Review: The Comedown

Back home in good ol NC. I’m skipping Top Ten Tuesday to review a book that comes out today, so enjoy!

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Review for "The Comedown" by Rebekah Frumkin (to be published on 17 Apr 2018)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This book’s ok.

“The Comedown” centers on a missing yellow suitcase full of cash and a drug deal that went wrong in Cleveland on May 8, 1973. Leland Bloom-Mittwoch, a drug addict, witnesses the killing of his dealer, Reggie Marshall, and absconds with the suitcase. The story then follows three generations of the families of the two men involved, one White (the Mittwochs) and one Black (the Marshalls), from the early 1970’s to 2009. Over the years, members of both families search for the yellow suitcase. The suitcase is a bit of a MacGuffin here, taking on a kind of mythic quality as each character doggedly pursues it for reasons of their own.

For me, this book is a compilation of character studies. For that reason it’s heavily populated, with various family members of the major players going in and out of the main narrative. Although the characters are all relevant and connected to one another, it was a struggle for me to stay interested here. This novel definitely explores race, class and addiction, but I don’t know…maybe I just wasn’t the right audience for the ensemble cast approach it uses. Once I began to like, hate, or empathize with someone it was off to another person, time, and place. For me this book just seemed too broad, too many bits and pieces.

The quality of the writing is decent, so Frumkin is definitely a writer to watch. This book will probably get good reviews from other people, so maybe my issues here are simply ones of personal preference.

3 stars.

[Note: A digital copy of this book was provided by the publisher, Henry Holt Co., and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. ]

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Review: Let’s Talk about Love

Hey folks!

I’m writing this from a hotel in Manhattan. I’ve been here for 5 days now for an education conference and so far I’m totally in love with the city. Anyone who would like to see my NYC adventures can follow me on my IG: kellythegreat.

Anywho, on to the review:

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Review for "Let's Talk About Love" by Claire Kann (2018)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I’m sad to say that I didn’t really like this book.

It’s disappointing because I wanted to love it, to grab it and go out and buy my own instead of a library copy. I did finish it, but honestly, after 25 pages, I knew this wasn’t the book for me.

Alice is a bi-romantic, asexual Black girl college student. As the story opens, she is being dumped by her girlfriend Margot because her gf believes that she doesn’t want to have sex with her. Heartbroken, Alice moves out of their shared space and into an apartment with another friend, Feenie, and her boyfriend. Meanwhile, she develops an intense romantic attraction for one of her co-workers, Takumi. The remainder of the book details Alice’s romance with Takumi and her struggles with her asexuality, as well how she deals with a whole host of family problems to boot.

I liked this novel because it is the first book I’ve read in which asexuality (or “ace,” as some asexual individuals call themselves) is discussed like the very real thing that it is. It is not ‘weird’ or a mental illness. Although there are a wide variety of perspectives on sexual activity within this community (some do have it, some don’t), it is widely accepted by people who identify in this manner that it is an orientation, not a “choice.” Even though they may lack interest in sex, they do indeed have romantic inclinations. Alice, the main character of this book, is featured in this way. I appreciate the fact that this book’s purpose was to allow people to understand asexuality without the long-winded explanations of an academic paper or a textbook. It’s timely and informative.

My dislike of this book, however, was in the characterization of Alice. While she’s not the worst character I’ve ever encountered, I loathed the way the author portrayed her–less like a real college student and more like a 12 year old. For example, Alice has mental categories called “Cutie Codes” to describe her attractions to people. She constantly refers to this all throughout the novel: Cutie Code Orange, Cutie Code Red, Cutie Code Yellow, all the way to Cutie Code Black (Takumi, according to Alice, is the ‘perfect’ black). She also has the nerve to refer to a tv character on pg. 48 as a ‘cutie patootie badass.’

