Review: Sweet Lamb of Heaven

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Review for “Sweet Lamb of Heaven” by Lydia Millet (2016)

Rating: none

DNF’d at 60% in my Kindle.

I’ve been on a DNF kick lately, stopping books left and right because, well, f**k it…I have the power of Grayskull and I can. My TBR pile is a beast right now, and I firmly believe that life’s too short for bad books, slow books, stupid books, books with no point. DNF is not always a bad thing: sometimes I’ll stop reading because I just can’t get into it right then (not the right mood, season, or mindset) and I’ll come back to it a year or two later and it’s the best thing I’ve ever read. It’s happened before. I normally don’t review DNF books, because I try to bring you complete and thorough reviews, but it was clear with this one that what I got was all I was going to get.

Anywho, at the beginning of this book we meet Anna, who is pregnant with a child that her dick of a husband, Ned, does not want. She has the child anyway, a daughter she names Lena. She eventually chalks up the loss of the marriage and leaves Ned and moves across the country to Maine. Ever since the birth of her daughter, Anna has been hearing a voice that only occurs when her daughter is around. Throughout this book are blurbs from Wikipedia and other sources on what could possibly be the source of the voice–psychosis, possession by demons, etc. It’s boring to read. Ned eventually catches up with Anna, and about here was where I stopped reading.

As far as the writing, it’s actually good. It rambles at times, a stream-of-consciousness kinda style that never really grew on me. Because the main character hears voices only when her daughter is around, there’s a heavy case here for an unreliable narrator. There is a sense of foreboding and dread, which was very skillfully played all throughout this book, but that was about it for me. This novel is being marketed as a psychological thriller–and in a way, it is that–but there was never a ‘thrill’ here for me, just circles of weirdness and Wikipedia entries and me wondering if I should even continue to bother with Anna because I don’t know if she is crazy or not.

Another reason I am reviewing this book (even though I didn’t finish it) is because I do recommend that people out there read it. If possible, please report to me what you got out of it, if anything at all. Pretty pretty please…

[Note: I received a digital copy of this book from NetGalley and W.W. Norton Publishers in exchange for an honest review of this book.]

 

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Review: Girls on Fire

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Review for “Girls on Fire” by Robin Wasserman (2016)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Whoa, buddy…

When I finished this book, I shut off my Kindle and stared at the ceiling for about 10 minutes, thinking: whoa, buddy.

“Girls on Fire” is the story of a destructive friendship between two teenage girls in a small Pennsylvania town. Lacey is the dark, brooding, Nirvana-crazed rocker, Hannah is the mousy, quiet girl from a straight-laced family. Set in the early 90s, the story opens with the shocking discovery of the body of a popular athlete in local woods, ruled a suicide. Lacey and Hannah (called “Dex” by Lacey and throughout the book) bond over their hatred of the athlete’s girlfriend, Nikki Drummond, the beautiful ‘queen bee’ of their high school.

What follows after Lacey and Dex collide is nothing short of intense, with detailed descriptions of their adventures with sex, drugs, and satanic experiences. The novel is told in a dual perspective, with alternating chapters by both Dex and Lacey. There’s lots of Nirvana (particularly Kurt Cobain) mentions through this book, as well as other 90’s pop culture references to give you an excellent sense of time and place. People not hip to this decade’s charm may find the nostalgia annoying, but as a teenage myself during this time in history, I did not.

I can’t tell you guys how lovely the writing is in this book. I think I malfunctioned my Kindle with the constant underlining of passages. Some chapters were so freakin’ beautiful that I had to read them aloud, write them out for myself. Once this book really got going for me I could not put it down. Dex and Lacey are equal parts unlikeable and complex. One moment the mother in me wanted to hold them close, the next moment the practical side of me wanted to lecture them, to try to plant some common sense into their brains. It’s a captivating tale, and I was all along for the ride.

Be forewarned, however, that this is a very dark novel. Think: Gillian Flynn. Think: Stephen King’s “Carrie.” It’s not YA, and I don’t think it has a prayer to ever be considered such. If you don’t mind dark stories (non-humorous, just dark) then this is the book for you (note: personally I love gloom and doom every now and then, it helps me to balance out the scarily bright and cheery). Do read this book though, if you get a chance. I can’t recommend it enough.

Review: One

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Review for “One” by Sarah Crossan (2015)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Loved this book. It’s written in verse so it’s a quick read, a couple of hours of uninterrupted time will take you straight to the end. Anyway, “One” focuses on a unique topic I’ve never seen in fiction before: the lives of conjoined (or, “Siamese”) twins. Due to this fact, Tippi and Grace (I love their Hitchcock-themed names, btw) are typical teenage girls that share vital organs and have never attended school–until now. This book follows them on their first day at school and beyond, on their quest for a sense of normalcy in their lives.

However, Tippi and Grace’s home lives are no picnic. Their dad is a drunk, their sister has body issues of her own, and their family has little money, which leaves the family with the difficult choice of deciding whether or not to allow a film crew in their home to document Tippi and Grace’s lives. Eventually a dire medical situation arises with the twins’ health and they must decide whether to stay “one” or be separated.

