Review: Girl

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Review for "Girl" by Edna O'Brien (2019)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

On April 14, 2014, approximately 276 school girls in northeastern Nigeria were kidnapped by the extremist terrorist group Boko Haram. The news was shocking and the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag went viral across social media, however, very little was done by the international community to help or rescue the girls. Although some of them have since been released or escaped, it is worthy to note that as of 2019, 112 of girls remain missing. They are presumed to be alive, held captive by the active terrorist group.

The author of this novel traveled to Nigeria to speak to the survivors. She collected their stories and wrote this fictionalized account of the school girls’ plight. In this story the main character is Maryam, a young girl (her actual age is never given, indicators in the text hint that she is a young teenager, about 13 or 14) who loves school and longs for a bright future outside of her small Nigerian village. Very early in the novel, she and her schoolmates are kidnapped in their dormitory by men armed with guns and led deep into the forest. There, they are repeatedly raped, beaten, forced to do manual labor, and embrace Islam. Those who do not comply are punished by murder. They are also forced into marriages to Boko Haram soldiers. Many of them, including Maryam, bear children as the result of their rape.

Fortunately, at about a quarter of the way into the novel, Maryam manages to escape from her captors. She and her infant daughter attempt to seek shelter in a nearby village, but they refuse to help because they are afraid of retaliation from Boko Haram. Eventually she is reunited with her mother, though this reunion is contentious and bittersweet. Her mother refuses to talk to Maryam and family members turn their backs on her, due to the stigma of being a ‘wife’ of Boko Haram. I won’t give away the ending, but it does end with hope, with Maryam gaining some sense of control over her own future and that of her daughter.

Though this was a tough book to read, I feel fortunate to have read it. Initially I was skeptical of this book because it is written by a White Irish woman, though I can only assume that these girls trusted Ms. O’Brien to tell their stories, and that she sought their permission before publishing it. It would be nice to see the proceeds of this novel donated to some kind of charity dedicated to assisting these young women with their lives, but I don’t know if that is the case here.

This is a very triumphant 4.5 stars. Definitely a must-read.

Review: The Nickel Boys

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Review for "The Nickel Boys" by Colson Whitehead (2019)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I meant to write this review a lot sooner, when I first finished this book this summer. It’s quite excellent, so here goes…

“The Nickel Boys” is a historical fiction, based on the all-too-real Dozier School for Boys, a hellish reform school for adolescent males that ran from the early 20th century until 2011 in a rural part of the Florida Panhandle. In the early days, black and white boys were separated upon entry, with the black boys performing more physically grueling tasks. Housing and food were minimal, and any resistance to authority was met with brutal physical punishment from the guards and caretakers. Due to harsh treatment, several boys died and were unceremoniously buried on and around the school’s campus over the years. After its closure, due to the high number of unmarked graves, an anthropology team from the University of South Florida began the task of digging them up with the goal of identifying them in 2012. According to the latest report, over 100 burials have been documented, many of them unnamed and undocumented.

Colson Whitehead takes this history and brings us the story of Elwood Curtis, a do-gooder boy being raised by his single grandmother in Tallahassee in the early 1960’s. Elwood believes in the message of Dr. Martin Luther King, choosing pacifism in the face of Jim Crow racism. After being falsely accused of stealing a bicycle, he is sent to the Nickel Academy. Once there, he meets another student by the name of Turner. While paired for tasks outside campus and in the local town, Elwood and Turner form a deep friendship, with Turner’s realist outlook as the perfect complement to Elwood’s idealism. Together, they navigate the torturous contours everyday life of the Nickel Academy.

True to history, there are brutal scenes in this book, but I felt they were necessary and not gratuitous. Colson Whitehead shows us just what we need to know and moves on, this book makes it point perfectly in less than 250 pages. Not one single word was wasted here, and five stars aren’t enough to review it. This book is a victory, a straight slam dunk.

If you haven’t already, definitely read this book. If you’re at all like me, you will be unable to put it down.

Review: The Hunger

Review for "The Hunger" by Alma Katsu (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

First of all, I have to admit that frontier-sy stories have always appealed to me. Like many kids, I grew up reading “Little House on the Prairie” books, stories about Daniel Boone, and playing “The Oregon Trail” in school. “The Hunger” has got all of that and more in this retelling of the infamous Donner party.

In April 1846, a group of settlers left Independence, Missouri headed for a better life in California. The party was led by George Donner and his brother, Jacob. For the first several months, they followed a well established wagon trail, The California Trail, and reached Fort Laramie, Wyoming without incident. There, they took the advice of a trail guide who suggested that he knew of a quicker route. This route proved treacherous and hard to navigate, and the settlers wasted much-needed time chopping their way through dense forests and idling through deserts to get to the other side. They reached the Sierra Nevada mountains late in the year, and became trapped by snow. After killing all of their oxen and horses, they ran out of food. Those who survived the famine ate the bodies of those who died in order to survive. In the end, only half of the original group of settlers arrived in California.

Anywho, this is what history tells us what happened to the Donner party. “The Hunger” fictionalizes this account and gives you a much more terrifying version of the journey. In Katsu’s version, the na’it, or the hunger, is a contagion that causes men to become monsters and cannibalize one another.

