Review: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line

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Review for "Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line" by Deepa Anappara (2020)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

An excellent yet heartbreaking debut novel that revolves around an alarming statistic: 180 children go missing in India each day. Deepa Anappara, a reporter, wrote about the children of India for many years. Children that disappear are trafficked, forced into manual labor and sexual slavery, or worse, murdered and never found. The local police, known for corruption and taking bribes, are completely uninterested in solving these crimes or doing any kind of investigation. They presume all children have run away and absolve themselves of any kind of accountability for protecting their citizens.

At the heart of this book is 9-year-old Jai, a boy living with his parents and older sister in a one-room house in a basti in a large, unnamed Indian city. Jai is your guide into life in a modern Indian slum, where smog covers everything, letting in very little sunlight and making it hard to breathe. Schools in the basti offer sub-par education, parents often work as maids and service people for upper class citizens, and the family must pay for the dignity to use a community outhouse. Every day in the slum, people live in fear of police raids and threats to bulldoze their neighborhood. Despite the bleakness Jai is optimistic and hopeful, watching tv detective shows such as Police Patrol to learn how to solve crimes. When one of his classmates comes up missing, he and two of his friends decide to become detectives to solve the mystery. As is common in India, belief in the supernatural is all throughout this book, with characters discussing djinns (spirits that can be good or bad and can appear as humans or animals). As the friends interview parents and locals about their friend’s whereabouts and find no answers, the children begin to wonder if it is a djinn that’s snatching their friends.

There are also many issues explored in this novel, such as the widespread prejudice against Muslims by Hindus. As more and more children disappear in Jai’s basti, Muslims are accused and jailed for the crimes. Even though two Muslim children are among the kidnapped, Muslims are still blamed. There’s also the wide gap between India’s super rich and the poorest of the poor, separated in the novel by a field of garbage. Despite modernization and the legal ‘end’ of caste system discrimination, class differences and the misery of poor people in India have remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years.

Despite the sense of hopelessness that permeates the book, it is Jai’s optimism keeps you reading until the tragic end. Although by the end Jai is forced to shade his innocence and see his world for what it really is, this is still a thoughtful coming of age story. All in all, I loved this book. The characters, the story, the setting, as well as the depiction of Indian life is exceptional.

**Note: Because this is a book with Indian characters, their language is used frequently throughout with no footnotes. There’s a glossary at the back of this book to help, though I found that after awhile I didn’t need it anymore because the unknown words could be inferred by context.

Review: White Bird

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Review for "White Bird" by R.J. Palacio (2019)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“White Bird” is a beautifully drawn graphic novel about Julian’s grandmother’s experience during the Nazi occupation of France during WWII. If you are familiar with the ‘Wonder’ series, then you’ll remember Julian as the not-so-nice kid at Beecher Prep that gave the main character, Auggie, such a hard time fitting in with other students. For those that didn’t like Julian at the end of that story, this novel is his redemption, a chance for him to learn empathy from his beloved grandmother, Grandmere.

As Grandmere reflects on her past to Julian, we learn that she was once a young, middle class Jewish girl named Sara growing up during the days of Nazi-occupied France. In the beginning, she lives a sheltered existence at her home with her parents, even though public disdain and discrimination against Jews is everywhere. Eventually, the Nazis take over the region and begin to arrest Jews, killing them or rounding them up and transporting them to concentration camps. Sara hides in the home of a classmate, a kind boy with a walking disability named Julien who lives with his parents. Over the next several years, Julien and Sara form a close friendship. It is so close that after the war she names her son Julien, who in turn gives that name to the main character of this story.

I am skipping parts, of course, because I do not want to ruin this beautiful story. The pictures are a plus, exquisitely drawn in pastels and neutral colors. There are also loads of resources in the back of the book with information on the Holocaust, as well as organizations that educate and teach about this tragic historical event.

Be forewarned, however: this book is definitely a tearjerker. Go into this one with a warm blanket and lots of tissues. You’ll need them.

Five stars. Excellent book.

