Review: Happiness, Like Water

Merry, Merry Christmas ya’ll!!!

I love Christmas Break, as I get to do nothing but read (and write about what I read) for three straight weeks.

  
Review for “Happiness, Like Water” by Chinelo Okparanta (2013)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Man, this woman can write…

As much as I love short stories, short story collections are always hit or miss. You may find one or a few good stories amongst the pack, or several decent offerings. Very rarely are ALL of the stories in a collection each a strong, workable a piece of art. This book of stories is one of the few exceptions.

“Happiness, Like Water” has 10 short stories, mostly featuring Nigerian woman who are dealing with contemporary issues such as unhealthy relationships, homosexuality, societal pressures, and what it means to be modern African woman in Africa, or, in some cases, America. Each of these stories are unapologetically feminist, with each character in each story making some kind of choice for her own future and taking her own destiny into her hands. In some cases, the choice has disastrous consequences, but in others, the characters find some kind of lasting peace.

The powerful story “Runs Girl” was my favorite in this collection, which tells the story of a young woman’s choice to dabble in prostitution to find the money to cure her mother’s illness. “Wahala!” is the tale of a woman who visits a traditional healer to cure her infertility and is forced to endure painful sexual encounters with her husband in order to have a child to conform to society’s expectations. “Fairness” is about one girl’s quest to be beautiful through the use of a skin bleaching technique that has dangerous consequences. “Story! Story!” is a suspenseful tale of a young woman’s obsession, with a shocking conclusion.

Several of these stories seemed to be companion pieces, ‘twins,’ if you will–two halves of the same event. In “America,” a young teacher tries to get a visa to join her lover in the U.S. In “Grace,” the focus is a romance between an older, divorced African American professor and a young Nigerian woman who is expected to be married. “Shelter” is the story of a young immigrant mother and daughter’s quest to leave an abusive marriage, and “Tumours and Butterflies” picks up that same story 20 years later, with a daughter’s choice to abandon her familial obligations in the face of her father’s cruelty and her mother’s complicity with their abusive past. 

The weakest story here was the only with a male protagonist. As far as characters go, there is not much variety. There is a lot of sameness that gets somewhat repetitive–nearly all except the one mentioned above was about young women, usually serving in the education profession as a teacher. 

Overall, this is a strong collection. It is hard to believe that this is Okparanta’s first book, as she is definitely an author to watch. Her writing is good and descriptions of events are solid. She does have a full length novel that came out several months ago that I will read, and I’m excited to find yet another talented contemporary Nigerian writer (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, A. Igoni Barrett, Sefi Atta are others) that people NEED to be reading right now.

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Review: Eleanor & Park

I wrote this review a while back. It’s been through several revisions and may go through a few more. Some spoilers abound, so beware…

  
Review for “Eleanor & Park” by Rainbow Rowell (2013)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I wanted to love this book. It’s been on all of the “Best Of” lists, everybody’s who’s anybody has reviewed it already, and its been damn near impossible to find in the libraries here for the last 2 years. So, naturally I jumped at the chance to read this when I stumbled into the YA section at my local branch and saw it sitting there. 

For everybody who doesn’t know, “Park & Eleanor” is a YA romance novel about the relationship between Eleanor, a slightly overweight girl with red hair and bad clothes whose family puts the capital D in “dysfunctional.” She lives with her mother,  young siblings, and her abusive loser of a stepfather, Rich, who terrorizes and bullies her. At the beginning of the story, the reader learns that Eleanor has been kicked out once before by Rich, and is forced by her long suffering mom to be ‘grateful’ that she has been allowed to return home. She is also bullied at school as well, for her weight and her appearance. Park is a half white, half Korean teen who gets stuck sitting on the bus next to Eleanor and eventually strikes up a friendship with her. From there, the friendship turns into romance. 

Let me start with what I did like first. I loved the music and pop culture references of this book. I’m a total 80’s baby, and all throughout are constant references to bands like The Smiths and Joy Division and other awesome music that I grew up listening to. I loved the references to TV shows like “Solid Gold” (GTFOH–now who remembers “Solid Gold?” I do!) and Walkmans and cassette tapes that were so full of WIN that I wanted to grab this book and never let it go. I’ll take a trip down 80’s memory lane any day. Whew!

