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…

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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!

Review: I Stop Somewhere

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Review for "I Stop Somewhere" by T.E. Carter (to be published on 28 February 2018)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I didn’t like this book. It’s kind of a mashup between “The Lovely Bones” and “13 Reasons Why,” neither of which I liked either. I read this fairly quickly, not because I was engaged with it, but out of desperation to get it over and done with.

Ellie is a quiet, shy teenage girl in a small New York town being raised by a single father. She comes from a working class background and quickly becomes enamored with a wealthy local businessman’s son, Caleb. From frequent flashbacks, we know that Caleb is not what he seems. He is cruel and sadistic, as well as the main perpetrator in a string of brutal assaults and rapes of local girls, one of which ends Ellie’s life.

The first 100 pages of this book are unbearable. Ellie is a spirit, trapped in the location of the last moments of her life, watching from the afterlife as girl after girl is taken to the same abandoned house and brutally assaulted and raped. She drifts back and forth between each act of violence she witnesses to narrate events in her former life, which quite frankly, doesn’t have much plot depth or character development.

Let’s pause and talk about this for a moment. This is one of my greatest pet peeves in fiction–authors who overemphasize rape and acts of violence through excessive narrative detail, with very little to no character development (the film equivalent to this is known as “torture porn”). It’s gratuitous, it’s voyeuristic, and worse, it does absolutely nothing to challenge the rape or the rapist, nor does it shift power in favor of the victim. You cannot conquer rape culture or violence through “torture porn”- style writing. It only serves its own end, which is to capitulate on the sexist notion that to keep people interested, women must die or be somewhere in the act of dying. It’s wrong.

Thankfully, the tone of the book does shift in the second part, which turns to the voices of the victims. There is a kind of reckoning in the end that’s somewhat hopeful, along with a thoughtful commentary on victim-blaming and why Ellie’s disappearance was ignored for so long (i.e., she’s from a lower social class and not from the “better” side of the tracks). I still don’t like this book though. Even though the sun does comes out in the end, there was too much bleakness, too much of a lingering dark cloud here. If I hadn’t have read the first part I think I would have felt better about it, or maybe even given this a higher rating.

This book is categorized as YA, btw. If I was troubled greatly by reading this, I cannot imagine what it does to the psyche of a younger person, who may or may not possess the insights to deal with this level of realism. Proceed with caution.

[Note: I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher and NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing

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Review for "Sing, Unburied, Sing" by Jesmyn Ward (2017)

Rating: none

DNF, right around 54%.

I simply couldn’t get into this book. Not that it wasn’t good, or that Jesmyn Ward isn’t a sensational writer (she is), but I just don’t think that this book is quite for me at this time. I go through phases with my reading, sometimes I can endure what I’m not into and sometimes I find it so unbearable I can’t finish. This one of those times.

Despite what the reviews say, I found this to be a very depressing novel from the outset. Preteen Jojo and his sister are from an impoverished family near the Mississippi border, living with (and pardon my French) the most fucked-up parents imaginable. Michael, his father, is a former convict, and Leonie, his mother, is a drug addict who gets high on the regular and talks to her dead brother. Despite his parents’ waywardness, Jojo is a good kid who manages to take on a parental role to his sister Kayla. He is wise beyond his years in a way that a child should not have to be, which made my anger toward his parents all the more apparent. Pop, Jojo’s grandfather, is also a kind man, who seemed to add a bit of tenderness to the story.

There is a lot of magical realism in this novel (ghosts that are very much real, etc.) and even though I’ve read plenty of stories with it, I found this element to be kind of confusing. As the story went on, I felt farther and farther away from it, which is pretty much why I stopped reading it.

I see myself coming back to this book, probably in the near future. For now though, I won’t rate it, other than to say that it wasn’t quite for me.

[Thanks to NetGalley and Scribner for a free digital copy of this book.]