Review: Dominicana

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Review for "Dominicana" by Angie Cruz (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Dominicana” is the story of a teenage girl named Ana, growing up with her parents and siblings in a rural part of the Dominican Republic in the mid-1960’s. Trujillo’s reign of terror has ended, yet economic stability has not yet returned to the country. She is proposed to at the age of eleven by Juan, an older man more than twice her age. At 15, her parents finally consent to the marriage–not because their daughter is in love with Juan, but to give him permission to someday build on their land, and give themselves better prospects of gaining an American visa through Ana’s sponsorship.

For Ana, the “American Dream” comes at a hard price. She hates the cold weather of NYC and misses home and has trouble adjusting to her new life. Her mother constantly asks her to send money that she doesn’t have back home. Juan hits her, often leaves her in their tiny apartment alone, and doesn’t let her go out to talk to anyone. Juan is also having an affair with another woman, who regularly calls and harasses Ana. Life is drudgery until Juan leaves the US to return to the DR on business, leaving her under the watchful eye of his brother, Cesar. With Cesar, Ana begins to experience something like a fulfilled life–taking English classes, going to the beach, making her own money, and dancing at local ballrooms. She falls in love with Cesar, and eventually must decide her fate.

I found this book to be very well written and intensely readable. Ana is 15 and stays that way, and her viewpoints and her actions accurately match her characterization. However, there is a strong anti-Black sentiment among some characters in this book. Ana’s husband, now living beside Blacks, Jews, and other minorities in the US, speaks of Black Americans throughout the novel as “trouble” and “lazy.” Although I have no doubt that his prejudice is an accurate portrayal of the attitude of some Dominicans, it’s jarring and off-putting. Another complaint is the end, which I didn’t care for at all.

The biggest theme in this novel is the same with most immigrant novels, and that is one of the pursuit of the American Dream. What does it mean? How will Ana achieve it? Ana is ever-industrious and thoughtful, when one plan fails she does not hesitate to simply create another. It’s the classic “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” American tale.

Four stars. Definitely worth reading.

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Review: Everything Inside

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Review for "Everything Inside" by Edwidge Danticat (2019)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I’ve said this and I’ll say it again: short story collections are usually hit or miss for me. Although I love the genre, I always end up liking some, none, or most of the stories therein. This collection is an exception to the “some, none, and most” rule, as every single story here is a literary achievement.

I’ve read just about everything Edwidge Danticat has written, from “Krik? Krak!” to “The Dew Breaker” to “Breathe, Eyes, Memory” and everything in between. “Everything Inside”is a wonderful collection of eight short stories, all featuring characters from the Haitian diaspora living in Miami. Her characters deal with death, love, and loss and their lives are complicated. Each story is well written and thought out, with beautiful language that leaps off the page.

Favorites here include “Dosas,” a story of romantic entanglement and betrayal featuring a husband, wife, and a female lover; “In the Old Days,” about a woman who meets her dying father for the first time, and “Without Inspection,” a harrowing tale that narrates a Haitian emigre’s final thoughts as he falls 40 stories from a building to his death.

Five stars. Hands up, way way up.

Review: The Nickel Boys

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Review for "The Nickel Boys" by Colson Whitehead (2019)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I meant to write this review a lot sooner, when I first finished this book this summer. It’s quite excellent, so here goes…

“The Nickel Boys” is a historical fiction, based on the all-too-real Dozier School for Boys, a hellish reform school for adolescent males that ran from the early 20th century until 2011 in a rural part of the Florida Panhandle. In the early days, black and white boys were separated upon entry, with the black boys performing more physically grueling tasks. Housing and food were minimal, and any resistance to authority was met with brutal physical punishment from the guards and caretakers. Due to harsh treatment, several boys died and were unceremoniously buried on and around the school’s campus over the years. After its closure, due to the high number of unmarked graves, an anthropology team from the University of South Florida began the task of digging them up with the goal of identifying them in 2012. According to the latest report, over 100 burials have been documented, many of them unnamed and undocumented.

Colson Whitehead takes this history and brings us the story of Elwood Curtis, a do-gooder boy being raised by his single grandmother in Tallahassee in the early 1960’s. Elwood believes in the message of Dr. Martin Luther King, choosing pacifism in the face of Jim Crow racism. After being falsely accused of stealing a bicycle, he is sent to the Nickel Academy. Once there, he meets another student by the name of Turner. While paired for tasks outside campus and in the local town, Elwood and Turner form a deep friendship, with Turner’s realist outlook as the perfect complement to Elwood’s idealism. Together, they navigate the torturous contours everyday life of the Nickel Academy.

True to history, there are brutal scenes in this book, but I felt they were necessary and not gratuitous. Colson Whitehead shows us just what we need to know and moves on, this book makes it point perfectly in less than 250 pages. Not one single word was wasted here, and five stars aren’t enough to review it. This book is a victory, a straight slam dunk.

If you haven’t already, definitely read this book. If you’re at all like me, you will be unable to put it down.

Review: The Dreamers

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Review for "The Dreamers" by Karen Thompson Walker (2019)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

In the small fictional college town of Santa Lora, California, a virus spreads among the students on campus. The victims fall into a deep, coma-like sleep from which it appears that they will never wake. They are alive, but dreaming.

“The Dreamers” is told through an omniscient narrator and follows several people throughout the town, each grappling with the epidemic. There is Mei and Matthew, two quarantined freshman who breach the barrier and fall for one another, Anna and Ben, a married couple with a new baby, and Libby and Sara, two young sisters coping with life after their doomsday prepper dad falls ill. As with any medical based mystery, as the virus spreads, fear among the residents increases and the town becomes more and more isolated by quarantine as more people fall asleep. What is it? What is going on?