Now on to what I didn’t like. The issue of race was kind of, well, strange in this book. Too strange. Park’s mother is Korean, his father is white, and they live smack dab in the middle of the cornfields of Nebraska in the 1980’s. Other than one reference by a classmate referring to Park as Chinese (you know, the “all Asians are Chinese” bullshit), there is never an instance where Park seems to encounter racism, among his peers or anyone else. And other than taekwondo lessons, Park seems to be almost oblivious to his Korean roots. Even his mother struck me as the “whitest” Korean lady I’ve ever read about. Why is Park’s Korean heritage completely whitewashed here? Or is it that Rainbow Rowell knows nothing about Korean culture, so she chose to exclude any thoughtful analysis of it here? One cannot simply say that Park does not encounter racism, or that race is not an issue in this book. If race is a non factor, it would seem that Ms. Rowell would have left this character as Caucasian and went along with the story. However, the added dimension of race is here, and it’s completely devoid of any meaningful commentary. Perhaps the reason why Park’s Asian-ness is in this book is to create a kind of fetishism, which Eleanor’s descriptions of Park completely fall into. She constantly describes the shape of his eyes (“almondy”) and his skin color (“honey”). And she refers to Park as “that stupid Asian kid” in the beginning far too much for my liking, to the point where it made me uncomfortable.

That’s not it either. Eleanor also has two black friends at school, DeNice and Beebi (WTF kinds of names are those?) and man…they are space cadets. They’re ridiculously immature, almost caricature-like, giggling and constantly beginning sentences with “girl,” obsessing over the men in their lives and going out dancing. As a black woman, I found their characterization so fucking ludicrous that I had to laugh whenever they appeared. Is this really what Ms. Rowell thinks young black girls are like? Come on.

Park and Eleanor’s romance is cute, but it seemingly comes out of nowhere. It’s literally like one day they hate each other (to Eleanor he’s the “stupid Asian kid”) and the next they are all over each other. Really? And why does Park like Eleanor anyway? Park’s attraction to her made little sense to me. Emotionally, he gets very little from her. We know she holds back because she is abused at home and psychologically damaged, but the characterization of Park as one who continues to radiate nothing but pure goodness in the face of her nonchalance (often to the detriment of himself) was quite unbelievable to me. Park IS in love with Eleanor, but it’s a blind, self-sacrificing, stupid kind of love and as a reader I knew it wouldn’t  last. I know I’m in the minority when I say that I was glad that it ended the way it did, ’cause good ‘ol Park was gonna run himself mad over this poor gal…

Logistically, this book dragged in the middle and I found myself skipping pages. The back and forth narration was cool at first, but after a while got confusing, because both Park and Eleanor’s voices pretty much sounded the same anyway. I wouldn’t rule out any of Rowell’s books in the future, but this one was a flat 3 stars, no more, no less.

Review: The Accident Season

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Review for “The Accident Season” by Moira Fowley-Doyle (2015)

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Umm, don’t read this.

I went into this book based on the title alone. Accident. Season. Two words that don’t go typically together, because accidents are usually random events and they aren’t seasonal. Hence, I jumped into this book. Needless to say, I am not pleased.

Cara and her family are ‘cursed’ during a period every October in which they become extremely accident-prone. They clutch the railings of stairs, they pad the edges of tables, they wear extra layers of clothing to protect against potential injury and death. It happens so regularly during this particular time of year that Cara and her family accept this as a normal part of life. That is, until one day, Cara discovers a childhood friend eerily present in her family photos. She recruits her tarot card reader friend Bea to help her with her friend’s mysterious disappearance, as well as the source of her family’s accident season.

Sadly, the first 100 pages of this book are a complete waste. There is literally NOTHING that happens here to compel you to give a damn about any one of the characters. Luckily I picked up on this around page 25 and skimmed my way to the middle, and boy am I glad I did. I didn’t miss much.

