Review: We Are All Completely Fine

  
Review for “We Are All Completely Fine” by Daryl Gregory (2014)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Every now and then I need a good horror story. I just want to pick up a book and be whisked away to a dark place that no one likes to talk about. I don’t care if the horror is supernatural or a reality-based psychological freak out. I just, well…every so often, like to be scared. And who doesn’t? 

This book somewhat delivers on this. I want to give this a higher rating but I can’t. The idea of this book is a great one: a therapy support for survivors of traumatic events. No one really talks about the people who survive trauma, just the event itself or the inner workings of people who are guilty of doing it. I also like that Daryl Gregory manages to discuss each character’s horrific experience without depressing us too much. 

The execution of this, however, is not so great. The point of view of each of the therapy group members shifted entirely too much, almost to where I couldn’t tell from one section to the next which person was talking. One moment it’s Jan, the group director, the next was Harrison, a group member, so on and so forth. I didn’t get the ending either. Way too abrupt and convoluted. Certain questions are never answered, too many plot strings left dangling. But maybe it’s just me.

I understand that this is a novella, but I think this topic would have fit better into a novel format. I still feel like it’s unfinished, like Mr. Gregory only gave us half of a cup when the glass should have been full. You never really get to know the characters, because it’s time to move on to another perspective, another time, another place. It’s quick read for people who enjoy horror books, or people who have survived horrific events.

Ode to Unfinished Books

The other day I happened to stumble upon an article in The Atlantic in which the author maintains that if you start a book, you must, by all means, finish it. She goes on to chide those (like myself) who are so uninspired after 50 pages that we give up on reading the book altogether:

To drop a novel after a few chapters is, then, to disregard what makes it a formal work of art rather than a heap of papers that reside in a desk drawer. Today, books and authors need all the help they can get; if you care about literature as an artistic endeavor and the people who create it, then you should do so fully. If you consider yourself a literary person, you shouldn’t just embrace the intellectual cachet that starting books gives you. 

I completely disagree with this. If you are reading for pleasure (reading that is completely outside of a class assignment, and I’ll assume that you are) then the reading experience should be, in some way, pleasurable to you. If you aren’t having fun, you shouldn’t be reading it. 

When I was younger I used to follow this policy, finishing every single book I picked up whether I wanted to or not. Then I stopped my nightly ritual of pleasure reading for over a year, because it just became another tedious chore. After slogging my way through many an unimpressive chick lit novel, I began to ask myself: why am I doing this? To prove something to myself? There is nothing I have to prove to myself as a reader, I do this activity simply because I want to. If the reading experience isn’t entertaining for you, as in, inspiring your life, or doesn’t prompt you to put your pencil to paper in any kind of thoughtful response–then why waste your time on books you don’t like? Books are like people, and life is far too short for crap.

There are plenty of reasons I’ve abandoned my intentions of finishing a book. Bad writing is one. Uninspiring character narration (think: Ferris Bueller’s history teacher), slow plot development is another. No plot at all, or gaping plot holes. Plot twists that lack any credibility and refuse to allow me to suspend disbelief. Too much going on in the plot, or a plot with too many “blank” spaces. If I have to read a paragraph three and four times to “get” it, reading it will get old really quick. Sometimes I can’t finish a book because the character’s behavior is so objectionable that I simply do not care to muck my brain up to read it any further. Sapphire’s novel The Kid comes to mind here, if anyone cares to read 300+ pages of graphic descriptions of rape scenes and the thoughts of an adolescent sex offender, please be my guest…

We all know some books start off slow, then pick up steam later in the reading. While this may be true, if the “steam” doesn’t begin in the first 50-75 pages, I reserve the right to put it down. I’ve left many books unfinished in my lifetime and before I leave this earth I’m sure I will leave many more in this fashion. It’s fine. I owe no one any apologies for my act and you don’t owe anyone (or yourself) any apologies, either.

Now Accepting Review Requests!

So I’ve decided to complicate my life here and start taking review requests. If you’re truly interested I’d encourage you to email first to discuss what your book is about, what stage of the publishing process it is in, and what kind of review you are looking for. When I read I take detailed notes and I usually begin writing the review right after I read it. I have no patience for underdeveloped characters and plot holes. Often times I find that when people give me something to critique they will claim that they want an “honest” opinion, but when detailed, constructive criticism is given, they don’t want it. Or the opposite scenario: they’ll listen to what you have to say and later on give you a published copy with the same questionable content still in there, flashing like a neon sign. Almost as if you wasted your time to begin with critiquing it in the first place. Personally I welcome all criticism if I ask for it; I would much rather a reviewer tell me what was wrong with my book before it went to print then have people post ridiculous things on Amazon.com about it, you know?

The details of my review policy are on the appropriate page.

Review: Single, Carefree, Mellow

  

Review for “Single, Carefree, Mellow” by Katherine Heiny (2015)

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Jesus, where do I start???