((*eyeroll*))

Are you serious? What adult (or, as I said earlier, anyone over the age of 12) in 2018 talks this way? While I can understand making character relatable and giving the protagonist some quirks, the author was trying entirely too hard for this angle. Alice’s wide-eyed, child-like nature was problematic for me, because I don’t think real ace people go around acting like a bubbly 12 year old. It’s completely ok for an ace character to say someone’s hot or that someone they like is sexy without resorting to infantile language associations.

And the writing…while it’s not bad, it’s nothing to write home about. This book is plagued by an overuse of parentheses, usually employed between paragraphs to represent Alice’s thoughts. This is weird, because this book is written in 3rd person. If there is so much emphasis on the thoughts of the main character (which there is) why not use the 1st person and make it official? Reading this book in a 3rd person POV seemed unnecessarily awkward, because I always had the sense that it was a 1st person narrative.

Once again, I appreciate the diversity of racial representation in this book (a Black ace female, an Asian male), as well as what it attempts to do when it comes to portraying a sexual orientation that few people understand. I just wish it could have been executed better.

2 stars.

P.S. – The cover is Cutie Code Black.

Review: Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America

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Review for "Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America" by Linda Tirado (2014) 
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Ladies and gentlemen: this is a long review. I also have a potty mouth. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I wanted to read this book all the way through but I just couldn’t. I did finish it (thank God it’s short), but skimmed through most of it. I’ve never read a book in which the author’s tone is so negative, angry to the point where the arguments they are attempting to make are almost laughable because its obvious that they’re affected by their emotions. I got this over as quickly as possible.

Linda Tirado was an average “poor” person on the internet one evening when she came across a message board where a poster asked why poor people make bad choices (smoking, drinking, having children they cannot afford). She responded to the poster in a strongly-worded diatribe on why life is hard for poor people. Her post went viral and apparently she started a GoFundMe account and raised $60k. She promptly went on a Vegas vacation got herself a book deal.

In “Hand to Mouth,” Tirado takes us on a kind of “tour” of what it means to be poor. In the introduction, she breaks down poverty as “when a quarter is a miracle,” poor as “when a dollar is a miracle,” working class as “being broke, but in a place that’s not broke down,” and “middle class” as “being able to own some toys and to live in a nice place–no leased furniture.” “Rich,” according to Tirado, is anything above this.

[Pause]

From this page forward I knew that this individual was completely insane, but I decided to give her a chance.

Anyway, I call BS on this book for the following reasons:

— Despite the “poor-middle class-working class-poverty” distinction Tirado makes in the intro, she spends the entire book only talking about two types of people–rich and poor. If she’s just going to speak in a dichotomy, then her definitions are meaningless, because by doing so everyone who is not rich is, in her own view, “poor.” In applying the term “poor” to such a large swath of the population, she falsely attributes the same attitudes she has to everyone who is not rich. This is a classic logical fallacy. It is also simply not true, and it permeates the whole book.

— Tirado was going to college, but admits that she dropped out because, financially, she “didn’t think it would amount to anything.” While I’m not one of those snooty folk who believe college is for everyone (it’s not), I am curious to why the author did this with no apparent backup plan for a career. She also does not bother to learn a marketable trade or skill (i.e., paralegal, nursing, auto mechanic) in the place of college. Instead, after dropping out, she complains to us about working a series of low paying jobs that she hates. With no advanced degree or training, how then, can she expect better than low-paying work? Does she seriously expect, by stroke of luck, to land a job making $25 an hour despite not having demonstrated any kind of skill to do it? I’m a bit confused with her logic here.

— Tirado also admits that she was mediocre at several of the jobs she’s held, even screaming at her boss once because she was stressed and has “anger issues.” Putting anger issues aside, I am not sure what “being poor” has to do with simply being a bad employee. The “poverty” she’s referring to here seems to be one of the spirit.

