Review: Norte

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Review for "Norte" by Edmundo Paz Soldan, translated from Spanish by Valerie Miles (2016) 
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

TW: graphic scenes of rape, murder, mutilation

“Norte” is Bolivian author Edmundo Paz Soldan’s third novel, originally written in Spanish and translated into English. There are three distinctly related narrative threads within this novel, two of which are inspired by real people. The first is the story of Jesus, a ruthless serial killer based on the life of Angel Maturino Resendiz, who hopped freight trains throughout the U.S. and murdered his victims in their homes near railroads from the mid-80s and throughout the 90s. The second is the story of Martin, based on the life of Martin Ramirez, a self-taught, schizophrenic artist who languished in California’s mental hospitals for thirty years before dying in one in 1963. The third is the present-day story of Michelle and Fabian, a Bolivian and Argentinian artist couple struggling with drugs and depression.

This book is not so much about the immigrant experience, but about the pain of displacement and loss, and being in places unfamiliar and strange and far from “home.” All four of the main characters struggle with madness, a theme that runs prominently throughout the novel. Martin’s and Michelle’s art is inspired by voices and the shifts in their environment, Jesus’ acts are also inspired by voices that command him to kill women. Jesus is a highly repugnant character, perhaps one of the most awful people I’ve ever had the displeasure of reading about. There are very graphic and detailed scenes of rape, murder, and mutilation in this book. The target of Jesus’ violence is women, which he possesses a pathological hatred for. I can see where this would probably turn a good number of readers off, though personally I did not feel that the violence was too gratuitous (reminder: we are talking about a serial killer, after all).

Overall, I liked this book and found it to be very readable.

Four stars.

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Review: Paperback Crush

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Review for "Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of '80s and '90s Teen Fiction" by Gabrielle Moss (2018)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Nancy Drew. The Wakefield twins. The Babysitters Club. Christopher Pike. R. L. Stine. The Girls of Canby Hall.

Don’t forget the series. Always in an endless parade of series, people…

If you know any of the names above, you were an 80’s/90’s reader girly like me and read all things mass market, pop teen fiction. My favorite activity at the local mall (after copping a slice of Sbarro’s pizza) was going to Waldenbooks, finding a nice spot on the floor and deciding which paperback I was going to buy with my babysitting money to read that week. I collected these books and wouldn’t let anyone touch them, especially my baby sister at the time (who used to rip up books, yikes!).

“Paperback Crush” is a time machine back to that period, a dive into the history of teen fiction from the late 60s to the early 00’s. The format is excellent and easy to follow, there are tons of pictures of the books I definitely read and remembered. There’s also interviews with some of the authors who changed the game with more diverse characters and situations that teens were reading about. The book is split into categories that were also very interesting: love/sex, friendships, family, teen jobs/sleuthing, paranormal, danger, and so on. It’s a pretty broad overview of the development of the genre, complete with a beautiful gem of nostalgia.

This book also brought me back mentally to a time when much of the world to me was very “safe”–suburban, heterogeneous, heteronormative–and of course, White. Of course I still read the books regardless, but it took me back to the very real feeling I got (and still get) often as a Black girl reader: where was I? Why does no one in this entire book look like me? Sure there were characters of color here and there (i.e., Jessie and Claudia in the Babysitters Club), but they were generally ‘otherized’–mystical tokens in a sea of whiteness. This book barely scratches the surface of the deeper discussions of race, class, and representation in literature, which I wish had taken up a larger portion of the book.

I realize now that I owe a tremendous debt to pop teen fiction. Its where I learned not only how to read, but how to analyze, criticize, roll my eyes and yell out “oh please” when a character did something stupid. It made me the reader I am today.

Definitely get this one.

Review: Hey Kiddo

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Review for "Hey Kiddo" by Jarrett Krosoczka (2018)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Ayyy…first post of the New Year!! Happy 2019!

