Review: Everywhere You Don’t Belong

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Review for "Everywhere You Don't Belong" by Gabriel Bump (2020)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I should have loved this book, but for me it was just ok.

“Everywhere You Don’t Belong” is the story of Claude McKay Love, a Black boy growing up on the South Side of Chicago. After being abandoned parents at a young age, he is raised by his grandmother, a former Civil Rights activist, and her queer friend Paul. As people come and go throughout Claude’s life, his awkwardness is the clear focal point of all of his interactions. After a violent riot in his neighborhood, Claude takes up journalism, using the opportunity to escape Chicago and go to college in Missouri. When a family friend turn up at his college dorm, he finds that escaping his past is not so easily done.

This book is told in short vignettes rather than a traditional narrative. There’s an irreverent quality to this book that I appreciated, with some great imagery and memorable dialogue that’s (at times) quite hilarious. Unfortunately, this is a book that doesn’t have much to offer as far as a plot. The characters are compelling but not well rounded, and there’s a repetitiveness here that don’t hold up well to the short, story-by-story structure that it’s told in.

I gave this three stars. I would be interested in reading further books by Gabriel Bump, his voice definitely distinct and original.

Review: The Girl with the Louding Voice

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Review for "The Girl with the Louding Voice" by Abi Dare (2020)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Ahhh, this book made me want to stand up and cheer!

“The Girl with the Louding Voice” is the story of 14-year-old Adunni, a Nigerian girl who longs to go back to school and become a teacher. Her mother is dead, and her father believes that education is wasted on girls. When the family falls upon hard financial times, her father accepts a tv and several other gifts as a bride price for his daughter. He gives Adunni away in marriage to an older man who already has two wives and several children.

As a wife, Adunni finds life unbearable. She quickly discovers that her husband is only concerned with her bearing him a boy to raise. His older first wife is cruel and causes her constant misery. In contrast, her husband’s much younger second wife is kind, and her and Adunni develop a lasting friendship. After a tragedy involving the second wife, Adunni escapes to the large city of Lagos, where she finds work as a servant to a wealthy, abusive mistress. When an opportunity to further her education comes and offers Adunni a chance to escape, she takes it–in great peril to her life.

I loved this book. Although the portrait of rural life is bleak (child marriage, sexual exploitation, trafficking, and forced servitude are very real), Adunni uses her ‘louding voice’ to rise up and make a difference in her circumstances. Adunni also speaks a very basic English in a very distinct dialect, which found its own rhythm as the story moved forward. The language, along with her courage and determination to make a better life for herself were what made this book worthwhile.

4.5 stars. Definitely read this if you get the chance!

Review: King and the Dragonflies

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Review for "King and the Dragonflies" by Kacen Callender (2020)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Kingston lives in a small, unnamed Louisiana town with his parents. A few months prior, his older brother Khalid was killed. Before he died, he cautioned King to stay away from Sandy, a white boy at his school who has recently come out as gay. Throughout the story, King is overcome with grief for his brother, associated throughout the book with dragonflies, which King believes holds the spirit of Khalid. With his father telling him that “boys don’t cry” and his mother emotionally distant, King often escapes to the bayou to mourn and think about his brother.

One day at the bayou, King begins talking to Sandy. Despite warnings to stay away, the two boys become friends. Complicating his grief for Khalid and his friendship with Sandy is King’s realization that he is gay. When Sandy goes missing, King is forced to come to terms with his identity, as well as coming out to his family and friends.

This novel directly addresses many issues: homophobia in the Black community, toxic masculinity, racism, fear, child abuse, loss and grief. It’s an excellent novel that takes many of these hard-to-discuss tropes and manages to make them palatable for child readers, while at the same time not diluting their importance.

Review: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line

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Review for "Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line" by Deepa Anappara (2020)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

An excellent yet heartbreaking debut novel that revolves around an alarming statistic: 180 children go missing in India each day. Deepa Anappara, a reporter, wrote about the children of India for many years. Children that disappear are trafficked, forced into manual labor and sexual slavery, or worse, murdered and never found. The local police, known for corruption and taking bribes, are completely uninterested in solving these crimes or doing any kind of investigation. They presume all children have run away and absolve themselves of any kind of accountability for protecting their citizens.

At the heart of this book is 9-year-old Jai, a boy living with his parents and older sister in a one-room house in a basti in a large, unnamed Indian city. Jai is your guide into life in a modern Indian slum, where smog covers everything, letting in very little sunlight and making it hard to breathe. Schools in the basti offer sub-par education, parents often work as maids and service people for upper class citizens, and the family must pay for the dignity to use a community outhouse. Every day in the slum, people live in fear of police raids and threats to bulldoze their neighborhood. Despite the bleakness Jai is optimistic and hopeful, watching tv detective shows such as Police Patrol to learn how to solve crimes. When one of his classmates comes up missing, he and two of his friends decide to become detectives to solve the mystery. As is common in India, belief in the supernatural is all throughout this book, with characters discussing djinns (spirits that can be good or bad and can appear as humans or animals). As the friends interview parents and locals about their friend’s whereabouts and find no answers, the children begin to wonder if it is a djinn that’s snatching their friends.

