Review: Deacon King Kong

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Review for “Deacon King Kong” by James McBride (2020)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This story literally begins with a bang: in 1969 in a housing project in South Brooklyn, a somewhat senile, hooch-drinking deacon nicknamed Sportcoat wanders into the local courtyard and shoots the neighborhood drug dealer with an old pistol point-blank, in front of dozens of people. After establishing this shocking act of violence, James McBride explores how Sportcoat’s action came to be, as well as the lives and the dynamic of an entire community of Black and brown people under the rule of a local mobster, a lonely crime boss with a mysterious past.

There’s a wide assortment of characters here and you might even lose track: there’s Sportcoat’s friend, an affable man named Hot Sausage, Sportcoat’s dead wife, Hettie, with whom he regularly communicates, salsa musicians, capers involving missing church Christmas money, mountains of delicious cheese, even a cadre of red Colombian jungle ants. It’s a lot for a book to handle, and about halfway in my weariness in keeping up with everything began to kick in with me skipping over pages at a time. McBride is a great writer, however, so I was compelled to stay until the end. “Deacon King Kong” isn’t the best book of the year, but it’s definitely an interesting read.

To get into the any more specifics of this book would ruin it, so I’ll leave this review with a solid four stars.

Review: We Are Not From Here

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Review for “We Are Not From Here” by Jenny Torres Sanchez (2020)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

At the beginning of this novel, 15-year-old Pulga (“Flea”), Pequena (“Tiny”), and Chico (“Boy”), three teenagers from Puerto Barrio, Guatemala, are living their normal lives. Pulga and Chico are brothers by choice, Pequena and Pulga are cousins. Life is hard in their barrio and trouble lurks around every corner, especially after Pulga and Chico witness the murder of a store owner by a local narco, the same criminal who raped and seeks to force Pequena into marriage. In response, the three teens sneak away from their families and leave for a better life in the United States.

After crossing a river and arriving at the Mexican border, the first obstacle the trio must conquer is La Bestia, a series of trains that run northward through Mexico. Migrants often ride on top of the trains, which are highly dangerous and claim many lives and severed limbs. The teens also face hunger, illness, corrupt police, the grueling heat of the desert, and criminals. Although most of this novel is bleak they do find kindness, which gets them to the next phase and beyond.

The story switches between the narration of Pulga, the practical, de facto leader of the group, and Pequena, prone to dreams and flights of fancy to escape reality. This book is brutally honest and terrifying, considering the ages of the protagonists who are experiencing these horrors first hand. The fear and the desperation in this book is real, and I felt every single moment of it.

This book tugs at your heart strings. It’s the best I’ve read this year so far. Although it is YA, the audience is anyone who wants to know about the people whose lives we’ve devalued by separating their families and imprisoning them at our borders. It also gives a clear picture for the those who ask why they come, even if it means death.

Five strong stars–please read this book.

Review: Clap When You Land

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Review for “Clap When You Land” by Elizabeth Acevedo (2020)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

This is a beautifully multi-layered novel written in verse. Much like her other two novels (“The Poet X” and “With the Fire on High”), Elizabeth Acevedo manages to hit the ball out of the park again. She’s incapable of writing bad books, she has a gift and it is plainly evident in her writing.

“Clap When You Land” is a dual, alternating narrative told by two sisters who, at the beginning of the novel, do not yet know that they share a father in the same man. Camino lives in the Dominican Republic and longs to go to Columbia University in NYC, where her father lives and works for most of the year. Yahaira lives in Manhattan and hasn’t spoken to her dad since she found out that he has another wife in the DR. Their lives are vastly different: Yahaira has a girlfriend and loves to play chess, Camino is a talented swimmer and works with her aunt, a local healer. Both girls’ lives collide when their father dies in an airplane crash on his way from NYC to the island. Slowly, the two girls discover one another’s existence and carefully begin to form a bond.

Once again, this is a wonderfully complex book that explores toxic masculinity, socioeconomics, family bonds, and coming to terms with family secrets. I highly recommend reading this, you won’t want to miss it!

Review: Hurricane Season

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Review for “Hurricane Season” by Fernanda Melchor (2020)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Trigger Warnings: rape, incest, sexual assault, homophobia, extreme violence (particularly toward women), bestiality

In a small Mexican village, a local witch has recently been discovered dead, floating in an irrigation canal under “a mass of black snakes.” What follows this disturbing scene are seven chapters, each one paragraph long, from the point of view of a character who is either connected to the murder or directly involved in it. The chapters also give backstory: allegedly a long time ago the witch killed her husband and cursed his sons, she performed abortions and herbal cures, the witch was not a woman but really was a man, she hosted sex orgies at her place, and she possessed a horde of treasure deep within her home. The storytelling here is lurid and unreliable, the language is foul. This book does not attempt to sort out the truth, because whether or not the character’s stories about the witch are true or false is not the point. The bottom line is that the woman at the center of this story serves as the village’s scapegoat, someone upon whom shame, secrets, and sins dwell.