Review: Ordinary Girls

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Review for "Ordinary Girls" by Jaquira Diaz (2019)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I loved this book fiercely. I was pretty much hooked from the first page, a done deal.

Jaquira Diaz was born on the island of Puerto Rico, living in the housing projects there until her family moved to Miami Beach when she was a little girl. There, Diaz witnessed the dissolution of her family: her father sold drugs and became emotionally distant, her mother’s declining mental health cause her to eventually descend into severe drug use. There is also physical violence present in the home, mostly from her older brother and her drug-addicted mother. The only stability Jaquira finds is in her paternal grandmother and her younger sister, who is stuck in the same hellish familial nightmare that she is in. In addition to all of this, there’s the quagmire of young Jaquira trying to figure out her racial identity. Even though she is proudly Puerto Rican, her mother (blonde haired and green eyed) is White, her father is dark skinned, curly haired, and unapologetically Black. This causes much family conflict, as Jaquira recalls, with her maternal grandmother mocking her darker skin color and the first in her life to call her the n-word.

As a teenager, Jaquira channels her family dysfunction into full-on rage. After a suicide attempt at 11, she is stuck in a cycle of going nowhere: fighting with other girls, getting suspended from school, drinking, drugs, and running away. After several stints in juvenile for violent behavior, she drops out of high school at 16 (though she later earns a GED). Married at 17, she eventually enlists in the Navy, though her attraction to women doesn’t earn her any friends there either. After more family dysfunction and personal strife, Jaquira finds her voice as a writer.

Once again, I loved this book. The writing here is organized thematically and less around a structured, linear narrative order. This is all ok though, as I think it takes the most extreme level of courage to even begin to write like this. Diaz does not flinch or shy away from some very deep, dark truths.

Five stars. I’d read this again if I could.

Review: My Sister, the Serial Killer

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Review for "My Sister, the Serial Killer" by Oyinkan Braitwaite (2018)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Dark and brilliant work of fiction. I read this in about 5 days, only because I had to pause to savor the words and the plot a ‘lil bit longer than usual.

Anywho, “My Sister, the Serial Killer” is about two sisters living with their mother in present day Lagos, Nigeria. Ayoola, the younger sister, is a beautiful fashion designer with a bad habit for murdering her boyfriends. Korede, the older sister, works as a nurse in a local hospital and resigns herself to a life of boredom and covering for her sister when another one of her paramours winds up dead. When a handsome doctor at Korede’s hospital ends up falling for Ayoola, the sister’s worlds are turned upside down.

This is not so much a story about murder and mayhem than it is about modern Nigerian life and the pitfalls of familial obligation and tradition. Ayoola does not feel remorse for her victims and neither of the sisters are particularly likable. However, you come to understand that Korede is fully overshadowed by Ayoola, so much so that you can’t help but to empathize with her as she is dragged closer and closer into her sister’s murderous web. Each takes their turn manipulating one another and allowing others in their orbit to be manipulated. Overall, it’s a fun story and I honestly enjoyed this book.

I definitely look forward to the next book that Oyinkan Braithwaite writes.

Top Ten Tuesday: The Best of 2018

Even though 2018 isn’t officially over, I wanted to take the time to do a quick round up of all of the five star reads I’ve come across this year. Most of these have been previously reviewed here (as shown with a link), and if they haven’t, the review will be forthcoming in the next few weeks.

BTW, there are more than 10 here. In no particular order, they are:

  1. American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment – Shane Bauer
  2. The Circuit – Francisco Jimenez
  3. We the Animals – Justin Torres
  4. In My Father’s House: A New View of How Crime Runs in the Family – Fox Butterfield
  5. What Girls Are Made Of – Elana K. Arnold
  6. Any Man – Amber Tamblyn
  7. The End of Eddy – Edouard Louis
  8. A Lucky Man – Jamel Brinkley
  9. My Year of Rest and Relaxation – Ottessa Moshfegh
  10. Heavy: An American Memoir – Kiese Laymon
  11. Brother – David Chariandy
  12. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? – Kathleen Collins
  13. Illegal – Eoin Colfer

Review: The End of Eddy

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Review for "The End of Eddy" by Edouard Louis (2017 in US, 2014 in France)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This book’s got trigger warnings up the wazoo: rape, bullying, assault, child abuse, animal abuse, homophobia, racism

A short and unrelenting autobiographical account of the author’s coming of age in a small town in northern France. Originally published in French, Eddy was only 21 when he wrote this book.

