Review: Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982

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Review for "Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982" by Cho Nam-Joo (2020)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982” is an interesting novel that tracks the experiences of a generic everywoman (Jiyoung happens to be a very popular name in South Korea) from her birth in 1982 to the present day. We’re introduced to Jiyoung in the present where, at the age of 33, she has been hospitalized for a mental breakdown. The author then recalls her life story, giving familial and societal context as to how the character’s breakdown happened.

There are lots of examples of institutionalized sexism here, which begin long before Jiyong is born. Boys are the preferred gender of Korean parents, it’s no surprise that girls are an afterthought or discarded via abortion as soon as the gender is known (Jiyoung’s mother is no exception–we learn that she aborted a daughter before giving birth to her third child, a son). Throughout her life, Jiyoung is subjected to sexism and misogyny in every aspect of her existence. The needs of her older sister and Jiyoung’s come after her brother’s, as both of her parents cater to his every whim. She and her female peers are sexually harassed in school and punished for it. Even though she is a brilliant student and worker, she is openly discriminated against and skipped over for promotions at work. After she marries she settles into domestic life, and, even though she has no desire to stop working, ends up leaving her job to raise her daughter.

Resigned to a life of staying at home and raising her child, it is this last “straw” that finally undoes Jiyoung. Although I wholeheartedly followed this book and its message that patriarchy is having a detrimental effect on not only women but Korean society as a whole, the way this book is presented is not very engaging. Mixed into the fictional narrative are hard facts, along with footnotes and citations to illustrate the bottom line. I get it, but it was a bit off-putting and it disconnected me from the novel. Or maybe something got lost in translation here. Hmm…

I definitely recommend this book. It is always fascinating to read about life from a non-Western perspective, even though the parallels are familiar and apparent.

Review: Efren Divided

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Review for "Efren Divided" by Ernesto Cisneros (2020)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Woww…this one’s a tearjerker. A powerful and timely middle grades fiction novel about a relevant issue that affects so many children and their families in America.

Efren Nava is a likeable middle schooler living in Los Angeles with his parents and two younger twin siblings. Though the family lives modestly in a one-room apartment, their warmth and togetherness is cherished by Efren, who marvels at his hardworking father and the way his mother makes¬†milagros¬†(“miracles”) happen with little money. Although Efren and his siblings are citizens, his parents are undocumented and he knows that they face an uncertain future if their status is discovered. He keeps this fact a secret from everyone, including his closest friends and teachers.

Efren’s life is upended when he leaves for school one morning and returns to discover that his mother has been taken in a sweep by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and that she has been deported to Mexico. His father begins working non-stop to hire a coyote to bring her back. Efren is left in charge of his siblings, often late into the night. He is overwhelmed and in a constant state of anxiety, his school demeanor suffers. Eventually he and his best friend stop talking, crushed by the fact that he is afraid to reveal his parent’s status to anyone outside of his home.

I won’t reveal the end of the book, other than to say that there is no happy ending here. I respect the author for doing this, because the fact remains that nothing good comes out of separating parents from their children and splitting up families. Whether its Border Patrol placing children in cages in a detention center or ICE rounding up their parents in widespread sweeps, the damage of separation and deportation is devastating and irreparable.

I loved this book because it highlights the struggle of what it is truly like to live as an undocumented person, constantly looking over your shoulder and expecting the worst. There is no political rhetoric, just a child’s story that calls on readers to be compassionate and understand what they are going through. This is definitely a must-read in 2020 and a perfect book for both children and adults.

Review: Darling Rose Gold

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Review for “Darling Rose Gold” by Stephanie Wrobel (2020)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The name of this book should be called “Crazy and Crazier.” It’s good though, ya’ll. Really good.

When the story opens, Patty Watts, the single mother of daughter Rose Gold Watts, has just been released from prison. Although it is never explicitly stated in the text, all indicators point to Patty having Munchausen’s syndrome, a mental illness that results in her abusing Rose Gold who had been under her continuous care for years, poisoning her through phony stomach ailments. As her release date nears, Rose Gold desires to reconcile with her mother and invites her to live with her and her infant son.

Once Patty comes home, the real action begins. Rose Gold has recovered physically, but it is evident early on that she has deep seated psychological issues, much like her mother. Mother and daughter attempt to reconcile in their time together but both are far from healed. Told in alternating chapters of both Patty and Rose Gold’s points of view, you get a glimpse into the twisted psyches of both.

I will not go into specifics of the plot because it will completely spoil the book. I will say though that when I finished reading it I closed my Kindle, looked at the wall and said: “well damn!”

