Review: Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America

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Review for "Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America" by Jill Leovy (2015)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Before I begin this review I have to commend the author, because there really is no easy way to write about the subject of Black on Black crime. How do you talk about the very real issue of Black homicide rates without pathologizing an entire race? At the same time, one has to recognize that Black homicide is indeed a problem and even though poverty, racism, and decades of neglect by law enforcement play a consistent role in its existence, you can’t “excuse” it either. Even though crime rates have dropped in recent years, the murder rates among Black men remain relatively high. Violent homicide still remains the number 1 cause of death among Black males ages 15-34 in America.

Jill Leovy starts off great in this book. For her setting, she chooses inner city Los Angeles, a city long plagued by Black homicides. She describes a crippling bureaucracy, as well as homicide detectives struggling for resources–lack of computers and cars, even buying their own “murder books” (binders in which to keep case files). They didn’t even get tape recorders, many detectives had to buy their own. Leovy argues that the LAPD and the entire criminal justice system has not placed a high priority on solving Black murders. This has created a lack of trust in the police among Black citizens, tendencies toward vigilante-style justice, witnesses afraid to talk, and a “no-snitching” culture that makes closing murder cases notoriously difficult. Names go in files to be forgotten, detectives get bogged down with even more cases.

“Ghettoside” is a broad narrative, though it focuses on the specific case of an LAPD homicide detective’s son who was gunned down in 2007 while walking down the street. A long chapter is dedicated to describing his family life and how much of a “good” boy he was (not a gangster, followed rules, etc). You almost have to wonder if the author is following the same kind of rationale that many people feel toward murder victims: an unspoken sentiment that a person’s morally questionable behavior in some way should “justify” what happened to them. Another problem is the large amount of biographical information on not just one but several LA detectives and their careers, which, honestly, I just didn’t care about. It was hard to remember who was who and after several chapters of this I started skipping pages.

Another problem with this book is that, through the case of the detective’s son, Leovy seems to make an argument that if all cases were solved by dedicated detectives like the one who solved this one, there wouldn’t be any unsolved Black homicides. Well, not really. For one, the circumstances of every case is different and second, you have to revisit the idea that (perhaps) one of the main reasons why this particular case continued to stay visible was because of who the victim’s father was. You can’t take socioeconomic status, which governs so much of our lives, out of the death equation here.

Overall, a clunky but ok book for me. 3.5 stars.

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Review: Long Way Down

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Review for "Long Way Down" by Jason Reynolds (2017)
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Not the first novel in verse I’ve read but certainly one of the best.

Will is a teenager who has just lost his older brother in a shocking act of violence. The morning after, he finds his brother’s loaded gun and gets on his building’s elevator, going down, in pursuit of his brother’s murderer to kill him. At each floor, the elevator stops and a different person from Will’s past “gets” on, imploring him to think about his choices before it’s too late. It’s a fascinatingly interesting story, one that I think I actually respected more for the fact that it was written in verse–extraneous details skipped, only the bare bones here. It’s 300 pages or so but only took a couple of hours to read. The ending was a bit confusing, but after several reads I came to appreciate it for what it was–completely and superbly ambiguous to the reader.

As a former teacher I can see this being used in middle or high school classrooms, because there’s so many dialogue and discussion possibilities present with this book. It takes place during anytime and anyplace and anywhere and doesn’t offer any easy answers. Despite inevitable criticism to the contrary, I don’t see why this book should make the problem of violence a simple one, as everyone knows that it’s a complicated cycle that repeats itself over and over again. It’s also great reading for adults like me, I loved this book immensely.

This novel sets a pretty high bar for all other YA poetry books, which is good because I am starting to feel that this form of story-telling is becoming somewhat over saturated. Definitely recommended.

Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing

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Review for "Sing, Unburied, Sing" by Jesmyn Ward (2017)

Rating: none

DNF, right around 54%.

I simply couldn’t get into this book. Not that it wasn’t good, or that Jesmyn Ward isn’t a sensational writer (she is), but I just don’t think that this book is quite for me at this time. I go through phases with my reading, sometimes I can endure what I’m not into and sometimes I find it so unbearable I can’t finish. This one of those times.

