Review: Ghost Wall

Ahhh, I know it’s been a while. Forgive me for my lack of updates. It is almost the end of the spring semester, so my dissertation and scheduled presentations have been taking up most of my reading time. Updates may be a bit slow until mid-May.

Anywho, I do have a quick book review for you guys. Sorry it’s not a good one, but you know me. 🙂

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Review for "Ghost Wall" by Sarah Moss (2019)

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Nah, I didn’t really like this. Thank God it was short.

Teenage Silvie and her Mom and Dad are a part of an experimental anthropology course that involves spending several weeks in the forests of a remote part of north England, living as if they were people during the Iron Age. They make tools, forage for food, wear antiquated clothing, and sleep in huts, just as if they were people from that ancient time period. With an abusive father and a mother that acquiesces to his will, Silvie is more of a hanger-on to this bizarre anthropological experiment.

During their time in the forest, Silvie meets a young woman named Molly, student in the class. She challenges Silvie to question her life, including why they are participating in the experiment. As the story moves forward, it is quite clear that there’s some very sinister, weird shit going in Silvie’s dad’s ‘lil Iron Age LARP adventure…

What bothered me the most about this book is that even though the plot sounded good on paper, the writing and the characters really weren’t all that engaging. You know from the first 3 pages that there is something ominous that is going to happen to these role-players, you’re just not sure what. The suspense is drawn out through most of the book (thankfully it’s short) but by the time the end arrives it’s nothing that you haven’t predicted already. The style was also an issue–with no punctuation and few line breaks, much of the novel runs together in huge paragraphs, a slog to read.

Somebody out there will appreciate this–it just wasn’t me.

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Review: The Cost of Living

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Review for "The Cost of Living" by Rob Roberge (2013)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

(Still on my ‘older’ book kick. Bear with me.)

Bud Barrett is an aging ex-rockstar who’s spent most of his life being a junkie. Most of his life he’s either been high, doing schemes to get high, calculating how long it will take to get to the next high, or coming back from a high. His life has been no cakewalk: his mother committed suicide when he was a young child and his relationship with his father has been nonexistent ever since he witnessed him kill someone for reasons he doesn’t understand. These two traumatic events lead Bud into a life of drugs and drinking, and finally, some kind of reckoning with the past.

I love the non-linear style in which this book is presented. Each chapter is essentially its own story, presented at various periods of Bud’s life. In some accounts Bud is quite the addict, in others he’s clean, and in some he deals with the toll of his addiction on his relationships with friends, family, and his estranged wife. It’s a hell of read, I enjoyed every page of it.

4.5 stars.

Review: Anatomy of a Girl Gang

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Review for "Anatomy of a Girl Gang" by Ashley Little (2013)
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

“Bad bitches don’t die.” p. 108

LOL, I crack myself up sometimes. I also cracked myself up with this book. Anywho, I definitely liked this one.

Stuck in the streets of a gritty neighborhood in Vancouver and fed up with the sexist actions of their all-boy gang, girl gangsters Mac and Mercy decide to start their own crew, which they call The Black Roses. Mac sets strict rules at the outset: there will never be more than 5 girl members, they will never use the drugs that they sell, and they will be their city’s worst nightmare.

Together, Mac and Mercy recruit 3 more girls. Each member is distinct in their personality and serves their own purpose within the gang. Mac is the leader, mastermind, and the O.G. of the gang (that’s ‘original gangster’ for you squares). Mercy, a “Punjabi princess,” is Mac’s right hand with a special aptitude for theft (cars, store merchandise, you name it). Kayos is from a rich family and has a special flair for violence. Sly Girl, who comes from a hard life on a reservation, is a master of the ups and downs of buying, selling, (and later using) drugs. The final recruit, Z, is a young Chinese graffiti artist whose job it is to market The Black Roses’ message of mayhem by tagging their name on street signs and bridges all across the city.

At first, the Black Roses are wildly successful. Although they run into some problems with other gangs, they quickly solve them with violence. They begin to save their money and dream of leaving the streets. There’s even time for a romance to develop between two of the members. All continues to go well until a devastating blow leaves them without hope or the money they’ve saved to plan an escape. Desperate, the girls come up with an ill-advised plan which sets into motion a chain of events that eventually destroys them all.

This book is told in alternating narratives of all five of the characters. Interspersed throughout the story is the voice of Vancouver, an eye in the sky that “sees” all. Honestly, the writing of this book is not all that excellent but the story managed to be quietly devastating enough to keep me turning the pages. The mid-90’s hip hop language, explained to the less-than-wary with the aid of a glossary in the back, is also funny too with definitions for words like “slinging,” “burners,” and “gat.”

This is YA, but I’d recommend for adults too.

Four stars, yo…

Review: Bang

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Review for "Bang" by Daniel Pena (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

A dark story, indeed…

“Bang” is the story of a Mexican-American family with ties on both sides of the border. Araceli, the matriarch, lives with her two sons near a fruit grove in Harlingen, Texas. She sits and waits daily for her husband, who’s long since been deported back to Mexico. She lives with sorrow in her husband’s absence, as well as frequent nosebleeds and blackouts from the constant exposure to pesticides. Cuauhtemoc, the more troublesome elder son, flies crop duster planes for the fruit farm while her younger son, Uli, struggles to complete high school.

After a late night flight with Uli, Cuauhtemoc crashes one of the farm’s planes onto the Mexican side of the border. Both brothers are injured but manage to survive, and eventually become separated and trapped in Mexico. A new chain of disastrous events are then set into motion when Araceli, who hears of the crash, crosses the border to look for her sons. Cuauhtemoc is forced to fly drug deliveries for a violent local cartel, while Uli searches for his father but ends up getting caught up in a local dogfighting ring and boosting copper for cash.