As was previously stated, each chapter is a paragraph. Sentences go on forever, there’s no stops or quotations to be found. The characters narratives often digress, get back on track, then digress again. The language is vulgar, and yes, there’s some really obscene acts here (see above trigger warning). Normally I hate this kind of storytelling but considering the content, I think it was pulled off quite well here. It definitely moved the narrative at a fast pace and to give the sense that the true intent of the nasty stuff is not so much to shock you, but for you to understand the rage and hopelessness that’s at the center of this book. Rape, extreme violence, copulating with animals–there’s really no topic that’s off limits or taboo. But instead of preaching against these things, the author demonstrates the detrimental effects of what homophobia, misogyny, poverty, and police corruption do to a small community. The focus here is clearly brutality toward women and gay people, and this story’s proximity to the truth is what makes this book such a difficult read.

Do I recommend this? Yes and no. This is certainly not the book for everyone. For those who are into experimental novels and don’t believe in censorship, read on. For those who are triggered by foul language and extreme violence, I would avoid this one. I gave this book four stars, however, because it takes a lot of balls to even write something as messy and thought provoking as this.

Review: Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982

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Review for "Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982" by Cho Nam-Joo (2020)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982” is an interesting novel that tracks the experiences of a generic everywoman (Jiyoung happens to be a very popular name in South Korea) from her birth in 1982 to the present day. We’re introduced to Jiyoung in the present where, at the age of 33, she has been hospitalized for a mental breakdown. The author then recalls her life story, giving familial and societal context as to how the character’s breakdown happened.

There are lots of examples of institutionalized sexism here, which begin long before Jiyong is born. Boys are the preferred gender of Korean parents, it’s no surprise that girls are an afterthought or discarded via abortion as soon as the gender is known (Jiyoung’s mother is no exception–we learn that she aborted a daughter before giving birth to her third child, a son). Throughout her life, Jiyoung is subjected to sexism and misogyny in every aspect of her existence. The needs of her older sister and Jiyoung’s come after her brother’s, as both of her parents cater to his every whim. She and her female peers are sexually harassed in school and punished for it. Even though she is a brilliant student and worker, she is openly discriminated against and skipped over for promotions at work. After she marries she settles into domestic life, and, even though she has no desire to stop working, ends up leaving her job to raise her daughter.

Resigned to a life of staying at home and raising her child, it is this last “straw” that finally undoes Jiyoung. Although I wholeheartedly followed this book and its message that patriarchy is having a detrimental effect on not only women but Korean society as a whole, the way this book is presented is not very engaging. Mixed into the fictional narrative are hard facts, along with footnotes and citations to illustrate the bottom line. I get it, but it was a bit off-putting and it disconnected me from the novel. Or maybe something got lost in translation here. Hmm…

I definitely recommend this book. It is always fascinating to read about life from a non-Western perspective, even though the parallels are familiar and apparent.

Review: Efren Divided

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Review for "Efren Divided" by Ernesto Cisneros (2020)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Woww…this one’s a tearjerker. A powerful and timely middle grades fiction novel about a relevant issue that affects so many children and their families in America.

Efren Nava is a likeable middle schooler living in Los Angeles with his parents and two younger twin siblings. Though the family lives modestly in a one-room apartment, their warmth and togetherness is cherished by Efren, who marvels at his hardworking father and the way his mother makes¬†milagros¬†(“miracles”) happen with little money. Although Efren and his siblings are citizens, his parents are undocumented and he knows that they face an uncertain future if their status is discovered. He keeps this fact a secret from everyone, including his closest friends and teachers.

Efren’s life is upended when he leaves for school one morning and returns to discover that his mother has been taken in a sweep by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and that she has been deported to Mexico. His father begins working non-stop to hire a coyote to bring her back. Efren is left in charge of his siblings, often late into the night. He is overwhelmed and in a constant state of anxiety, his school demeanor suffers. Eventually he and his best friend stop talking, crushed by the fact that he is afraid to reveal his parent’s status to anyone outside of his home.

I won’t reveal the end of the book, other than to say that there is no happy ending here. I respect the author for doing this, because the fact remains that nothing good comes out of separating parents from their children and splitting up families. Whether its Border Patrol placing children in cages in a detention center or ICE rounding up their parents in widespread sweeps, the damage of separation and deportation is devastating and irreparable.

I loved this book because it highlights the struggle of what it is truly like to live as an undocumented person, constantly looking over your shoulder and expecting the worst. There is no political rhetoric, just a child’s story that calls on readers to be compassionate and understand what they are going through. This is definitely a must-read in 2020 and a perfect book for both children and adults.