Miss Dowley (bless her heart) muddles this book with a lot of vivid imagery–broken bridges, old bookstores, a mysterious typewriter, etc. There is a gothy kind of appeal here…it’s lush and dreamy, but it does absolutely nothing for this book because you’re too busy trying to figure out when the hell the subplots (the disappearance, the accidents, etc) are all going to come together in any kind of meaningful way. It’s terribly confusing, and confusion while reading fiction is never a good thing. And yes, for those that ask: I’ll take a bad book (bad writing, weak characters, bad everything) over a confusing book any day, ok?

There is a romance in this book (it’s YA, people!) but even that is, umm…confusing, weird, awkward, strange. I won’t say any more about it. Matter of fact, I won’t give away any details here, because honestly, it doesn’t benefit me to spoil it for those who really want to read it. Like really, what would be the point? It just sucked.

The cover’s nice though.

Review: When We Were Animals

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Review for “When We Were Animals” by Joshua Gaylord (2015)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Hmm…this is a very weird book. Weird in a good way, though, and well worth the read.

The story takes place in a small Midwestern town named Polikwakanda, where teenagers run wild every full moon for three days while their parents and the rest of the town’s citizens lock themselves safely inside their homes. This occurrence, called “breaching,” lasts for three straight nights during each full moon. The town’s teenagers leave their homes and fight, vandalize property, run in the woods, have sex orgies, etc. The reason why it only happens in this town is never explained (though an ancient Native American curse is hinted at), but we come to understand that “breaching” is a sort of rite of passage for the town’s citizens that begins at the onset of puberty.

Lumen, the main character, is a teenage girl living with her father (her mother died when she was an infant). She believes she is morally good, and that she will not breach. She is intelligent and an awkward late bloomer, ostracized from her peers as she watches all of her classmates begin to breach around her. Pretty soon, she finds herself escaping out of her bedroom window during full moons and doing the naughty, forbidden things she believes she will never do.

Early on in the novel we learn that Lumen is now Ann Borden, a middle aged woman who is married with a young son. The majority of this story is told in flashbacks, with Lumen narrating her story from the present day. As an adult and as a teenager she feels like an outsider, still coming to terms with the events of her past.

I read a review on GoodReads that described this book “another version of Twilight,” and I completely disagree–this is nothing of the sort. There is a romance here, but it’s not the centerpiece of the novel. Although the main character is a teenager through most of the book, I would not describe this as YA, this definitely an adult novel. There are supernatural elements here that could place it in the werewolf/vampire/horror genre, so I’ll leave it there.

This is ultimately a coming of age story, with deep philosophical questions. How do we reconcile our most primal urges (sex and the desire to do violence) with rational ‘human’ behavior? At what point do we lose the ‘mask’ we construct for ourselves and be who nature intended us to be? This book explores those questions and several more in a very thorough and insightful manner. There’s a lot of darkness here and the main character’s very name (Lumen) means ‘light.’ The Freudian implications of this book are fascinating and so far from the banality of “Twilight” that to compare the two is complete foolishness.

Please read this book. You won’t be sorry.

Review: Finding Hope

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Review for “Finding Hope” by Colleen Nelson (scheduled to be published in April 2016)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Closer to 1.75 stars, because “Finding Hope” didn’t do it for me.

I won’t spoil this book with small details because there’s still quite some time left before its scheduled publication date. In a nutshell though, this novel focuses on Hope and her brother Eric, teenaged siblings who live in a small town in Canada with their parents. Eric is a promising soccer star with a bright future until he becomes entangled in a vicious meth addiction and gets kicked out of the family home. Meanwhile, Hope is sent to a private boarding school where she falls in (and quickly out) of favor with a cadre of mean girls. Their lives intersect at the most unlikely moment and Hope and Eric both make choices that impact their futures.

The story is told in the alternating POVs of Hope and Eric. This book is all over the place and a lot of topics are covered: sexual abuse, bullying, drug addiction, homelessness, etc. Hope is naive and an enabler of Eric’s addiction, stumbling into one bad choice after another at her new school. Eric’s chapters are far more compelling than Hope’s, but the one thing that got me here was the bland storytelling, the predictable plot lines. There’s nothing in this story that you don’t see coming a mile away. Although I sympathized with both characters, they became quickly forgettable once I turned off my Kindle. There’s nothing the author does here to draw you to either of them beyond just a general understanding of their respective situations.

Wouldn’t read this again, but am open to reading more from this author. On a lighter note, I love the cover art of this book. BEAUTIFUL!

