Review: The Affairs of the Falcons

Pardon my absence, I’ve been ill for a few weeks. Part of this is neglecting my diet and habits toward self care, the other part of that is a genetic component to my life that I need to be more cognizant of. If you’ve never had large kidney stones I hope that you never get them (or have to have surgery to remove them), and that you take loving care of your kidneys and your health in general.

The good news? I did a lot of reading while I was at home recovering.

Ok. On to my review…

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Review for "The Affairs of the Falcons" by Melissa Rivero (2019)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This book was so-so. I liked the premise of it, the execution, however, not so much.

“The Affairs of the Falcons” is the story of Anita Falcon, an undocumented immigrant from Peru. She lives with her husband’s cousin’s family in Queens in a cramped apartment. Anita is married to Lucho, has two young children, and works as a seamstress in a factory. Her husband drives a cab, but when the story begins, we learn that he has lost this job due to his undocumented status.

As you can imagine, money is very tight in this family. Most of this book revolves around the subject of money–getting it, losing it, and borrowing it from others to pay back the loan sharks who smuggled the family into America. Due to her status as undocumented there is no access to banks, and Falcons are always limited in terms of what kinds of jobs they can get. Housing is also an issue, internal conflicts in the home push the Falcons’ welcome with Lucho’s family to the limit. Also depicted here are the ways in which class and race play into the lives of a Latinx family (Anita is rural and indigenous, Lucho is lighter skinned, well educated, and from Lima). Lucho’s family remind Anita often of her despised, lower status among them.

Despite the external pressures, Anita is not a weak character, though she does makes questionable choices throughout the book. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this, my reason for the 3 stars is because I found the book to be less than compelling. There are tons of books out there on the immigrant experience, and I don’t really feel this book will stand out much within that group. There is not much that happens here that we haven’t read before, especially if you are familiar with this sub-genre of books.

I definitely recommend reading this book though. I’d also be open to reading more from this author in the future.

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Review: The Usual Suspects

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Review for "The Usual Suspects" by Maurice Broaddus (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Thelonius Caldwell is very much like many of the boys I taught in my ten years as a middle school teacher: bright, mischievous, and labeled as “special ed.” Despite his label he is very keen in his perceptions of people and aware of the reality that he is being ‘warehoused’ (i.e., placed in a self contained classroom with similar students and given sleep-inducing lessons until he either drops out or is removed via expulsion). Because the school and his teachers have low expectations of him, Thelonius and his friend Nehemiah pass the time by playing pranks on the staff, causing chaos between students, and just plain acting silly.

One day, a gun is found in a park near their school. Because Thelonius and Nehemiah have a reputation for bad behavior, the principal rounds them up and blames them for the incident. Knowing that he did nothing wrong, Thelonius begins to search for the culprit, careful not to break the code of the streets by being a ‘snitch.’ This story traces the route along his journey for answers, playing homage to the 1995 film “The Usual Suspects.” There’s even a Keyser Soze kinda figure, which is pretty brilliant for a kid’s book.

I definitely recommend this novel. Sure, it’s readable children’s book fare but there’s a sad subtext here: the reality that far too many poor children of color are placed in “special ed” classes and, once there, nobody supports or listens to them. Research shows that these are the kids who are most likely to drop out of school entirely and end up in the criminal justice system, or just to have poor outcomes in life in general. It’s a very real depiction of their lives.

4 stars.

Review: We Speak for Ourselves

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Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Review for "We Speak for Ourselves: A Word from Forgotten Black America" by D. Watkins (2019)

As with “The Cook Up” and “The Beast Side,” D. Watkins continues to share his account of growing up in an impoverished Black community in East Baltimore. The message behind his book is simple: in today’s age, poor Black people do not want or need to spoken for by White liberals or Black middle and upper class intellectuals. Watkins occupies a unique position in that he can easily maneuver among top thought leaders on CNN and the academic crowd, yet he’s hood at the core, never quite too far gone from the steps of his East Baltimore rowhouse. He writes about his days as a drug dealer with the same familiarity as the school to prison pipeline.

Here, he breaks down a lot of things that he wishes the world knew about Black culture: why poor people will always hate the cops, the reasons why education in urban areas will never be equal to the suburbs, etc. I gave this three stars because although it’s good writing and the message is clear for the audience he’s intending to reach, I found this book a bit too plain for me. Perhaps it’s because I’m not the intended audience–I’m pretty well versed in the issues he’s speaking of. Still, I don’t want to rate this too low because I like this book as well as the purpose behind it. I follow D. Watkins on social media and I’ll always support his efforts.

Review: With the Fire on High

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Review for "With the Fire on High" by Elizabeth Acevedo (2019)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

After reading and immensely liking “The Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo, I knew I had to read this. Although I liked this one as well, I wouldn’t say it’s as good as her first.

Emoni Santiago is a high school senior and mother to Emma, her 2 year old daughter. She is also an aspiring chef, integrating her own unique twists on traditional home cooked Puerto Rican recipes. In addition to her parental and school responsibilities, Emoni works hard at a burger restaurant, has a supportive best friend, and a kind grandmother who helps to raise her daughter. This novel is mostly the story of Emoni’s senior year of high school, in which she begins to nurture her love of cooking by taking a culinary arts elective at school. The class requires a trip to Spain, and Emoni, a single mom of modest means, is faced with the burden of raising money to go. In addition to this, there is some minor drama with Emma’s father, as well as unresolved issues in her relationship with her father.

