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.

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Review: Ohio

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Review for "Ohio" by Stephen Markley (2018)
Rating: none (DNF)

D to the N to the F. I repeat: DNF. Somewhere around 50%, I gave up.

This is a drag of a novel about 4 high school acquaintances all coming back to their economically stagnated, drug-ravaged hometown of New Canaan, Ohio on a random night, 10 years after graduation. All of the friends have taken different paths: Bill is an alcoholic and a druggie social activist, Stacey is an embittered graduate student coming back to meet with the mother of her ex-lover, Dan is an emotionally shattered Iraq War veteran, and Tina, an abused, fragile girl coming back to confront her abuser.

This book wasn’t good. It’s way overwritten, an absolute slog to read through. Each of the main 4 characters accounts is about a quarter of the book, which is way too long and relies heavily on flashbacks to high school. In addition to the sheer tedium of the characters’ reminiscing about events of their past so much and so often (obviously designed to reveal current plot points in the book), you wonder why all of these adults are so obsessed with their high school years anyway, something that I couldn’t relate to and what ultimately made this novel one great big eye-roll.

I didn’t stay for the Big Dramatic Conclusion because honestly I didn’t care. Perhaps this was supposed to be some kind of epic statement on the fall of the working class after the Great Recession of 2008, but this book brings no nuance, nothing new or really interesting to the table. There’s nothing here in “Ohio” that we haven’t already seen in a news report or read before.

I don’t recommend this. No stars.

Review: Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree

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Review for "Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree" by Adaobi Tricia Nwabani and Viviana Mazza (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree” gives voice to one of the hundreds of Nigerian girls who have been kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram. The internet launched a campaign with the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag going viral in response to the large-scale kidnapping of girls at a government school in the Borno State of Nigeria in 2014. Although the hashtag brought awareness to the plight of the girls, what many may not know is that the 2014 kidnapping was not the first of its kind by the group, nor has it been the last. Boko Haram continues to terrorize Nigeria and its surrounding countries, and although there have been some girls released by the group, hundreds still remain captive and missing.

The narrator of the novel is an unnamed girl, later given a name that is not hers by her kidnappers. In the beginning of the novel, before the main events take place, we learn that she is passionate about her education, her family, her Christian faith, and pursuing a scholarship to achieve her dreams. This is shattered when her village is attacked by Boko Haram and most of the men are killed. The narrator and dozens of other girls are forced to go with the kidnappers into the forest. Once there, the girls are surrounded by men with guns who force them renounce their beliefs and embrace Islam. She is made to do chores, eat meager food rations, and learn passages from the Qu’ran. Those who refuse to comply with the kidnappers’ demands are severely beaten or killed. The narrator is also forced to marry a Boko Haram fighter who physically and sexually abuses her. Despite the horrors around her, the narrator remains steadfast and refuses to be brainwashed. She continues to dream of her escape and desire for education.

This is tough reading material. The novel is told in short vignettes, which I found to be helpful in allowing the content be digested more thoroughly, especially for a younger audience. We rarely get YA books about the struggles of women in non-Western context, so I definitely loved this one and recommend it to anyone.

Review: Sadie

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Review for "Sadie" by Courtney Summers (2018)

Rating: 4 out 5 stars

This book had a lot of hype surrounding it, so I listened to all of it and read it. Ultimately, I think it’s a good novel but the heaps of glowing praise is a bit premature.

Sadie is a teenager growing up in rural Colorado who has not had an easy life. She raises her younger sister Mattie through a modest job due to her mother being mostly absent and a drug addict. When Mattie turns up dead, Sadie hits the road to bring her sister’s killer to justice. Heartbroken, Sadie and Mattie’s surrogate grandmother and neighbor brings the girls’ story to a popular radio personality, West McCray, who creates his own podcast (entitled “The Girls”) to attempt to uncover the truth.

Don’t get me wrong, the writing here is quite nice. I also loved how the story was told through podcasts (I’m a self-confessed podcast junkie) and Sadie’s POV in alternate chapters. But even with this, it took a long time for me to get into this book. When it did get going for me after about the first 150 pages or so, I still couldn’t quite “get” into Sadie’s POV. The podcast sections definitely held more interest for me, but even after a while I found myself fighting sleep. Perhaps it’s because what was just relayed via Sadie’s POV is retold through the podcast chapters, just from a different perspective. And while I liked the idea of this one, I just didn’t love it.

There’s also mad trigger warnings for things like pedophilia, rape, and murder. I wasn’t expecting all of that, but it’s definitely a major theme in this book.

Definitely more than 3 stars, so I’ll go for 4 here. This book was just not my cup of proverbial cup of tea.