— The author also attributes every unfortunate thing in her life to “poor” financial circumstances. Her lawn is shitty because she can’t pay someone to fix it. There’s tires in her grass because she can’t pay someone to haul them away. She can’t land a nice secretarial job because she’s poor and not pretty. She doesn’t want to open a bank account because they take a monthly fee, and she’s poor. There’s roaches at her house because, well, she’s poor. At some point you wonder where a sense of personal responsibility sets in, or the strength and amazing resilience of people like my grandparents (who, trust me, were dirt poor, Black, and living on a cotton field in the Mississippi Delta) and still managed to keep a clean house, a nice lawn, arrive on time to maintain stable jobs, and raise 10 law-abiding children in the process. Yes poor people are poor, but they still thrive. They find meaning in their lives, they get out of bed in the morning and yes, they manage to keep up a decent looking lawn. Fuck that.

— Makes no point at all about race and/or privilege. Despite how “poor” Tirado claims to be, her being White still gives her a privileged existence over many minorities who could write this same story. At least she doesn’t live in the projects, or live in a violent, gang-infested neighborhood. At least she speaks English. At least she is a documented U.S. citizen, and doesn’t have to deal with the fear of being deported every time she leaves her house. At least her and her husband don’t have a juvenile criminal record which would prevent gainful employment. At least she doesn’t have a physical disability or a severe mental illness that completely prevents her employment. I could go on and on, yet she mentions nothing of the fact that even she has it a lot better than some because of the systemic racism and discrimination that privileges Whites and able-bodied individuals over minorities.

Now Tirado does make some points that I agree with:
— Yes, universal health care is needed.
— Yes, the myth of meritocracy (the idea that anyone can be rich, all they have to do is try hard; as well as the idea that if one is not rich, they did not try hard enough) is very real and is still very much bullshit.
— No, we shouldn’t judge poor people’s decisions to have children. We may not like the fact that a poor woman has more kids than we’d prefer, but that’s not my decision to make.
— I also agree that poor people aren’t the only ones who get hand outs from the government (bail outs and corporate tax cuts are the wealthy person’s welfare).
— No, rich people should not look down upon people in service industries (cooks, washers, retail workers, food service).

But this book is simply too angry, too simplistic, and far too emotional in its tone to be taken seriously. I don’t advise reading it.

Review: The Hunger

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Review for "The Hunger" by Alma Katsu (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

First of all, I have to admit that frontier-sy stories have always appealed to me. Like many kids, I grew up reading “Little House on the Prairie” books, stories about Daniel Boone, and playing “The Oregon Trail” in school. “The Hunger” has got all of that and more in this retelling of the infamous Donner party.

In April 1846, a group of settlers left Independence, Missouri headed for a better life in California. The party was led by George Donner and his brother, Jacob. For the first several months, they followed a well established wagon trail, The California Trail, and reached Fort Laramie, Wyoming without incident. There, they took the advice of a trail guide who suggested that he knew of a quicker route. This route proved treacherous and hard to navigate, and the settlers wasted much-needed time chopping their way through dense forests and idling through deserts to get to the other side. They reached the Sierra Nevada mountains late in the year, and became trapped by snow. After killing all of their oxen and horses, they ran out of food. Those who survived the famine ate the bodies of those who died in order to survive. In the end, only half of the original group of settlers arrived in California.

Anywho, this is what history tells us what happened to the Donner party. “The Hunger” fictionalizes this account and gives you a much more terrifying version of the journey. In Katsu’s version, the na’it, or the hunger, is a contagion that causes men to become monsters and cannibalize one another.

This book is strongly character based. There is no romanticizing of historical figures, they are realistically portrayed as flawed, people with secrets. I wouldn’t call this a ‘scary’ book per se, but the tone is definitely a creepy one. People disappear, animals are attacked, and bodies are discovered, picked clean of flesh. The horror took a while to build as the settlers realize that not only are they running out of supplies and hope, but that they are being hunted by an unseen force.

