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.

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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*)

Review: 52 Likes

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Review for “52 Likes” by Medeia Sharif (2015)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I like thrillers, especially YA thrillers, so naturally this book drew my interest. At the beginning, there’s barely enough time to meet Valerie before she is brutally raped and almost killed by an unknown assailant. As horrible as it is (and it is really horrifying and terrible to read), I thought that the author handled this subject matter well. When dealing with unpleasant topics there is always the option to linger and lose the reader in unnecessary, gory details, but thankfully Sharif doesn’t do this. After the rape Valerie is harassed by peers at school, and sent mysterious messages on a social media website that hints of the rapist’s identity. Valerie begins to follow these clues and it leads her into the knowledge of more unsolved crimes by this mysterious man–with a supernatural twist.

Why 3 stars? I liked this, but ahhh…the character. Valerie is a strong girl who (she doesn’t take her fate laying down), but for some reason I never really connected with her. The writing here is flat–the parts of the book when I should have been scared I wasn’t, and where there was supposed to be other emotions (tension, maybe?) I never really felt them. And much of the book, especially the end, just seemed, I don’t know…rushed. Like the author was aware of some deadline and had to wrap it up as quickly as possible. It’s a quick read–one that teens will probably like–and I wouldn’t necessarily be against reading other books by Ms. Sharif in the future. But I wouldn’t put this book on a recommended read list.

[I received this advanced publisher’s copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: Made You Up

  
Review for “Made You Up” by Francesca Zappia (2015)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Very interesting YA novel about a teenage girl living with paranoid schizophrenia. One of the first books I’ve read in a long time that takes the unreliable narrator in an entirely new direction I’ve never seen it venture into before. Alex, the main character, is somewhat unlikeable…but man, this girl is a stick of dynamite. She never wallows in pity, whines, or even asks you to understand her. Her thoughts are honest and laid bare in such a way that I came to trust her, even when I knew that her observations may or may not be real. Three pages into this and I loved her immediately.

I won’t give any spoilers to the actual story here, because that would completely ruin the beauty of this book. If you are interested in books that thoughtfully (and tastefully!) explore mental illness, then read it for yourself.

One of the reasons I love YA so much as an adult is because it’s one of the few genres that seems to be tackling current issues in new and profound ways. I’ve read many books about mental illness in my lifetime, but lemme tell you, nothing like this before.

Do read this. You won’t be disappointed.

Review: Go Set a Watchman

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Review for “Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee (2015)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

— Warning: Spoilers ahoy! —

Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel. What it is, is the first draft of a book Harper Lee wrote in 1957 before her classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird that was initially rejected by publishers. In reading the first chapter of this, I completely understand why Watchman is not a good book. It presents a challenge for me to write a review on it here, because Harper Lee probably never intended to have this work see the light of day. As a writer myself, I am of the opinion that a first draft is hardly considered a ‘novel’ because it is not yet a completed product. Even the publisher considered this book to be “more of a series of anecdotes” than a fully conceived novel. Therefore, the designated title of ‘novel’ for Watchman is deceptive and debatable at best. For all intents and purposes, I didn’t read this as a novel or a sequel, but as a historical snapshot of a certain era in American history.

As a novel, however, Watchman fails, and fails miserably. There are poor quality, hurriedly printed, standard YA fare that are better than this. It is completely bland and lacks the personality and the colorful, rich dialogue of Mockingbird. In this book, Jean Louise is a spoiled, narcissistic young adult. There is a faint trace of a plot, which I’ll discuss later, but the simplicity of it is highly problematic. Attempts at humor on the part of any of the characters fall woefully flat. The writing is terribly scattered and confusing, and narration wanders aimlessly between 1st and 3rd person, past and present tense.

What can be gleaned from the faint glimmer of the plot of this book is this: Jean Louise learns that her father, Atticus, is not who she thought he was. They argue (the climax of this book). She accepts him anyway. End of novel. In between are flashbacks of Scout as a child, of her brother Jem (who is now deceased), and Dill, only in Watchman these accounts are unfocused, muddled, and boring. We learn a little about Scout’s transition into womanhood, but that’s about it. Some characters reappear from Mockingbird such as Uncle Jack, Calpurnia, and Aunt Alexandra. Noticeably absent are characters such as Boo Radley, Miss Crawford, Dolphus Raymond, and several others.

There is very little in this book that characterizes Atticus Finch, the titular character, other than what we already know from Mockingbird and what we observe on the surface. Twenty years after the greatness of Mockingbird, Atticus is now a lonely, arthritic racist. Other than this, the Atticus of Watchman is a flat character. The climax of this book is an argument between Jean Louise and Atticus, in which we are only told by Harper Lee how to feel Atticus, then to change our minds and feel differently. Just as Jean Louise learns Atticus isn’t who he truly is, white readers learned last week that To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t necessarily the book that they loved as children.

