Review: The Comedown

Back home in good ol NC. I’m skipping Top Ten Tuesday to review a book that comes out today, so enjoy!

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Review for "The Comedown" by Rebekah Frumkin (to be published on 17 Apr 2018)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This book’s ok.

“The Comedown” centers on a missing yellow suitcase full of cash and a drug deal that went wrong in Cleveland on May 8, 1973. Leland Bloom-Mittwoch, a drug addict, witnesses the killing of his dealer, Reggie Marshall, and absconds with the suitcase. The story then follows three generations of the families of the two men involved, one White (the Mittwochs) and one Black (the Marshalls), from the early 1970’s to 2009. Over the years, members of both families search for the yellow suitcase. The suitcase is a bit of a MacGuffin here, taking on a kind of mythic quality as each character doggedly pursues it for reasons of their own.

For me, this book is a compilation of character studies. For that reason it’s heavily populated, with various family members of the major players going in and out of the main narrative. Although the characters are all relevant and connected to one another, it was a struggle for me to stay interested here. This novel definitely explores race, class and addiction, but I don’t know…maybe I just wasn’t the right audience for the ensemble cast approach it uses. Once I began to like, hate, or empathize with someone it was off to another person, time, and place. For me this book just seemed too broad, too many bits and pieces.

The quality of the writing is decent, so Frumkin is definitely a writer to watch. This book will probably get good reviews from other people, so maybe my issues here are simply ones of personal preference.

3 stars.

[Note: A digital copy of this book was provided by the publisher, Henry Holt Co., and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. ]

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Review: Sometimes I Lie

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Review for "Sometimes I Lie" by Alice Feeney (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Ahhh…man. THIS book.

To tell you anything specific about the plot or the characters of this novel is to ruin it–so I won’t. It’s gotten really good reviews online, and this time I must say that the hype is well deserved. There is a blurb on the author’s website that this book has been green lit for television, which is cool because as I read this I could totally picture this on Netflix or Hulu or something. Bingeable TV. There’s also a sequel being written, which is set to come out in 2019.

So here’s the basic “basics”: When the book begins, Amber, the main character, is in a coma. She confesses immediately that she tells lies, and that her husband doesn’t love her. She hears everything going on around her (her husband and her sister’s visits, for instance) though she doesn’t remember the event that landed her in the coma. She eventually discovers that she’s been in a car accident.

This book is essentially split into three parts that are narrated interchangeably: now (Amber’s observations while in her lucid, comatose state), then (events leading up to the week before the accident), and before (childhood diary entries). Throughout much of the novel, I have to admit that I was completely in the dark about what each strand of the narrative had to do with the other. Gradually, however, the connections came into focus and lemme tell ya…things (and people!) were not what they seemed. There are several twists here, and even though I’m not a “twist-a-plot” lovin’ kinda person, it worked perfectly here.

As I finished this book I immediately realized that it plays with two very common tropes–the unreliable narrator and the complex nature of female friendships. It’s really nothing new in fiction, but both of these things are mashed up here in a really hip, interesting way.

I loved this book. If you do read it, try to do so in as few sittings as possible–I guarantee it’s better that way.

[A digital copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher, Flatiron Books, as well as NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: Gun Love

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Review for "Gun Love" by Jennifer Clement (2018)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Meh, didn’t really like this book.

“Gun Love” is the story of Pearl France, a 14-year-old girl living with her mother in a parked car in a derelict Florida trailer park. Intriguing characters abound in and about the Indian Waters Trailer Park: Pearl’s best friend April May and her parents, Rose and Sergeant Bob, the clergyman of gun buy-backs, Pastor Rex, and Corazon, a Selena-loving, gun toting Mexican woman.

Pearl and her mother share a special bond until she forms a relationship with a mysterious man who hangs around the trailer park named Eli. I won’t tell you what happens specifically with this character for the purposes of this review, but I will say that after he comes into the novel (about 30% of the way in) the narrative begins to fall apart completely. Characters come and go after this point, and none of them are fleshed out enough to move the story along. I also skimmed the last 10% of this book, the events of which seemed totally pointless.

Overall, I liked the writing here but I think the plot could have been handled better.

[Note: I received a free digital copy of this book from the publisher, Hogarth Press, and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: I Stop Somewhere

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Review for "I Stop Somewhere" by T.E. Carter (to be published on 28 February 2018)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I didn’t like this book. It’s kind of a mashup between “The Lovely Bones” and “13 Reasons Why,” neither of which I liked either. I read this fairly quickly, not because I was engaged with it, but out of desperation to get it over and done with.

