Review: Beasts of No Nation

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Review for “Beasts of No Nation” by Uzodinma Iweala (2006)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is a story that hits you like a grenade. I watched the movie on Netflix and was blown away by the actors’ performances, I cried so much watching it that I knew that I HAD to have this book. It’s short (less than 150 pages) but it took me over a week to read it. The events that are described within it are, in no uncertain terms, some of the most horrific experiences I’ve ever read about. The events are achingly close to the movie adaptation, but the book’s descriptions of the violence was a lot more brutal. The narration was somewhat hard to understand at first because the main character speaks a special kind of “broken” English that took some getting used to. By the third page, however, the character began to make perfect sense, with a cadence that made his words abundantly clear.

This is not a book for the weak-hearted. There were times during the week when I was reading this when I had to put it down, back away, get some air (literally), and come back to it later. It is heartbreaking, tragic, and terrifyingly real. It is the story of Agu, a child in an unnamed African country that is currently in the grips of a civil war. We are never told exactly how old he is, though some clues point to the fact that he is not yet a teenager–perhaps 12, or maybe 13. His mother and sister are taken away to safety in the beginning, he never sees them again. He watches his father murdered shortly thereafter. He hides in the wilderness until he is recruited (well, take that back: forced) to join a rebel army and fight against the insurgency. At first he is quite disgusted by the violence he witnesses, but after a while, he describes taking part in the rapes, murders, and act of burning villages with the same nonchalance as any other enjoyable childhood activity he takes part in.

Agu is morally conflicted: throughout the novel he constantly tells himself (and you, the reader) that he is a good boy, with some degree of moral sense against the acts he takes part in. He tries over and over again to convince his conscience that the violent acts that he is forced to commit are good and proper. You get angry with Agu (a lot, actually) throughout the story, but you remember that he is just a child, a pawn used by evil men. We hate that he does bad things, but what choice does he have? It is clearly a kill or be killed situation. The end does bring some promise of a future for Agu, but you still fear for him as you wonder what kind of effect these experiences will have on his adult life.

So, with that said, why am I rating this five stars? Well, because this is a story that NEEDS to be told. As Americans we complain about bad traffic and too much goat cheese in our salads, yet hardly half a world away children are forced to become a part of brutal acts that are beyond our wildest imaginations. It has become way too easy to turn on the news and hear about ‘those people,’ to donate money and shake our heads in pity and rest assured in our first world lives that these types of atrocities will never happen to us. We view childhood as a time of innocence, but in the wrong hands, we forget that it is actually pretty easy to turn a child into an efficient killing machine.

So, needless to say, I recommend this book. Agu is a special character that stays with you for a long time. Hopefully he will spur you to change your outlook on the world, or at least to learn count your blessings.

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Review: Bird Box

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Review for “Bird Box” by Josh Malerman (2014)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Wow….

I read this book like a ravenous wolf.

I read this book in a doctor’s office, with sunglasses on and a chemically dilated right eye due to a corneal infection.

It hurt to read this book. But man, it was so worth it.

This book is post-apocalyptic fiction at its best. As is typical of this genre, this book begins with an Event which kills most of the people on the planet. Detailed specifics of the Event are never given, but referred to as the “Russia Report,” a phenomenon that involves people suddenly attacking and killing other people before killing themselves. Before each attack, the person reportedly sees Something that disturbs them so deeply that they are driven to madness. It spreads across the Bering Strait from Russia and pretty soon the entire country’s population is decimated. The only way to protect yourself from the Something is by keeping your eyes closed.

The main character is a young woman named Malorie, whom we learn is hiding in a house somewhere in suburban Michigan with her two young children. The kids have never seen the outside world. Malorie has trained them to hear all kinds of sounds, because they are to be her ‘ears’ as she travels with them to a safer place. They must go by boat, and they must all be blindfolded to avoid seeing the Something that will drive them to madness.

This book goes back and forth between Malorie’s journey with her kids down the river to flashbacks of how she came to be in the house with her children four years before. Before the kids were born, she lived with several housemates who banded together, covered their windows, and stockpiled food in an effort to survive. What follows in these chapters is what made this book four stars instead of five for me–it’s your all-too-typical, post-apocalyptic survival fare. There’s worries over starvation, distrust among housemates, and of course, the ever present fear of the outside world. It is engaging to read, but it’s nothing extraordinary that we haven’t seen or heard already in a weekly broadcast of “The Walking Dead.” Next…

I did love this book, however. There is an ever present dread throughout the story that begins from the first few pages and doesn’t stop until the end. How far would you get in a post apocalyptic world without relying on your sight? The scare factor here isn’t in what you’re seeing, it’s what in the dark around the corner. Or in broad daylight, behind your shoulder. Or sitting right next you. Oh well. You get the picture.

