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.

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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.

Review: Rabbits for Food

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Review for "Rabbits for Food" by Binnie Kirshenbaum (2019)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Man oh man I loved this book!

“Rabbits for Food” is all about a 40-ish married woman named Bunny (her real name), a NYC writer who ends up in a mental hospital after a breakdown on New Years Eve 2008 when she stabs herself with a fork in full view of onlookers. Flashbacks throughout the book reveal Bunny’s past: her emotionally absent parents, her upbringing as an unlovable middle child, meds for depression, the death of her best friend, her bland marriage to a college professor. Once in the mental hospital, Bunny makes friends with a quirky set of patients. Although Bunny is quite unlikeable, her observations of life and the people around her are quite hilarious, all throughout the book Bunny’s biting sarcasm keeps you turning the pages.

Even though this book deals with mental health issues which are always quite serious, I’d describe this novel as a black comedy. There are definite echoes of Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” and Kaysen’s “Girl, Interrupted.” Either way, I recommend this book with my entire heart.

Review: The Affairs of the Falcons

Pardon my absence, I’ve been ill for a few weeks. Part of this is neglecting my diet and habits toward self care, the other part of that is a genetic component to my life that I need to be more cognizant of. If you’ve never had large kidney stones I hope that you never get them (or have to have surgery to remove them), and that you take loving care of your kidneys and your health in general.

The good news? I did a lot of reading while I was at home recovering.

Ok. On to my review…

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Review for "The Affairs of the Falcons" by Melissa Rivero (2019)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This book was so-so. I liked the premise of it, the execution, however, not so much.

“The Affairs of the Falcons” is the story of Anita Falcon, an undocumented immigrant from Peru. She lives with her husband’s cousin’s family in Queens in a cramped apartment. Anita is married to Lucho, has two young children, and works as a seamstress in a factory. Her husband drives a cab, but when the story begins, we learn that he has lost this job due to his undocumented status.

As you can imagine, money is very tight in this family. Most of this book revolves around the subject of money–getting it, losing it, and borrowing it from others to pay back the loan sharks who smuggled the family into America. Due to her status as undocumented there is no access to banks, and Falcons are always limited in terms of what kinds of jobs they can get. Housing is also an issue, internal conflicts in the home push the Falcons’ welcome with Lucho’s family to the limit. Also depicted here are the ways in which class and race play into the lives of a Latinx family (Anita is rural and indigenous, Lucho is lighter skinned, well educated, and from Lima). Lucho’s family remind Anita often of her despised, lower status among them.

Despite the external pressures, Anita is not a weak character, though she does makes questionable choices throughout the book. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this, my reason for the 3 stars is because I found the book to be less than compelling. There are tons of books out there on the immigrant experience, and I don’t really feel this book will stand out much within that group. There is not much that happens here that we haven’t read before, especially if you are familiar with this sub-genre of books.

I definitely recommend reading this book though. I’d also be open to reading more from this author in the future.

Review: The Usual Suspects

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Review for "The Usual Suspects" by Maurice Broaddus (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Thelonius Caldwell is very much like many of the boys I taught in my ten years as a middle school teacher: bright, mischievous, and labeled as “special ed.” Despite his label he is very keen in his perceptions of people and aware of the reality that he is being ‘warehoused’ (i.e., placed in a self contained classroom with similar students and given sleep-inducing lessons until he either drops out or is removed via expulsion). Because the school and his teachers have low expectations of him, Thelonius and his friend Nehemiah pass the time by playing pranks on the staff, causing chaos between students, and just plain acting silly.

One day, a gun is found in a park near their school. Because Thelonius and Nehemiah have a reputation for bad behavior, the principal rounds them up and blames them for the incident. Knowing that he did nothing wrong, Thelonius begins to search for the culprit, careful not to break the code of the streets by being a ‘snitch.’ This story traces the route along his journey for answers, playing homage to the 1995 film “The Usual Suspects.” There’s even a Keyser Soze kinda figure, which is pretty brilliant for a kid’s book.

I definitely recommend this novel. Sure, it’s readable children’s book fare but there’s a sad subtext here: the reality that far too many poor children of color are placed in “special ed” classes and, once there, nobody supports or listens to them. Research shows that these are the kids who are most likely to drop out of school entirely and end up in the criminal justice system, or just to have poor outcomes in life in general. It’s a very real depiction of their lives.

4 stars.

Review: With the Fire on High

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Review for "With the Fire on High" by Elizabeth Acevedo (2019)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

After reading and immensely liking “The Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo, I knew I had to read this. Although I liked this one as well, I wouldn’t say it’s as good as her first.

Emoni Santiago is a high school senior and mother to Emma, her 2 year old daughter. She is also an aspiring chef, integrating her own unique twists on traditional home cooked Puerto Rican recipes. In addition to her parental and school responsibilities, Emoni works hard at a burger restaurant, has a supportive best friend, and a kind grandmother who helps to raise her daughter. This novel is mostly the story of Emoni’s senior year of high school, in which she begins to nurture her love of cooking by taking a culinary arts elective at school. The class requires a trip to Spain, and Emoni, a single mom of modest means, is faced with the burden of raising money to go. In addition to this, there is some minor drama with Emma’s father, as well as unresolved issues in her relationship with her father.

Although I liked this book and its short chapters make it intensely readable, the main problem here is that I felt it lacked a conflict. Yes, Emoni does struggle, but she eventually gets what she wants. I am not saying that this is a bad thing, she’s a great character who I empathized with and desperately wanted to win. Buuuuttt…it just made for a kinda blah narrator. The romance is reluctant and felt forced, there was never a point in the book where I didn’t know that things would improve. It’s perfectly put together and predictable.

Still, I won’t go less than 4 stars here. I love Elizabeth Acevedo, and I think her writing about Afro-Latina character is super-important, particularly with all of the discussion in lit circles these days about diverse books. I also think that her choice to feature a urban teenage mother of color that is not a caricature or a stereotype was a very brave one that should be commended. The cover art is cool too (is that Alicia Keys??) Woooooww…