Much of this was hard for me to read. Eddy grows up poor and gay in a large family, a target of obvious scorn by his parents, his siblings, his classmates, and the people of his town. The depiction of French society here is a sharp contrast with what many of us Americans picture when we think of the region, with its artistic sensibilities and beautiful scenery. In Eddy’s town of Hallencourt, jobs are scarce, children drop out of school, and women have their babies young. Alcoholism is everywhere, violence is routine and part of a typical day’s events. Growing up, Eddy is assaulted daily, spat upon, and called derogatory names because his mannerisms, speech, and behavior does not fit the expectation of what is “manly.” He submits to these beatings because brutality is all he knows. His sexual initiation, which is not entirely consensual, is the hallmark of this book, because it’s after this event that he decides to take on the persona of ‘tough guy.’ He fails miserably, however. Eddy comes to accept his own homosexuality and eventually gets accepted into a theater program in a nearby city, pursues a degree, and eventually changes his name to Edouard Louis.

As much as I didn’t like reading this due to its graphic descriptions of such horrible things, I have to give it five stars. Something in me broke while reading this. It’s terrifying because of its urgency–you know that this kind of terrorism is happening to someone else as you read this. Even though this book takes place in France in the 90’s, it could be present day in your city or really anywhere in the world where people still practice the routines of toxic masculinity and violence.

Five stars, mates.

Review: American Prison

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Review for "American Prison: A Reporter's Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment" by Shane Bauer (2018)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I could not put this book down. Five stars.

In 2015, Shane Bauer, a reporter with Mother Jones, went undercover for four months at a privately owned (“for profit”) prison in rural Louisiana called Winn Correctional. Managed by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), he is hired to work as a prison guard for $9 an hour. He carries a pen that doubles as an audio recorder, a small notebook, a coffee thermos with a small camera in it, and documents his daily dealings with staff and inmates at his new job. What he finds at Winn is pretty much a nightmare: a dangerously understaffed facility, guards that openly brag about beating inmates, daily stabbings, reports of rapes, other examples of gross negligence and mismanagement. There are no education classes, no regular rec time, or any kind of ‘set’ schedule for the prisoners, each day’s activities are determined by how many staff decide to show up for work. There is one psychiatrist and one social worker for the entire prison. There is only one doctor and medical treatment is substandard.

At Winn, Bauer finds that every attempt is made to save CCA money. Because there is a profit motive in keeping inmates at the facility, he observes an inmate repeatedly complaining of chest pain but is refused hospital treatment and given ibuprofen. He later dies. Another inmate violently kills himself after consistent threats to do so. Corners are cut and log books are falsified. Another prisoner manages to escape and no one misses him for hours, due the fact that it costs CCA too much to staff the guard tower.

In between the chapters of undercover reporting is powerful research Bauer writes on the history of America’s for-profit prison system. Locking people up for revenue, convict leasing, and state-enforced prison labor is nothing new and has always resulted in the abuse and torture of inmates, particularly men, women, and children of color. By creating laws across the American South that criminalized minor misdeeds (drinking, vagrancy, truancy), many Black men were forced to work in prison labor camps. When one died from routine overwork, beating, or disease, the system simply got another. It has always been a system that cheapens human lives, therefore it is no surprise that CCA’s stock shares are up and they are profiting under the current president and his hateful policies towards immigrants. Corporations like CCA are beginning to turn away from contracts with jails and prisons and turn its attention to building detention centers, most of which now house Mexican and Central American immigrants.

I could say so much more about this book but it would be too much to type here. I do, however, wholeheartedly encourage you to read this, even if you read nothing else this fall.