Review: Ordinary Girls

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Review for "Ordinary Girls" by Jaquira Diaz (2019)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I loved this book fiercely. I was pretty much hooked from the first page, a done deal.

Jaquira Diaz was born on the island of Puerto Rico, living in the housing projects there until her family moved to Miami Beach when she was a little girl. There, Diaz witnessed the dissolution of her family: her father sold drugs and became emotionally distant, her mother’s declining mental health cause her to eventually descend into severe drug use. There is also physical violence present in the home, mostly from her older brother and her drug-addicted mother. The only stability Jaquira finds is in her paternal grandmother and her younger sister, who is stuck in the same hellish familial nightmare that she is in. In addition to all of this, there’s the quagmire of young Jaquira trying to figure out her racial identity. Even though she is proudly Puerto Rican, her mother (blonde haired and green eyed) is White, her father is dark skinned, curly haired, and unapologetically Black. This causes much family conflict, as Jaquira recalls, with her maternal grandmother mocking her darker skin color and the first in her life to call her the n-word.

As a teenager, Jaquira channels her family dysfunction into full-on rage. After a suicide attempt at 11, she is stuck in a cycle of going nowhere: fighting with other girls, getting suspended from school, drinking, drugs, and running away. After several stints in juvenile for violent behavior, she drops out of high school at 16 (though she later earns a GED). Married at 17, she eventually enlists in the Navy, though her attraction to women doesn’t earn her any friends there either. After more family dysfunction and personal strife, Jaquira finds her voice as a writer.

Once again, I loved this book. The writing here is organized thematically and less around a structured, linear narrative order. This is all ok though, as I think it takes the most extreme level of courage to even begin to write like this. Diaz does not flinch or shy away from some very deep, dark truths.

Five stars. I’d read this again if I could.

Review: Pet

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Review for "Pet" by Akwaeke Emezi (2019)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

I will start this review by first saying that this is not the book for everyone. It’s marketed as YA, but I don’t think its intended for a general mainstream YA audience. I certainly think that that’s perfectly fine because anyone who stumbles upon this gem of a book, whether child or adult, will definitely love it like I did.

“Pet” is a novel about evil, particularly one that silences its victims and is ‘hidden’ in plain sight. I won’t be more specific than that because I’d give the novel away. The main character is Jam, a Black trans girl who lives in a Lucille, a futuristic, utopian version of an American city in which bad things have been banished and ‘monsters’ no longer exist. Jam is accepted and loved by her parents and her best friend, Redemption, as well as Redemption’s family.

One night, while exploring one of her mother’s paintings, Jam brings a monster to life. At first she is afraid, but then the monster explains the reason for its existence: to hunt a real-life monster. The creature, which Jam calls Pet, confuses her at first, until it is revealed that the location of the monster to be hunted is within her best friend Redemption’s house.

Right at about 200 pages, this is a short book that packs a heavy punch. It has a surreal feel to it, but the deeper questions it asks are based in a gritty, everyday reality. What are monsters made of? Who or what are angels? How do you tell the difference between the two?

Earlier in this review I said that this is not a book for everyone. I say that because I think we’ve become too used to YA with “grown” teenagers (kids who are 16-18 years old who seem to know every damn thing that’s going on around them). “Pet” is not such a novel. Jam is a 15-year-old girl and her naivete about the danger around her matches every bit of her age. Perhaps some readers will find this frustrating, but I found a book that speaks to the sensibilities of an actual child refreshing. Also, this book is all about queer representation, as I said before Jam is a trans girl; Redemption’s family is portrayed as possibly polyamorous (there’s a woman, a non-gender conforming person, and a man), in addition to several aunts and uncles living with him and his brother who also function as his parents.

I could type all day about this book. Definitely read it though, 4.5 stars.

Review: Tinfoil Butterfly

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Review for "Tinfoil Butterfly" by Rachel Eve Moulton (2019)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

A bizarre book that reminds me less of a novel and more of a David Lynch movie.

As this story begins, a late adolescent girl named Emma is attempting to escape her past by hitchhiking to The Badlands of South Dakota. She is picked up by a man named Lowell who tries to violently kill her. She gets the best of him and escapes, driving to an abandoned diner in the Black Hills mountains. Emma wakes the next morning in the diner to find a boy wearing a tin foil mask with a gun pointed at her. The boy introduces himself as Earl and says that his mother is dead and he will help her, but she must help him bury his father first.

I know, I know…it sounds crazy, but all of this happens in the first 30 pages or so. The rest of the book is a mass of twists and turns and flashbacks to past traumas. There is never a dull moment in this book or a period where you can rest assured that the two main characters are ok. Earl and Emma come to love and trust each other and I really liked that about this book, emphasizing that it is not so much about the trauma but the hope that two damaged people can find in one another.

I definitely recommend this, if you don’t mind writing with surreal elements and books about how people deal with the bad things that happen to them.

Review: Welcome to America

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Review for "Welcome to America" by Linda Bostrom Knausgard (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Welcome to America” is a short book with a whole lot going on. The dialogue is minimal, and the reader is always in the headspace of Ellen, a young girl who has stopped talking in the wake of her father’s death. Certain that she has ‘killed’ him by praying for him to die, it is clear that Ellen is in the middle of a serious trauma about which the rest of her family is unaware.

