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.]

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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.]

Review: Ultraluminous

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Review for “Ultraluminous” by Katherine Faw (to be published on 5 December 2017)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I like Katherine Faw. I also liked this book.

No one in this short novel has a real name, including the narrator. Everyone she meets assumes she is Russian, so there are a series of Russian-influenced pseudonyms here (Katya, Karina, Katinka) that substitute for her identity. The narrator works as a prostitute, specializing in high end clients and girlfriend-experience type encounters. On constant rotation are her experiences with such clients such as “the junk bond guy,” “the calf’s brain guy,” “the art guy,” and “the guy who buys me things.” There is also “the ex-Army Ranger,” a man that she never charges, and “the Sheik,” a man she worked for in Dubai.

Not only does the narrator not tell you her name, she never reveals her thoughts either. We only witness her actions, a bizarre series of ‘patterns’ that the narrator adheres to like clockwork. In addition to her clients, she loves trips to Duane Reade for sushi, getting waxed, snorting heroin, trips to Duane Reade for sushi, getting waxed, snorting heroin…and so on. The sex and drug encounters are blunt and matter of fact, she simply moves from one event to the next. The silence between the printed words makes this story interestingly ambiguous until it comes into clear focus at the end.

Four stars. Read if only if you’re looking for an adventure or an experimental type story.

[A free, digital copy of this book was provided by NetGalley and the publisher, MCD, in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: Getting Off: One Woman’s Journey Through Sex and Porn Addiction

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Review for "Getting Off: One Woman's Journey Through Sex and Porn Addiction" by Erica Garza (to be published on 16 January 2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Often times when we hear about sex addiction, it is a taboo subject. It is also a narrative that is usually dominated by men. “Getting Off” is one of the few books about this topic that I’ve read that’s written by a woman, and shows the wide range of emotions and dysfunctions that goes along with this affliction.

Garza’s struggle with sex addiction begins when she is twelve and continues long into her adulthood. She has a brilliant writing style–raw, at times funny, and painfully honest in its detail. Once I started reading this book I didn’t put it down and finished it in a manner of hours. As you can guess from the subject matter, it is quite x-rated in certain scenes, so it’s not for the puritanical or faint of heart. If you can move beyond this, however, you will find this an enlightening and enjoyable read.

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

Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing

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Review for "Sing, Unburied, Sing" by Jesmyn Ward (2017)

Rating: none

DNF, right around 54%.

I simply couldn’t get into this book. Not that it wasn’t good, or that Jesmyn Ward isn’t a sensational writer (she is), but I just don’t think that this book is quite for me at this time. I go through phases with my reading, sometimes I can endure what I’m not into and sometimes I find it so unbearable I can’t finish. This one of those times.

Despite what the reviews say, I found this to be a very depressing novel from the outset. Preteen Jojo and his sister are from an impoverished family near the Mississippi border, living with (and pardon my French) the most fucked-up parents imaginable. Michael, his father, is a former convict, and Leonie, his mother, is a drug addict who gets high on the regular and talks to her dead brother. Despite his parents’ waywardness, Jojo is a good kid who manages to take on a parental role to his sister Kayla. He is wise beyond his years in a way that a child should not have to be, which made my anger toward his parents all the more apparent. Pop, Jojo’s grandfather, is also a kind man, who seemed to add a bit of tenderness to the story.

There is a lot of magical realism in this novel (ghosts that are very much real, etc.) and even though I’ve read plenty of stories with it, I found this element to be kind of confusing. As the story went on, I felt farther and farther away from it, which is pretty much why I stopped reading it.

I see myself coming back to this book, probably in the near future. For now though, I won’t rate it, other than to say that it wasn’t quite for me.

[Thanks to NetGalley and Scribner for a free digital copy of this book.]

Review: Cuz

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Review of "Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A" by Danielle Allen (to be published on 5 September 2017)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A” is the true life story of the author’s younger cousin Michael, who was arrested at the age of 15 in Los Angeles for the crime of attempted carjacking. He was charged as an adult, served eleven years in prison, and was released in 2009. Three years later, his body was discovered in his vehicle, riddled with bullets.

Danielle Allen, an academic at Harvard University, peels away the layers of Michael’s troubled personal and family life and attempts to find an answer for why her cousin’s life came to such a tragic and violent end. She manages to write a really good background sociological perspective of Los Angeles, with its gangs, segregated neighborhoods, and history of mass incarceration that was very relevant to the discussion of the personal facts she presents. All in all, a very solid work that anyone who is interested in urban sociology would appreciate.

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

Review: Things We Lost in the Fire

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Review for "Things We Lost in the Fire" by Mariana Enriquez (2017)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

It took me a month to get through this book, which is not fitting for a collection of stories that’s less than 250 pages long. The reason for my slower-than-average read time is because “Things We Lost in the Fire” is a very, very dark collection of tales, all set in modern day Argentina. I read my NetGalley copy at first, but the mood was so unsettling that I moved to an audiobook format to finish it. Even with the audiobook, I had to prep myself (i.e., be in a kind of ‘blank’ mental state) to continue it.

Typical of Latin American fiction, there’s elements of magical realism, the supernatural, and surreality in these stories, but that doesn’t counter the macabre subject matter here. In this collection, there are ghosts, hauntings, extreme violence, torture, rape, and girls who set themselves on fire. The central characters are mostly young people and most, if not all, of the stories carry a hint of uncertainty about whether the events the characters experienced really happened or not. In “The Dirty Kid,” a young woman is obsessed with a homeless boy who may or may not have been the victim of a Satanic ritual killing. “The Intoxicated Years” is about a group of teenage girls who spend their time taking psychadelic drugs. “Adela’s House” focuses on a girl who goes into a haunted house and is never seen again. In “The Neighbor’s Courtyard,” a former social worker is convinced that a neighbor has chained up a young boy in his backyard, who eventually eats the main character’s cat. And the title story, “Things We Lost in the Fire” is about a woman who self-immolates before an audience.

For me, this is material that I could not just read. I had to experience it, surround myself in it, and ultimately, suffer through it. Suffering, however, is not always a bad thing, because it is through this collection of stories you realize how much Argentina’s bloody political dictatorship past left its mark on people’s lives. If you’re down explore this, I wholeheartedly recommend this book to you. I give this four stars because the writing is quite good with no flaws to be found.

[Note: A free digital copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher, Hogarth Press, as well as NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]