Review: The House of Impossible Beauties

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Rating for "The House of Impossible Beauties" by Joseph Cassara (2018)
Rating: 4.5 stars

Aye, this book will simultaneously soothe your heart and break it into a million pieces.

“The House of Impossible Beauties” is a fictionalized account of the House of Xtravaganza, the first legendary all-Latinx ballroom house immortalized in the seminal 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. We follow a cast of gay and trans women performers on the Harlem ball circuit as they escape abusive homes, love and lose one another, and deal with the devastation of the early AIDS epidemic. Some of the characters are instantly recognizable from the the film (Dorian Corey and Venus Xtravaganza, for starters) while others appear to be composites of other known characters in the film.

I loved the beginning of this book, which starts in 1979. Angel is a young Puerto Rican teen who realizes that she is transgender. She feuds often with her mother, who refuses to accept her for who she is. She is taken under the tutelage of a well-known local drag queen, Dorian, and later falls in love with Hector, a dancer. Hector eventually recruits Angel to start their own house in the ballroom scene and the iconic House of Xtravaganza is born. Back stories are also given for other house members–Venus Xtravaganza, a trans girl who escapes a miserable home life, Juanito, an abused gay teen with a knack for sewing beautiful clothes, and Daniel, a banjee boy with major issues.

While the beginning of the book pulses with energy, the middle of it is terribly dull, veering dangerously close to misery porn territory. There is no way this should be so, given the vibrant real-life characters that this book is based on. I also have issue with the fact that, other than one scene in the middle of the book, we never actually SEE the inside of a ball. This is unacceptable. For a book that claims to be so much about the key people of this particular fashion and dance era, shouldn’t we be at the ball with them too? I’m outraged.

*flips hair*

If you’re familiar with Paris is Burning, then you know that most of the individuals featured in it are now deceased–mostly casualties of the AIDS epidemic, and, in one case, murder. Thankfully the author handles this and other subjects surrounding them with care and a compassionate heart, which shows in the writing.

Also: to those who haven’t seen the documentary Paris is Burning, please do. It’s on Netflix and YouTube, the last time I checked. Whether or not you see it before reading this book is your choice, but I think that the film serves as a good companion piece to this novel. The film grounds you in the knowledge and illuminates the characters of the ballroom scene, while the book gives you the back story of their lives.

Needless to say, I love this subject too much to give it a bad rating. 4.5 stars, dahlings

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Review: Freshwater

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Review for "Freshwater" by Akwaeke Emezi (to be published on 13 February 2018)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Wow.

I have no better way to start this review, so I’ll say it again: Wow.

Reading a novel like “Freshwater” was a completely new experience for me. To step into its pages was to venture into a beautifully strange, dark world, the realm of something amazing: ancient gods, beauty, life, death. “Freshwater” is also the world of a young woman’s troubled mind.

Ada, whose life is the focus of the story, is just one of the characters here. She is conjured through her father’s prayers and born into a middle-class Nigerian family with “one foot on the other side.” Early on, you come to realize that the ‘side’ is the spiritual realm and the ‘foot’ that the author is referring to is a pathway through which primordial gods freely enter and inhabit Ada’s physical body. Much of the story is narrated by these gods, who are birthed and rebirthed several times and call themselves “we” throughout the novel. Also present in Ada’s body are two distinct spirits: Asughara and Saint Vincent, the former being the more powerful of the two. As Ada grows older, Asughara begins to control more of her actions and her voice fades into the background. Very little of the book is narrated by Ada, she lives instead through a smaller, fractured self.

The spirits that inhabit Ada’s body desire to pass back over to the other side–the only limitation being that they are attached to Ada’s physical self. As the book progresses, Asughara, Saint Vincent, and the “we” become protectors to Ada, taking over when the current situation and/or the people in her life are too much for her to handle. They also push her to dangerous extremes. I loved the way in which this book completely detaches you from what you think you know about mental illness and cleverly uses spirituality to frame the narrative instead. Through Ada’s ‘spirits’ multiple themes are explored: racism, addiction, self-mutilation, gender nonconformity, and religion, among others.