Despite what the reviews say, I found this to be a very depressing novel from the outset. Preteen Jojo and his sister are from an impoverished family near the Mississippi border, living with (and pardon my French) the most fucked-up parents imaginable. Michael, his father, is a former convict, and Leonie, his mother, is a drug addict who gets high on the regular and talks to her dead brother. Despite his parents’ waywardness, Jojo is a good kid who manages to take on a parental role to his sister Kayla. He is wise beyond his years in a way that a child should not have to be, which made my anger toward his parents all the more apparent. Pop, Jojo’s grandfather, is also a kind man, who seemed to add a bit of tenderness to the story.

There is a lot of magical realism in this novel (ghosts that are very much real, etc.) and even though I’ve read plenty of stories with it, I found this element to be kind of confusing. As the story went on, I felt farther and farther away from it, which is pretty much why I stopped reading it.

I see myself coming back to this book, probably in the near future. For now though, I won’t rate it, other than to say that it wasn’t quite for me.

[Thanks to NetGalley and Scribner for a free digital copy of this book.]

Review: What We Lose

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Review for "What We Lose" by Zinzi Clemmons (2017)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I have a confession to make. Like several other online reviewers, I too thought this was a memoir. About halfway through the book, I realized that the author is named Zinzi, and the character’s whose story is within these pages is named Thandi (*smacks forehead*). Though they are two different women their backstory is essentially one in the same, both are born of a South African mother and an African American father. Thandi navigates through life negotiating both identities, never really fitting into one or the other. The book chronicles her life from childhood all the way to adulthood as she stumbles in and out of relationships, loses her mother to cancer, marries, and eventually has a child of her own. The loss of her mother, however, is the clear focal point of this book.

This novel is written in sparse language and presented vignette style. There are photos, poetry, and snippets of nonfiction text, which is a pretty distinctive of a lot of the ‘new school’ memoirs that have come out over the past few years. Clemmons choice to present fiction in this way is interesting, though one of the drawbacks of this style is that all of the ‘space’ left me wanting more Thandi. It’s ok, however, because the words are powerful enough.

Do read this book. Clemmons is definitely a writer to watch.

P.S. – I’ll be disappointed if this book doesn’t win some kind of award this year. It’s that good. 🙂

Review: The Hate U Give

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Review for "The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas (2017)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

I don’t know, ya’ll. 3.5 stars for me.

This is probably one of the most authentic books I’ve read this year. It deals with a very timely issue: the police killing of an unarmed Black man during a traffic stop. “The Hate U Give” is the story of 16-year-old Starr, a Black teenager who lives in a predominantly Black neighborhood who goes to a mostly White prep school. Starr has difficulty fitting in at school but she manages to maintain friends, a relationship with her boyfriend Chris, and hold down family life until she witnesses the death of her childhood best friend, Khalil, by a White cop during a traffic stop. Khalil, of course, was unarmed.

After the shooting, Starr’s life goes into a tailspin. She is torn between wanting to speak for Khalil and maintain a social status among her mostly White upper class friends, who believe the media accounts that Khalil was a drug dealer. She also deals with violent riots in her neighborhood, gang conflicts, and the problems that come from having dysfunctional family members.

Overall, this is a good book. I won’t entertain the arguments of some online reviewers who call this book racist (privileged readers who can’t understand the historical implications of institutionalized racism in America), a heavy handed promotion of the Black Lives Matter movement (who were never mentioned once), or “anti-cop” (failing to recognize that the main character had a positive relationship with an uncle who works in law enforcement). What makes this book 3.5 stars for me was its structure, which in my opinion wasn’t very good. At nearly 464 pages, this book waffles along and dabbles in far too many extraneous details. It could have been cut by about 200 pages and it would not have suffered at all for lack of information. It’s almost as if the author followed every single detail of an already overloaded plot to its own end, so much so that by the middle I found myself skipping pages. Yeah.

For those of you who follow my reviews, you know that there are some books I don’t like and don’t recommend, because I truly feel that they would be a waste of your time. This one is not the case. Regardless of how I felt about this book’s structural issues, I do recommend that you read it and form your own opinion about the issues that are explored. There is a movie deal in the works, so it would be beneficial to read it before seeing it on screen.

Review: Team Seven

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Review for "Team Seven" by Marcus Burke (2014)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Oh, this book is just flat out wrong. Where do I begin?