Heartbreaking but hopeful nonfiction graphic novel about the life of the author, Jarrett Krosoczka. After giving a TED talk about his upbringing and receiving an overwhelmingly positive response, he decided to create this book. I’m glad he did.

Jarrett was born in 1977 in Worchester, Massachusetts. His mother was young at the time of his birth and, as he would later find out, struggling with heroin addiction. His father’s identity remained somewhat of a mystery, Jarrett does not learn his name until he is almost a teenager. For a time when he is small, Jarrett lives with his mother, though she eventually turns back to heroin and criminal activity. At the age of 3 he goes to live with his grandparents, who despite their own rocky marriage, love and raise Jarrett with all of the nurturing he could ever ask for. They take him to visit his mother in jail and throughout her detox stays, answer his questions and see him through school, but most importantly they encourage his desire to draw, which he does to escape from the pain of not having a mom.

The novel follows Jarrett until he graduates from high school. Although he does eventually discover his dad and develop a relationship with him, he continues intermittent contact with his mother due to her drug addiction. Years later, as a successful and best selling author, he decides to share this story to connect with other people.

Anyway, I loved this book. It is YA, but deals with very adult issues. I imagine that it resonates with many people, particularly now due to the overwhelming prevalence of the opioid/meth epidemic. Even as a middle school teacher, I taught many students who were being raised by aunts and uncles and grandparents, mostly due to their own parents being incarcerated or simply gone, addicted to drugs.

Five stars. Don’t miss this.

Review: Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish

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Review for "Marcus Vega Doesn't Speak Spanish" by Pablo Carteya (2018)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Ah, I liked this book. It’s a great junior high/middle grades story of family, culture, and dealing with adversity. It’s also a love letter to the beautiful island of Puerto Rico, which I had the chance to visit back in 2016 before the hurricane. Because this book conjured up so many great memories for me, naturally I gravitated to this novel.

Marcus Vega is an 8th grader who is 6 feet tall. He uses his size to walk bullied kids to and from school, to impose a littering tax, and keep kids’ cell phones during the day–for profit. He lives with his single mom who works long hours at the local airport, and cares for his younger brother Charlie, who has Down Syndrome. When another student at school makes a comment about his brother, Marcus attacks him and is suspended from school. Marcus’ mom uses the break from school to visit family in Puerto Rico, the place where Marcus was born. Marcus, who came to the mainland as a young child, does not speak Spanish. He also barely remembers any of his family there, particularly his father. He becomes interested in traveling to the island to meet his dad for the first time.

Once the family is in Puerto Rico, Marcus discovers an entire culture, language, and way of seeing his world that he previously knew nothing about. While I won’t reveal the ending of this book, I did feel that the ending was satisfactory, though bittersweet. All in all I loved the scenery of this novel: the colorful streets of Old San Juan, the music, the culture, the chirping of the coqui, the language. Much of the Spanish spoken by the characters isn’t translated, which is ok. This is Puerto Rico’s story.

I highly recommend this book.

Review: The Wicker King

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Review for "The Wicker King" by K. Ancrum (2017)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Honestly, it made a bit of sense. Perception is relative. So is sanity, if you think about it. It’s totally a Minority vs. Majority thing. If you fall on one side of the line, take a ticket and proceed. If you fall on the other, shit gets real. – The Wicker King, p. 99

I finished this book at 4:45 am this morning, and man…I am wrecked.

“The Wicker King” is the story of Jack and August, two teenage boys that have been friends since they were kids. Jack is the rugby player with wealthy parents, August is the kid of a single mom who sells drugs in their high school to keep himself afloat. Early in the novel, Jack begins to see hallucinations, weird visions of a parallel universe with bizarre artifacts, riddles, and strange creatures. In Jack’s world, he is the king that has been called upon to save this fantasy world from destruction. August cannot see Jack’s visions but trusts them, believes in them, and ultimately, risks his very soul to bring it to life.