There is a brutalness in this writing that comes through in the multi-layered narration the author has chosen for this book. In the end, this is a book about coming into one’s own voice, despite what that voice says and how many lives it has lead in the past.

This is not light reading, folks. Come to this novel prepared to underline passages, expand your mind, and think outside of the box. When I arrived at the end of this book, I realized that there was nothing I had previously read that I could rightfully compare this to. “Freshwater” stands on its own as a creative work that is uniquely beautiful. It fights labels and categories, it truly stands in a genre by itself.

Five stars.

[Note: An advance electronic copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher, Grove Press, as well as NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: Good Me, Bad Me

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Review for "Good Me, Bad Me" by Ali Land (2017)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I finished this book a few days ago and gave it three stars. I’ve since lowered it to 2 stars.

Annie is a fifteen year old with a mommy who’s a serial murderer known as the Peter Pan Killer. After her mother lures nine children to their deaths in her home, Annie has enough and finally reports her mother to the police. She is given a new name, Milly, and promptly taken in by a foster family, a psychiatrist named Mike, his wife, Saskia, and their daughter, Phoebe. Supposedly only Mike knows Milly’s mother’s true identity, but this doesn’t make her adjustment to life after her ordeal any easier. From the start, Milly is an outsider in her new home and school and is targeted for bullying by Phoebe and her friends.

The story is narrated by Milly, who often addresses her mother throughout the novel. She wants to be normal, yet fears she is more like her mother than she cares to admit. She wants to stay with her foster family, though it is apparent that staying long-term will not be the case. Without giving away everything in this book, I will say that the narration here is a jumbled mess. Short sentences. Strung together. A bit like stream of consciousness. Kind of writing. But not really. Ugh.

The characters in this book are your stock actors: Saskia is a desperate housewife-bot who stays at home all day shopping and doing yoga and lacks any kind of maternal instinct, Mike is a goody-goody father who naively only sees the good in the people around him and plans to write a book about Milly’s case, and Phoebe is a mean girl and a rude, contentious bully. The bullying scenes were numerous and over the top and could have come from any YA book written in the last 15 years. At one point I put the book down, thinking: my god, what else is left to be done to this girl? I get the point that the author was trying to make, but 80% of this book just seems like one long episode of “Mean Girls.” Not impressive.

I did manage to get to the end of the book whilst skipping pages. Predictable, of course.

There is little graphic violence here, but that doesn’t make reading this any more enjoyable. Actually, it just prolongs the agony of reading it. All in all, this book isn’t suspenseful or as “gripping” as I had hoped.

[I received a free digital copy of this book from the publisher and NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: When They Call You a Terrorist

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Review for "When They Call You a Terrorist: a Black Lives Matter Memoir" by Patrisse Khan-Cullors (2018)
Review: 4 out of 5 stars

Ahhh, this is a good book. Even though it is about the life of one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, there is sooooo much more than just BLM rhetoric here. It begins with Cullors’ childhood in Los Angeles, growing up poor and constantly harassed by law enforcement. Her single mother works multiple jobs and never quite gets by, and without much adult supervision, both of her brothers eventually end up in the prison system. One of her brothers, whom she spends multiple chapters describing the plight of, was severely mentally ill and systematically abused by the prison system. It is tragic and harrowing, anyone who reads this book will come away with a detailed understanding of Cullors’ rage at law enforcement, the justice system, corrections, and pretty much every institutional system in America.

The author herself is bisexual (she describes herself as queer). She spends a lot of time discussing the fact that Black Lives Matter was founded by three queer women and is a mostly women and LGBTQ-headed movement–though the way it is conveyed in the press, you would not know this. There is also a discussion of the full agenda of the movement, which encompasses far more than just an end to police violence against people of color. In addition to the rights of Black citizens, Black Lives Matter stands for economic justice, health insurance, prison reform, educational reform, ending domestic violence, an end to the abuse of immigrants and unfair deportation, and so on.

Regrettably, much of what Cullors and the Black Lives Matter movement has worked for in the last few years has been undone in the past few months by the current president and his administration. This is lamented in the last part of the book. It’s not an ending, however, but a call to action, hope for the future.

Once again, this is a timely read and great book.