Because this book functions as a historical snapshot, the race and class politics of this book cannot be ignored. White supremacy is in plain view all over Watchman. Jean Louise, we learn, is opposed to the recent Supreme Court decision that ‘separate but equal’ is unconstitutional. She feels as if no ‘respectable’ white person would ever marry a Negro. She is also frustrated at Calpurnia at her perceived disloyalty to her, for daring to care more about her own grandson than memories of raising her. Her and Atticus both despise the NAACP and feel that the government has no right to tell white Southerners what to do. The foundation of her attitude is that Negroes are inferior, and whites are intellectually superior. Although it appears that Jean Louise has a more progressive view on race than her father, it really isn’t.

As previously stated, the real interesting part of this book is the climax–the argument between Jean Louise and Atticus. Atticus remains calm throughout, however, after the argument, Uncle Jack slaps her. Jean Louise learns that, as a woman, the beliefs of white men are to be respected and will be imposed upon her, even through violence. Patriarchy is the law of the Finch household, and if she is to stay there, she must submit to it. There is no compromise to be made here, as Atticus and Uncle Jack never compromise their racist beliefs. Jean Louise reluctantly learns to listen, even though she somewhat disagrees as to what role blacks should play in their community. 

By conceding to hateful beliefs, Jean Louise tolerates racism, as well as respects those who practice it, because they are, in her view, ‘decent’ white people. Atticus is a white supremacist, but since he is a “nice racist” (after all, he did defend that colored boy, Tom Robinson), Jean Louise is content to maintain a more humanistic view of Atticus and respect him, and we as readers, fifty years later, should too.

My response? Hell no.

Hate, in any form, is not respectable and does not deserve tolerance. It is fascinating that this argument still exists today, with people who feel that their religious beliefs should go before others who ask for tolerance. Hate is simply not acceptable and should not be tolerated. By her silence toward the status quo, Jean Louise really isn’t all that much different from Atticus. The message that we should should carry here is that we as a society still haven’t evolved much, fifty years later.

Many people are shocked and disgusted to find that Atticus has “changed ” in this book. The thing is, Atticus hasn’t changed, he has always held racist beliefs. But like young Scout, readers are too blinded by their saintlike regard for Atticus that they ignored this, or simply did not see it. I, too, gave Atticus way too much credit here. Big mistake.

It is hard to believe that same author of this book could craft something with the beauty and dexterity of To Kill a Mockingbird in just two years. It is indeed a remarkable feat in and of itself, as well as my guess that she also probably had one hell of an editor the second time around, as this book lacks one.

Two stars here. I refuse to give Watchman one star, I respect Harper Lee too much. If anything, the hot mess of this book makes me clutch To Kill a Mockingbird all the more tighter and treasure it for the gem that it truly is, and to learn to understand the contradictions that make us all human.

Review: Single, Carefree, Mellow

  

Review for “Single, Carefree, Mellow” by Katherine Heiny (2015)

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Jesus, where do I start???

“Single, Carefree, Mellow” to describe this book is a hell of a misnomer, because not one of the characters in this collection of eleven short stories was single. All of Heiny’s characters are upper middle class, educated, young white women working in a writerly kind of job and married to or in a committed relationship to a nice, clueless guy who works in a tech field. Every single story (yes, every. single. one!) included a main character caught up in some form or another of adultery, usually with a slightly older man who also works in a writerly occupation. It was almost as if the author was using a formula here: introduce characters, insert some humorous descriptions, bleep bleep bloop…then onto the coup de grâce of the main character and her running partner going at it like rabbits in the backseat of a car. Yes. Really.

I can understand that a book has a common theme, but this was ridiculous. I’ve never read a short story collection in which the stories were so blandly repetitive, the characters so obnoxiously cliche. The women here were so indistinguishable from one another that it didn’t matter that Heiny used the second person narrative in several selections, or that the same character appeared in three different stories here in three different stages of her life. You don’t remember the characters’ names because they were so predictable and generic—the same voice, same character type. And since they’re all screwing their bosses or the dude they met on the Internet anyway, their affair part of the story becomes mindless, so beside the point. Like background noise, you ignore it. You move on, you don’t care.

Also weird was that no one in this book, not one single person, appeared to have any moral objections to all of this affair-having. Not that every person is a born again Bible thumper, but I found the total lack of empathy in each story strange, to the point where the characters were completely unrealistic. Not one of the significant others/husbands here seemed to be vaguely suspicious of their wife or girlfriend, and no one was ever discovered in their indiscretions. And always, after said affair was over, the protagonist seemed to go on with their daily lives as normal. Really?! Like, I had no idea that getting your rocks off with a guy you met on a plane while your husband’s on a bicycling trip was that simple. Wowzers!

Is infidelity among women this rampant in our society? After reading this book, if I wasn’t careful, I would believe so. However, I honestly believe that women are smarter than what Heiny portrays them as. The strangest part about it was that I actually did enjoy Heiny’s writing, she employs a fair amount of dark humor, which was a plus for me. There was also a very touching scene in one of the stories in which the character loses her dog after an illness, which left me kinda sore because this happened to me about three years ago (RIP Zoe). But that was the only scene that connected with me, it still wasn’t enough to save this crappy mess of a book. Glad I didn’t purchase this, thank God for libraries…