Review for "Tyrell" by Coe Booth (2006)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Meet Tyrell. He is a 15 year old Black kid living in a roach-infested homeless shelter in the Bronx with his cracked-out mother and little brother. To make a living and supplement his mother’s SSI checks, he scams riders at subway stations. His father is incarcerated, he has long since given up on going to school. He refuses to sell drugs and doesn’t have much but a detailed knowledge of the streets, a fierce desire to protect his brother, a girlfriend that he loves, and a plan to make a lot of money by DJing at a party to get his family out of the shelter.
What I like about this book is that Coe Booth makes Tyrell a deeply flawed, multifaceted character. I could not help but to love him despite his bad (and sometimes very violent) choices, many of which reflect a sexist attitude toward women. He gets it right and he gets it wrong–but I always understood the “why” of Tyrell, as he reflects the manifestation of a life not lived but survived, a boy grown up too fast. This novel is the thought process of a man-child with no role models or people that he trusts. The streets have nurtured him, he’s raising himself. The empathy you feel for Tyrell carries you through this novel and make his life and his motivations understandable.
This book will shock those who are not familiar with (or, who simply choose to ignore) the lives of Black and Latin urban teenagers. There’s lots of cursing here, along with casual drug use, sexual situations. There’s also non-standard English, constant use of the word “nigga.” Get over it. Although “Tyrell” is YA, this is clearly not White suburban YA. It should not be controversial, then, that a story about a Black urban teenager is appropriately written in a language that is familiar to that audience. Given the realistic subject matter here, the language simply is what it is. It fits the novel perfectly.
Needless to say, I loved this book. There’s a sequel to this, I’ll be picking that up too.
Review of "City of Saints and Thieves" by Natalie C. Anderson (2017)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Tina is a Congolese refugee and a motherless child, as well as one of the few female members of the Goondas, a gang of street thieves in Kenya. She cares for her younger sister, Kiki, while she fantasizes about revenge on Mr. Greyhill, a wealthy business magnate and employer of Tina’s mother, whom she suspects had her murdered after learning of his shady business dealings. With the help of the Goondas, Tina breaks into the Greyhill’s estate and is discovered by their son, Michael. The two form a reluctant alliance and go deeper into the dark side of Kenyan society to discover who murdered Tina’s mother.
With all that said, this was supposed to be a good book. The writing is fine, the setting is well-researched, and the character is kick-ass, there’s no complaints there. I think where this book lost me is somewhere in the middle when it lost the feel of a true revenge thriller. There really is only one suspect, and we find out before the middle of the book is over that it isn’t him. Although we know Tina seeks revenge for her mother’s death, that plot turn is also settled fairly early on in the novel. That left this book kinda hanging by a thread and less about the mystery we were promised and more about a girls’ search for her past. Not bad, just not quite what I expected.
Three stars–no more, no less.
Review for "Hold Tight, Don't Let Go" by Laura Rose Wagner (2015)
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
It’s rare when a book touches you down to your core. You cry (maybe more than once), you read certain passages over and over, you find yourself thinking about the characters in those moments you’re not reading it. This was one such book.
Hold Tight, Don’t Let Go is the story of two 16-year-old cousins, Nadine and Magdalie, raised as sisters by Nadine’s mother in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. The story opens during the first frightening moments of the devastating January 2010 earthquake, with the cousins losing their home, their aunt, and everything they own within several minutes. They eventually move into a makeshift camp with their uncle and scrape by, surviving through the oppressive heat, the lack of food, and the horribly unsanitary conditions there. Eventually Nadine’s father in the U.S. sends for her and she leaves Magdalie behind, promising to send for her later.
From this point, this is really Magdalie’s story. She hopes for Nadine to send for her, but as time passes it becomes obvious to our character that this is not going to happen. We follow Magdalie over the next two years as she makes a living in the Haiti that struggles to rebuild after the quake and the range of emotions she takes in the process–desperation, anger, and eventually hope. I don’t want to give away the ending, but this is a beautiful book. The descriptions, the sights, the smells, the music, I really felt like I was there. It is clear that the author spent time in this place and her understanding of the culture of this land is evident.
5 stars. Do read this.
Review for “Rikers High” by Paul Volponi (2010)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Martin Stokes is a likable 17-year-old teenager who gets locked up in one of the nation’s most notoriously violent jails for “steering” (telling an undercover officer where to buy drugs) and is sent to NYC’s Rikers Island. Due to the terrible backlog of the city’s criminal justice system and his family’s inability to pay bail, he is forced to spend several months in custody until his case comes up and is heard by the judge. To make his situation worse, he becomes an innocent bystander during a scuffle between two other inmates and gets slashed on the face, physically scarring him.
Martin is eventually transferred to an area where he is forced to go to school, and it is here when the real action of the story begins. Be warned though, this book is filled with tons of “lock-up” slang that only those who have spent some time in a NY state correctional facility would understand. Even though the author does a decent job of explaining the lingo (a blurb on the back of the book says that he was a teacher on Rikers Island for several years), it still makes an awkward narrative. Riot officers who break up fights in housing units are “turtles,” solitary confinement is “the bing,” the dorms where youth are held are known as the “Sprung,” and members of violent gang crews are referred to as “doldiers” (a combination of the words ‘dummy’ and ‘soldiers’), and so on.
Even though you understand Martin’s plight, his character and everyone else’s in this book was really thin and undeveloped. Part of this may have actually been intentional, due to the fact that we as a society tend to view all prisoners as the worst of the worst, the literal “throwaways” of society. The problem though is that even though this is the case, it’s just not enough to help you care more about what’s going on with the characters here. It’s also woefully unrealistic: Martin, a young black male, serves his time, learns his lesson, goes back home and moves on. This is usually not the case in real life. As we all know, many young black men with a felony on their criminal record are more likely to eventually return to jail: mostly due to factors such as a lack of resources, low employment prospects, poor quality education, etc. Prison is a giant revolving door, and few manage to break this destructive cycle. I would think that the author would use this book to make a statement on the effed-up state of the criminal justice system, but I digress.
I do recommend this book for YA readers, specifically for teenage boys, who we all know are notoriously hard to engage in reading. It’s a fair cautionary tale, and even though I didn’t like it, they will.