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.

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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.

Review: Firsts

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Review for “Firsts” by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn (2016)

Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars

Man, this book sucks…

Possible spoilers abound. #sorrynotsorry

Mercedes (or, Mercy) Ayers is a 17 year old girl who provides a unique ‘service’ to the boys at her high school. Boys looking to get their first time awkwardness over with and ‘learn the ropes’ come to her for their first sexual experience. All she asks for in return is their secrecy and that they give their girlfriends the perfect first time, something that she herself never had. All goes well until she hits a snag with Zach, a boy who wants to be more than just an occasional a sex partner, and her best friend Angela, a ‘prayer group nerd’ whose boyfriend Charlie throws a monkey wrench into Mercedes’ life.

Lemme say this: I knew this book would be about sex. Sex scenes, sex positions, sex, sex, sex. I don’t have a problem with it, but the way it was executed was way over the top–particularly for a high school context. Like who would think there would be so many male virgins at ONE school, scared of how they would perform sexually? Mercedes also spends extensive amounts of time with other things sex related, like her lingerie collection (satin, leather, lace, negligees, etc). Dude, she’s seventeen. How does she know so much about this topic? Yeah, she’s no virgin, but the author portrays Mercedes as practically a porn star with specific knowledge on how to please each boy she takes on, based on his perceived attributes. Bitch, please.

As far as the character herself…make no mistake, girlfriend is a train wreck. Mercedes’ mom (not called Mom, but by her first name, Kim) is a liquored-up, Botoxed divorcee who’s never at home, her father abandoned the family long ago, and “her first time” was far less than ideal. The author spends a lot of time in this novel discussing Mercedes’ home life, trying to get you feel for her and to empathize with why she does the things she does. And I understand, I really do. But come on…I’m not saying Mercedes is a bad person for having sex (she does use condoms, btw) but did she really think she could have sex with a double-digit number of guys at one high school and for it not get out? And not just any guys, but OTHER PEOPLE’S BOYFRIENDS? Come on, now. I’m not one for slut-shaming, but you can’t blame an entire school for incurring their wrath upon her once they heard the truth about her side chick exploits…

I just can’t believe this book is anywhere near a realistic portrayal of the sex lives of high schoolers. I know it’s been a long time since I’ve been in high school, but still. No way.

To Whom it May Concern

Before I go any further, let me remind you all: I don’t review nonfiction on this site. I mention this on my review request page.

Yet, strangely, I get a lot requests to review biographies and memoirs. Don’t get me wrong, I do read bios, memoirs, books on public policy, books on social issues. As a matter of fact, I read them quite often. The reason why I avoid reviewing them here though is simple: I don’t like writing about nonfiction. Call it personal preference, being picky, whatever…but it’s important for me to keep this site enjoyable. The moment that I find myself taking on certain books and reviewing them out of obligation, habit, or a need to keep myself busy is the day that I probably should be shutting this site down, you know?

I don’t take money for reviews. I do this for the love of the written word. The bottom line is this: the books that you see reviewed here (even if I hated them) are books that I chose to review, upon my own free will. Book review requests that I receive in my inbox that I review here will always be books that I choose to review, upon my own free will. I wouldn’t want it any other way. A book author who writes their heart out in a labor of love wouldn’t want it any other way either.

Had to get that off my chest. Ya’ll carry on.

Love, Kellan

Review: The Vegetarian

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Review for “The Vegetarian” by Han Kang (2016)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This book is bananas…

To tell you too much about it is to spoil it, which I’ve decided not to do for the purposes of this review. However, this was a very well-written, eloquent story. I enjoyed reading Han’s words even if I didn’t really completely get the plot just because they invoked that kind of beauty.

The story centers on a typical Korean housewife, Yeong-hye, who, after having a series of violent dreams, decides that she is not going to eat meat anymore. Her husband, Mr. Cheong, is shocked at this revelation and does not know what he is going to do with her. From this point, there is a brewing conflict in their home which ultimately reaches into Yeong-hye’s immediate family and she goes into a downward spiral of madness and starvation (and a few more things I won’t reveal here) as a result.

This book is interesting in that it is split into three novella-length parts, and Yeong-hye is not the primary narrator of any of them. The first part is told by her husband, Mr. Cheong, the second by her brother in law, J, and the third by her sister (and J’s wife) In-hye. Only during the first section does Yeong-hye occasionally interject, but only to tell of the disturbing content of her dreams that lead her to give up meat. Each narrator has their own agenda, and the reader only knows of Yeong-hye though their lens.

This book is extremely short (less than 200 pages), but there was a LOT here. This is a book that ultimately I will probably end up reading again to fully understand, just because the plot was THAT heavy in symbolism and meaning. In here there’s brutal violence juxtaposed with beauty, complacency alongside action, and an reprehensible act involving a dog that truly gave me nightmares. I think this book grasps at a much larger message: how trauma in one person’s life ultimately creates ripples in a metaphorical pond that affects other people.

I must say though that now Han Kang is a writer that is on my radar. She has another book she’s written that is not available in the States that I am desperately trying to get a hold of now, and I eagerly anticipate more of her work to be translated into English.