An interesting thing about this novel is that there is no background info given on the source of the virus or how it is spread; you as a reader are just as clueless about what’s going on as the town’s residents. I didn’t necessarily mind the lack of a solid back story here, though I admit that this was the only thing that kept me reading. Other than this, I wanted more from this book. Characters are too brief, events are fleeting, emotions aren’t explored as deeply as they could have been. There’s echoes of Jose Saramago’s “Blindness” here, but this doesn’t come close.

I liked reading this and I definitely like Karen Thompson Walker, but her first novel, “Age of Miracles” much much better.

Review: The Body in Question

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Review for "The Body in Question" by Jill Ciment (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“The Body in Question” is a short novel that centers on a sensational murder trial in Central Florida. The defendant is a wealthy teen girl accused of murdering her brother. Six jurors and an alternate are chosen from the public and later sequestered, one of them being the narrator, C-2. C-2 is a 52-year-old photographer who is married to an older man. Another juror, F-17, is a non married, 40-ish anatomy teacher. Throughout the novel, we only know these characters only as C-2 and F-17 as they begin a torrid, but passionless affair during the murder trial.

Although the focus of this book is the trial, this comes to a shocking conclusion around the middle of the novel. The rest of the book deals with grief and other plot twists, as well as difficult choices that C-2 makes.

I gave this book four stars because it is very well written and readable. I didn’t care for the characters though. Everybody in this book is to some degree obnoxious, selfish, and completely self indulgent. Normally how I feel about the characters isn’t part of my reviews, but in this case there is a detached, sterile quality in this novel that I couldn’t penetrate. Being that the subject matter deals with a murder case, I figured that it carries over into the overall tone of this book.

I definitely recommend this.

Review: Rani Patel in Full Effect

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Review for "Rani Patel in Full Effect" by Sonia Patel (2016)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Took it back to 2016 with this one, though I read this a little over a month ago. It’s a worthwhile but tough YA read, content warnings abound for rape and sexual abuse.

Rani is a 16 year old Indian American girl (Gujarati) living with her parents on Moloka’i, a remote island in Hawaii. Despite being a person of color, she is an outsider among the locals. She finds common ground with her peers through writing and performing raps under the alias MC Sutra in a hip hop collective about a variety of topics–racism, sexism, colonialism, female empowerment, etc. Often Rani’s raps about female empowerment are in direct conflict with her actions and decision making, which have been damaged due to her chaotic home life. Rani’s mother is emotionally absent, her father is out cheating on her mother with a much younger girl (in addition to some other foul things I won’t mention here in order to not spoil the book).

As far as the writing, this book seemed kinda thrown together. Some editing would have been nice here, at times it felt like sentences and different scenes were just strung together with no transitions at all. There’s also a lot of Gujarati and Hawaiian words that just show up organically with no translation at all. I don’t mind this (I’m in their story–remember), and the glossary at the back is a huge help. Just know that there’s a LOT of unfamiliar words here. You will work reading this.

Also, I strongly encourage you to read the author’s note in the back of the novel. The author details why Rani is so frustrating and makes unhealthy choices time and time again, despite all warnings to the contrary. It’s critical to understanding the book.

I gave this three stars–no more, no less.

Review: My Life as a Rat

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Review for "My Life as a Rat" by Joyce Carol Oates (2019)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I’ve read numerous Joyce Carol Oates books over the years (The Sacrifice, Evil Eye, Lovely, Dark, Deep, Black Water, you get the picture). She’s ridiculously prolific, there’s about 60 novels to her credit and that’s not even counting her short fiction and other writings. Like any other writer, she definitely has her hits and misses, so every now and then I’ll take a Joyce Carol Oates book off the shelf and see what she’s writing about now. My Life as a Rat is her latest fiction novel.

This novel is the story of Violet, a 12-year-old girl living in upstate New York in the mid-90’s in a working class Irish American family with four brothers and two sisters. Although the children are physically cared for, expressions of emotion and love are minimal and her father rules over everyone with an iron fist. The boys in the family are clearly valued over the girls, with the oldest two sons Jerome and Lionel getting themselves into occasional trouble around town (one occasion being the rape of a mentally handicapped local girl). As always, Violet’s parents always get their boys out of trouble by hiring lawyers and protecting them from consequences or any severe punishment.

Eventually, Violet’s brothers graduate from rape to an actual murder. A popular Black student is riding his bicycle home one night and, because he appears ‘suspicious’ (there’s echoes of the Trayvon Martin case here) Jerome and Lionel run him off the road and beat him to death with a baseball bat. Violet sees the bloody bat and puts the two together, and, after an agonizing choice, tells administrators at her school what happened. She is instantly banished by her family for being a ‘rat’–placed into the custody of an aunt and told that she is not welcome to come home. Her brothers are jailed for their role in the crime.

Overall, this is a very difficult book to read. The novel goes into detail with how family violence and banishment shapes Violet over the course of her life, eventually leading to her being raped and sexually abused by a series of men during her teenage years. The book changes points of view and narrators and shifts from 1st, 2nd, and 3rd POVs. Violet’s thoughts wander often, as if she has had a split in her state of being. You really get the full impact of the tragedy and more.

This book is not badly written, but I think it was a little over the top. There is a such thing as TOO MUCH happening to a character, and this is one of those examples. There’s a lot of descriptions of sexual abuse that I think could have been left out–I got the point over 150 pages ago. The end hints at some kind of hope for the future, but not really. I kept reading because I did care about the main character, but by the end of the book I felt tired and demoralized, much like Violet.

I give this book three stars. Trigger warnings abound for rape, sexual abuse, and violence.