Review: Darling Rose Gold

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Review for “Darling Rose Gold” by Stephanie Wrobel (2020)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The name of this book should be called “Crazy and Crazier.” It’s good though, ya’ll. Really good.

When the story opens, Patty Watts, the single mother of daughter Rose Gold Watts, has just been released from prison. Although it is never explicitly stated in the text, all indicators point to Patty having Munchausen’s syndrome, a mental illness that results in her abusing Rose Gold who had been under her continuous care for years, poisoning her through phony stomach ailments. As her release date nears, Rose Gold desires to reconcile with her mother and invites her to live with her and her infant son.

Once Patty comes home, the real action begins. Rose Gold has recovered physically, but it is evident early on that she has deep seated psychological issues, much like her mother. Mother and daughter attempt to reconcile in their time together but both are far from healed. Told in alternating chapters of both Patty and Rose Gold’s points of view, you get a glimpse into the twisted psyches of both.

I will not go into specifics of the plot because it will completely spoil the book. I will say though that when I finished reading it I closed my Kindle, looked at the wall and said: “well damn!”

This book is fast paced and fairly easy to read. Both of the main characters are unreliable narrators and in their own ways completely wretched, there are no real redeeming qualities for either. Both voices are flat and emotionless, and even though I hate that kind of storytelling in other books, here I loved it and thought it worked really well.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this book is greenlit for tv or a Netflix series. The level of drama here definitely insures an audience. Either way, I loved this book. 4.5 stars, friends…

Review: Black Girl Unlimited

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Review for "Black Girl Unlimited" by Echo Brown (2020)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Trigger Warnings: sexual abuse, sexual assault/rape, suicide ideation

Echo is a Black girl growing up on the East Side of Cleveland in the late 90’s. Although she is academically gifted and goes to a special school, her family life is in turmoil. Her father is an alcoholic and her mother is crack addict, wounded by deep trauma in her past. Her brothers fare no better, caught up in street life and criminal activity. Despite the dysfunction around her, Echo learns early on in her life that she is a wizard and possesses a collection of psychic abilities that she’s inherited from her mother. Echo’s abilities include bending time and space, predicting the future, astral projection, the ability to see people’s ‘veils’ (a psychic kind of ‘darkness’ that invades their being), and perform miracles (hypnosis/mental suggestion, etc).

The novel follows Echo on her journey as a wizard from age 6 until she goes off to college. Each chapter is a lesson she learns along with the help of other women wizards about living with the darkness and becoming a better person. Despite the fact that I really liked this book, there were some issues here. Although I was able to suspend disbelief and accept Echo’s identity as a wizard, the text transitions between the past and present during certain scenes where the ‘magic’ was taking place was a bit hard to follow, with breaks occurring in paragraphs and picking up elsewhere as if it was the same thought. Cool technique, just not executed as well as it could have been.

Another issue was the over-burdening of the text with soooo many peripheral characters. Brown’s main focus seems to be sexual abuse, religion, drugs, and colorism. However, there’s a myriad of characters that pop in and out of the book that seem to represent other issues and didn’t add much to the story. There’s a friend who’s a Black Panther who spouts Black nationalist rhetoric on a whim, a Muslim friend who wears a hijab, the hostile, middle class husband of her mentor, and a gay Asian friend who’s just kinda…there.

Some of the more graphic scenes made this book very tough to read but I appreciate Brown for writing about them. I’m not sure how the publisher is marketing this, but I would not consider this a book for YA readers. Older adolescents and adults are the more ideal audience here. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone under 18 unless they’re super mature.

Overall, I really really liked this. 4 stars.

Review: The New David Espinoza

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Review for "The New David Espinoza" by Fred Aceves (2020)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

“The New David Espinoza” is a very well written book about a topic that’s rarely explored in YA fiction. The story centers around David, a Latino teenager dealing with past trauma, specifically, the recent death of his mother. Compounding his troubles is the fact that David is relentlessly bullied in school due to his small size. When a viral video surfaces of him being assaulted by classmates, David decides that he’s had enough and begins to change his diet, work out obsessively, and join a gym. He gives himself one summer to build his physique and ‘unveil’ his tougher, more muscular look to his peers. His path takes a dark turn when he befriends another aspiring bodybuilder and gets involved in steroid use to achieve his transformation.

Once again, I liked this book because it explores a topic that’s rarely explored in a lot of YA books I’ve read. Body dysmorphia is very real, yet a lot of books don’t explore the male side of this highly misunderstood psychological disorder. There’s also a lot of very thoughtful explorations on bullying and toxic masculinity here that I think teens will benefit from.

This is the second book I’ve read from Fred Aceves. I will continue to read his work in the future.

Four and a half stars.

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.