[A digital copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher, St. Martin’s Press, and NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: Stay With Me

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Review for "Stay with Me" by Ayobami Adebayo (2017)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Yejide and Akin, a married Nigerian couple, are two college sweethearts desperate to have a child. After years of trying to conceive and undergoing dozens of traditional remedies for their infertility, cultural expectations and familial pressure eventually lead Akin to take on a second wife. It doesn’t go well, and what follows is a severe, tragic desperation that takes hold of both characters. The majority of this novel is the sheer length to which Akin and Yejide go through to fulfill their desires.

I really can’t tell you any more than a basic summary here because this book’s got more twists and turns than an episode of the Jerry Springer Show. For me, the astounding number of unexpected events is one of its greatest weaknesses–there were just too many secrets, too many curve balls. I would even go so far as to say that the number of ‘reveals’ here had the opposite effect of moving the novel forward and watered down some of the major themes that the author was obviously trying to convey (political instability, class divisions in modern African society, etc). Also, I did not like the ending, after all that I’d read it just seemed a little too convenient for plot’s sake, a little too deus ex machina-ish to me.

Still, I won’t go lower than 4 stars here. Despite some of the flaws, this book is still intensely readable. I can also say that I learned a lot about Nigerian culture (food, songs, stories, cultural beliefs) in the process, without feeling like I was reading a textbook. Adebayo is definitely an author to watch.

Review: Mean

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Review for "Mean" by Myriam Gurba (2017)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

This is a doozy of a book. It’s a non-linear narrative, opening with a violent account of a woman being raped and murdered in a park. Gurba then switches to a host of different topics that are seemingly unrelated to the first but yet still interesting: growing up as a mixed race Chicana, having a family member with mental illness, discovering her identity as a lesbian. Later in the book we discover that the attacker referenced in the first part is the same that would go on to sexually assault Gurba as a college student.

There’s a lot of wordplay in this book, particularly around the occurrence of rape. I don’t like it.

God is like rape. Rape is everywhere too. Rape is in the air. Rape is in the sky… p.98

Gurba writes about ‘meanness’ as a kind of armor worn by women of color out of necessity. She isn’t trying to censor herself or make the reader comfortable with her descriptions and I get it, I really do. But it’s still unsettling nonetheless.

The writing’s decent here. Three and a half stars.

Review: The Wolves of Winter

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Review for "The Wolves of Winter" by Tyrell Johnson (2018)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

“The Wolves of Winter” is a post-apocalyptic tale that takes place in a not-so-distant future in which most of the world has been ravaged by nuclear war. Shortly after, a deadly flu virus breaks out that kills the rest of the remaining population. Lynn, 12 years old at the time, escapes with her mother, father, and older brother to the Yukon wilderness for safety, where the flu is of a weaker strain. She eventually loses her father to the disease and takes up with her remaining family, living a mostly peaceful existence for several years until a mysterious stranger, Jax, wanders into their homestead. Jax brings a dangerous, government sponsored agency on his heels called Immunity which seek to capture him at all costs. Lynn is enthralled with Jax, who she comes to trust in discovering her personal connection to the flu epidemic.

I liked this book alright. I’d call it a PG-13 version of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” minus the cannibalism and much of the gore. Even though Lynn is in her early twenties, this book had a YA-ish kind of feel to it. I’m not sure if the author intended it that way, though the character of Lynn sure seems like she was originally intended for a YA novel. For one, Lynn falls girlishly hard for Jax despite their almost non-existent chemistry (cue pop music and the hallway locker scene). Second, she requires rescuing–a lot. Whether it’s in a snow storm or a tent encampment or in a fight with baddies, Lynn is constantly being dragged to safety by someone. It’s annoying.

The other characters are rather bland as well. The Immunity agents never rise above stock villainy, complete with descriptions of their wolf-like sneers and general menace. I also had trouble keeping up with the good-guy male characters because they’re so much alike you don’t remember who is who after awhile. And then there’s the dialogue, which at times, just seemed kind of clumsy. The action takes forever to get going, but once it did, this book was surprisingly readable.

Not bad for a debut. I’d definitely give this book a chance, particularly if you like sci-fi inspired, dystopian reads as much as I do.

[Note: A free digital advance copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher, Scribner, and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]