This book is strongly character based. There is no romanticizing of historical figures, they are realistically portrayed as flawed, people with secrets. I wouldn’t call this a ‘scary’ book per se, but the tone is definitely a creepy one. People disappear, animals are attacked, and bodies are discovered, picked clean of flesh. The horror took a while to build as the settlers realize that not only are they running out of supplies and hope, but that they are being hunted by an unseen force.

This is an easy 4 stars for me. This book is definitely not one to miss. A blurb on the author’s website reveals that the film rights have been purchased for this book, so I look forward to seeing this on the big screen soon.

Review: Mischling

Review for "Mischling" by Affinity Konar (2016)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

First off, let me say that I’ve read a lot of Holocaust stories. This particular one sounded as if it would venture into a different territory, so I placed it on my reading list as soon as it came out. Dr. Mengele, the infamous Auschwitz “Angel of Death” was known for sending millions to the gas chambers, as well as his cruel, torturous ‘experiments’ on prisoners, identical twins, and multiples with no regard to the health or safety of his subjects. Mischling is the story of 13-year-old twin girls, Pearl and Stasha, who arrive at Auschwitz in 1944. Each twin narrates an alternating chapter, filling the reader in on the horrifying details of life inside of Mengele’s “zoo.”

I did not care for this book. The writing is not bad, but it failed to suit this story and make a real emotional impact here. Instead of a groundbreaking Holocaust story, what we get is a familiar and predictable story of this time in history that doesn’t really rise above the standard Auschwitz account. What I mean by that is that you don’t really learn anything new here other than what you already learned about the Holocaust in middle school: the separation of families, the gas chambers, heavy work and starvation, etc. Mengele’s experiments (the info I really wanted to know) through the experiences of the narrators are discussed, but the author relies heavily on metaphor to describe these events. While there’s nothing wrong with metaphor, the story got lost and it disengaged me from the novel and left me completely confused.

I regret finishing this book, as I would have DNF’d it a long time ago if it had not been for my curiosity about the end. I would have preferred a much simpler prose style here.

Review: The Girls


Review for “The Girls” by Emma Cline (to be released in June 2016)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The summer of 1969. Evie, a 14 year old girl from a well-to-do family, is completely bored with her surroundings. Her parents are divorced: her mom is chasing after a new boyfriend, her dad off in another city. Evie’s best friend has abandoned her and she is desperately looking for a place to belong. She sees a group of hippie girls in a park, and it isn’t long before she becomes completely enamored with their queen bee, Suzanne. She invites her to the ranch, a commune with other misfits and their charismatic leader, Russell, and it becomes only a matter of time before Evie finds herself sucked into violent plot of revenge.

As you can guess from what I’ve told you of the plot, this book is loosely based off of the story of the Manson Family and the Tate/LaBianca murders they committed in the summer of 1969. This topic has been done before, so we all know the ending but what seems to be different about Cline’s book is that it really is about ‘the girls’–not so much the male’s relationship with his female followers, but the girls’ relationship with one another, with the leader assuming a peripheral role in the drama.

This is a beautifully written coming of age tale. Once I started reading it, I could not put it down. I read it in several days, only stopping because I had to go to class and to sleep. Cline accomplishes something here that a lot of authors don’t—an excellent sense of time and place. I felt like was really there back in the 60’s. The end was a bit flat, but the writing more than makes up for that.

Great debut novel. Can’t wait to read Cline’s next book!

[This copy was provided by Netgalley and Random House in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: The Longest Night


Review for “The Longest Night” by Andria Williams (scheduled to be published on January 5, 2016)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Hmm. I can’t go any higher than 3 stars here.

This novel is a historical fiction, based on a true event, the only fatal nuclear reactor incident in the U.S, which occurred in Idaho Falls, Idaho on the night of January 3, 1961. “The Longest Night” is set during this period at the military outpost there, where Paul Collier, the main character, works at the nuclear reactor site. Nat, his wife, is a young stay at home mom with two little girls who has trouble fitting into the socially acceptable role of a military wife.

Most of the story focuses on the nuances of Nat and Paul’s marriage–its history, its breakdown, and his eventual deployment to a remote nuclear station in Greenland for 6 months. In the background is the impending failure of Paul’s assigned nuclear reactor, mostly due to the incompetence of Paul’s narcissistic boss. Also in the background is Nat’s brewing attraction to a local man, which turns their community against them and threatens to rip their family apart.

The writing here is fairly decent. Andria Williams does an excellent job of setting the time and place of the early 1960’s. I could literally feel myself sitting in Paul and Nat’s house, seeing things the exact way in which she described them. Both Paul and Nat are constrained by the stifling roles that society and the military have forced upon them, and the claustrophobic nature of their marriage is completely apparent here. But this claustrophobia and frustration is drawn out in such painstaking detail that I almost didn’t finish this. For a long period in the middle of the book nothing really happens, you’re just stuck with the mundane thoughts of Paul and the ordinary, everyday observations of Nat. The beautiful writing ultimately keep me pushing forward, even though I knew what would happen to this reactor (duh) and I kinda knew what would happen to this couple in the end. For a book so finely crafted, the subject matter was unengaging and the plot was woefully predictable.

I would be interested in reading more of Andria Williams writing, especially with purely fictional subject matter. I would not be surprised if this book ends up on “Best Of” lists or gets selected for multiple book clubs in 2016. To be a first time writer, she definitely has talent.

[NOTE: This e-book was provided to me by the publisher, Random House, and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]