book begins, Amber, the main character, is in a coma. She confesses immediately that she tells lies, and that her husband doesn’t love her. She hears everything going on around her (her husband and her sister’s visits, for instance) though she doesn’t remember the event that landed her in the coma. She eventually discovers that she’s been in a car accident.

This book is essentially split into three parts that are narrated interchangeably: now (Amber’s observations while in her lucid, comatose state), then (events leading up to the week before the accident), and before (childhood diary entries). Throughout much of the novel, I have to admit that I was completely in the dark about what each strand of the narrative had to do with the other. Gradually, however, the connections came into focus and lemme tell ya…things (and people!) were not what they seemed. There are several twists here, and even though I’m not a “twist-a-plot” lovin’ kinda person, it worked perfectly here.

As I finished this book I immediately realized that it plays with two very common tropes–the unreliable narrator and the complex nature of female friendships. It’s really nothing new in fiction, but both of these things are mashed up here in a really hip, interesting way.

I loved this book. If you do read it, try to do so in as few sittings as possible–I guarantee it’s better that way.

[A digital copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher, Flatiron Books, as well as NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Top Ten Tuesday: Books that Take Place in Another Country

For this Top Ten Tuesday I had to go back in my mental filing cabinet for a moment. I try to keep my reading choices diverse–plenty of books about people of different races, ages, religions, cultures, social backgrounds, ethnicities, sexual identities, dis/abled persons. I’ve ready plenty of books ABOUT and BY people from countries outside the U.S., but how many have I read that take place IN another country, where the entire context of the narrative is outside of the U.S.?

So in order to be consistent with my interpretation of this topic, here’s the criteria I followed:

  • The book had to take place entirely in another country. America could not be a point of reference at any time (i.e., immigration to or from the U.S. was a no-no)
  • The book could not be about Americans in countries outside the U.S. (that would make it an American experience, wouldn’t it?)
  • The book could not take place in another industrialized, European influenced nation that’s kinda like the U.S. (i.e., Canada, Britain)
  • The country could not be unnamed. There are a lot of books that have foreign settings, but for whatever artistic reason, the author does not specifically name the country where the action takes place. For example, “Beasts of No Nation” is framed in this way (the setting is understood to be Africa, but the actual name of the country is never given).
  • The country could not be fictional. I love Wakanda too, but because it technically does not exist, it wouldn’t count. I know, I know… (*frowns*)
  1. Prayers for the Stolen, Jennifer Clement. Locale: Mexico. Didn’t really care for this book, but it’s a very interesting story set in the Mexican countryside about a girl who lives in fear of kidnapping by narco-traffickers.
  2. Golden Boy, Tara Sullivan. Locale: Tanzania. Very informative, well written YA story about a young boy with albinism. Due to cultural beliefs, he is shunned by his community and sought out by shamans for slaughter for his body parts’ use in special potions. There’s a good ending here, fortunately. I loved this story!
  3. Hold Tight, Don’t Let Go, Laura Rose Wagner. Locale: Haiti. Story about two cousins, raised as sisters, who lose their family in the Haitian earthquake of 2010 and work to survive the next day, and the day after that. I cried when I read this. (*sigh*)
  4. Things We Lost in the Fire, Mariana Enriquez. Locale: Argentina. Very macabre, but well written short stories that take place after Argentina’s “Dirty War.”
  5. Stay With Me, Adebayo Ayobami. Locale: Nigeria. An interesting novel about the life of a middle-class Nigerian couple who cannot bear children. Lots of twists and turns here, along with cultural expectations and a whole lotta drama.
  6. Lotus, Lijia Zhang. Locale: China. Novel set in modern-day China about a young woman who, rather than go home and face shame for losing her factory job, chooses a life as a sex worker. I really liked this book.
  7. Men Without Women, Haruki Murakami. Locale: Japan. Insightful set of short stories about men who, at some time or another, either could not or would not have a successful relationship with a woman. I did the audio version of this and loved it.
  8. Every Falling Star: The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea. Locale: North Korea. Great YA nonfiction book about a young boy’s life in North Korea and eventual escape to South Korea.
  9. The Vegetarian, Han Kang. Locale: South Korea. Beautiful book about a young woman’s choice to become a vegetarian. Things don’t go well for her. There’s a whole lot more to this book though, and mannnn…it’s good.
  10. The Story of a Brief Marriage, Anuk Arudpragasam. Locale: Sri Lanka. Short novel about a young man and woman’s marriage during the Sri Lankan civil war. Very excessively detailed, but it’s a great read if you’re patient enough.

 

Review: The 57 Bus

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Review for "The 57 Bus" by Dashka Slater (2017)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

After reading this book I came to the realization that I rarely read YA nonfiction. I need to change that. This was a decent book.