At the center of this novel is Jack and August’s relationship, which is intense, manipulative, intoxicating, all-consuming, unhealthy, romantic…I could go on and on with the adjectives here. Love sustains both Jack and August as the victims of neglectful parents, attempting to fill the empty places of need inside each other. Although the sexuality of the main characters is never explicitly stated, it’s quite obvious that this is a queer version of wretchedly dark love story. In an echo of the mental state of the characters, the pages of the book get darker and darker as the narrative progresses until they eventually fade to black.

The only thing I didn’t care for here was the heavy romanticization of mental illness, which the author dresses up pretty thick with Jack’s version of a dark fairy tale kingdom. There are plenty of negative consequences for both Jack and definitely August for embracing this, however, and I think that’s made clear in the novel. The message: if you or a loved one is grappling with mental illness, get help.

4.5 stars.

Top Fifteen Tuesday: Reads for 2019

I’m so hyped for some great reads coming down the pipe in 2019 that I couldn’t cull my list down to 10, so here goes:

Nonfiction/Memoir

1. Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive – Stephanie Land

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2. Body Leaping Backward: Memoir of a Delinquent Girlhood – Maureen Stanton

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3. The Bold World: A Memoir of Family and Transformation

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Fiction

4. Queenie – Candice Carty Williams

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5. The Other Americans – Laila Lalami

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6. An Orchestra of Minorities – Chigozie Obioma

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YA

7. The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali – Sabina Khan

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8. Belly Up – Eva Darrows

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9. A Good Kind of Trouble – Lisa Ramee

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10. With the Fire on High- Elizabeth Acevedo

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11. Watch Us Rise – Renee Watson

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12. The Revolution of Birdie Randolph – Brandy Colbert

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13. Internment – Samira Ahmed

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14. Let Me Hear a Rhyme – Tiffany D. Jackson

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15. On the Come Up – Angie Thomas

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Review: Anatomy of a Girl Gang

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Review for "Anatomy of a Girl Gang" by Ashley Little (2013)
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

“Bad bitches don’t die.” p. 108

LOL, I crack myself up sometimes. I also cracked myself up with this book. Anywho, I definitely liked this one.

Stuck in the streets of a gritty neighborhood in Vancouver and fed up with the sexist actions of their all-boy gang, girl gangsters Mac and Mercy decide to start their own crew, which they call The Black Roses. Mac sets strict rules at the outset: there will never be more than 5 girl members, they will never use the drugs that they sell, and they will be their city’s worst nightmare.

Together, Mac and Mercy recruit 3 more girls. Each member is distinct in their personality and serves their own purpose within the gang. Mac is the leader, mastermind, and the O.G. of the gang (that’s ‘original gangster’ for you squares). Mercy, a “Punjabi princess,” is Mac’s right hand with a special aptitude for theft (cars, store merchandise, you name it). Kayos is from a rich family and has a special flair for violence. Sly Girl, who comes from a hard life on a reservation, is a master of the ups and downs of buying, selling, (and later using) drugs. The final recruit, Z, is a young Chinese graffiti artist whose job it is to market The Black Roses’ message of mayhem by tagging their name on street signs and bridges all across the city.

At first, the Black Roses are wildly successful. Although they run into some problems with other gangs, they quickly solve them with violence. They begin to save their money and dream of leaving the streets. There’s even time for a romance to develop between two of the members. All continues to go well until a devastating blow leaves them without hope or the money they’ve saved to plan an escape. Desperate, the girls come up with an ill-advised plan which sets into motion a chain of events that eventually destroys them all.

This book is told in alternating narratives of all five of the characters. Interspersed throughout the story is the voice of Vancouver, an eye in the sky that “sees” all. Honestly, the writing of this book is not all that excellent but the story managed to be quietly devastating enough to keep me turning the pages. The mid-90’s hip hop language, explained to the less-than-wary with the aid of a glossary in the back, is also funny too with definitions for words like “slinging,” “burners,” and “gat.”

This is YA, but I’d recommend for adults too.

Four stars, yo…