Review: The Wilds

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Review for “The Wilds” by Julia Elliott (2014)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“The Wilds” is a unique short story collection with stories that range from sci-fi, dystopian, horror, and a couple of other genres that don’t really get talked about much because not enough people write about it yet. Elliott’s writing brims with creativity, her bravery in choosing these subjects to write about earns her four stars. It takes raw imagination to even conceive of stories like this. There is the strong presence of the Southern gothic in this collection, but it’s nothing like this. After finishing this book I can truthfully say that I’ve never read anything even close to the subject matter found in this book.

There are eleven stories in this collection–each of them set in plain, everyday environments–but Elliott twists and turns this into a weird, alien world. In “Feral” a pack of wild dogs ravage the planet and children and scientists become fascinated by their wild, savage behavior. In “Rapture,” a girl at a sleepover learns the truth about the world from her friend’s unconventional, fundamentalist grandmother. In “The Wilds,” a young girl falls in love with a boy who wears a wolf mask. And, in “Regeneration at Mukti,” an island retreat becomes a place where people are infected with festering diseases so that their skin can scab over and fall off. Elliott also gives most of these stories an open ending, inviting the reader to come to their own conclusion about the events she presents.

Why I didn’t like this: each of these stories seethes with a kind of ugliness and revulsion for the human body. There were quite a few gross-you-out passages, as well as a underlying theme of what I can only describe as sexual lust–that, at times, made me really uncomfortable. A lot of these stories, as interesting as they were, were just…I dunno, simply not my cup of tea. Ultimately I stayed committed to the reading because it intrigued me, but I would not want to repeat it again. The four star rating I’m giving here, however, is for the excellent writing that prompts the ‘ick’ reaction in the first place.

There is definitely something here, and I am eager to read a full book by this author. The cover is sheer beauty and enticed me to open this book. What will Julia Elliott come up with next? We will see.

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Review: Project X

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Review for “Project X” by Jim Shepard (2005)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Three words: provocative, disturbing, puzzling.

Loved this book.

Project X is about a familiar topic in contemporary literature–school violence. The story is told by Edwin Henratty, for whom the word ‘outcast’ is an understatement. He’s a middle schooler with a laundry list of issues: he’s socially awkward, isolated, always in fights, always in trouble, picked on by both teachers and students, with parents who try but fail miserably to understand his problems. His only friend is a fellow outcast, Flake, and together they begin to plan ways to get back at everyone in school who ever caused them misery.

The kicker with this book is not the ending, because you already know it will be a violent one: it’s just a matter of time, opportunity, and method. The people in and around these boy’s lives are completely oblivious to their plight, rendering them powerless to change the inevitable conclusion. As the two boys go about the planning of their hideous revenge, one can only wonder if someone or something could have stopped them. Their plan is fragile at best, yet the pain they are experiencing is so acute that it becomes the only thing that motivates them to go forward, the reason they get out of bed in the morning. It’s what makes this book so truly heartbreaking, because you are forced to view these characters not as killers, but real children experiencing real pain.

The voice of this novel was perfect. I have never read Jim Shepard before, but I was amazed to discover that he was a middle aged man, writing in all of the nuances of an 8th grade boy. The dialogue is current and perfectly believable, the characters completely fleshed out. There is also a healthy dose of black humor here too, which I liked. The tone is serious but not preachy, as Shepard leaves the complex problem of mass violence unanswered and up to the reader to figure out.

Needless to say, I liked this book immensely.

Review: What Belongs to You

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Review for “What Belongs to You” by Garth Greenwell (2016)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

LGBTQ lit is an area that I’ve really been wanting to branch out into, so this book has been on my watch list for a while. That and the fact that this book was on BuzzFeed’s “Best of 2016” novels list compelled me to read it.

“What Belongs to You” is the story of a privileged American man working in Bulgaria as a teacher. He meets a young, working class hustler named Mitko in a public toilet where he pays him for sex moments after they meet. They proceed to develop a very strange, codependent, and somewhat obsessive relationship over the next several months. The American is lonely and looking for real companionship, while Mitko sees nothing wrong with taking advantage of a free opportunity for food, money, and, at times, a place to stay. The story ends exactly how we expected it to end because ummm….what are you supposed to expect as far as future prospects when you pay a stranger for sex in a bathroom stall? I ain’t the most intelligent gal in the world, but my guess is that it’s just not going to go well. It’s no different here.

This book offered no surprises, only predictable cliches. Perhaps I’m in the minority, but this book bored me to death. It’s a pity, because the writing itself is actually VERY good, which is why I gave it two stars. The author knows the emotional weight of his words, and several statements in the novel were so profound that I found myself reading them aloud, underlining them, savoring them. The story, however, was completely lost on me.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I do recommend this book. If you don’t mind a predictable plot, the writing here will ‘wow’ you. Be forewarned though, there are some pretty graphic sex scenes–so if you’re a homophobic prude who’s offended by the intimate details of sex between two men, then don’t read this. My hope, however, is that if you are reading my site, you are an enlightened person who can read whatever is placed in front of you for its artistic merit and nothing more. Voila!

Review: Daydreams of Angels

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Review for “Daydreams of Angels” by Heather O’Neill (2015)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

So I love Heather O’Neill. If you haven’t read her novel ‘Lullabies for Little Criminals’ then you are sorely depriving yourself of great literature. She has another novel out which I have not yet read (will do this) but this book was available at the library first, so I dove right in.

