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!

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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.]

Review: Things We Lost in the Fire

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Review for "Things We Lost in the Fire" by Mariana Enriquez (2017)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

It took me a month to get through this book, which is not fitting for a collection of stories that’s less than 250 pages long. The reason for my slower-than-average read time is because “Things We Lost in the Fire” is a very, very dark collection of tales, all set in modern day Argentina. I read my NetGalley copy at first, but the mood was so unsettling that I moved to an audiobook format to finish it. Even with the audiobook, I had to prep myself (i.e., be in a kind of ‘blank’ mental state) to continue it.

Typical of Latin American fiction, there’s elements of magical realism, the supernatural, and surreality in these stories, but that doesn’t counter the macabre subject matter here. In this collection, there are ghosts, hauntings, extreme violence, torture, rape, and girls who set themselves on fire. The central characters are mostly young people and most, if not all, of the stories carry a hint of uncertainty about whether the events the characters experienced really happened or not. In “The Dirty Kid,” a young woman is obsessed with a homeless boy who may or may not have been the victim of a Satanic ritual killing. “The Intoxicated Years” is about a group of teenage girls who spend their time taking psychadelic drugs. “Adela’s House” focuses on a girl who goes into a haunted house and is never seen again. In “The Neighbor’s Courtyard,” a former social worker is convinced that a neighbor has chained up a young boy in his backyard, who eventually eats the main character’s cat. And the title story, “Things We Lost in the Fire” is about a woman who self-immolates before an audience.

For me, this is material that I could not just read. I had to experience it, surround myself in it, and ultimately, suffer through it. Suffering, however, is not always a bad thing, because it is through this collection of stories you realize how much Argentina’s bloody political dictatorship past left its mark on people’s lives. If you’re down explore this, I wholeheartedly recommend this book to you. I give this four stars because the writing is quite good with no flaws to be found.

[Note: A free digital copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher, Hogarth Press, as well as NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: Be Light Like a Bird

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Review for "Be Light Like a Bird" by Monika Schroder (2016)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I liked this novel. I repeat: I really, really liked this novel.

“Be Light Like a Bird” is the story of a 12 year old girl named Wren who loses her father in an airplane crash. Before she can grieve properly or come to terms with his loss, her mother burns all of her father’s things and moves them to Tennessee, and then several weeks later to Ohio. They finally settle in Michigan, where she makes friends with another outcast, a bird-watching boy named Theo. Their friendship has a healing effect on Wren, as well as the discovery of the potential destruction a pond where the birds they love to watch congregate.

This is a really great story for young readers. The chapters are short, and it deals frankly with grief and the loss of a loved one. I totally would recommend this to anybody though, it really was that good.

[Note: A free, digital copy of this book was provided by Capstone Publishers and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.]

Review: We Are Okay

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Review for "We Are Okay" by Nina LaCour (2017)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Beautifully written book, but man oh man…this is so, so boring.

‘We Are Okay’ is the story of Marin, a girl from California with no immediate family, so she decides to spends her winter break alone in the dorm after everyone has gone home. Marin is visited over the break by a friend from her hometown, Mabel (all of this occurs before Chapter 3, btw). The rest of the book is flashbacks on her life back in California over the previous summer, uninteresting conversations with Mabel, and getting to the bottom of why she took off abruptly before the semester started and left Mabel hanging with a bunch of unanswered texts (yikes!).

Add to the mix tons of minutiae such as: two girls shopping for clay pots, eating chili, doing the dishes, wiping plates. So many details and not much of a story arc here. I would say screw that, this is a character study, but neither one was really all that interesting.

As I said before, the book is beautifully written. The only reason I didn’t nix it is because something in the writing compelled me to continue. Without giving too much of it away, it is clear that this is a YA book about grief and loss, though there’s not much stated here on the subject that we haven’t already heard before.

If you like ‘quiet’ reads, this is the book for you. I won’t be mad at you for liking it either.

Extra points for the cover, btw. So pretty

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: TOMORROW, NOVEMBER 29 IS MY BIRTHDAY!! YAYYY! 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!