Review: The Water Cure

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Review for "The Water Cure" by Sophie Macintosh (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“The Water Cure” is the strange tale of three sisters–Grace, Lia, and Sky–who live in isolation on a remote beach island with their mother and father. At the beginning of the novel, we are told that their father (aptly named ‘King’) has left to get supplies, but after an extended period, has not returned. We learn that the reason why the family lives in isolation is because, many years before, King took them from civilization in order to protect them from a “toxic” outside world. The source of ‘toxicity’ is never explained, and it is unclear throughout the book whether an actual environmental catastrophe has occurred or if its strictly symbolic (i.e., toxic ideas, toxic values, etc).

In time, the sisters come to believe that the world beyond their island home is ‘toxic.’ In order to cleanse themselves, their parents perform painful “therapies” and rituals in order to cure them. The “therapy” often takes on the form of physical and emotional abuse, the disturbing details of which are given in each of the sisters’ perspectives. Mother is particularly sadistic; as a result all three of the girls have serious health issues, with Lia predisposed to self-harm. We’re also informed that women visitors used to come to the island a long time ago to ‘cleanse’ themselves of toxicity and male violence, leading the reader to wonder if King is running some kinda weird cult here. Once again, the whole back story behind this is unclear.

About mid-way into the book, three strange men wash up on shore. The narrative switches to Lia’s perspective and the bulk of the action takes place over the few days that follow. I won’t give away what happens, other than to say the lack of a narrative back story make for very interesting reading. I did notice that there is a coldness and detachment to the writing here, none of the characters drew me in. I imagine that this is an outgrowth of the ambiguities of the story, of questions left unanswered. I don’t know if I liked it, but the constant wanting to know managed to hold my attention until the end.

This novel is being marketed as feminist dystopia, and I don’t know if I agree with that label. ‘Dystopian’ is a hazy label here, because it’s unclear if this book takes place in the future, the present, or the past. I don’t like ‘feminist’ to describe this either, so much of it is so rabidly anti-feminist and anti-woman that for me it was hard to reconcile the character’s actions with any kind of redeeming hope for anything resembling a future.

I do recommend this though, if you don’t mind books that are purposely ambiguous or like experimental types of writing.

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Review: New Kid

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Review for "New Kid" by Jerry Craft (2019)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

This is a really cool middle grades graphic novel about school, race, family, and friendship.

The main character, Jordan (ironically, the name of my own son) is a 12-year-old kid who lives with his parents in the Washington Heights neighborhood of NYC. He loves gaming and drawing, and due to his good grades he begins to attend a wealthy prep school on financial aid, finding himself among the few students of color there. In his new school, Jordan finds that he has access to greater intellectual pursuits but at the same time he experiences an incredible amount of racism, mostly in the form of microaggressions by teachers and students alike.

The graphics and the art in this book are top-notch. Interspersed within the book are Jordan’s own sketches of his impressions of literature, art, and pop culture–which are quite humorous, to say the least. One of the most profound scenes towards the end is when Jordan eventually sees through many of his own prejudices and stands up for a fellow classmate.

Definitely buy this book. I’d recommend to adults and kids alike.

Review: A Few Red Drops

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Review for "A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919" by Claire Hartfield (2018)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I’ve been meaning to read more YA nonfiction, hence my interest in this book.

Overall, I’m disappointed in this book. First, the storytelling here is a jumbled mess. Although I understand that the 1919 Chicago race riot involved many factors (the Great Migration of blacks from the south to northern cities, racism and segregation in those northern cities, immigration to the U.S. by Irish and eastern Europeans, tensions in labor unions, etc) the author does not seem to take her audience’s interest into account here. The riot is briefly touched on in the beginning, and the next 10-15 chapters are dedicated to the aforementioned subject matter (labor unions, the Chicago meatpacking industry, the Great Migration, etc). She doesn’t really explain how or why these chapters are critical to understanding the riot and the topics seem to jump here and there and all over the place. I can imagine that a typical middle grade reader will lose interest in this book quickly, particularly because the connection between subjects is not made apparent in the beginning.

Second, the quotes used here are not thoughtful or insightful to the text. There are quotes by writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson (a New England transcendentalist) and Carl Sandburg, but only one by Langston Hughes. Excuse me….but where is the W.E.B. Dubois? Or even Ida B. Wells-Barnett? If we are talking about a riot that left a disproportionate number of Black people among the dead, wouldn’t one want to include the words of the leading Black scholars of the day? It is interesting that the author spends much time discussing Wells-Barnett and her role as a journalist within the Black community of Chicago, yet doesn’t include one quote from her in the whole text. Did she even read her at all? Anybody vaguely familiar with history knows that Ida B. Wells Barnett wrote MUCH about the Chicago race riot. Why are none of her specific quotes here?

The writing isn’t very engaging either. Much of the last 40% of the book is sources, which is fine if its nonfiction, but there wasn’t much in the first 60% of the book that was particularly memorable.