‘Daydreams of Angels’ describes itself as ‘twisted fairy stories’ and that description is very accurate. There are stories about floating babies, talking bears, gypsies, and cloned Russian dancers. Most of them are flights of fancy (as I said earlier, there is a talking bear) but some feature real people and events. This book as a whole, however, was lackluster. Some of the stories I liked immensely: ‘Holy Dove Parade’ is about a girl member of bizarre cult who commits a crime, ‘Where Babies Come From’ is a weird grandmother’s version of natural events, ‘The Gospel According to Mary M.’ is modern story of Jesus’s life in middle school. Most of the stories though I didn’t really like and I struggled through, like ‘The Story of Little O,’ which I’m still not sure what it was about. Out of all 21 stories here I only liked about 5, the rest didn’t make much of an impression on me. The voice was too monotone, the plots too similar. All in all: meh.

I DO recommend reading Heather O’Neill, but don’t start here. Try reading “Lullabies for Little Criminals” and you’ll thank me for this later.

Review: What Lies Between Us

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Review for “What Lies Between Us” by Nayomi Munaweera (scheduled to be published on February 16, 2016)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

It’s hard to quantify this book. There were parts that I loved, parts I hated. A novel that makes you run the gamut of these emotions, however, is probably a good one.

“What Lies Between Us” is the story of an unnamed narrator’s (we don’t know her name until the very end) journey from childhood to a prison cell, where we meet her for the first time. The novel is split into five parts–the first is the narrator’s comfortable life as a child of privilege in Sri Lanka, the second part is how she adjusts upon arriving in America. The last three parts deal with her adult life and the events that led to her shocking crime.

I won’t lie to you, now…the beginning of this book started off s-l-o-w. Once it did get interesting, though, I could not stop reading this book. The writing here is spectacular. Ms. Munaweera can definitely move you with words, and in that regard this book didn’t disappoint.

4.5 stars because there were some passages that could have been taken out, because they didn’t really propel the story forward. I won’t fuss too much about it though, this was a uncorrected/galley copy and it will probably undergo a final edit before publication.

But…I would definitely like to check out this author’s other novel. Ms. Munaweera is an author to watch.

[This book was given to me free, courtesy of NetGalley and the St. Martin’s Press in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: The Fishermen

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Review for “The Fishermen” by Chigozie Obioma (2015)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is one of those books that you pick up and time stands still, because you’re so engrossed in what’s going on that nothing else seems to matter. I picked this up at the library on a Friday afternoon and sat right down on the couch there and dove right in, not realizing that an hour had passed and librarian dude was standing next to me, about to tap me on the shoulder to warn me they were about to close.

“The Fishermen” is the story of four brothers–Ikenna, 15, Boja, 14, Obembe, 11, and Benjamin–who is 9 years old when the story begins. The novel is told from the point of view of the youngest child, Benjamin, who looks up to his brothers and decides to join them when they begin skipping school to fish at the local river. At the river they encounter an outcast, a local madman who makes a terrifying prophecy: that Ikenna will be murdered by one of his brothers.

From this point onward, nothing is ever the same. Each of the brother’s fates change for the worst and the entire family as a stable unit gradually becomes undone. But this is more than just a retelling of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, this book has all of the complexities of a Shakespearean tragedy. There is a lot of violent imagery in this novel, coupled with beautiful words that I found myself going back and reading over and over again. There are also thoughtful references to the work of Chinua Achebe, and one can’t help but to read this book as an allegory of the African continent–ravaged from the outside and left to corrode through corruption, greed, and other inside forces.

When I checked the Internet for some info on this book I saw that it had been long-listed for the 2015 Man Booker Prize. I do hope it wins a major prize, it’s really that good. Loved this, A+

Review: Cutter Boy

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Review for “Cutter Boy” by Cristy Watson (to be published in September 2016)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

As I’ve said earlier, the 10 years I spent as a 7th and 8th grade Language Arts teacher guides my reading choices. In addition to simply liking the genre, I often I select YA books to see how they deal with particular issues in our society. This was one such book. Right now I’m undecided about this. Three stars is out of the question, two is being generous here.

The rundown: Travis is bullied in school and ignored by his parents at home. Cutting himself with a razor blade is the one way he finds relief from his anguish and a way to control his pain. He becomes friends with a girl at school, Chyvonne, and eventually reveals his secret to her. Inspired by an unconventional teacher and his new friend, he eventually takes up the art of paper cutting as a way to avoid harming himself.

While I appreciate the author’s attempt to write a book about boys who self harm (an important subject that doesn’t get written about much) the ending seemed forced and terribly unfinished. The suggestion that art is a better form of therapy than cutting is suggested as a resolution here, but further details beyond this are left out. For such a large problem that cutting can be for a person, the resolution here just seemed too convenient, too simple. I am not a person who self harms, but I do know people who do. Pushing a piece of paper in front of them to cut instead of their bodies is an interesting prospect, but hardly a ‘solution’ to resolving the anger, pain, and depression that drives them to cut in the first place. I also did not like the way that the act of cutting was romanticized either. We don’t need to read about “beauty” swirling down the drain, or the smooth surface of a razor being “like ice, like glass” to understand what you’re referring to. These are tired, boring metaphors that don’t really portray cutting as the harmful action that it truly is. Like just...stop already.

Character development is also lacking here, big time. Travis, Mom, Dad, Chyvonne, and “the twins” (Travis’ sisters) all seem to move about this story with no real solid sense of purpose. I still don’t feel like I know anyone any better than I did when I first started. For a book that aims to engage reluctant readers, this book succeeds, but that’s about it.

[Note: I received a free publisher’s copy of this book courtesy of NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]