Review: The Wilds

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Review for “The Wilds” by Julia Elliott (2014)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“The Wilds” is a unique short story collection with stories that range from sci-fi, dystopian, horror, and a couple of other genres that don’t really get talked about much because not enough people write about it yet. Elliott’s writing brims with creativity, her bravery in choosing these subjects to write about earns her four stars. It takes raw imagination to even conceive of stories like this. There is the strong presence of the Southern gothic in this collection, but it’s nothing like this. After finishing this book I can truthfully say that I’ve never read anything even close to the subject matter found in this book.

There are eleven stories in this collection–each of them set in plain, everyday environments–but Elliott twists and turns this into a weird, alien world. In “Feral” a pack of wild dogs ravage the planet and children and scientists become fascinated by their wild, savage behavior. In “Rapture,” a girl at a sleepover learns the truth about the world from her friend’s unconventional, fundamentalist grandmother. In “The Wilds,” a young girl falls in love with a boy who wears a wolf mask. And, in “Regeneration at Mukti,” an island retreat becomes a place where people are infected with festering diseases so that their skin can scab over and fall off. Elliott also gives most of these stories an open ending, inviting the reader to come to their own conclusion about the events she presents.

Why I didn’t like this: each of these stories seethes with a kind of ugliness and revulsion for the human body. There were quite a few gross-you-out passages, as well as a underlying theme of what I can only describe as sexual lust–that, at times, made me really uncomfortable. A lot of these stories, as interesting as they were, were just…I dunno, simply not my cup of tea. Ultimately I stayed committed to the reading because it intrigued me, but I would not want to repeat it again. The four star rating I’m giving here, however, is for the excellent writing that prompts the ‘ick’ reaction in the first place.

There is definitely something here, and I am eager to read a full book by this author. The cover is sheer beauty and enticed me to open this book. What will Julia Elliott come up with next? We will see.

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Review: Project X

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Review for “Project X” by Jim Shepard (2005)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Three words: provocative, disturbing, puzzling.

Loved this book.

Project X is about a familiar topic in contemporary literature–school violence. The story is told by Edwin Henratty, for whom the word ‘outcast’ is an understatement. He’s a middle schooler with a laundry list of issues: he’s socially awkward, isolated, always in fights, always in trouble, picked on by both teachers and students, with parents who try but fail miserably to understand his problems. His only friend is a fellow outcast, Flake, and together they begin to plan ways to get back at everyone in school who ever caused them misery.

The kicker with this book is not the ending, because you already know it will be a violent one: it’s just a matter of time, opportunity, and method. The people in and around these boy’s lives are completely oblivious to their plight, rendering them powerless to change the inevitable conclusion. As the two boys go about the planning of their hideous revenge, one can only wonder if someone or something could have stopped them. Their plan is fragile at best, yet the pain they are experiencing is so acute that it becomes the only thing that motivates them to go forward, the reason they get out of bed in the morning. It’s what makes this book so truly heartbreaking, because you are forced to view these characters not as killers, but real children experiencing real pain.

The voice of this novel was perfect. I have never read Jim Shepard before, but I was amazed to discover that he was a middle aged man, writing in all of the nuances of an 8th grade boy. The dialogue is current and perfectly believable, the characters completely fleshed out. There is also a healthy dose of black humor here too, which I liked. The tone is serious but not preachy, as Shepard leaves the complex problem of mass violence unanswered and up to the reader to figure out.

Needless to say, I liked this book immensely.

Book Q & A Monday, part 5

Ahh, Spring Break! A much-deserved break from class for me. I’m gonna read all of the books I can and get you guys some reviews!

Favorite author?

Too many to name here, but I’ve always worshipped at the throne of Sylvia Plath’s awesomeness. I first came into her writing by reading a poem in my 7th grade literature class called “Spinster” and, for some reason, I recall right then and there being extremely moved by her words, like, somebody-read-my-journal kind of “moved” by it. She is the first writer whose style I can remember truly patterning myself after–trying to make sense of the rhythm of her words, her life, her thought process. The Bell Jar is still one of my favorite books. I have her collected poems, her unabridged journals. I even did my undergrad thesis on her work. She is extraordinary to me and always will be.

