Review: Things We Lost in the Fire

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.]


Review: Inside Madeleine

Review for "Inside Madeleine" by Paula Bomer (2014)
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Oh snap…five stars.

I did the audiobook for this and for the first time since I’ve started consuming books this way, I found myself listening intently to every. single. word. that was read: staying in my driveway with the AC running, leaving my headphones on longer in the evenings, you get the idea. This collection of stories is highly engaging, smutty, and just plain grotesque. And I loved it.

Each story deals with female characters and the complicated relationship they have with their bodies and the people around them. All of the characters are young, all of them desperate, and all (if I’m not mistaken) are from South Bend, Indiana. “Eye Socket Girls” is about an anorexic girl’s stint in a hospital, “Down the Alley,” is the tale of a teenage girl’s self-discovery and rebellion, and the novella-length title story, “Inside Madeleine,” is a tour de force about the complex relationship between a teenage girl and her body.

I loved the way that these stories seemingly hide…well, nothing. None of these characters are particularly likeable, but they weren’t supposed to be. Even the sex scenes were raunchy and vulgar, but they clearly weren’t meant to titillate the audience. All of the characters in each story came across as relatable and achingly real and I had no choice but to feel them.

Did I tell you I loved this book?

Must read.

Review: Mexico

Review for "Mexico" by Josh Barkan (2017)
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Josh Barkan’s “Mexico” is a collection of short stories from people (mostly Americans) of all walks of life living and working around modern-day Mexico City. Running throughout these selections is the theme of violence, mostly from drug dealers, gangs, cartels, and other figures involved in the narcotics trade. In “The Kidnapping,” an American becomes a victim of a violent abduction by a cartel. “The Chef and El Chapo” is about a chef who is forced to cook for the infamous criminal, and “The Sharpshooter” is about a U.S. government agent on a secret mission sent to kill, well, you guessed it…a narco criminal.

Needless to say, I didn’t like this book. In today’s political climate just the mention of the word Mexico is used to connote all things wrong with immigration, the War on Drugs, the American economy, and life in general. Do we Yankees really need more scary stories about what a crime-laden, drug filled place Mexico is? I went into this volume of stories knowing that the majority of it would be about violence, but after reading it my opinion is the same. There’s nothing new here, just a lot of non-emotional storytelling about the dregs of society and the people caught in its grip. It’s yet another narrow, limited view of a multi-faceted country with beautiful and hardworking people, the majority of which are NOT a part of the narco trade.

And there was something else that bothered me…Josh Barkan is a white, Ivy League educated world traveler. The back flap tells us he lives in Mexico City, yet I’m not impressed with this fact. Although the book is titled Mexico, it’s main characters are white people in Mexico, who speak from a self-imposed position of privileged authority. The Mexicans in this volume are mere props, one-dimensional characters from which white folks learn their life lessons about the evils of world. It’s a colonialist’s wet dream, and I hated it.

Do yourself a favor and don’t read this.

Review: Difficult Women

Review for "Difficult Women" by Roxane Gay (2017)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Lemme say this first: I love Roxane Gay. She’s a fearless writer, and has a great sense of humor on social media. I liked her collection of essays, Bad Feminist, and her novel, An Untamed State, was nothing short of sensational. When I got approved to read her latest book of short stories through NetGalley, I was absolutely thrilled.

Needless to say, this collection of stories is ummm…well, less than thrilling.

This book is hard to quantify. There are a lot of stories here (twenty-one, to be exact) and they range in length from a couple of pages to over twenty. Some of the stories use fantasy and elements of magical realism, others skip all of that and are very much rooted in reality. There are a lot of recurring themes in this book, many of which were highly disturbing to read about. For one, there is a lot of occurrences of rape in this book. A lot. Physical abuse and masochism are also prominent–scenes of not just women being arbitrarily beaten by the men in their lives, but women characters who actually want to be beaten, raped, abused, punished. It’s bizarre. And it’s in story after story here. After a while it just gets exhausting, but perhaps that was the whole point. I didn’t like it.

More prominent themes: the relationship between twins (male and female), siblings, desolate surroundings, interracial relationships, loss. There’s also a lot of sex. I repeat, a lot of sex. Just about every story has some pretty graphic sex content. Not that I care, but damn, Roxane, I didn’t think you rolled like that…lol.