Through flashbacks, it is revealed that shortly before Ellen’s father’s death he had been institutionalized and may or may not have tried to kill his family with a gas leak. Her brother nails his bedroom door shut and becomes angry and abusive. Ellen’s mother, an actress, continually insists that they are “a family of light” is emotionally absent and a narcissist.

There is not so much the focus of a plot line here. Instead, this is a stream-of-conscious window into Ellen’s life at this time period as she muses a lot about death and dying.

This is a decent read, I’ll give this four stars.

Review: Dominicana

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Review for "Dominicana" by Angie Cruz (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Dominicana” is the story of a teenage girl named Ana, growing up with her parents and siblings in a rural part of the Dominican Republic in the mid-1960’s. Trujillo’s reign of terror has ended, yet economic stability has not yet returned to the country. She is proposed to at the age of eleven by Juan, an older man more than twice her age. At 15, her parents finally consent to the marriage–not because their daughter is in love with Juan, but to give him permission to someday build on their land, and give themselves better prospects of gaining an American visa through Ana’s sponsorship.

For Ana, the “American Dream” comes at a hard price. She hates the cold weather of NYC and misses home and has trouble adjusting to her new life. Her mother constantly asks her to send money that she doesn’t have back home. Juan hits her, often leaves her in their tiny apartment alone, and doesn’t let her go out to talk to anyone. Juan is also having an affair with another woman, who regularly calls and harasses Ana. Life is drudgery until Juan leaves the US to return to the DR on business, leaving her under the watchful eye of his brother, Cesar. With Cesar, Ana begins to experience something like a fulfilled life–taking English classes, going to the beach, making her own money, and dancing at local ballrooms. She falls in love with Cesar, and eventually must decide her fate.

I found this book to be very well written and intensely readable. Ana is 15 and stays that way, and her viewpoints and her actions accurately match her characterization. However, there is a strong anti-Black sentiment among some characters in this book. Ana’s husband, now living beside Blacks, Jews, and other minorities in the US, speaks of Black Americans throughout the novel as “trouble” and “lazy.” Although I have no doubt that his prejudice is an accurate portrayal of the attitude of some Dominicans, it’s jarring and off-putting. Another complaint is the end, which I didn’t care for at all.

The biggest theme in this novel is the same with most immigrant novels, and that is one of the pursuit of the American Dream. What does it mean? How will Ana achieve it? Ana is ever-industrious and thoughtful, when one plan fails she does not hesitate to simply create another. It’s the classic “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” American tale.

Four stars. Definitely worth reading.

Review: Everything Inside

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Review for "Everything Inside" by Edwidge Danticat (2019)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I’ve said this and I’ll say it again: short story collections are usually hit or miss for me. Although I love the genre, I always end up liking some, none, or most of the stories therein. This collection is an exception to the “some, none, and most” rule, as every single story here is a literary achievement.

I’ve read just about everything Edwidge Danticat has written, from “Krik? Krak!” to “The Dew Breaker” to “Breathe, Eyes, Memory” and everything in between. “Everything Inside”is a wonderful collection of eight short stories, all featuring characters from the Haitian diaspora living in Miami. Her characters deal with death, love, and loss and their lives are complicated. Each story is well written and thought out, with beautiful language that leaps off the page.

Favorites here include “Dosas,” a story of romantic entanglement and betrayal featuring a husband, wife, and a female lover; “In the Old Days,” about a woman who meets her dying father for the first time, and “Without Inspection,” a harrowing tale that narrates a Haitian emigre’s final thoughts as he falls 40 stories from a building to his death.

Five stars. Hands up, way way up.

Review: The Nickel Boys

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Review for "The Nickel Boys" by Colson Whitehead (2019)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I meant to write this review a lot sooner, when I first finished this book this summer. It’s quite excellent, so here goes…

“The Nickel Boys” is a historical fiction, based on the all-too-real Dozier School for Boys, a hellish reform school for adolescent males that ran from the early 20th century until 2011 in a rural part of the Florida Panhandle. In the early days, black and white boys were separated upon entry, with the black boys performing more physically grueling tasks. Housing and food were minimal, and any resistance to authority was met with brutal physical punishment from the guards and caretakers. Due to harsh treatment, several boys died and were unceremoniously buried on and around the school’s campus over the years. After its closure, due to the high number of unmarked graves, an anthropology team from the University of South Florida began the task of digging them up with the goal of identifying them in 2012. According to the latest report, over 100 burials have been documented, many of them unnamed and undocumented.

Colson Whitehead takes this history and brings us the story of Elwood Curtis, a do-gooder boy being raised by his single grandmother in Tallahassee in the early 1960’s. Elwood believes in the message of Dr. Martin Luther King, choosing pacifism in the face of Jim Crow racism. After being falsely accused of stealing a bicycle, he is sent to the Nickel Academy. Once there, he meets another student by the name of Turner. While paired for tasks outside campus and in the local town, Elwood and Turner form a deep friendship, with Turner’s realist outlook as the perfect complement to Elwood’s idealism. Together, they navigate the torturous contours everyday life of the Nickel Academy.

True to history, there are brutal scenes in this book, but I felt they were necessary and not gratuitous. Colson Whitehead shows us just what we need to know and moves on, this book makes it point perfectly in less than 250 pages. Not one single word was wasted here, and five stars aren’t enough to review it. This book is a victory, a straight slam dunk.

If you haven’t already, definitely read this book. If you’re at all like me, you will be unable to put it down.