Review: Norte

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Review for "Norte" by Edmundo Paz Soldan, translated from Spanish by Valerie Miles (2016) 
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

TW: graphic scenes of rape, murder, mutilation

“Norte” is Bolivian author Edmundo Paz Soldan’s third novel, originally written in Spanish and translated into English. There are three distinctly related narrative threads within this novel, two of which are inspired by real people. The first is the story of Jesus, a ruthless serial killer based on the life of Angel Maturino Resendiz, who hopped freight trains throughout the U.S. and murdered his victims in their homes near railroads from the mid-80s and throughout the 90s. The second is the story of Martin, based on the life of Martin Ramirez, a self-taught, schizophrenic artist who languished in California’s mental hospitals for thirty years before dying in one in 1963. The third is the present-day story of Michelle and Fabian, a Bolivian and Argentinian artist couple struggling with drugs and depression.

This book is not so much about the immigrant experience, but about the pain of displacement and loss, and being in places unfamiliar and strange and far from “home.” All four of the main characters struggle with madness, a theme that runs prominently throughout the novel. Martin’s and Michelle’s art is inspired by voices and the shifts in their environment, Jesus’ acts are also inspired by voices that command him to kill women. Jesus is a highly repugnant character, perhaps one of the most awful people I’ve ever had the displeasure of reading about. There are very graphic and detailed scenes of rape, murder, and mutilation in this book. The target of Jesus’ violence is women, which he possesses a pathological hatred for. I can see where this would probably turn a good number of readers off, though personally I did not feel that the violence was too gratuitous (reminder: we are talking about a serial killer, after all).

Overall, I liked this book and found it to be very readable.

Four stars.

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Review: Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish

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Review for "Marcus Vega Doesn't Speak Spanish" by Pablo Carteya (2018)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Ah, I liked this book. It’s a great junior high/middle grades story of family, culture, and dealing with adversity. It’s also a love letter to the beautiful island of Puerto Rico, which I had the chance to visit back in 2016 before the hurricane. Because this book conjured up so many great memories for me, naturally I gravitated to this novel.

Marcus Vega is an 8th grader who is 6 feet tall. He uses his size to walk bullied kids to and from school, to impose a littering tax, and keep kids’ cell phones during the day–for profit. He lives with his single mom who works long hours at the local airport, and cares for his younger brother Charlie, who has Down Syndrome. When another student at school makes a comment about his brother, Marcus attacks him and is suspended from school. Marcus’ mom uses the break from school to visit family in Puerto Rico, the place where Marcus was born. Marcus, who came to the mainland as a young child, does not speak Spanish. He also barely remembers any of his family there, particularly his father. He becomes interested in traveling to the island to meet his dad for the first time.

Once the family is in Puerto Rico, Marcus discovers an entire culture, language, and way of seeing his world that he previously knew nothing about. While I won’t reveal the ending of this book, I did feel that the ending was satisfactory, though bittersweet. All in all I loved the scenery of this novel: the colorful streets of Old San Juan, the music, the culture, the chirping of the coqui, the language. Much of the Spanish spoken by the characters isn’t translated, which is ok. This is Puerto Rico’s story.

I highly recommend this book.

Review: The Wicker King

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Review for "The Wicker King" by K. Ancrum (2017)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Honestly, it made a bit of sense. Perception is relative. So is sanity, if you think about it. It’s totally a Minority vs. Majority thing. If you fall on one side of the line, take a ticket and proceed. If you fall on the other, shit gets real. – The Wicker King, p. 99

I finished this book at 4:45 am this morning, and man…I am wrecked.

“The Wicker King” is the story of Jack and August, two teenage boys that have been friends since they were kids. Jack is the rugby player with wealthy parents, August is the kid of a single mom who sells drugs in their high school to keep himself afloat. Early in the novel, Jack begins to see hallucinations, weird visions of a parallel universe with bizarre artifacts, riddles, and strange creatures. In Jack’s world, he is the king that has been called upon to save this fantasy world from destruction. August cannot see Jack’s visions but trusts them, believes in them, and ultimately, risks his very soul to bring it to life.

At the center of this novel is Jack and August’s relationship, which is intense, manipulative, intoxicating, all-consuming, unhealthy, romantic…I could go on and on with the adjectives here. Love sustains both Jack and August as the victims of neglectful parents, attempting to fill the empty places of need inside each other. Although the sexuality of the main characters is never explicitly stated, it’s quite obvious that this is a queer version of wretchedly dark love story. In an echo of the mental state of the characters, the pages of the book get darker and darker as the narrative progresses until they eventually fade to black.

The only thing I didn’t care for here was the heavy romanticization of mental illness, which the author dresses up pretty thick with Jack’s version of a dark fairy tale kingdom. There are plenty of negative consequences for both Jack and definitely August for embracing this, however, and I think that’s made clear in the novel. The message: if you or a loved one is grappling with mental illness, get help.

4.5 stars.

Top Fifteen Tuesday: Reads for 2019

I’m so hyped for some great reads coming down the pipe in 2019 that I couldn’t cull my list down to 10, so here goes:

Nonfiction/Memoir

1. Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive – Stephanie Land

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2. Body Leaping Backward: Memoir of a Delinquent Girlhood – Maureen Stanton

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3. The Bold World: A Memoir of Family and Transformation

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Fiction

4. Queenie – Candice Carty Williams

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5. The Other Americans – Laila Lalami

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6. An Orchestra of Minorities – Chigozie Obioma

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YA

7. The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali – Sabina Khan

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8. Belly Up – Eva Darrows

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9. A Good Kind of Trouble – Lisa Ramee

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10. With the Fire on High- Elizabeth Acevedo

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11. Watch Us Rise – Renee Watson

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12. The Revolution of Birdie Randolph – Brandy Colbert

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13. Internment – Samira Ahmed

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14. Let Me Hear a Rhyme – Tiffany D. Jackson

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15. On the Come Up – Angie Thomas

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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.

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.