This novel is presented in alternating narratives among the main three characters. This slows down the pace considerably, so there is an extraordinary focus on the human suffering taking place on both sides of the border, as well as the violent drug war taking place there. It’s an uncomfortable story, but one that definitely needs to be told.

Four stars.

Review: Waste

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Review for "Waste" by Andrew F. Sullivan (2016)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Larkhill, Ontario, 1989. Late at night two teenage friends, Jamie and Moses, hit a lion while driving down a darkened back country road. They throw the carcass in a ditch and make a promise to tell no one about the incident. Moses goes back to the no-tell hotel where he lives with his eccentric mother and discovers she is missing and begins to look for her. Meanwhile at his job in a butcher shop, Jamie discovers a decomposing body in a can of bone waste. All the while this is going on, there’s a pair of sadistic, bearded ZZ Top looking brothers who love to kill people with power tools, searching for the person who killed their pet lion, Falcor.

Don’t start thinking there’s a light at the end of this bleak-ass tunnel.  (p. 2)

The very first page tells you to not expect anything good out of this book, so I didn’t. Overall, this book is a very dark tale about the goings-on in a small Canadian town.  From the first to the last page it never lets up in its bleakness–nasty hotels, people with dirty jobs, violence with impunity, shuttered factories. Everyone in this book is some version of a loser, stumbling through their wasted lives as addicts, dealers, wannabe skinheads, or just assholes in general. There’s a healthy dose of black humor that breaks the emptiness every now and then, but the bleakness drags this book on much longer than it should. The first quarter moves moderately fast, but the middle was a snooze fest. I considered DNF’ing but wanted to get to the end, which was pretty decent. For a book that’s so keen on violence, the only acceptable end is a violent one. “Waste” certainly delivers that.

Three out of five stars. Read if you’re into Donald Ray Pollock, Chuck Palahniuk, or Irvine Welsh-type stuff.

Review: How to Love a Jamaican

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Review for "How to Love a Jamaican" by Alexia Arthurs (2018)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

“How to Love a Jamaican” is an engaging collection of eleven short stories from debut author Alexia Arthurs. These are not your “typical” immigrant stories, however. Arthurs is not afraid to delve deeply into the lives of her characters and discuss complex issues of sex, class, and race both in Jamaica and within the lives of Jamaicans living in America.

All of these stories are about Jamaicans and cover a wide variety of their lives–male and female, straight and gay, old, young, and middle aged, on the island and in America. The characters are not linked, but this is definitely a cohesive collection of stories. In “Mash Up Love,” a set of identical male twins vie for the attention of their mother and loved ones. “The Ghost of Jia Yi” is about a young college student’s adjustment to America and her realization that she is an outsider. “Light Skinned Girls and Some Kelly Rowlands” is about the class conflicts within a friendship between two college girls, one Jamaican born, the other U.S. born with Jamaican born parents. “Bad Behavior” is about a free-spirited teenage girl sent to the island for disobeying her parents, with the hope that her stern Jamaican grandmother will ‘straighten’ out her wayward behavior. I also liked “Shirley from a Small Place,” about a Jamaican American pop star who finds international success and deals with the pitfalls of fame.

It’s hard to choose a favorite story here, I really liked every single selection. Even though the stories share similar themes, there were no repeats and not a single word was wasted.

4.5 stars. I will definitely read the next thing that Alexia Arthurs writes.

[NOTE: An electronic copy of this book was provided by the publisher and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: Hell is a Very Small Place

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Review for "Hell is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement" by Jean Casella, James Ridgeway, & Sarah Shourd (2016)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

As an educator I’ve always been interested in the criminal justice system–how so many people get caught up it, how they survive there, and of course, how they can stay out. This book is a collection of essays about the subject of solitary confinement, otherwise known as administrative segregation (ad segs), special housing units (SHUs), and various other names depending on the state and institution responsible for their use. Regardless it’s all the same–23 or 24 hours a day in a small cell alone, often with no books, tv or radios, communication with outside people, papers to write with, or any form of stimulation other than the concrete walls. It is such a mind numbing and soul crushing experience that the UN has declared it torture and countless doctors and mental health experts have denounced its use. Yet, it continues on an unprecedented level in our nation’s jails and prisons.

There’s a really good historical perspective on solitary confinement in the U.S. in the beginning of the book. Solitary confinement was used widely in the 1800’s and then abandoned due to its terrifying psychological effects. In the 1970’s, the practice was picked up again, mostly due to prison overcrowding, lack of educational and training programs, higher levels of violence, etc. The essays in this volume are particularly powerful, all of them either from people currently in solitary who have been there for long periods of time (20 years or more) or from people who are now free individuals, living with the psychological effects of this practice. The last section is a series of articles by experts, all of which condemn the practice and offer solutions.

It is easy to dismiss this book and the issues it brings up with the Trump-era view that criminals are terrible people who belong in prison. It’s even easier to say that these terrible people deserve punishment on top of the punishment they’ve already received for not following the rules. This is simply not true. Many of the people who are sent to solitary are sent there for non-violent offenses, sometimes for something as simple as “possessing too many postage stamps,” “associating with known gang members” (California), or in New York state, for “wearing shower shoes outside of the shower” or “using profanity.” Time in the SHU is usually given by prison officials and the prisoner often has no right to a defense. And the punishments can be as long as the officials deem necessary–weeks, months, even years. Or, in some cases, life.

I definitely recommend this book. Despite what we think of the people in the correctional system, the fact remains that many of these “terrible” people will get out–someday. They will live next to us and share our social spaces. The question becomes one of whether we would prefer someone who’s been rehabilitated with kindness or someone who’s been locked in a cage like an animal. I personally prefer the former.

This is a great book. Read it!