I won’t reveal the end, but I will say that this book was a definite tearjerker. For me, it says a lot about a novel written in verse, because I typically like my fiction to read like fiction, with neat little paragraphs. However, this book was special. There were passages I found myself reading aloud because they seemed to leap right off of the page. Beautiful writing.

I rated this four stars because this book isn’t without its flaws. For one, it is narrated completely from Grace’s point of view, which is somewhat of a end spoiler. A dual narration probably would have kept the suspense going at least until the middle of the book. Second, it just kinda…ends. You never find out what happens with many different aspects of the story that seemed to be quite critical.

I definitely recommend this book. And bring a box of tissues.

Review: Dark Places

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Review for “Dark Places” by Gillian Flynn (2009)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I didn’t care for this book.

Ok, ok…let me explain myself. Perhaps I went into this one somewhat biased. My only other Gillian Flynn experience was Sharp Objects and didn’t like that one either. Flynn is a great writer, but her characters–diabolical, twisted females–seriously make me wonder if she has some deeply seated psychological issues with women. Fast forward to 3 years later and I decide to give Flynn another try. But lo, I didn’t like this one either.

The plot: Twenty four years ago, Libby Day’s mother and two sisters were brutally killed in the infamous ‘Satan Sacrifice’ murders of Kinnakee, Kansas. She testified that her brother Ben was the killer, and he was found guilty and locked away in prison. Today she is out of work, living off of sympathy donations from strangers. When a crime enthusiast group called the Kill Club reaches out to her about the murders, Libby agrees, for a price, to talk with them. From there, Libby begins to question Ben’s guilt and what really happened on that night.

The first quarter of this book actually starts off promising. Its dark with sinister undertones, with just the fair amount of suspense to keep you turning the page. But then it just gets…well, boring. It flashes between Libby in the present and Ben and their mother Patty in the past, leading up to the night of the murders. Ben’s narrative is far more interesting than Libby’s, but both scenes are drawn out in such painstaking detail that the suspense wore off and there wasn’t much to compel me to care anymore about any of the characters. The parts of the novel where I was supposed to be sitting on the edge of my seat I wasn’t, and when the murderer was revealed at the very very end it was such a WTF moment that I stopped reading it right then and there. I won’t reveal it, but it’s the most contrived, ridiculous, deus ex machina bullshit I’ve ever read.

So there you go: two stars. Slightly better than Sharp Objects, but not by much. I may read Gone Girl eventually, though I seriously doubt it. I like Flynn’s writing, but I think her stories and subject matter are just not my cup of tea. I’ll pass.

Review: Inside the Criminal Mind

Remember when I said that I’ll never review nonfiction? Well, I kinda lied. Not in a bad way, though. I read NF all the time, I just prefer not to write about it here.

This book is different. I had to read it for a class I’m taking on social deviance, so therefore the ‘review’ was already there. I had to type it last night, so I’m sharing it here.

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Review for ‘Inside the Criminal Mind’ by Dr. Stanton Samenow (2004)

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

I read this for a doctoral level class I’m taking in Social Deviance. I wish I hadn’t though. In this book, Dr. Samenow sets out to answer the age-old question of why criminals commit crimes and spends 50,000 words (or how ever long this book is) answering, simply, “well, because they choose to.”

Don’t get me wrong. I am not the one to coddle or play hug-a-thug either with the big bad wolves of society. I did agree with some of the points he makes here. Samenow says that criminals are usually narcissistic, selfish people who feel entitled to the finer things in life (agreed) and feel that they shouldn’t have to work for them (agreed). Their need for power and validation feeds into their desire to victimize others in whatever way they can–fraud, sexual assault, robbery, etc (agreed). Work places, schools, family units, and other social institutions are where they hone their con game, and if and when they’re caught and locked up, they’ll hopefully change their thinking (agree). Samenow is adamant that prisons, rehabs, reading programs, and career counseling will not change the criminal because of how he thinks. He scoffs at sociologists who point to indicators such as poor schooling, drug abuse, lack of job opportunities, mental illness, poverty, and other factors as the reasons why people turn to crime.

And I understand this, I really do. But how can Dr. Samenow completely dismiss these sociological viewpoints? Most of the case studies of criminals he gives in this book are of middle class men he has interviewed–men who came from the so-called ‘normal’ two-parent homes, whose folks more than likely had the resources for therapy, and, who despite all of their efforts, still went on to choose a life of crime regardless. One cannot help but to notice the lack of socioeconomic diversity in this book, which, I’m sad to report, makes this book terribly biased. While I am not saying that all poor people are criminals (nor are all criminals poor), one cannot deny the effects of poverty and class stratification on a large number of the people in our criminal justice system. Poverty itself does not cause crime, but it definitely leads to the illusion that illegal means are necessary to achieve prosperity.