I won’t go through all of the stories here but I will say that “I Will Follow You,” “Difficult Women,” and “Strange Gods” were probably my top three faves. Overall, this is three stars for me because I just found the themes and the characters far too bleak for me to connect with it. I didn’t care so much for the content as I would like to hear the conversation that will probably come up in circles who read this book. Either way, I’ll continue to read Ms. Roxane Gay, she’s definitely a talent to be reckoned with.

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

Review: Homesick for Another World

Review for "Homesick for Another World" by Ottessa Moshfegh (to be published on 17 January 2017)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Ottessa Moshfegh is a writer after my own heart. This is not science fiction (although the cover is deceiving) or a happy volume of stories. Each tale here has a dark, flawed, transgressive quality to it. Her characters are all grossly unlikeable, yet they stick you like Gorilla Glue long after you’ve finished reading them. I loved her novel Eileen, and honestly I really just love Moshfegh so much period that whatever she’s got I know I’m probably going to like it. There are about a dozen stories in Homesick, some of which have already appeared in other fiction journals over the years, but it’s cool because they’re worth a second look. In “A Dark and Winding Road” a man gets more than he bargained for on a trip to a mountain cabin. In “Bettering Myself” a thirty-something teacher finds that the key to her own happiness really isn’t a key at all. In “Slumming” a woman finds solace in dysfunctional behavior and drug addiction. All of the characters here are mired in riddles and self-delusion, and I won’t give away the rest of the stories here but please take my word when I tell you that the prose here is definitely top-notch. I’ll continue to read whatever this woman writes.

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

Review: American Housewife


Review for “American Housewife” by Helen Ellis (2016)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

After several months of waiting for this to be available at the library, I finally got a copy of this book. I’m thankful for this, because this book is so god-awfully bad I’d never consider owning it.

There are 12 stories in this collection, all of them centered around a Southern Stepford wife theme (i.e., party hosting, bra fittings, pageants). Sometimes it was successful here, but most of the time it wasn’t. The only story that was somewhat entertaining was “The Wainscoting War,” a humorous exchange between two women told through emails. “The Fitter,” a story about a legendary bra fitter’s wife was ok, but didn’t leave much of an impression on me, and “Dumpster Diving with Stars,” a selection about an irreverent reality tv show, was bland and ridiculously long for no reason. Several of the stories address the reader directly, like a how-to manual on a variety of subjects and customs, but after what I just described above, I honestly didn’t care. Zzzz.

I couldn’t wait for these stories to be over, which says a lot about a book that’s only 185 pages long. I understand that the author is satirizing a well-worn stereotype of Old South gentility, but it’s way overdone and the women in these stories are far too cliched to ever be taken seriously.

I imagine that people will either love or hate this book, appreciate the punchline that comes with it or roll their eyes in complete scorn. You can probably guess what my response to this book was. It simply was not my cup of tea. At all.

Review: Love and Other Wounds


Review for “Love and Other Wounds” by Jordan Harper (2015)

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

This is a book that tries to swagger but isn’t as ‘hard’ as it thinks it is. Crime noir that’s very much in the same vein as Frank Bill’s “Crimes in Southern Indiana” (which I actually liked), but set in different locales and much much worse.

What this is: a collection of short stories with bad ass characters doing the same bad ass things with the same bad ass prose we’ve already read elsewhere. There’s redneck prison yard gangsters, men who breed dogs to die in fighting pits, criminals, hit men, meth addicts, etc, etc…by the third story I was bored out of my mind. It’s not so much the violent content that bothers me as much as the fact that there’s nothing new in this book, just the same old thin, worn out characters and plots in each selection, along with gratuitous amounts of blood and gore. This book is also littered with the n-word, as if it were a Quentin Tarantino movie, without any kind of context whatsoever and I hated every moment of it.

Lemme repeat: I actually like crime noir. I am not indicting stories about low-lives and their misdeeds, because they can be transformative. But this is not good crime noir. Harper goes beyond this label and calls his writing ‘thug lit,’ and while it may be the thing for some, I couldn’t stand this. At all.