There are also many issues explored in this novel, such as the widespread prejudice against Muslims by Hindus. As more and more children disappear in Jai’s basti, Muslims are accused and jailed for the crimes. Even though two Muslim children are among the kidnapped, Muslims are still blamed. There’s also the wide gap between India’s super rich and the poorest of the poor, separated in the novel by a field of garbage. Despite modernization and the legal ‘end’ of caste system discrimination, class differences and the misery of poor people in India have remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years.

Despite the sense of hopelessness that permeates the book, it is Jai’s optimism keeps you reading until the tragic end. Although by the end Jai is forced to shade his innocence and see his world for what it really is, this is still a thoughtful coming of age story. All in all, I loved this book. The characters, the story, the setting, as well as the depiction of Indian life is exceptional.

**Note: Because this is a book with Indian characters, their language is used frequently throughout with no footnotes. There’s a glossary at the back of this book to help, though I found that after awhile I didn’t need it anymore because the unknown words could be inferred by context.

Review: Stateway’s Garden

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Review for "Stateway's Garden: Stories" by Jasmon Drain (2020)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This is a collection of interconnected short stories about life inside of one of Chicago’s now-demolished South Side housing projects, Stateway Gardens. Mostly set in the 1980’s, the stories follow a set of brothers, Tracy and Jacob, and their relatives as they navigate poverty, racism, drugs, and violence of their home.

Neither Tracy or Jacob’s father is around, which leaves their mother as their primary caregiver. She works long hours and rarely has time for either of her sons. Most of the stories are narrated by the younger Tracy, such as “BB Sauce,” “Middle School,” and “Stateway Condo Gentrification.” He grows up to be a highly inquistive young man amidst the ugliness around him and the eventual demise of the projects. Tracy, his older brother, chooses a slightly different path, becoming a teenage father and drug dealer. He narrates “Stephanie Worthington” and the very last story.

For me, these stories were hard to get into. The first few stories are choppy and aren’t very compelling, there’s wasn’t much to draw me into them or their characters. The same continues through much of the middle of the book, and although most of the action seems to take place toward the end, it was anti-climatic and showed very little sense of cohesion throughout. Ultimately I had to really push myself to finish this, which is a shame, given the passion and the beauty behind its subject matter.

Three stars. I expected better.

Review: Long Bright River

Back again, folks. This spring semester has me teaching several classes and fielding the job market and I admit that for a minute (just a minute, though) I neglected this lovely site. I’ve still been reading, got lots to share. On to the review…

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Review for "Long Bright River" by Liz Moore (2020)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This is not an easy read. The current opioid crisis is front and center, particularly in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. At the center of this novel are two sisters, Mickey and Kasey, both orphaned by their young mother’s early death and the subsequent disappearance of their father. The sisters are taken in by their grandmother, Gee, a cold, unloving woman who provides for the girls’ physical needs while working several jobs but not very long on personal attention.

Mickey and Kasey are close as girls, but things change dramatically when Kasey begins using drugs in high school. The sisters drift apart: Mickey becomes a police officer and a single mother to a young son, while Kasey spirals deeper and deeper into drug addiction. When Mickey can no longer track her sister and a serial killer begins targeting young women on the streets of Kensington, she becomes desperate to find her.

This is a very layered story. There’s elements of a murder mystery, tinged with the drama of a dysfunctional family torn apart by the pain of drug addiction. The book is well written, though it took a while for the story to really get going. For the first 100 pages or so you’re stuck with Mickey’s narration of her job and the ups and downs of her life and her voice is rather cold and distant. The ending is also a bit bizarre and a little too conveniently presented for my taste as well. I won’t give it away, but I will say that it challenged absolutely none of my predictions.

This is a very timely book that will resonate with a lot of people who are currently dealing with drug addiction, or a loved one who is. I wholeheartedly recommend this one.

Review: White Bird

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Review for "White Bird" by R.J. Palacio (2019)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“White Bird” is a beautifully drawn graphic novel about Julian’s grandmother’s experience during the Nazi occupation of France during WWII. If you are familiar with the ‘Wonder’ series, then you’ll remember Julian as the not-so-nice kid at Beecher Prep that gave the main character, Auggie, such a hard time fitting in with other students. For those that didn’t like Julian at the end of that story, this novel is his redemption, a chance for him to learn empathy from his beloved grandmother, Grandmere.

As Grandmere reflects on her past to Julian, we learn that she was once a young, middle class Jewish girl named Sara growing up during the days of Nazi-occupied France. In the beginning, she lives a sheltered existence at her home with her parents, even though public disdain and discrimination against Jews is everywhere. Eventually, the Nazis take over the region and begin to arrest Jews, killing them or rounding them up and transporting them to concentration camps. Sara hides in the home of a classmate, a kind boy with a walking disability named Julien who lives with his parents. Over the next several years, Julien and Sara form a close friendship. It is so close that after the war she names her son Julien, who in turn gives that name to the main character of this story.

I am skipping parts, of course, because I do not want to ruin this beautiful story. The pictures are a plus, exquisitely drawn in pastels and neutral colors. There are also loads of resources in the back of the book with information on the Holocaust, as well as organizations that educate and teach about this tragic historical event.

Be forewarned, however: this book is definitely a tearjerker. Go into this one with a warm blanket and lots of tissues. You’ll need them.

Five stars. Excellent book.