Review: A Good Country

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Review for "A Good Country" by Laleh Khadivi (2017)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Wow, this was good. Timely. Informative. Scary.

The novel starts in 2009 in Southern California with a peek into the life of 14-year-old Rez Courdee, the son of upper middle class Iranian immigrant parents. He is Muslim by birth but does not practice, identifying more with American culture, surfing, hooking up with girls, and smoking pot. In time, several terrorist attacks occur and Rez, who has never questioned his identity, is ostracized by his mostly White peers as ‘the other.’ He begins to find solace with his Muslim friends, starts to practice his faith, and eventually becomes obsessed with the idea of ‘a good country’ overseas, one in which Muslims are accepted and fight for the establishment of a caliphate. I won’t reveal the end, but when it occurs exactly 5 years later, Reza (no longer ‘Rez’) is a completely different person.

This novel is short but the writing is succinct and razor sharp. I thought the sex scenes were a bit overdone, but the plot was powerful and never lost. As you read this novel you realize how easy it is for someone to become radicalized–not just to religion but to any idea, really. We’ve seen this all throughout history and in everyday life; children turned into soldiers with a deadly purpose, young men and women in America go off to boot camp and become trained combat specialists in a matter of weeks.

I may read this book again eventually because there’s so much here to digest. Like you’re looking at a hundred pieces of something spread out on a table that it’ll take a while to put it together. Anyway, excellent book. Do read this!

Review: Things We Lost in the Fire

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Review for "Things We Lost in the Fire" by Mariana Enriquez (2017)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

It took me a month to get through this book, which is not fitting for a collection of stories that’s less than 250 pages long. The reason for my slower-than-average read time is because “Things We Lost in the Fire” is a very, very dark collection of tales, all set in modern day Argentina. I read my NetGalley copy at first, but the mood was so unsettling that I moved to an audiobook format to finish it. Even with the audiobook, I had to prep myself (i.e., be in a kind of ‘blank’ mental state) to continue it.

Typical of Latin American fiction, there’s elements of magical realism, the supernatural, and surreality in these stories, but that doesn’t counter the macabre subject matter here. In this collection, there are ghosts, hauntings, extreme violence, torture, rape, and girls who set themselves on fire. The central characters are mostly young people and most, if not all, of the stories carry a hint of uncertainty about whether the events the characters experienced really happened or not. In “The Dirty Kid,” a young woman is obsessed with a homeless boy who may or may not have been the victim of a Satanic ritual killing. “The Intoxicated Years” is about a group of teenage girls who spend their time taking psychadelic drugs. “Adela’s House” focuses on a girl who goes into a haunted house and is never seen again. In “The Neighbor’s Courtyard,” a former social worker is convinced that a neighbor has chained up a young boy in his backyard, who eventually eats the main character’s cat. And the title story, “Things We Lost in the Fire” is about a woman who self-immolates before an audience.

For me, this is material that I could not just read. I had to experience it, surround myself in it, and ultimately, suffer through it. Suffering, however, is not always a bad thing, because it is through this collection of stories you realize how much Argentina’s bloody political dictatorship past left its mark on people’s lives. If you’re down explore this, I wholeheartedly recommend this book to you. I give this four stars because the writing is quite good with no flaws to be found.

[Note: A free digital copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher, Hogarth Press, as well as NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: Chemistry

Ahh, welcome to summer, lovelies. Even though I’ll be working for most of it and don’t plan on doing much travel, I’ll still be reading, as always.
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Review for "Chemistry" by Weike Wang (2017)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

An unnamed Chinese-American female grad student cuts her hair, goes into her lab and breaks five beakers, then proceeds to go on a quest to find herself. Unaffected by her indecision to accept her bf’s marriage proposal, she deals with her perfectionist parents and takes on a job as a chemistry tutor (definitely not the future her parents envisioned).

With that said, this book was just ok for me. Thankfully it’s a short book, as well as an interesting take on life, love, and work in higher education. I could certainly relate to the unnamed narrator’s struggles (I am also a full time Ph.D. student). However, this was not a very entertaining book. The writing here is sparse and there’s a lot of light-hearted, stream of conscious self-dialogue which is cool for the first part of the book, but after the first third had passed it just got to be too much, an overkill. I desperately wanted the character to come out of her head and give more of a story here.

I would read this author’s future work though. Just not my cup of tea here.

Review: Universal Harvester

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Review for "Universal Harvester" by John Darnielle (2017)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

This book is weird, man…

It’s the 1990’s, and someone is placing disturbing images on VHS tapes at the local Video Hut in the small town of Nevada, Iowa. At first Jeremy, a young employee, brushes it off, but when he watches the videos for himself it greatly disturbs him. The scenes appear to be poorly shot home movies with people being controlled by others in masks. He shares the videos with the store’s manager, Sarah Jane, and she eventually becomes drawn into the discovering their origin, the farmhouse where it was made, as well as the mysterious woman behind them.