Another jarring problem with this book is how Dr. Samenow talks about criminals as one homogeneous group. We know that a woman who is addicted to crack cocaine and sells her body for profit and a Jeffrey Dahmer-like sex predator/murderer are both criminals according to the law, but are they really in the same category of deviance? According to Dr. Samenow, there isn’t much of a difference between a weekend ecstasy user and John Wayne Gacy. He also disregards ‘addiction as a disease’ pathology and with it, pretty much everything that’s been written in the field of human psychology for the past 25 years. As a psychologist, you would think he wants to understand what really drives people to do what they do beyond the most obvious, the motivator of choice.

I got almost zero information from this book. I imagine that this book is hot with prosecutors and other right-wingers who want to ‘get tough’ on crime by locking up people doing everything from robbing a bank to stealing a chicken. It doesn’t make it correct though. Not in the least.

Review: Dime

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Review for “Dime” by E.R. Frank (2015)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This book is horrifying and heartbreaking. I was holding out on four stars, but this book is incredible. Five stars.

When the novel opens, Dime (we are never told her real name) is a 13-year-old girl living in a foster home in New Jersey with a guardian who drinks and physically abuses her. Her only true love is reading, which she quietly does whenever she has a moment in between caring for her foster siblings and fighting off the sexual advances of her foster brother. She walks the streets cold, sick, and hungry in the evenings until she meets another young girl who takes her home to meet her ‘boyfriend,’ a charismatic, smooth talking man named Daddy. Dime becomes enamored with Daddy, whom she soon discovers is a pimp. Dime resists the reality of her situation until she is told that in order to ‘earn’ Daddy’s love, she must bring him money and work the streets.

This book is gritty and raw. It spares no details of all of the ugly realities of human trafficking you’ve probably already seen on tv. Dime describes in vivid detail the particulars of being regularly beaten and raped, along with life on the street as a pimp’s ‘property,’ sex work in dirty hotels, degrading sexual acts requested by johns. It’s adult stuff, yet this book is completely appropriate for a YA audience. Although I cringed through most of the story because even though she only hints at times of what’s going on, I knew what was happening to this 13-year-old child. Dime manages to detach herself from the ugliness around her and never quits school (even though she’s encouraged to), never stops reading, and towards the end of the story, begins to see her way out of a life of prostitution.

I’m determined not to spoil this book for this review. However, I was definitely impressed with this novel. Dime is such a likeable girl that you can’t help but to root for her in the face of such insurmountable odds. It took me about 4 days to read this book and all through that time I could not help but to think about her and the thousands of girls just like her being held against their will.

This book is definitely a must-read. Get this book right away!

Review: How it Went Down

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Review for “How it Went Down” by Kekla Magoon (2014)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

One of the struggles I remember having as a middle school teacher was finding books about current issues that are timely and relevant to urban youth. In 2012, I was teaching 8th grade when Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch guy in a supposed act of ‘self defense’ near Orlando, Florida. None of my students were there, but I remember the deep sense of anger that they felt about it. Perhaps they understood for the first time in their young lives that because of the color of their skin, their lives were expendable. Perhaps they saw their own mortality in the picture of a young man dressed like them in a hoodie in a country that doesn’t give a damn about their success or failure. Whatever their reasons were, I remember them coming to school in the days after the shooting went down wearing hoodies, carrying Skittles (reportedly young Treyvon had a bag of Skittles when he was murdered), practically daring the teachers and admins to say something to them about it. I remember giving a lesson in response on the complexities of the Stand Your Ground law and how most of them perked up, excited that I took the time to even care about an issue that interested them.

Fast forward to 2014. How it Went Down is published. It’s a fictional story but has all the earmarks of the Trayvon Martin case. It’s a moderately paced urban tale about the events surrounding the shooting of a unarmed young black man by a white man who mistakes a Snickers bar in his pocket as a gun. It’s a powerful and relevant story, and the two stars I’m giving it have nothing to do with its message or its sense of importance in today’s society.

I just didn’t like the way this story was written. For me, there were too many perspectives (the victim’s mother, the shooter, the shooter’s friend, bystanders, the victim’s sister, the victim’s friends, a minister, etc) —everybody has a ‘say’ in this story and it was far too confusing for me to keep track of who is saying or doing what. There are labels at the top of each section before each character speaks, but with over a dozen people ‘speaking,’ it was just too much. About a third of the way in I tossed my hands in the air and didn’t finish. While I’m not knocking the inclusion of the differing perspectives, I didn’t like the manner in which it was included here. I have no doubt that multiple perspectives are absolutely necessary–especially in the hazy aftermath of sudden movements and adrenaline responses. We will probably never know what truly went down in Florida, in New York, or in Ferguson, only that a young man is dead and another gets to walk away scott-free, the outcome already decided due to the color of their skin.

I would not recommend this for personal reading satisfaction. I would, however, recommend this to people who were in the situation I was in in 2012, desperately searching for reading materials to penetrate the zeitgeist of today’s youth.