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.

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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.

Review: Exit, Pursued by a Bear

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Review for “Exit, Pursued by a Bear” by E.K. Johnston (2016)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

As soon as this book came up on NetGalley I immediately wanted to read it. I didn’t request it there because I’ve got so many books in my NG queue (I’ll probably be reading until Christmas), so I downloaded this from Amazon. At only 250 pages it’s a quick read, but one that completely perplexed and frustrated me. Let me explain.

NOTE: Spoilers abound here. #sorrynotsorry

Hermoine Winters is a talented cheerleader in a small Canadian town, surrounded by friends and high expectations for her senior year. On a summer evening during the last night of cheerleading camp, she is slipped a drug in a drink by an unknown assailant and raped. When she awakens, she remembers nothing of the attack.

In theory, I should have loved this book. Hermoine defies everything about a rape ‘victim’ that we have ever been previously told or read about. She is bold, undeterred by people’s whispers and stares, and determined to move on with her life. Her friends, family, cheerleading coach, and her therapist rally to her side and support her. But that’s where the ‘good’ part of this book ends. I had incredible difficulty with Hermione as narrator. She is so emotionally detached here that she may as well have been on another plane of existence. Her whole ‘I don’t remember it, I’ll be ok’ attitude perplexed me. I understand that this is more than likely due to the trauma of not remembering her attack, but it distanced me from the story and did not make for a compelling narrative here. There were also deeper, more introspective events in the story that warranted discussion that were glossed over by the author with little to no fanfare at all. Her best friend comes out as a lesbian. Hermione has an abortion as a result of the rape. Although she senses who her perpetrator was, he is never caught or prosecuted. Throughout the book I kept waiting for that YES! moment in the story for Hermione to break out of her shell and claim her right to get fucking angry, but it never happened. The story managed to take all of its issues and wrap up neatly and then…exeunt.

A blurb in the back of the book by the author discusses how she wanted to stress the importance and value of support networks for rape victims. I certainly understand this, but perhaps this trope is overstressed here, to the detriment of the believability of the book. I mean, shit…we live in a society that still does not know how to discuss or even begin to address rape as an actual crime. The fact that there continues to be a raging debate over whether or not Bill Cosby’s admitted drugging of women was wrong in the year 2016 shows that many people still do not even consider this deplorable action to be a crime. Hermione drifts through this book facing the scorn of no one, and, other than an unnamed reporter who tries to slut-shame her, she faced little, if any, actual on-screen harassment. Her reality just did not feel real, it felt rushed and unrealistic.

Overall, the writing here is nothing to brag about. It wasn’t the point though, as I would have went higher in my rating had the main character connected with me. I’ve praised many books where the writing wasn’t that spectacular, but I formed a bond with the character. Despite my harsh criticism, I do recommend this book. Just because the main character did not connect with me does not mean she will not with you, or that you won’t get anything out of this book. If anything, I came away from this novel appreciating the fact that the author chose to write about the topic of rape/sexual assault, as it takes courage to do so.

Review: American Housewife

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Review for “American Housewife” by Helen Ellis (2016)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

After several months of waiting for this to be available at the library, I finally got a copy of this book. I’m thankful for this, because this book is so god-awfully bad I’d never consider owning it.

There are 12 stories in this collection, all of them centered around a Southern Stepford wife theme (i.e., party hosting, bra fittings, pageants). Sometimes it was successful here, but most of the time it wasn’t. The only story that was somewhat entertaining was “The Wainscoting War,” a humorous exchange between two women told through emails. “The Fitter,” a story about a legendary bra fitter’s wife was ok, but didn’t leave much of an impression on me, and “Dumpster Diving with Stars,” a selection about an irreverent reality tv show, was bland and ridiculously long for no reason. Several of the stories address the reader directly, like a how-to manual on a variety of subjects and customs, but after what I just described above, I honestly didn’t care. Zzzz.

I couldn’t wait for these stories to be over, which says a lot about a book that’s only 185 pages long. I understand that the author is satirizing a well-worn stereotype of Old South gentility, but it’s way overdone and the women in these stories are far too cliched to ever be taken seriously.

I imagine that people will either love or hate this book, appreciate the punchline that comes with it or roll their eyes in complete scorn. You can probably guess what my response to this book was. It simply was not my cup of tea. At all.

Review: Love and Other Wounds

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Review for “Love and Other Wounds” by Jordan Harper (2015)

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

This is a book that tries to swagger but isn’t as ‘hard’ as it thinks it is. Crime noir that’s very much in the same vein as Frank Bill’s “Crimes in Southern Indiana” (which I actually liked), but set in different locales and much much worse.

What this is: a collection of short stories with bad ass characters doing the same bad ass things with the same bad ass prose we’ve already read elsewhere. There’s redneck prison yard gangsters, men who breed dogs to die in fighting pits, criminals, hit men, meth addicts, etc, etc…by the third story I was bored out of my mind. It’s not so much the violent content that bothers me as much as the fact that there’s nothing new in this book, just the same old thin, worn out characters and plots in each selection, along with gratuitous amounts of blood and gore. This book is also littered with the n-word, as if it were a Quentin Tarantino movie, without any kind of context whatsoever and I hated every moment of it.

Lemme repeat: I actually like crime noir. I am not indicting stories about low-lives and their misdeeds, because they can be transformative. But this is not good crime noir. Harper goes beyond this label and calls his writing ‘thug lit,’ and while it may be the thing for some, I couldn’t stand this. At all.