“The 57 Bus” probes the real life case of a Black male teenager who sets a White agender teen’s skirt on fire as they rode on a commercial bus on the way home from their respective schools in Oakland, California in 2013. It was a chance encounter–neither teen knew the other–but lives were changed forever. I think Slater does a great job of setting the scene, introducing us first to Sasha, the agender, Aspberger’s teen who wears skirts to express himself, and then to Richard, a Black male who grows up with a mother who works two jobs, the constant threat of arrest and incarceration. I also think the author does an exceptional job with the point of view of the perpetrator, being careful not to pathologize his behavior, but at the same time not excusing it either. This is hard to do, as most authors who write about people of color committing crimes generally tend to take one role or another.

Anyway, this is a great book. Definitely a quality read.

Review: Heart Berries

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Review for "Heart Berries: A Memoir" by Terese Mailhot (2018)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Let me start this review off by saying the Terese Mailhot is a sensational writer. “Heart Berries” is a raw, personal account of Mailhot’s life and experiences as a First Nations woman who has witnessed abuse, poverty, addiction, as well as generations of family members who have passed through Canada’s brutal residential school system, which separated indigenous children from their families and, in many cases, subjected them to sexual and physical abuse. Mailhot talks about this and a myriad of other topics in her writing, often taking on the form of missives to former lovers.

There were definitely moments in this book where I found myself underlining passages in my Kindle, saying “yes!” But then these flashes of brilliance would signal the moment when the magic would end, because moments later the author would switch time, location, and subject without warning. I am a bit confused with the classification of this book as a memoir, because the selections together as a whole seemed terribly disjointed and didn’t tell a cohesive story. The lack of cohesion put up a barrier for me–I wanted to understand her and the writing was certainly drawing me in, but the lack of a solid story here made this something I couldn’t access.

I almost feel bad for giving this two stars, because this book has gotten glowing reviews in the mainstream press. I definitely like the way the author writes, but I just don’t think this is my kinda book.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books on my Spring TBR

Alas, a Top Ten Tuesday topic I can love with my entire heart. I’ve always got some good reading on the horizon, so here’s my Top Ten picks for this spring:

  1. Sometimes I Lie, Alice Feeney (currently reading, NetGalley ARC). This book comes out on this Friday, March 23rd. I’m going to try to get the review up before then. I haven’t gotten too far into this, but I think that there’s gonna be a really good twist here. Hmm.
  2. The Hunger, Alma Katsu (currently on reserve at the library). From what I’ve gathered, this book is a zombie-ish take on the Donner party story. I’m here for it.
  3. Social Creature, Tara Isabella Burton (NetGalley ARC). This book comes out June 5th, so I probably won’t read it until close to Memorial Day. It seems to be a thriller-type story with some “The Talented Mr. Ripley” vibes to it, so I’ll take it.
  4. Tyler Johnson Was Here, Jay Coles (currently on reserve at the library). A book that’s captured my entire interest lately, and not just because it has a beautiful Black man on the cover. My dissertation is all about critical YA lit by Black authors, so this book fits in perfectly with what I’m researching. I cannot wait to read this.
  5. The Comedown, Rebekah Frumkin (NetGalley ARC). This book comes out on April 17th, so I will probably read it and review it here closer to its release date. It’s gotten some really good press, so we’ll see.
  6. Monday’s Not Coming, Tiffany D. Jackson (waiting waiting waiting). I’m planning to purchase this book, another YA title that I’m discussing in my dissertation. It comes out on May 22nd and explores the topic of Black girls caught in the school-to-prison pipeline. Should be very interesting and informative.
  7. Let’s Talk About Love, Claire Kann (currently on reserve at the library). Another YA book that I’ve been dying to read lately that’s being discussed in my dissertation. The beautiful girl with the curly ‘fro on the cover is just a plus.
  8. The Poet X, Elizabeth Acevedo (currently on reserve at the library). YA novel in verse about a young Dominican girl and poet growing up in Harlem. Of course I’m discussing this in my dissertation too, this is a must read.
  9. Number One Chinese Restaurant, Lillian Li (NetGalley ARC). I’m trying to incorporate more contemporary Asian authors into my reading life, and this book seems to be a good one. It comes out on June 19th, I can’t wait to read it and have a review for you here closer to that date.
  10. Wrestling with the Devil: A Prison Memoir, Ngugi wa Thiong’o (on ILL reserve). This book came out for American publication for the first time earlier this month, but Thiong’o wrote and published this overseas back in the early 80’s, after he was released from a Kenyan prison after being held there as a political prisoner from 1978-1980. I’m always interested in these kinds of topics, so this promises to be a really good read.

Ya’ll know I can’t stand commonplace, boring books, so I try to keep things fresh on 29chapters. So many exciting things (and more) coming up soon here, stay tuned.

xoxo,

Kellan