This is an easy 4 stars for me. This book is definitely not one to miss. A blurb on the author’s website reveals that the film rights have been purchased for this book, so I look forward to seeing this on the big screen soon.

Review: The Grip of It

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Review for "The Grip of It" by Jac Jemc (2017)

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

This book is the cliche of all cliches: the Haunted House. Of course I was aware of this before proceeding, because who knows, perhaps there was Something New in these pages, a grand twist on The Oldest Plot Known to Man. Needless to say, I was grandly disappointed. Not only is there nothing added to this classic genre that’s worthy of note, there’s really nothing here at all.

James and Julie are a pair of married yuppies who move out of the city and into the perfect country house. There’s a small beach nearby, room for a garden, surrounded by quiet woods, and to top it all off–the house is practically a steal. Immediately after they move in they notice strange things–ominous breathing sounds, secret passageways, child-like drawings on the walls, an old journal with indecipherable writing. Julie develops strange bruises all over her body. Their creepy old man neighbor can’t stop watching them from across the street. I have to admit that I did get swept up in the weirdness of this tale, because the occurrences are never really explained. Are they really experiencing something supernatural? Or is it just a dream?

But anyway, that’s where the enjoyment of this book ended. The story is told in short, alternating chapters of the POVs of Julie and James. There is very little discernible difference between the voices of the two. There were many times where I had to stop, flip back a few pages, and figure out who was speaking. There are also long passages where the characters’ actions run on and on and nothing’s really gained as far as knowledge to what’s going on.

And oh yeah, the writing…I didn’t like that either. The tone here was too objective, too matter of fact, and far too emotionally detached. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this kind of storytelling, but I don’t think it fit this narrative. There are no real thoughts or emotions given with either character, it’s just a kinda hmmm…there’s drawings on the wall we didn’t put there and the other’s nod of agreement. It’s weird.

The horror here is rather PG too. At no point in this book was I even remotely scared (pronunciation: “scurred”). I was just weirded out, counting the pages left, and wondering when it would be over with.

Review: When My Heart Joins the Thousand

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Review for "When My Heart Joins the Thousand" by A.J. Steiger (2018)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I really really liked this book.

Alvie Fitz is a 17-year-old girl with Asperger’s syndrome. When the book begins we learn that her mother has died several years before, and after a series of unsuccessful stays in residential care centers and foster family placements, Alvie now lives alone in her own apartment and works a stable job at a local zoo. She is checked on weekly by a psychologist, Dr. Bernstein, in preparation for her request to be legally emancipated. Typical of people with Asperger’s, Alvie has above-average intelligence but difficulty with the most basic of social interactions. She has an obsessive interest in animals, scientific facts, and the book Watership Down (where the title of the novel is from). She also suffers from anxiety and depression, which she copes with by turning to animals and avoiding people altogether.

At its core, this is a love story. Despite Alvie’s difficulties bonding with other people, she falls for Stanley, a very shy college student also with a disability. Life has not been kind to either of them, yet what they find together is extraordinary.

I have to admit that I struggled with Alvie through a lot of this book. During certain scenes where she attempts to interact with people I found myself shaking my head in frustration, sighing. Her difficulties interacting with people are extreme, and even though I was aware of how large her hurdles would be, I don’t think I was prepared for just how much of her motivations, reactions, and thoughts are due to Asperger’s. Stanley has an incredible amount of patience with Alvie, even though her efforts to be “normal” at times seemed like acts of self sabotage.

I think this book really challenged me to move past my ableism and develop empathy, as well as understand what life is like for people with autism. The author has incredible insight into this disability, and although I’ve read many books about people with them, this one really moved me.

Do read this book.