I won’t give away any more of the book here. I won’t even tell you why it’s called Bird Box. But this is a hell of a book, and I heard its recently been greenlit for a movie version. Yay! But definitely DO read this first. Great writing debut by a first time author, a must read.

Review: God Help the Child

Review for “God Help the Child” by Toni Morrison (2015)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“No matter how hard we try to ignore it, the mind always knows truth and wants clarity.”

It’s lines like the one above that leave no doubt that Toni Morrison is still the undisputed Queen of African American literature. Every single word she writes is intentional, and the beauty of the wisdom she imparts during her stories is the same feeling that you get when you’re sitting at the table with your grandmother in front of the best plate of soul food you’ve ever had. It took me a while to write this review because there is something about it that is not anything like any of her other books. It is short (less than 200 pages), with some sections were a bit too fast paced for my liking, hence the 4 stars. But there’s still a lot here. This is the story of Bride, a girl with “blue black” skin who is neglected by her lighter skinned mother as a child but manages to grow into a beautiful, successful businesswoman. Immediately I thought that this novel was in the same vein as “The Bluest Eye” (a masterpiece, btw), with its exploration of colorism in the black community, but surprisingly, that is not the main theme here. This novel is more about the psychological trauma of our pasts and ways in which it manifests itself in our adult lives. All of the characters in this book carry burdens, deep wounds that become detrimental to their lives and the people around them.

“Each will cling to a sad little story of hurt and sorrow– some long ago trouble and pain life dumped on their pure and innocent selves. And each one will rewrite that story forever, knowing the plot, guessing the theme, inventing its meaning and dismissing its origin. What a waste.”

I won’t give away this book (I never spoil books I like), so you’ll have to read it for yourself. I wish it had been longer, but this is still great writing here, as Toni Morrison is capable of nothing less.

Review: Eileen

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Review for “Eileen” by Ottessa Moshfegh (2015)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“I kept in the glove box of the Dodge a dead field mouse I’d found one day on the porch frozen in a tight ball…I think it made me feel powerful somehow. A little totem. A good luck charm.”

When I read these words, spoken by our main character Eileen Dunlop on page 9, I knew that we were going to be friends. Seriously. Not because I approve of people keeping dead animals in their cars, but because this is where the true brilliance of this book began. From the first pages you become acutely aware that you are talking to an older Eileen, reflecting back on the events of one week around the Christmas holiday of 1964, leading up to her permanent departure from her unnamed New England town.

This book goes hard on so many levels. It is one of the most fascinating character studies that I’ve read in a very long time. Eileen Dunlop is mentally unstable and a psychiatrist’s dream: she is lonely, self-loathing, sexually repressed, passive aggressive, and neurotic, living in a filthy house with her abusive alcoholic father and sleeping on a rickety cot in the attic. She shoplifts, does not take regular showers, does not wash her hands, and is fascinated by her own bodily secretions (don’t ask, ok?). She works as a secretary in a juvenile boy’s prison and passes her days entertaining herself with lewd fantasies of one of the guards that works there. All of this is routine for Eileen until a charming, enigmatic young counselor begins working at the prison and changes Eileen’s entire world.

I could not get enough of this novel. I loved her voice, the nuances of the narration. Moshfegh’s writing is so skillfully consuming that despite Eileen’s general unlikeable-ness, I never got bored or tired of her. Eileen obsessively self-scrutinizes under a perfect outward mask of self control, and Moshfegh explores every nook and cranny and cobweb of her character’s brain. She is a perfect train wreck, and I could not look away. Eileen was like some rare, never-seen-before insect: intriguing and repulsing me at the same time. As I finished, my first thought was that this is a modern-day revamp of Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar,” with its beautiful descriptions of a young woman’s slow unraveling, a downward spiral into madness.

Be cautioned, however, that this book is not for everyone. A lot of reviewers find its lack of a definitive plot frustrating, the tension too drawn out, the ending a let down. I won’t spoil it, but for all the criticism, the raw power of the character development here trumped all. I can excuse the ending, because for me it was all about the scenery along the ride. And I love every single moment of it.

Review: Violent Ends

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Review for ‘Violent Ends’ by Shaun David Hutchinson, et al (2015)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

After I finished this book I spent about 10 minutes staring up at the ceiling, thinking: Wow.