Author I wish people would read more?

Hmmm…Richard Lange. He’s a writer out of LA who writes a lot of noir-type crime fiction and short stories. It’s dirty, it’s violent, yet not too dirty or violent–but it’s not for the weak either. I’ve reviewed a couple of his books here and even though all of his books aren’t A+, I still love his books. I check his website, I follow him on Twitter, just to see if he’s put out something else. I will read anything he writes. Hehe.

Favorite childhood book?

Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. I loved that book when I was a kid, I read it to my son when he was a baby. It’s a powerful message about unconditional love.

Other classics: Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel, Corduroy by Don Freeman, Miss Nelson is Missing! by James Marshall, Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

 

 

 

Review: What Belongs to You

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Review for “What Belongs to You” by Garth Greenwell (2016)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

LGBTQ lit is an area that I’ve really been wanting to branch out into, so this book has been on my watch list for a while. That and the fact that this book was on BuzzFeed’s “Best of 2016” novels list compelled me to read it.

“What Belongs to You” is the story of a privileged American man working in Bulgaria as a teacher. He meets a young, working class hustler named Mitko in a public toilet where he pays him for sex moments after they meet. They proceed to develop a very strange, codependent, and somewhat obsessive relationship over the next several months. The American is lonely and looking for real companionship, while Mitko sees nothing wrong with taking advantage of a free opportunity for food, money, and, at times, a place to stay. The story ends exactly how we expected it to end because ummm….what are you supposed to expect as far as future prospects when you pay a stranger for sex in a bathroom stall? I ain’t the most intelligent gal in the world, but my guess is that it’s just not going to go well. It’s no different here.

This book offered no surprises, only predictable cliches. Perhaps I’m in the minority, but this book bored me to death. It’s a pity, because the writing itself is actually VERY good, which is why I gave it two stars. The author knows the emotional weight of his words, and several statements in the novel were so profound that I found myself reading them aloud, underlining them, savoring them. The story, however, was completely lost on me.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I do recommend this book. If you don’t mind a predictable plot, the writing here will ‘wow’ you. Be forewarned though, there are some pretty graphic sex scenes–so if you’re a homophobic prude who’s offended by the intimate details of sex between two men, then don’t read this. My hope, however, is that if you are reading my site, you are an enlightened person who can read whatever is placed in front of you for its artistic merit and nothing more. Voila!

Review: Rikers High

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Review for “Rikers High” by Paul Volponi (2010)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Martin Stokes is a likable 17-year-old teenager who gets locked up in one of the nation’s most notoriously violent jails for “steering” (telling an undercover officer where to buy drugs) and is sent to NYC’s Rikers Island. Due to the terrible backlog of the city’s criminal justice system and his family’s inability to pay bail, he is forced to spend several months in custody until his case comes up and is heard by the judge. To make his situation worse, he becomes an innocent bystander during a scuffle between two other inmates and gets slashed on the face, physically scarring him.

Martin is eventually transferred to an area where he is forced to go to school, and it is here when the real action of the story begins. Be warned though, this book is filled with tons of “lock-up” slang that only those who have spent some time in a NY state correctional facility would understand. Even though the author does a decent job of explaining the lingo (a blurb on the back of the book says that he was a teacher on Rikers Island for several years), it still makes an awkward narrative. Riot officers who break up fights in housing units are “turtles,” solitary confinement is “the bing,” the dorms where youth are held are known as the “Sprung,” and members of violent gang crews are referred to as “doldiers” (a combination of the words ‘dummy’ and ‘soldiers’), and so on.

Even though you understand Martin’s plight, his character and everyone else’s in this book was really thin and undeveloped. Part of this may have actually been intentional, due to the fact that we as a society tend to view all prisoners as the worst of the worst, the literal “throwaways” of society. The problem though is that even though this is the case, it’s just not enough to help you care more about what’s going on with the characters here. It’s also woefully unrealistic: Martin, a young black male, serves his time, learns his lesson, goes back home and moves on. This is usually not the case in real life. As we all know, many young black men with a felony on their criminal record are more likely to eventually return to jail: mostly due to factors such as a lack of resources, low employment prospects, poor quality education, etc. Prison is a giant revolving door, and few manage to break this destructive cycle. I would think that the author would use this book to make a statement on the effed-up state of the criminal justice system, but I digress.