Review: Cherry

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Review for "Cherry" by Nico Walker (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I admit that I, like a lot of people, was probably attracted to this book for all the wrong reasons. We know that “Cherry” was written entirely in prison, and the author is currently an inmate, serving an 11 year sentence for bank robbery. Even though the author says this story isn’t true, you know from the first couple of pages that the prior declaration is BS. This is the tale of exactly how Mr. Walker got to be behind bars, complete with all kinds of expletives, debauchery, and straight up honesty. Anyway, I liked this book.

The unnamed narrator of “Cherry” begins as a college student in Ohio, casually drinking and questioning his existence. He eventually flunks out of school. He meets a girl named Emily and they fall for each other. They marry. The narrator joins the Army and receives training as a combat medic and from there he goes to Iraq, where he witnesses all of the full-blown horrors of war. He also begins a drug habit overseas, mostly huffing computer duster and taking pills. When he returns to his home he continues to flourish in his addictions, eventually going from Oxycontin abuse to heroin. After depleting all of his money and hooking up with shady characters, the narrator begins robbing banks. The book stops just short of his capture because uhh, the book really isn’t about all of that. The crime is clearly the focus here, not the punishment.

The writing here is not sophisticated or complex. There’s a really flat, kinda matter-of-fact tone that catches you immediately, because you realize that there really aren’t any pretensions here. Some of the descriptions are also quite hilarious:

“Drill Sergeant Cole punched me in the penis for no reason. You’d have that though. You just had to remember it was all make-believe. The drill sergeants were just pretending to be drill sergeants. We were pretending to be soldiers. The Army was pretending to be the Army.” 

The only thing I didn’t like was how ridiculously dull the middle of this book was. The narrator’s Iraq experiences are described with a lot of military jargon and he assumes we all know what he’s talking about (or, at least that we know what an FOB, IED, and Kevlar wings are). I didn’t understand a lot of this stuff and could not follow this section of the novel to save my life. I get the point though. He went to war and he was mostly a grunt, doing grunt work. I get it.

I do recommend this book, however. A portion of the proceeds from this book are going toward Mr. Walker’s restitution fees, and he will get out of prison in 2020. Despite the lip service we give to the notion of “debts paid to society,” the fact remains that unless you’re Lil Wayne, chances are that a felony on one’s record won’t transfer to a good post-prison life. So my reasons for reading and supporting this book is all for the better, in my opinion.

Four stars. Umm hmm…

Review: Finding Yvonne

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Review for "Finding Yvonne" by Brandy Colbert (2018)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Another YA book I luv’d. Let me count the ways:

“Finding Yvonne” is a complicated, beautiful novel that explores race, the uncertainty of the future, family dynamics, and perceptions of the choices we make. It focuses on Yvonne, a Black 18-year-old Los Angeles teen, raised by a single father. She attends private school and plays violin, yet feels that she has lately lost much of her passion for the instrument. Her father smokes weed regularly and runs a successful restaurant. Yvonne is currently in a relationship with Warren, one of the young men employed as a sous chef at her dad’s restaurant. Despite the fact that Yvonne and Warren have chemistry, they have a very complex romance which leads Yvonne into a messy affair with a street musician. After sexual encounters with both men, Yvonne unexpectedly finds herself pregnant.

I won’t tell you the rest of the story for fear of spoiling it. However, this story is less about the pregnancy of the main character and more about her passions and the day to day struggles of her life, which is brilliantly written about here. Yvonne was always fresh and real to me, and even though she made choices that I disagreed with, I understood her. I never stopped rooting for Yvonne and wanting to see her win. Also refreshing was the sex positivity here, the portrayal of Yvonne as a person capable of making her own decisions about her body and not as a pariah.

Definitely worth the read.

Review: The Perfume Burned His Eyes

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Review for "The Perfume Burned His Eyes" by Michael Imperioli (2018)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Ok, ok…I admit I read this book because Michael Imperioli’s name was on it. I’m a big fan of HBO’s “The Sopranos” and couldn’t resist.

This book, however, was just ok for me. It’s about a 16-year-old named Matthew who moves from Queens to Manhattan with his mother to start a new life after his grandfather dies and leaves them with a large sum of money. Matthew is very insecure and hopes that maybe the move will bring him confidence, which, after getting a delivery job at a local deli, happens. Not long after he begins working, Matthew meets Lou Reed. Yes, THAT Lou Reed (musician, rock god). Reed plays quirky neighbor and the two form a very unusual bond. Matthew begins to come out of his shell a bit. At the same time, Matthew becomes enchanted by a mysterious girl at school named Veronica. I never got a sense of what the exact nature of their relationship was, but Matthew learns a lot about the world from her as well.

All in all, an ok book. It’s clear that the point here is a youth’s coming of age, but honestly, that’s about it. Some parts go on longer than normal and other parts had way too much dialogue, but it’s a fast paced story and one that I guess I’ll recommend, depending on your personal tastes.

Meanwhile, I’m going to declare a personal moratorium on reading books by celebrities. I don’t know why I expect literary greatness, as if they aren’t cut from the same cloth as the rest of us who may (occasionally) produce ho-hum material.

*sigh*