This book takes a very unique narrative approach–it is a novel told in 17 different short stories, all centered around one terrible and tragic event, a school shooting. Each story is by a different author of YA literature, some of whose names I’m familiar with, but many of which I’ve not yet read. The stories are non-linear. Some take place over various periods before the shooting, some after, and some during the actual shooting.

The unifying thread throughout all of the stories is Kirby Matheson, the teenage shooter who kills a teacher, several of his classmates, and injures a dozen more before finally killing himself. Kirby never speaks to us directly, but the people connected to him do–friends, acquaintances, family members, his classmates–some that knew him intimately, some that didn’t know him at all. You never really get a sense of who Kirby was or why he did what he did, but the gaps in your understanding are precisely the point of this book. After such tragedies occur, we pause to wonder why seemingly “normal” people become violent. Was he bullied? Was he mentally ill? Were there signs? Did his parents know? “Violent Ends” offers no clear answers, just a picture of an American tragedy and the people left in its wake.

Be cautioned that all of the stories in this book are not created equal, however. Some were quite forgettable, but there were several standouts. “Grooming Habits” was sensational, as well as “Survival Instinct,””History Lessons,” and “Presumed Destroyed.” The authors of these stories I will most definitely be reading in the future, just because the writing was that damn good.

Read this book. Once you start it you won’t be able to put it down.

Review: Brother

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Review for “Brother” for Ania Ahlborn (released on September 29. 2015)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Creepy, horrifying, disturbing, gross. And excellent.

Did I mention that I am giving this book 4.5 stars?

This book is horror at its best. The Morrows are a West Virginian family living deep in the Appalachian wilderness (think: “Deliverance”), so deep that “no one can hear the screams.” And for good reason. The Morrows–mom Claudine, dad Wade, and their son Rebel–are a family of psychotic killers that prey on young women that are unfortunate enough to cross their path. This book follows the thoughts of nineteen-year-old Michael, Rebel’s “adopted” brother and the polar opposite of the Morrows. Although he participates in his family’s gruesome “activities,” he gets no pleasure from them. He dreams of other possibilities for his life and contemplates running away when he meets an attractive girl in town named Alice.

[Pause.]

To tell you more about this book is to completely spoil it, which I won’t do. There are flashbacks throughout this novel, that, when taken as a whole, make the events you’re reading about all the more disturbing. There is also a sickening, depraved twist in this novel that I won’t give away either, other than to say that I did not see IT coming, even from a million miles away…

I don’t think I want to know where Ania Alhborn got the idea for this book. A lot of the details harken back to the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” but in the Acknowledgements section, the author says she didn’t get her inspiration from that movie. Regardless, I was completely engrossed in this book. It’s a must read, especially if you like horror, and extremes are your thing. Highly recommended!

[NOTE: I received an advanced publishers’ copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: Notice

Review for “Notice” by Heather Lewis (2004)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“But even with that slumber taking me over, and then taking me under, I knew that leviathan thing slept in this same darkness. Lay with me, too. Resting, biding its time.”

Heather Lewis, Notice, pg. 203

Heather Lewis, the author of this book, took her own life after she wrote these words. “Notice” was published posthumously in 2004, two years after her death. It was published by a small printing press and as of 2015, this book is out of print and damn near impossible to get in the city of Charlotte, North Carolina. I finally did an interlibrary loan and waited for 4 weeks, and lo and behold, it arrived.

Now that I’m done: Jesus Christ.

This book is, unequivocally, one of the most disturbing novels I have ever read. The main character is a young woman who works as a prostitute, casually taking money for loveless sex with strangers. She eventually gets involved with a sadist and his wife–and what ensues is one of the most bizarre and violent S&M relationships in recent literature. This leads her into a relationship with her therapist, and another bizarre, S&M-like sexual relationship ensues.

This book is in first person, and narrated with a cold, emotionally detached tone to match. The amount of sexual violence was so extreme and frequent here that I wanted to stop reading it, but Something continued to compel me to go back. Not because I wanted to hear about how the main character gets used and abused, but because you want to know what drives her, what’s inside her head. It never happens. This is one of those stories that you want to somehow become easy reading, for things to become less cruel and complicated–until you realize that your comfort level was never the point here. It’s human brutality laid bare in its purest form, and Heather Lewis wants us to notice. This was not just a novel, this book was her catharsis.

It is not often when I give such a brutal book such high praise, but if you can find it through whatever obscure means available and you can manage to take a risk and stomach it, I DO recommend reading it. Tell your librarian that I sent you. (*wink*)