First of all, this book had a lot of potential. It’s the story of Andre Battel, a Jamaican-American boy growing up in the urban center of Boston around the 80s and 90s. We follow him from around age 7 or so until his late teens, though the way the story is written, it’s hard to tell. We also follow his very dysfunctional family during the same period: Eddy, his unemployed, drug-addled, and absent father, Nina, his sister, and Ruby, his saintly, long-suffering mother. There is a host of extended family as well, an aunt and his grandparents, who live upstairs from the ongoing Battel family drama.

Around the age of 9 or 10 (I assume), Andre falls under the influence of a neighborhood drug crew of older boys, eventually becoming their seventh member (hence the title, “Team Seven”). He comes of age in a violent street culture–selling and smoking shitloads of marijuana, doing poorly in school, fighting, treating girls like garbage (along with a misogynistic attitude to boot), and beefs with his dad. The one thing Andre is good at his basketball, which he plays in city leagues with a reasonable amount of talent. He continues this sport until he is a teenager, looking for a way out of his twisted home life.

There are shifts in voice and time here, and that’s where the problems start. In the beginning there’s a young Andre, though as he grows there’s no kind of context of his age or any indication of how much time has passed. It’s just a kind of chapter to chapter ‘snapshot’ of Andre, with no backstory. He speaks and thinks in a heavy street dialect from the 90s and the 2000s, though other period indications in the book don’t seem to match. For example, there’s the mention of a lyric from Outkast’s “ATLiens” album (which came out in 1996), though several pages later there’s the appearance of a paragraph-length, perfectly grammatical cell phone text. Any genius will tell you that there were no such cell phones with such advanced texting capabilities during this period.

The novel also starts with multiple narrators: there’s Andre’s dad Eddy, mom Ruby, and one of the members of Team Seven. They each get a small sections in the beginning and, other than one other narration by Eddy later in the book, are never heard from again. Why have other characters narrate at all if it’s not continuous? Hmm.

And then there’s the members of Team Seven, who, other than two main characters of which are continuously mentioned, we don’t know much about. While we know they’re older that Andre, how old are they? As I said before, the lack of structured detail to the timeline here is terribly confusing.

The author also mixes up Andre’s narration in present and past tenses, depending on what chapter you’re reading. Is Andre currently in the action, or far beyond it, reflecting on the past? This is unclear and inconsistent.

This book had potential, but the rookie-ness of the mistakes here are glaring and detract from the overall cohesiveness of the story. I’d read, but only with caution.

Review: The Orphan Mother

Ahh…it’s Christmas time. Days and nights of no work or school, warm cups of coffee and tea, and more time for reading. I get a few weeks of break before heading back into the spring semester on January 9th.

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Review for "The Orphan Mother" by Robert Hicks (2016)

Rating: 3.75 out of 5 stars

I have a favorable impression of this very interesting, very well written historical fiction novel. This is my first book by Robert Hicks, and I certainly don’t regret it. What initially attracted me to this book was indeed the historical side of this work of fiction: the events, the main characters, and the setting are all near Franklin, Tennessee, the smaller town around the larger city of Nashville where I born and grew up. It was cool to hear the names of places that I was completely familiar with, only I’m seeing it from the unique perspective of people who lived 150 years ago.

Anyway, “The Orphan Mother” takes place in 1867, right after the Civil War. Former slave Mariah Reddick, now a free woman, continues her association with the wealthy McGavock family who used to own her, only now she makes her living as the town midwife. Mariah’s only son Theopolis, an accomplished shoe maker, attends a political rally with his mind possibly set on politics. Very early in the novel, however, Mariah’s son is violently murdered by several White townspeople while at the rally.

The rest of the book is about Mariah’s search for justice for her son through her relationships with several key people–Mrs. McGavock, her former owner, Elijah Dixon, the crooked town magistrate, and George Tole, another mysterious man at the center of the events which took her son’s life. Overall, it’s a sad novel, and even though there is a sliver of hope at the end, it’s still one whose outlook on race relations is completely relevant to today’s times.

While I liked this book and the characters themselves were all very believable, the pacing of this book was kinda slow. Several times toward the middle I found myself skipping pages, asking myself when the action was going to continue. There were also a few plot points I found somewhat unbelievable for the time period, given the racial and social taboos of the time. Minus those flaws, I did like this book a lot.