Review: Beasts of No Nation

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Review for “Beasts of No Nation” by Uzodinma Iweala (2006)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is a story that hits you like a grenade. I watched the movie on Netflix and was blown away by the actors’ performances, I cried so much watching it that I knew that I HAD to have this book. It’s short (less than 150 pages) but it took me over a week to read it. The events that are described within it are, in no uncertain terms, some of the most horrific experiences I’ve ever read about. The events are achingly close to the movie adaptation, but the book’s descriptions of the violence was a lot more brutal. The narration was somewhat hard to understand at first because the main character speaks a special kind of “broken” English that took some getting used to. By the third page, however, the character began to make perfect sense, with a cadence that made his words abundantly clear.

This is not a book for the weak-hearted. There were times during the week when I was reading this when I had to put it down, back away, get some air (literally), and come back to it later. It is heartbreaking, tragic, and terrifyingly real. It is the story of Agu, a child in an unnamed African country that is currently in the grips of a civil war. We are never told exactly how old he is, though some clues point to the fact that he is not yet a teenager–perhaps 12, or maybe 13. His mother and sister are taken away to safety in the beginning, he never sees them again. He watches his father murdered shortly thereafter. He hides in the wilderness until he is recruited (well, take that back: forced) to join a rebel army and fight against the insurgency. At first he is quite disgusted by the violence he witnesses, but after a while, he describes taking part in the rapes, murders, and act of burning villages with the same nonchalance as any other enjoyable childhood activity he takes part in.

Agu is morally conflicted: throughout the novel he constantly tells himself (and you, the reader) that he is a good boy, with some degree of moral sense against the acts he takes part in. He tries over and over again to convince his conscience that the violent acts that he is forced to commit are good and proper. You get angry with Agu (a lot, actually) throughout the story, but you remember that he is just a child, a pawn used by evil men. We hate that he does bad things, but what choice does he have? It is clearly a kill or be killed situation. The end does bring some promise of a future for Agu, but you still fear for him as you wonder what kind of effect these experiences will have on his adult life.

So, with that said, why am I rating this five stars? Well, because this is a story that NEEDS to be told. As Americans we complain about bad traffic and too much goat cheese in our salads, yet hardly half a world away children are forced to become a part of brutal acts that are beyond our wildest imaginations. It has become way too easy to turn on the news and hear about ‘those people,’ to donate money and shake our heads in pity and rest assured in our first world lives that these types of atrocities will never happen to us. We view childhood as a time of innocence, but in the wrong hands, we forget that it is actually pretty easy to turn a child into an efficient killing machine.

So, needless to say, I recommend this book. Agu is a special character that stays with you for a long time. Hopefully he will spur you to change your outlook on the world, or at least to learn count your blessings.

Review: Bird Box

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Review for “Bird Box” by Josh Malerman (2014)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Wow….

I read this book like a ravenous wolf.

I read this book in a doctor’s office, with sunglasses on and a chemically dilated right eye due to a corneal infection.

It hurt to read this book. But man, it was so worth it.

This book is post-apocalyptic fiction at its best. As is typical of this genre, this book begins with an Event which kills most of the people on the planet. Detailed specifics of the Event are never given, but referred to as the “Russia Report,” a phenomenon that involves people suddenly attacking and killing other people before killing themselves. Before each attack, the person reportedly sees Something that disturbs them so deeply that they are driven to madness. It spreads across the Bering Strait from Russia and pretty soon the entire country’s population is decimated. The only way to protect yourself from the Something is by keeping your eyes closed.

The main character is a young woman named Malorie, whom we learn is hiding in a house somewhere in suburban Michigan with her two young children. The kids have never seen the outside world. Malorie has trained them to hear all kinds of sounds, because they are to be her ‘ears’ as she travels with them to a safer place. They must go by boat, and they must all be blindfolded to avoid seeing the Something that will drive them to madness.

This book goes back and forth between Malorie’s journey with her kids down the river to flashbacks of how she came to be in the house with her children four years before. Before the kids were born, she lived with several housemates who banded together, covered their windows, and stockpiled food in an effort to survive. What follows in these chapters is what made this book four stars instead of five for me–it’s your all-too-typical, post-apocalyptic survival fare. There’s worries over starvation, distrust among housemates, and of course, the ever present fear of the outside world. It is engaging to read, but it’s nothing extraordinary that we haven’t seen or heard already in a weekly broadcast of “The Walking Dead.” Next…

I did love this book, however. There is an ever present dread throughout the story that begins from the first few pages and doesn’t stop until the end. How far would you get in a post apocalyptic world without relying on your sight? The scare factor here isn’t in what you’re seeing, it’s what in the dark around the corner. Or in broad daylight, behind your shoulder. Or sitting right next you. Oh well. You get the picture.

I won’t give away any more of the book here. I won’t even tell you why it’s called Bird Box. But this is a hell of a book, and I heard its recently been greenlit for a movie version. Yay! But definitely DO read this first. Great writing debut by a first time author, a must read.

About that NaNoWriMo thing…

I didn’t win this year. Even though I am slightly crushed, I think I am ok with this.

My intentions were good. I planned for several weeks before–my plot, my characters. I started on midnight November 1st and went about writing MY novel. And it worked at first. Despite my work schedule, motherly duties, the general business of running my household I set aside time for my endeavor. Words flew from my fingers. I was killing it.

I wrote with wild abandon up to the second week, and then something happened.

I began to lose steam. Entering word counts, following schedules, typing X amount of words per day. It began to feel more like a chore than an enjoyable experience. So I stopped recording the word count and stressing about the looming date of November 30.

I am still writing. My novel isn’t dead. But it won’t be finished within the span of 30 days. While I applaud NaNoWriMo’s efforts in just getting people’s off their asses and writing, their 30 day window cannot contain me.

My novel will be finished when I need to finish it. It may or may not have 50,000 words, but it’s cool. It may not make sense either, but that’s ok too. I am writing, and that’s what’s important.

Review: Crimes in Southern Indiana

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Review for Frank Bill’s “Crimes in Southern Indiana”
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This book is a bit of a guilty pleasure, because under normal circumstances I wouldn’t be caught dead reading a book with characters engaging in behavior this despicable. I liked this book for exactly the reasons I shouldn’t, because I figure every now and then it’s good for a serious reader like myself to treat myself to a bloodbath by ne’er do-wells.

This book is pretty much a nastier version of “Breaking Bad” in literary form–with people being buried alive, chopped up, beaten up, and fucked up beyond all recognition in almost every story. Frank Bill takes you to hell and back in a bullet ridden pickup truck and to a thousand other nasty places in between. In this universe there is murder, crooked cops, revenge, dogfighting, drugs, and guns (lots and lots and lots of guns) and not only are they the rule, they are the law. You want to feel bad for many of these people but you don’t, the protagonist in one story often shows up again antagonistically in another, as if they’ve finally drawn fate’s hand for their misdeeds.

Honestly, I liked this book. But there were many stories I wished were longer because they felt so rushed. We never really get to know the man who’s head gets blown off during a meth raid and I wish we did. I really wish we did, because it would have given this story even more power.