Review: Tyler Johnson Was Here

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Review for "Tyler Johnson Was Here" by Jay Coles (2018)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

From the moment I saw this book I knew I had to have it. I’m always down for YA books by and about people of color that are overtly political in nature, as well as books that challenge young people to think critically social issues. And yes, THAT cover. Gor-juss…

“Tyler Johnson Was Here” is just such a book that is destined to provoke conversation, particularly on police killings and the role of Black Lives Matter movement. The novel centers on the lives of twins, Tyler and Marvin, growing up in the fictional town of Sterling Point. The twins are raised by their single mother while their father, who is incarcerated, makes frequent appearances throughout the book in the form of letters written to Marvin.

Even though this is the story of twins, the story is told through Marvin, the more grounded of the two. Marvin hangs out with his friends Guillermo and Ivy, makes decent grades, watches reruns of “A Different World” and hopes to get into MIT. Tyler is the more restless twin, directing his energies toward social pursuits and hanging with a tough crowd. Much to Marvin’s dismay, he notices a rift between him and his brother and cannot convince Tyler to stay away from trouble. One night, after a party thrown by a local drug dealer, Tyler does not return home. Several days later, he is found deceased. A leaked video reveals that Tyler was unarmed when he was shot by police. As Marvin deals with his grief and anger over his brother’s death, he turns his efforts to protest and making sure that his brother’s memory isn’t forgotten.

What’s wrong with this book? A lot. Hell, I’m just going to bullet point here:

— The pacing of this novel was a problem for me. We’re told on the front flap of the book that Tyler is going to disappear and later be discovered dead. However, the characters do not discover Tyler’s death until well over halfway into the book. I felt as if the author could have skipped the ‘missing’ part, because it slowed the pace of the novel significantly. You’re literally just sitting around waiting for the inevitable for the first 150 pages. That’s not fun.

— Characterization fell a bit flat in this book as well. Even though I felt I understood Tyler, when I finished this I realized that I really didn’t. The limitations of a single perspective (Marvin’s) is apparent here. We know he was a good kid who got mixed up in a troubled crowd, but we’re never told the exact nature of his last days, his dealings with his friends. The author spends a great deal of time making the point that although Tyler may have been troubled, this was no reason for the manner of his death. While this is true, I think this point would not have required so much emphasis with more character-building as far as Tyler was concerned.

— There’s also a side character that goes absolutely nowhere: an aunt who’s a police officer, mentioned several times in the novel, who’s “always on the phone” with Marvin and Tyler’s mom. Considering that the police are the bad guys here who murdered Tyler and all of law enforcement in this book is portrayed as the epitome of evil, a relative of Marvin’s who happens to be a cop may have added to the complexity of this book. But that’s never explored. Weird.

— Marvin meets a girl, Faith, through his attempts to discover his brother’s whereabouts after the fateful night at the party. They eventually become involved with one another, but I never got a sense of their chemistry, her relevance to the story beyond the standard YA romance requirement, or really why she is in the book at all.

— The multitude of references to the tv show “A Different World”: Marvin is obsessed with this show, viewing it as a way to “understand” diverse Black characters. I’m not sure why this is, especially when there are more modern (and diverse!) shows with Black characters that could have been referenced here. I’m an 80’s baby, so I watched “A Different World” as a teenager (it went off the air in 1993, right as I went into high school). A teenager in 2018 still fixated on characters from a show from well over 25 years ago seemed strange, kinda like a kid who watches a dated show like “Hogan’s Heroes” expecting to find enlightenment. Yikes.

Comparisons to “The Hate U Give” are inevitable (both have Black main characters, both are about the subject of police violence), and if I had to pick between the two I’d say in a heartbeat that “The Hate U Give” is the much better book. Despite my criticisms, however, I won’t go lower than 3 stars for “Tyler Johnson Was Here.” I also wholeheartedly recommend this to other people to read. Even though TJWH has problems in its execution, I respect what it does accomplish successfully, and that’s place the narrative surrounding police violence in the hands of Black youth, within the context of their own language and culture. The value of those things in and of itself is immeasurable, respectable, and deserves notice.

And yes, the cover. It’s quite beautiful.

*sigh*