This book is fast paced and fairly easy to read. Both of the main characters are unreliable narrators and in their own ways completely wretched, there are no real redeeming qualities for either. Both voices are flat and emotionless, and even though I hate that kind of storytelling in other books, here I loved it and thought it worked really well.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this book is greenlit for tv or a Netflix series. The level of drama here definitely insures an audience. Either way, I loved this book. 4.5 stars, friends…

Review: Black Girl Unlimited

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Review for "Black Girl Unlimited" by Echo Brown (2020)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Trigger Warnings: sexual abuse, sexual assault/rape, suicide ideation

Echo is a Black girl growing up on the East Side of Cleveland in the late 90’s. Although she is academically gifted and goes to a special school, her family life is in turmoil. Her father is an alcoholic and her mother is crack addict, wounded by deep trauma in her past. Her brothers fare no better, caught up in street life and criminal activity. Despite the dysfunction around her, Echo learns early on in her life that she is a wizard and possesses a collection of psychic abilities that she’s inherited from her mother. Echo’s abilities include bending time and space, predicting the future, astral projection, the ability to see people’s ‘veils’ (a psychic kind of ‘darkness’ that invades their being), and perform miracles (hypnosis/mental suggestion, etc).

The novel follows Echo on her journey as a wizard from age 6 until she goes off to college. Each chapter is a lesson she learns along with the help of other women wizards about living with the darkness and becoming a better person. Despite the fact that I really liked this book, there were some issues here. Although I was able to suspend disbelief and accept Echo’s identity as a wizard, the text transitions between the past and present during certain scenes where the ‘magic’ was taking place was a bit hard to follow, with breaks occurring in paragraphs and picking up elsewhere as if it was the same thought. Cool technique, just not executed as well as it could have been.

Another issue was the over-burdening of the text with soooo many peripheral characters. Brown’s main focus seems to be sexual abuse, religion, drugs, and colorism. However, there’s a myriad of characters that pop in and out of the book that seem to represent other issues and didn’t add much to the story. There’s a friend who’s a Black Panther who spouts Black nationalist rhetoric on a whim, a Muslim friend who wears a hijab, the hostile, middle class husband of her mentor, and a gay Asian friend who’s just kinda…there.

Some of the more graphic scenes made this book very tough to read but I appreciate Brown for writing about them. I’m not sure how the publisher is marketing this, but I would not consider this a book for YA readers. Older adolescents and adults are the more ideal audience here. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone under 18 unless they’re super mature.

Overall, I really really liked this. 4 stars.

Review: The New David Espinoza

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Review for "The New David Espinoza" by Fred Aceves (2020)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

“The New David Espinoza” is a very well written book about a topic that’s rarely explored in YA fiction. The story centers around David, a Latino teenager dealing with past trauma, specifically, the recent death of his mother. Compounding his troubles is the fact that David is relentlessly bullied in school due to his small size. When a viral video surfaces of him being assaulted by classmates, David decides that he’s had enough and begins to change his diet, work out obsessively, and join a gym. He gives himself one summer to build his physique and ‘unveil’ his tougher, more muscular look to his peers. His path takes a dark turn when he befriends another aspiring bodybuilder and gets involved in steroid use to achieve his transformation.

Once again, I liked this book because it explores a topic that’s rarely explored in a lot of YA books I’ve read. Body dysmorphia is very real, yet a lot of books don’t explore the male side of this highly misunderstood psychological disorder. There’s also a lot of very thoughtful explorations on bullying and toxic masculinity here that I think teens will benefit from.

This is the second book I’ve read from Fred Aceves. I will continue to read his work in the future.

Four and a half stars.

Review: Hillbilly Elegy

I’m probably the last person in the world to read this book (it came out in 2016), but since I’m quarantine’d up like the rest of the world, I finally got around to getting a digital copy from my library. It didn’t go so well. Anywho, here goes:

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Review for "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis" by J. D. Vance (2018)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Oh hell no…I didn’t like this book.

J.D. Vance, a self described “hillbilly,” grew up poor and disadvantaged in the Appalachian Rust Belt of Ohio. His parents were divorced before he could talk, his mother had addiction issues, and his Mamaw took most of the responsibility for raising him. He eventually goes off to the Marines, on to Ohio State, and graduates from Yale Law. He carries emotional baggage from his childhood experiences, but honestly umm…Mr. Vance is not a hillbilly. With his Ivy League education and newfound book fame he’s probably among the top 10% of wage earners in the country. So umm, a hillbilly? I don’t think so.

This book points to meritocracy as the answer to every problem that deep poverty brings. If J.D. Vance can achieve the American Dream with a quality education, a decent job, and hard work, then why can’t you? The virtue signaling of this book is loud and unmistakable, that if you’re still poor in the richest and best country in the world, you deserve to be. It’s interesting that Mr. Vance has adopted a conservative political viewpoint to coincide with this fallacy, which completely ignores the social, racial, and gender inequities that have been present since the day this country was founded. He absolves the government of blame and espouses personal responsibility for ourselves and our communities, yet stops short of any kind of real solution for the poverty, drugs, and loss of manufacturing jobs that plague his beloved working class.

And then there’s race. Other than once or twice, there is very little discussion of the obvious, and that’s the fact that Appalachia is still a very racist place with a long history of hatred and violence towards black people and other minorities. I find it interesting that people look to this book as “the reason why Trump won,” but there’s no acknowledgement of the white supremacy that was already long present among the working class that made his win possible. His avoidance of this topic is cowardly and telling; a refusal to see simple facts.