Two stars. Zzzzz.

Review: Looker

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Review for "Looker" by Laura Sims (2019)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From the blurb on the inside of this book, we’re told that it’s a thriller, but I think this story is far more complex than that. It is definitely a story of obsession, a character study of a gradual undoing, a woman’s loss of her grip on reality.

“Looker” is the story of an unnamed woman narrator whose life is, quite frankly, in shambles. Her husband has left her after many rounds of IVF have been unsuccessful in producing a child. Her job as a lecturer at a local college is unfulfilling. All that she really has is the cat that her husband has left behind and her obsession with a famous actress that lives in an expensive brownstone on her block. The actress lives with her husband and her three young children. The narrator watches the actress obsessively–her daily comings and goings, her life, her movies. She begins to feel as if her and the actress could actually be friends, if only they could just talk to each other. As events at the narrator’s job spiral out of control and divorce proceedings begin against her, the narrator views a potential interaction at an upcoming neighborhood block party as the catalyst that will kick off her and the actress’s friendship. Needless to say, it doesn’t go well.

This novel is less than 200 pages and a quick read. The escalation of the narrator’s obsession is clear, and the suspense paced rightly so. The ending was a bit abrupt, but this definitely kept my attention. 4.5 stars.

[Note: there is a scene of animal cruelty in this book, a particularly disturbing act involving a cat. If you’re upset by this, I’d skip this part. I wouldn’t avoid the book though.]

Review: Blood Barrios

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Review for "Blood Barrios: Dispatches from the World's Deadliest Streets" by Alberto Arce (2018)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This book will tell you about all the bad things that happen in Honduras. Within its pages are the author’s dispatches from the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, where he writes about narco traffic, police and government corruption, kidnappings, murder, torture, rampant gang violence, and extortion. Murder cases are rarely closed, because they’re hardly ever opened. Murder of criminals and ordinary people alike occur with such regularity in Honduras as to be unremarkable, with the police merely collecting the bodies afterward while journalists like the author write or snap pictures. Fear keeps people immobilized. No one talks and no one investigates.

Although this book is interesting to read and I finished it rather quickly, I realized that its sensationalism was what kept me plowing through it at breakneck speed. While people in Central America live these realities day in and day out, Americans like myself merely rubber-neck at their tragedy and keep it moving. I feel guilty in admitting that, however, it is this kind of apathy that this book represents. The author loves to talk about violence in Honduras, yet there is very little in-depth analysis about how American meddling in the politics of this country over the last 40 years has directly and indirectly caused much of the misery there today. The prime example of this is the U.S.’s ill-advised policy of the deporting of MS-13 gang members from American soil, only for them to return home, reorient themselves, and grow even stronger and more violent, only this time in the absence of any kind of functioning law enforcement in Honduras.

So I don’t know…3 stars here, I think. Read this if you want something sensationalized, without a lot of heart for real investigative journalism.

Review: Waylaid

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Review for "Waylaid" by Ed Lin (2002)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Ok ya’ll…it’s the last entry of my ‘older’ book reviews for a while…

“Waylaid” is the story of an unnamed 12-year-old Chinese American boy who works in his family’s sleazy, pay-by-the-hour Jersey shore motel. The narrator’s obsession with sex and his fantasies with the porno mags and other sexual artifacts that he finds in his hotel rooms make up a large part of the book. The johns who routinely come by his hotel do nothing to quell his burning desire to find a girl he can sleep with. In addition to school and long nights and weekends spent working at the hotel, the narrator has very little freedom to be a kid. This gives him a wealth of knowledge beyond a typical preteen, which is played out throughout this book. Although he considers himself American, he continually faces racist comments by the guests, which he is forced to accept with a smile.

The only reason I gave this book 3 stars is because I didn’t care for the ending, which seemed kinda rushed to me. This story is definitely entertaining and funny, it’s worth checking out.

Review: The Cost of Living

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Review for "The Cost of Living" by Rob Roberge (2013)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

(Still on my ‘older’ book kick. Bear with me.)

Bud Barrett is an aging ex-rockstar who’s spent most of his life being a junkie. Most of his life he’s either been high, doing schemes to get high, calculating how long it will take to get to the next high, or coming back from a high. His life has been no cakewalk: his mother committed suicide when he was a young child and his relationship with his father has been nonexistent ever since he witnessed him kill someone for reasons he doesn’t understand. These two traumatic events lead Bud into a life of drugs and drinking, and finally, some kind of reckoning with the past.

I love the non-linear style in which this book is presented. Each chapter is essentially its own story, presented at various periods of Bud’s life. In some accounts Bud is quite the addict, in others he’s clean, and in some he deals with the toll of his addiction on his relationships with friends, family, and his estranged wife. It’s a hell of read, I enjoyed every page of it.

4.5 stars.