I do recommend this book for YA readers, specifically for teenage boys, who we all know are notoriously hard to engage in reading. It’s a fair cautionary tale, and even though I didn’t like it, they will.

Book Q & A Monday, Part 4

A book that made you cry?

Jesus…so many. If I had to name one from recent memory, however, it would be A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. I reviewed it here a while back but was still in a “good book” haze when I tried to write about it a couple hours later and couldn’t think of a thoughtful way to put how I felt about it into words. One day I will write a thoughtful review on it, but man…lemme tell you…that book, if you ever care to delve into it, is deep. It is about the innermost thoughts of a child whose mother is dying of cancer, thus he invents a ‘monster’ to deal with his grief. It is a YA book, but honestly I think it is for anyone who has ever lost someone and does not know how to begin to deal with their feelings about it. Its one of the most honest books on a subject that I’ve ever read in my life.

Most overrated book?

The Twilight series. I only read the first book, Twilight. It was so god-awful that I threw it into the trash when I finished it. Fished it out 30 minutes later and drove up to Goodwill and threw it in a donation bin. When they asked if I wanted a tax credit, I told them ‘nope’ and drove away. I would have left it in the trash had it not been for my overwhelming need to keep books in circulation, no matter what the subject matter is.

Most thought provoking book?

Another doozy here because there’s been so many. In recent years, however, I read and really thought that There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz was quite profound. Even though it was written in 1991, it is still timely and relevant, especially because when it comes to poverty and hopelessness in inner cities because not much has changed in 30 years. It is a work of nonfiction about a single mother of 8 children living in a housing project in Chicago. The book follows the family for 2 years as LaJoe deals with raising her 5 youngest children in one of the worst neighborhoods you can imagine–horrifying living conditions, crime, poverty, gangs, drugs, snipers on rooftops, bullets that fly through walls, etc. It is a tragedy, but there is something hopeful about the ending.  Very thought provoking.

Favorite classical author?

I’m really into Shakespeare–his sonnets and his plays. I also love Edgar Allan Poe, William Blake, Henry David Thoreau.

Favorite classical work?

Hamlet. I read it in high school and I’ve loved it ever since. I can quote some of those lines over and over and never get tired of them because they’re so damn beautiful. I even found a recording of it and taped it to my belly when I was pregnant with my son and played it before I went to bed, every night until I delivered him. Strangely, he never would kick me during those times (a sign from above that he actually liked it–ha!).

Review: Daydreams of Angels

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Review for “Daydreams of Angels” by Heather O’Neill (2015)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

So I love Heather O’Neill. If you haven’t read her novel ‘Lullabies for Little Criminals’ then you are sorely depriving yourself of great literature. She has another novel out which I have not yet read (will do this) but this book was available at the library first, so I dove right in.

‘Daydreams of Angels’ describes itself as ‘twisted fairy stories’ and that description is very accurate. There are stories about floating babies, talking bears, gypsies, and cloned Russian dancers. Most of them are flights of fancy (as I said earlier, there is a talking bear) but some feature real people and events. This book as a whole, however, was lackluster. Some of the stories I liked immensely: ‘Holy Dove Parade’ is about a girl member of bizarre cult who commits a crime, ‘Where Babies Come From’ is a weird grandmother’s version of natural events, ‘The Gospel According to Mary M.’ is modern story of Jesus’s life in middle school. Most of the stories though I didn’t really like and I struggled through, like ‘The Story of Little O,’ which I’m still not sure what it was about. Out of all 21 stories here I only liked about 5, the rest didn’t make much of an impression on me. The voice was too monotone, the plots too similar. All in all: meh.

I DO recommend reading Heather O’Neill, but don’t start here. Try reading “Lullabies for Little Criminals” and you’ll thank me for this later.