This book was also boring. Who cares about J.D. Vance’s agony at figuring out which fork is which at his first big fancy dinner party?

I gave this book two stars, because one star seemed cruel. I still might go back and subtract one. What the hell.

Review: Children of the Land

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Review for "Children of the Land" by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo (2020)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Children of the Land” is Mexican-born poet Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s personal and familial experience with immigration and becoming an American citizen. Castillo first came to the U.S. with his undocumented parents as a child. They settle in California, where ICE agents frequently raided their home and his father was deported back to Mexico. To ‘become invisible’ to arrest and detection by authorities, Castillo does well in school and learns, in his words, “perfect” English. He goes to college and eventually receives American citizenship through the DACA program, first set into place under the former President Barack Obama.

Through DACA, Castillo is able to visit his father in Mexico. Although their relationship is strained, he assists his father in the long, fraught process of getting a green card. While this attempt proves unsuccessful, it is only after his father is kidnapped by a violent drug cartel that Castillo is able to help his parents seek asylum in the U.S.

This book is raw and spares no details of America’s dehumanizing immigration system. I would certainly recommend this over “American Dirt” because it is a represents a Latinx view of the lives of the undocumented and the myriad of dynamics (social, familial, personal) that come with it.

Review: Everywhere You Don’t Belong

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Review for "Everywhere You Don't Belong" by Gabriel Bump (2020)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I should have loved this book, but for me it was just ok.

“Everywhere You Don’t Belong” is the story of Claude McKay Love, a Black boy growing up on the South Side of Chicago. After being abandoned parents at a young age, he is raised by his grandmother, a former Civil Rights activist, and her queer friend Paul. As people come and go throughout Claude’s life, his awkwardness is the clear focal point of all of his interactions. After a violent riot in his neighborhood, Claude takes up journalism, using the opportunity to escape Chicago and go to college in Missouri. When a family friend turn up at his college dorm, he finds that escaping his past is not so easily done.

This book is told in short vignettes rather than a traditional narrative. There’s an irreverent quality to this book that I appreciated, with some great imagery and memorable dialogue that’s (at times) quite hilarious. Unfortunately, this is a book that doesn’t have much to offer as far as a plot. The characters are compelling but not well rounded, and there’s a repetitiveness here that don’t hold up well to the short, story-by-story structure that it’s told in.

I gave this three stars. I would be interested in reading further books by Gabriel Bump, his voice definitely distinct and original.

Review: The Girl with the Louding Voice

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Review for "The Girl with the Louding Voice" by Abi Dare (2020)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Ahhh, this book made me want to stand up and cheer!

“The Girl with the Louding Voice” is the story of 14-year-old Adunni, a Nigerian girl who longs to go back to school and become a teacher. Her mother is dead, and her father believes that education is wasted on girls. When the family falls upon hard financial times, her father accepts a tv and several other gifts as a bride price for his daughter. He gives Adunni away in marriage to an older man who already has two wives and several children.

As a wife, Adunni finds life unbearable. She quickly discovers that her husband is only concerned with her bearing him a boy to raise. His older first wife is cruel and causes her constant misery. In contrast, her husband’s much younger second wife is kind, and her and Adunni develop a lasting friendship. After a tragedy involving the second wife, Adunni escapes to the large city of Lagos, where she finds work as a servant to a wealthy, abusive mistress. When an opportunity to further her education comes and offers Adunni a chance to escape, she takes it–in great peril to her life.

I loved this book. Although the portrait of rural life is bleak (child marriage, sexual exploitation, trafficking, and forced servitude are very real), Adunni uses her ‘louding voice’ to rise up and make a difference in her circumstances. Adunni also speaks a very basic English in a very distinct dialect, which found its own rhythm as the story moved forward. The language, along with her courage and determination to make a better life for herself were what made this book worthwhile.

4.5 stars. Definitely read this if you get the chance!

Review: King and the Dragonflies

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Review for "King and the Dragonflies" by Kacen Callender (2020)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Kingston lives in a small, unnamed Louisiana town with his parents. A few months prior, his older brother Khalid was killed. Before he died, he cautioned King to stay away from Sandy, a white boy at his school who has recently come out as gay. Throughout the story, King is overcome with grief for his brother, associated throughout the book with dragonflies, which King believes holds the spirit of Khalid. With his father telling him that “boys don’t cry” and his mother emotionally distant, King often escapes to the bayou to mourn and think about his brother.

One day at the bayou, King begins talking to Sandy. Despite warnings to stay away, the two boys become friends. Complicating his grief for Khalid and his friendship with Sandy is King’s realization that he is gay. When Sandy goes missing, King is forced to come to terms with his identity, as well as coming out to his family and friends.

This novel directly addresses many issues: homophobia in the Black community, toxic masculinity, racism, fear, child abuse, loss and grief. It’s an excellent novel that takes many of these hard-to-discuss tropes and manages to make them palatable for child readers, while at the same time not diluting their importance.