Although I liked this book and its short chapters make it intensely readable, the main problem here is that I felt it lacked a conflict. Yes, Emoni does struggle, but she eventually gets what she wants. I am not saying that this is a bad thing, she’s a great character who I empathized with and desperately wanted to win. Buuuuttt…it just made for a kinda blah narrator. The romance is reluctant and felt forced, there was never a point in the book where I didn’t know that things would improve. It’s perfectly put together and predictable.

Still, I won’t go less than 4 stars here. I love Elizabeth Acevedo, and I think her writing about Afro-Latina character is super-important, particularly with all of the discussion in lit circles these days about diverse books. I also think that her choice to feature a urban teenage mother of color that is not a caricature or a stereotype was a very brave one that should be commended. The cover art is cool too (is that Alicia Keys??) Woooooww…

Review: Survival Math

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Review for "Survival Math" by Mitchell Jackson (2019)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This is a hard one to review. “Survival Math” is not a traditional linear memoir. It’s mostly autobiographical essays woven together on a variety of topics–love, relationships, racism, family, drugs, the criminal justice system–surrounding the author and the men in his life (father, cousins, and uncles) in and around Portland, Oregon. Mitchell Jackson’s mother is also a prominent figure throughout, but she’s mostly discussed as it relates to the men in her life. The book also includes “Survivor Files,” short, second person vignettes from the lives of men in his family.

I added this book with all the fervor that it was supposed to actually be good. Still, I’m conflicted on this. There’s a lengthy section in the middle when the author talks all about his life as a serial cheater, man-whore, and general asshole to women. He discusses his cruelties in a very detailed manner, in the same way one would describe the subtleties of criminal behavior or the forensics of a crime scene. I appreciated the unique approach, but I felt like he was hiding behind this voice rather than honestly confronting his past. And then there was the ‘why’ of all of this, especially when only a small part of this section dealt with any kinda contrition for his past wrongs. Was this a rationalization of that behavior or a catharsis? Even after reading all of it I’m still unsure. The finer points of his injuries to others laid bare, but never really heart felt. I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a very smug humble brag going on.

There’s also quite a long section about 75% of the way in where Jackson writes about the many ‘pimps’ in his family and their experiences on the streets. I skipped this section. Pardon me for saying so, but I resolved a long time ago to never read a male’s perspective of women’s sex work. When it comes to “the game” (as they put it), men are almost always the power brokers and exploiters, no matter how you slice it. There’s also nothing glorious about physically and emotionally abusing women and taking their income, unless of course all the posturing is just another form of a humble brag, which I’ve already told you about.

It took me almost three months to read this. It’s an ok book, but overall I just don’t think it’s my cup of tea.

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

Review: Heroine

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Review for "Heroine" by Mindy McGiniss (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This book will crush your soul. I definitely recommend a trigger warning if you’re not in a good place emotionally or mentally. This book does contain scenes of drug use, particularly opioids.

Mickey Catalan is a star catcher on her high school softball team. After a devastating car accident leaves her with a hip injury, she is prescribed the painkiller Oxycontin. Not only do the pills take away the pain, they make her feel good. She begins to take them more and more often, until her supply dries up. She then finds an illegal source who sells her Oxy, and along with a group of friends who also use and offer her friendship and acceptance. As pressure for Mickey to stay in top athletic form continues, her dependence on Oxy spirals out of control. Her supply dries up and she eventually turns to shooting heroin.

Before I started this book, I was afraid it would fall into the all-too-common trap of romanticizing drug use. While the highs of opioids are described here, it’s equally balanced with scenes of the gut-wrenching lows of withdrawal. Mickey’s POV is first person, so we follow her as she spirals more and more into addiction. It’s really well written, there’s a devastating energy here that hits really hard and doesn’t stop until the end.

I only give this book 4 stars because it’s so raw I would never read it again.

Review: Soon the Light Will Be Perfect

Back from a week-long vacay to my family’s rental property in Panama City, Florida. I got a wicked tan. Oh, and I did get some beach reading done…

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Review for "Soon the Light Will Be Perfect" by Dave Patterson (2019)
Rating: 4.5 stars

“Soon the Light Will Be Perfect” is the coming of age story of an unnamed 12-year-old boy and his family living in a small working class Catholic community in Vermont in the early 90’s. The family includes the narrator, his 15-year-old brother, and his parents, who have recently moved out of a trailer park and into a modest home that they are proud of. The father, who works at a weapon manufacturing plant, has a good job with ramped up production due to the U.S.’s involvement in the Gulf War. The mother, a homemaker, involves herself with charity work and delivering food to the poor. The family is staunchly Catholic; both of the children serve as altar boys and they attend mass regularly, even participating in events such as local anti-abortion protests.

Then comes the summer, when this novel begins. The mother’s stomach problems bloom into a devastating cancer diagnosis. The father loses his job when his conscience prevents him from turning a blind eye to shady goings-on at work. His brother begins experimenting with pot, alcohol, and talking to girls. The narrator begins to have affections for a troubled local girl and experiences a crisis of faith where he questions everything, everyone. All of the events in this novel are told by an older and wiser narrator, looking back on this particular period in time.

I really liked this book. Each chapter could stand alone as a separate story, with its own plot, characters, and conflict. From the first page onward I was engaged in this, and when I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about the characters in it.

I will definitely read more of this author in the future. 4.5 stars.