Ellie is a quiet, shy teenage girl in a small New York town being raised by a single father. She comes from a working class background and quickly becomes enamored with a wealthy local businessman’s son, Caleb. From frequent flashbacks, we know that Caleb is not what he seems. He is cruel and sadistic, as well as the main perpetrator in a string of brutal assaults and rapes of local girls, one of which ends Ellie’s life.

The first 100 pages of this book are unbearable. Ellie is a spirit, trapped in the location of the last moments of her life, watching from the afterlife as girl after girl is taken to the same abandoned house and brutally assaulted and raped. She drifts back and forth between each act of violence she witnesses to narrate events in her former life, which quite frankly, doesn’t have much plot depth or character development.

Let’s pause and talk about this for a moment. This is one of my greatest pet peeves in fiction–authors who overemphasize rape and acts of violence through excessive narrative detail, with very little to no character development (the film equivalent to this is known as “torture porn”). It’s gratuitous, it’s voyeuristic, and worse, it does absolutely nothing to challenge the rape or the rapist, nor does it shift power in favor of the victim. You cannot conquer rape culture or violence through “torture porn”- style writing. It only serves its own end, which is to capitulate on the sexist notion that to keep people interested, women must die or be somewhere in the act of dying. It’s wrong.

Thankfully, the tone of the book does shift in the second part, which turns to the voices of the victims. There is a kind of reckoning in the end that’s somewhat hopeful, along with a thoughtful commentary on victim-blaming and why Ellie’s disappearance was ignored for so long (i.e., she’s from a lower social class and not from the “better” side of the tracks). I still don’t like this book though. Even though the sun does comes out in the end, there was too much bleakness, too much of a lingering dark cloud here. If I hadn’t have read the first part I think I would have felt better about it, or maybe even given this a higher rating.

This book is categorized as YA, btw. If I was troubled greatly by reading this, I cannot imagine what it does to the psyche of a younger person, who may or may not possess the insights to deal with this level of realism. Proceed with caution.

[Note: I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher and NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: My Name is Venus Black

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Review for "My Name is Venus Black" by Heather Lloyd (to be published on 27 February 2018)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Meh, I didn’t care for this book.

“My Name is Venus Black” opens with 13-year-old Venus locked up for a crime that she refuses to elaborate on. For the sake of not spoiling the novel I won’t tell you what the crime is either, other than to say that she spends a little over five years in a juvenile facility for it. During Venus’ incarceration, her younger brother Leo, who is developmentally disabled, is kidnapped by a family member (this is not a spoiler–part of the novel is told from his perspective). Her mother Inez, with whom Venus has a contentious relationship, blames her for Leo’s disappearance and the police do not succeed in locating him. Eventually, Venus emerges as an adult from juvenile prison. She proceeds to get a fake name, a job, rents a room in a boarding house, and tries to acquire some sense of normalcy. She does not get past her longing to find her brother, which grows as the story goes on.

This is a novel about moving on from the past and finding forgiveness. There are problems here though, and none of them have anything to do with the plot. First, this book has an identity problem. The publisher is clearly marketing it as literary/general fiction, but the tone, characterization, the language (and yes, the plot) very much read like a YA novel. Not that I have a problem with YA–I love YA–but this book does not seem as if it were written for adults. As a matter of fact, I could put this book and pretty much any YA novel out right now side by side and find about 10 points of similarity to rest my case on. The categorization of this book seems like an glaring error, like maybe it was originally intended as YA and someone stuck it in the general lit category at the last minute.

There’s also strange shifts in points of view here. Venus’ POV is always first person, but everyone else’s thoughts are presented in a third person omniscient voice, which changes often–sometimes in the same chapter. And oddly enough, at least 3 of the perspectives told consistently here are of adults. Which brings me back to the genre problem I was just talking about. Could it be that some editor made a suggestion and stuck this in the general lit category just because of the inclusion of adult perspectives? If so, that was an ill-advised decision.

And oh yeah, the ending. The details of Venus’ crime aren’t revealed until the last few pages of the book. By then, with all the hints dropped, I pretty much already knew what had happened anyway. This delay seemed unnecessary, like bad suspense. The end was also kinda Lifetime movie-ish. You know, like when you’ve watched the drama go down and then all the so-angry-at-each-other characters end up sitting around drinking lemonade together while the credits roll? Zzzz.