“Single, Carefree, Mellow” to describe this book is a hell of a misnomer, because not one of the characters in this collection of eleven short stories was single. All of Heiny’s characters are upper middle class, educated, young white women working in a writerly kind of job and married to or in a committed relationship to a nice, clueless guy who works in a tech field. Every single story (yes, every. single. one!) included a main character caught up in some form or another of adultery, usually with a slightly older man who also works in a writerly occupation. It was almost as if the author was using a formula here: introduce characters, insert some humorous descriptions, bleep bleep bloop…then onto the coup de grâce of the main character and her running partner going at it like rabbits in the backseat of a car. Yes. Really.

I can understand that a book has a common theme, but this was ridiculous. I’ve never read a short story collection in which the stories were so blandly repetitive, the characters so obnoxiously cliche. The women here were so indistinguishable from one another that it didn’t matter that Heiny used the second person narrative in several selections, or that the same character appeared in three different stories here in three different stages of her life. You don’t remember the characters’ names because they were so predictable and generic—the same voice, same character type. And since they’re all screwing their bosses or the dude they met on the Internet anyway, their affair part of the story becomes mindless, so beside the point. Like background noise, you ignore it. You move on, you don’t care.

Also weird was that no one in this book, not one single person, appeared to have any moral objections to all of this affair-having. Not that every person is a born again Bible thumper, but I found the total lack of empathy in each story strange, to the point where the characters were completely unrealistic. Not one of the significant others/husbands here seemed to be vaguely suspicious of their wife or girlfriend, and no one was ever discovered in their indiscretions. And always, after said affair was over, the protagonist seemed to go on with their daily lives as normal. Really?! Like, I had no idea that getting your rocks off with a guy you met on a plane while your husband’s on a bicycling trip was that simple. Wowzers!

Is infidelity among women this rampant in our society? After reading this book, if I wasn’t careful, I would believe so. However, I honestly believe that women are smarter than what Heiny portrays them as. The strangest part about it was that I actually did enjoy Heiny’s writing, she employs a fair amount of dark humor, which was a plus for me. There was also a very touching scene in one of the stories in which the character loses her dog after an illness, which left me kinda sore because this happened to me about three years ago (RIP Zoe). But that was the only scene that connected with me, it still wasn’t enough to save this crappy mess of a book. Glad I didn’t purchase this, thank God for libraries…

Review: Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty

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Review for “Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty” by G. Neri, illustrated by Randy DuBurke (2010)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I was in high school back in 1994, and I remember the case of Robert “Yummy” Sandifer like it was yesterday. My parents used to get weekly subscriptions to TIME magazine back then and I remember staring at the young, barely preteen face in the mug shot on the cover thinking: how could this happen? How can an 11 year old child be both a murderer and a murder victim? Like the 1994 magazine cover, the child’s eyes on the front of this book stare directly at you and you can’t help but to stare back. His gaze is a direct challenge, his eyes are blank, hostile. It’s the coldest stare you’ve ever seen on an 11-year-old kid in your life.

TIME Magazine, September 19, 1994
TIME Magazine, September 19, 1994

I read that magazine article over and over again and even though I knew the facts of his brief life (abusive past, both of his parents were incarcerated, ran away from numerous foster homes, and had dozens of brushes with the law), the facts offered no comfort or clarity to my burning question of ‘why?’ In the years since, I have never forgotten the details of Yummy’s short, violent life, or his young face on the cover of a national news magazine.

Twenty years later as a middle school teacher, I had seen about a dozen ‘Yummys’ in my ten year teaching span. Not quite as violent at Robert, but the circumstances were the same–black male children living in hellish home situations, caught up in the ever-present, all consuming lure of gang life. I am also a parent myself, of an 11 year old son–ironically, the same age as the boy at the center of this novel. My interest in this case has never wavered over the years, so when I saw there was a graphic novel about Yummy’s life I jumped at the chance to read it.

This was an excellent book. It is narrated through a fictional bystander, a neighborhood child named Roger. It is illustrated in a clear, thoughtful way that allows you to fully understand through pictures the drama of that unfolded in the Roseland neighborhood of Chicago back in 1994. The tragic facts of Yummy’s life are presented once again but what is unique about this story is that it accurately showed the detrimental effect of abuse and neglect on Yummy’s life. We see that even though he killed a young girl and committed several other crimes, he was still a kid and in many ways, still a victim. Through Roger’s perspective, we witness another side of Yummy. We learn that he was a child who still carried and slept with a teddy bear, loved his Granny, felt fear, and cried often. It was facts like these and several others that were presented that grabbed me emotionally in such a way that I couldn’t help but to want to reach out and hug this child and sympathize with him. The author never pushed an agenda or preached, but left you to make up your own mind about whether or not Yummy was a cold hearted killer.

This book is undoubtedly a morality tale to warn kids away from the perils of gang life. I wish I had discovered this book years earlier as a teacher and presented it to my reluctant readers, who have no choice but to live in a violent, hopeless home environment like the one in which Yummy was raised. The ending is one of hope, though we know deep down that the problem of gangs aren’t going anywhere soon. This book, however, is a great start.