The only word I can think to describe this book is cerebral, because the disturbing imagery it describes does manage to rattle your brain and leave you with a sense of impending danger. The ominous tone of the book reminds you of the feeling you get when you watch a David Lynch movie or The Ring, though the plot is not as straightforward. In a lot of ways this is a successful tactic, because even though I didn’t get this book completely I found myself continuing to read it just because I wanted to know what was behind the videotapes.

The major problem is that this book never really makes that answer clear, or tells you what the hell it really is. Perspectives shift as the book meanders back and forth through time and between characters and I was stuck trying to figure out what it all means. Is it a horror story? A human drama? Even after 200 something pages, I’m still not sure. Not that I’m a person that likes labels on everything, but a real resolution and an actual plot would have been reasonable. Harrumpf.

Review: Inside Madeleine

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Review for "Inside Madeleine" by Paula Bomer (2014)
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Oh snap…five stars.

I did the audiobook for this and for the first time since I’ve started consuming books this way, I found myself listening intently to every. single. word. that was read: staying in my driveway with the AC running, leaving my headphones on longer in the evenings, you get the idea. This collection of stories is highly engaging, smutty, and just plain grotesque. And I loved it.

Each story deals with female characters and the complicated relationship they have with their bodies and the people around them. All of the characters are young, all of them desperate, and all (if I’m not mistaken) are from South Bend, Indiana. “Eye Socket Girls” is about an anorexic girl’s stint in a hospital, “Down the Alley,” is the tale of a teenage girl’s self-discovery and rebellion, and the novella-length title story, “Inside Madeleine,” is a tour de force about the complex relationship between a teenage girl and her body.

I loved the way that these stories seemingly hide…well, nothing. None of these characters are particularly likeable, but they weren’t supposed to be. Even the sex scenes were raunchy and vulgar, but they clearly weren’t meant to titillate the audience. All of the characters in each story came across as relatable and achingly real and I had no choice but to feel them.

Did I tell you I loved this book?

Must read.

Review: Aftercare Instructions

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Review for "Aftercare Instructions" by Bonnie Pipkin (to be published on 27 June 2017)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I liked this book. A couple of online reviewers have called this book “brave,” and I will capitulate on that. This IS a brave book. There is friendship, heartbreak, an abortion, and a teenage girl in the middle of it all just being herself. What more can I say? I get it, and it’s great.

“Aftercare Instructions” is about Genesis Johnson (called ‘Gen’ throughout the book), a high school senior who is abandoned by her boyfriend immediately following an abortion at an NYC Planned Parenthood clinic (wtf?). Her father has died of a heroin overdose and the whole school has found out. Her mother is not handling his loss well (pill popping, locking herself away, etc). She can’t stand her grandparents, who take care of her sister and whose faux-religiousness she despises. Genesis’ life is pretty much her friend Rose and her boyfriend Peter. And Peter has just left her in the middle of Manhattan and won’t take her calls.

To top all of this off, another friend has been cozying up to Peter in Genesis’ absence. There’s drama. There’s a catfight. Genesis is suspended from school. In the meantime, she discovers herself and her true passion: theater. As the story flashes back to the past, it is completely in play dialogue. I liked it.

I loved the fact that Genesis was a strong character, yet unafraid to be vulnerable. She has issues, and yes, those issues hurt. I liked that. I can’t tell you how many YA books I’ve read in which the author seems so stuck on the idea of a strong female voice that he/she forgets to make the character believable. I also liked the fact that abortion was explored in the book, minus any yay or nay political message or proselytizing by the people in the character’s orbit.

Anywho, read this book when it comes out. You won’t regret it.

[Note: A free digital copy was provided to me from the publisher, St. Martin’s Press, and NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion and review.]

Review: Allegedly

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Review for "Allegedly" by Tiffany D. Jackson (2017)

Rating: 3.75 out of 5 stars

I seem to be stuck at 3.5 -3.75 stars with my reviews lately.

I must admit, “Allegedly” is a page turner from the start. We first meet pregnant teenager Mary Addison in a group home, having just got out of ‘baby jail’ for the killing of an infant in her care at nine years old. In a non-linear narrative throughout the novel, other details of the crime and her background come to us: her mother’s mental illness, Mary’s relationship with her boyfriend Ted, recollections of abuse by her mother and stepfather. It’s a tough read, and you can’t help but root for Mary as she tries to fight for her rights as a mother and a better future for her child.

What I didn’t like: the ending. I won’t give it away, other than to say that it didn’t go with the rest of the novel. I understand that Mary is an unreliable narrator, but what happens here is a total reversal: getting through nearly 98% of the book only to have the main character completely change her course of action. I also didn’t like the presence of one too many improbable events, no matter the fact that this is a fictional story. Like Mary’s recollections of ‘baby jail,’ for instance. In what state is it legal to house a nine-year-old in an maximum level adult correctional facility on permanent lock down because they “don’t know what to do with her”? Umm, I don’t think that’s likely.

Recommended? Yes. Ignore the YA label and let this one take you down the rabbit hole. You’ll be glad you did.