Overall, it’s not a bad book, but there were too many issues here to give it more than 2 stars.

This book has a pretty cover. I like stars.

[Note: An advance electronic copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher, Dial Press, as well as NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: Freshwater

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Review for "Freshwater" by Akwaeke Emezi (to be published on 13 February 2018)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Wow.

I have no better way to start this review, so I’ll say it again: Wow.

Reading a novel like “Freshwater” was a completely new experience for me. To step into its pages was to venture into a beautifully strange, dark world, the realm of something amazing: ancient gods, beauty, life, death. “Freshwater” is also the world of a young woman’s troubled mind.

Ada, whose life is the focus of the story, is just one of the characters here. She is conjured through her father’s prayers and born into a middle-class Nigerian family with “one foot on the other side.” Early on, you come to realize that the ‘side’ is the spiritual realm and the ‘foot’ that the author is referring to is a pathway through which primordial gods freely enter and inhabit Ada’s physical body. Much of the story is narrated by these gods, who are birthed and rebirthed several times and call themselves “we” throughout the novel. Also present in Ada’s body are two distinct spirits: Asughara and Saint Vincent, the former being the more powerful of the two. As Ada grows older, Asughara begins to control more of her actions and her voice fades into the background. Very little of the book is narrated by Ada, she lives instead through a smaller, fractured self.

The spirits that inhabit Ada’s body desire to pass back over to the other side–the only limitation being that they are attached to Ada’s physical self. As the book progresses, Asughara, Saint Vincent, and the “we” become protectors to Ada, taking over when the current situation and/or the people in her life are too much for her to handle. They also push her to dangerous extremes. I loved the way in which this book completely detaches you from what you think you know about mental illness and cleverly uses spirituality to frame the narrative instead. Through Ada’s ‘spirits’ multiple themes are explored: racism, addiction, self-mutilation, gender nonconformity, and religion, among others.

There is a brutalness in this writing that comes through in the multi-layered narration the author has chosen for this book. In the end, this is a book about coming into one’s own voice, despite what that voice says and how many lives it has lead in the past.

This is not light reading, folks. Come to this novel prepared to underline passages, expand your mind, and think outside of the box. When I arrived at the end of this book, I realized that there was nothing I had previously read that I could rightfully compare this to. “Freshwater” stands on its own as a creative work that is uniquely beautiful. It fights labels and categories, it truly stands in a genre by itself.

Five stars.

[Note: An advance electronic copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher, Grove Press, as well as NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: The Wolves of Winter

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Review for "The Wolves of Winter" by Tyrell Johnson (2018)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

“The Wolves of Winter” is a post-apocalyptic tale that takes place in a not-so-distant future in which most of the world has been ravaged by nuclear war. Shortly after, a deadly flu virus breaks out that kills the rest of the remaining population. Lynn, 12 years old at the time, escapes with her mother, father, and older brother to the Yukon wilderness for safety, where the flu is of a weaker strain. She eventually loses her father to the disease and takes up with her remaining family, living a mostly peaceful existence for several years until a mysterious stranger, Jax, wanders into their homestead. Jax brings a dangerous, government sponsored agency on his heels called Immunity which seek to capture him at all costs. Lynn is enthralled with Jax, who she comes to trust in discovering her personal connection to the flu epidemic.

I liked this book alright. I’d call it a PG-13 version of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” minus the cannibalism and much of the gore. Even though Lynn is in her early twenties, this book had a YA-ish kind of feel to it. I’m not sure if the author intended it that way, though the character of Lynn sure seems like she was originally intended for a YA novel. For one, Lynn falls girlishly hard for Jax despite their almost non-existent chemistry (cue pop music and the hallway locker scene). Second, she requires rescuing–a lot. Whether it’s in a snow storm or a tent encampment or in a fight with baddies, Lynn is constantly being dragged to safety by someone. It’s annoying.

The other characters are rather bland as well. The Immunity agents never rise above stock villainy, complete with descriptions of their wolf-like sneers and general menace. I also had trouble keeping up with the good-guy male characters because they’re so much alike you don’t remember who is who after awhile. And then there’s the dialogue, which at times, just seemed kind of clumsy. The action takes forever to get going, but once it did, this book was surprisingly readable.

Not bad for a debut. I’d definitely give this book a chance, particularly if you like sci-fi inspired, dystopian reads as much as I do.

[Note: A free digital advance copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher, Scribner, and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]