[Note: I received this advanced publisher’s copy from NetGalley and Dundurn Press in exchange for an honest review. :-)]

Other note:ย TOMORROW, NOVEMBER 29 IS MY BIRTHDAY!! YAYYY!ย I won’t tell you how old I am, other than to say that I have long been old enough to call myself a true “80’s baby.” I’ll pretend it’s my 32 birthday again, for the umpteenth time. Ha!

The book gods hath giveth…

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This book arrived in my mail yesterday. If I requested it from the many blog sites I’m a member of, I can’t remember. If I won it in a giveaway on Goodreads (I’m always entering something there) then I don’t see where I won it. Regardless, it looks bloody interesting and I’ll do a nice review on it soon.

And thanks, Tyrant Books. You’re super swell. ๐Ÿ™‚

Review: Jumping Off Swings

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Review for “Jumping Off Swings” by Jo Knowles (2009)

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

I’ve been on a gloomy reading kick lately, haven’t I? This should lighten the mood for you softies. Spoilers abound, though. FYI–usually when I don’t like a book, spoilers are inevitable, for no other reason but to explain why I didn’t like it.

Anywho, YA books about teenage pregnancy are always kinda risky–on one hand the author wants to avoid glamorization, on the other hand the author can be completely out of touch with the sex lives of real teenagers. I picked this book up on a rainy afternoon at my local library because I was curious how a modern YA author tackled this subject. Needless to say, I was highly disappointed. I didn’t like this book at all.

This book is told through four perspectives–Ellie, the teenage mom and the “town tramp,” Josh, the reluctant virgin and the father of Ellie’s baby, Caleb, a virgin and a friend of Josh’s (who later falls for Ellie’s friend), and Corinne, also a virgin, and a friend of Ellie’s. The perspectives switch throughout the story, which I didn’t like, because the only perspectives that we should be concerned with to develop the plot were of those directly involved, Ellie and Josh. Who wants to read a book about teenage pregnancy where only half is about the parents? There was no buildup of action here, and just when the momentum began, the POV changed again.

The characters here were mostly thin and underdeveloped. For the first half of the book Ellie doesn’t say or do much other than cry while Corinne feels sorry for her and tries to help her. There is an indication that Ellie’s home life isn’t all roses, but beyond the standard, upper middle class dysfunctional stereotype (right down to the stoner older brother), there’s not much that is said about Ellie. Josh’s home life is a little bit more fleshed out, but not by much, as he stays isolated and wondering what the hell is happening with Ellie for most of the story. He doesn’t even find out about the pregnancy until the middle of the book, long after all of the other three main characters do. Also, there isn’t one single scene of Josh and Ellie so much as breathing the same air after she gets pregnant at the very beginning of the book, which I found to be completely bizarre. It’s almost as if the author completely shut the door on these two characters ever speaking again after they procreate. Even if they weren’t boyfriend/girlfriend at the time of the pregnancy, why are these two characters completely isolated from each other after such an occurrence? This made no sense at all.

I did come away with a full picture of Caleb, a child raised by a single mother. However, I never got a decent sense of Corinne beyond her interest in Ellie. Her home life seemed to be normal, but it’s only vaguely mentioned in the book. At the end there was the indication Caleb and Corinne will embark on a relationship, fully aware of the “mistakes” of their friends and without the pressure of sex.

I put “mistakes” in quotes in the last paragraph because I completely loathed the message of this book. The message that Knowles is sending here seems to be that premarital sex is bad, unwholesome, and leads to not only a bad reputation (if you’re female), but misery, isolation, and shame. This is simply ridiculous. It seems that there still cannot be a book where a teenaged female character has sex without some kind of horrific consequence—either getting pregnant, ostracism for being a “slut,” or being forced to do something she completely disagrees with. In this book, all three happen to Ellie. Eventually she gives her baby up for adoption, but she clearly doesn’t want to. And why does it have to end that way anyway? Plenty of teenage parents keep their babies and go on to live productive lives. Why is adoption presented as some horrifying fate that awaits the wayward, pregnant teenager? Arghhh…

Although the cover of this book was cute, I don’t recommend this book to anyone–teens or otherwise.