Review: The Usual Suspects

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Review for "The Usual Suspects" by Maurice Broaddus (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Thelonius Caldwell is very much like many of the boys I taught in my ten years as a middle school teacher: bright, mischievous, and labeled as “special ed.” Despite his label he is very keen in his perceptions of people and aware of the reality that he is being ‘warehoused’ (i.e., placed in a self contained classroom with similar students and given sleep-inducing lessons until he either drops out or is removed via expulsion). Because the school and his teachers have low expectations of him, Thelonius and his friend Nehemiah pass the time by playing pranks on the staff, causing chaos between students, and just plain acting silly.

One day, a gun is found in a park near their school. Because Thelonius and Nehemiah have a reputation for bad behavior, the principal rounds them up and blames them for the incident. Knowing that he did nothing wrong, Thelonius begins to search for the culprit, careful not to break the code of the streets by being a ‘snitch.’ This story traces the route along his journey for answers, playing homage to the 1995 film “The Usual Suspects.” There’s even a Keyser Soze kinda figure, which is pretty brilliant for a kid’s book.

I definitely recommend this novel. Sure, it’s readable children’s book fare but there’s a sad subtext here: the reality that far too many poor children of color are placed in “special ed” classes and, once there, nobody supports or listens to them. Research shows that these are the kids who are most likely to drop out of school entirely and end up in the criminal justice system, or just to have poor outcomes in life in general. It’s a very real depiction of their lives.

4 stars.

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Review: With the Fire on High

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Review for "With the Fire on High" by Elizabeth Acevedo (2019)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

After reading and immensely liking “The Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo, I knew I had to read this. Although I liked this one as well, I wouldn’t say it’s as good as her first.

Emoni Santiago is a high school senior and mother to Emma, her 2 year old daughter. She is also an aspiring chef, integrating her own unique twists on traditional home cooked Puerto Rican recipes. In addition to her parental and school responsibilities, Emoni works hard at a burger restaurant, has a supportive best friend, and a kind grandmother who helps to raise her daughter. This novel is mostly the story of Emoni’s senior year of high school, in which she begins to nurture her love of cooking by taking a culinary arts elective at school. The class requires a trip to Spain, and Emoni, a single mom of modest means, is faced with the burden of raising money to go. In addition to this, there is some minor drama with Emma’s father, as well as unresolved issues in her relationship with her father.

Although I liked this book and its short chapters make it intensely readable, the main problem here is that I felt it lacked a conflict. Yes, Emoni does struggle, but she eventually gets what she wants. I am not saying that this is a bad thing, she’s a great character who I empathized with and desperately wanted to win. Buuuuttt…it just made for a kinda blah narrator. The romance is reluctant and felt forced, there was never a point in the book where I didn’t know that things would improve. It’s perfectly put together and predictable.

Still, I won’t go less than 4 stars here. I love Elizabeth Acevedo, and I think her writing about Afro-Latina character is super-important, particularly with all of the discussion in lit circles these days about diverse books. I also think that her choice to feature a urban teenage mother of color that is not a caricature or a stereotype was a very brave one that should be commended. The cover art is cool too (is that Alicia Keys??) Woooooww…

Review: Heroine

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Review for "Heroine" by Mindy McGiniss (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This book will crush your soul. I definitely recommend a trigger warning if you’re not in a good place emotionally or mentally. This book does contain scenes of drug use, particularly opioids.

Mickey Catalan is a star catcher on her high school softball team. After a devastating car accident leaves her with a hip injury, she is prescribed the painkiller Oxycontin. Not only do the pills take away the pain, they make her feel good. She begins to take them more and more often, until her supply dries up. She then finds an illegal source who sells her Oxy, and along with a group of friends who also use and offer her friendship and acceptance. As pressure for Mickey to stay in top athletic form continues, her dependence on Oxy spirals out of control. Her supply dries up and she eventually turns to shooting heroin.

Before I started this book, I was afraid it would fall into the all-too-common trap of romanticizing drug use. While the highs of opioids are described here, it’s equally balanced with scenes of the gut-wrenching lows of withdrawal. Mickey’s POV is first person, so we follow her as she spirals more and more into addiction. It’s really well written, there’s a devastating energy here that hits really hard and doesn’t stop until the end.

I only give this book 4 stars because it’s so raw I would never read it again.

Review: Internment

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Review for "Internment" by Samira Ahmed (2019)

Rating: None (DNF)

Not going to rate this because I DNF’d this one, right at about 30%.

“Fifteen minutes into the future,” Muslim-American teenager Layla finds herself in an internment camp in the desert of California, placed with her family there after an Islamophobic president (sound familiar?) enacts an Exclusion Law, prompting the government to round up Muslims and relocate them. It’s pretty horrifying but feels achingly real in today’s climate: neighbors turning on other neighbors, the government pursuing those who resist. Layla and her family are taken to a dusty outpost in the California desert and treated not much better than animals. Despite the harsh reality of the camps and the danger of escape, Layla begins to plot how to take down the system for good.

The idea behind this book is excellent, exactly why it immediately found its way on my TBR list. But the execution, MY LORD…

For one, let’s talk about the universe of this novel. We’re told this story occurs “15 minutes” in a not so distant future, but there is no build up or explanation of how we got here. The author assumes we get it, but I’m sorry–all of us don’t. The premise is heavily based on the Japanese internment of WW2, but the author makes the assumption that her readers have a detailed understanding of these events. Even if the topic is contemporary, worlds still must be built up, a reader needs to feel as if they’re a part of it. I didn’t get this at all here. There’s no effort to familiarize or explore the background, just a small info dump and then bam….we’re in the camp with Layla.

Two: the characters. There’s not much to Layla’s voice. She hates the camp, she disagrees with her docile parents, she thinks about her boyfriend a lot. Granted I didn’t finish it, but with this basic info–why would I want to? The guards and the director of the camp yell and pound their fists and drag people away like your typical stock bad guys. There’s a lot of telling here and very little showing, I wasn’t compelled and I wasn’t convinced.

Overall, great idea but not executed with a whole lot of care and consideration.

Most Wanted Reads for Spring

Since I missed yesterday’s Top Ten Tuesday, I’m just going to post 10 of my most anticipated reads for this coming spring, in no particular order. Enjoy!

Fiction

Queenie – Candice Carty-Williams (March 19)

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The Other Americans – Laila Lalami (March 26)

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A Woman is No Man – Etaf Rum (March 5)

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Lot – Bryan Washington (March 19)

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The Dreamers – Karen Thompson Walker (January 15)

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Nonfiction

Shout – Laurie Halse Anderson (March 12)

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The White Book – Han Kang (February 19, US Edition)

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What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker – Damon Young (March 26)

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Young Adult/YA

Internment – Samira Ahmed (March 19)

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With the Fire on High – Elizabeth Acevedo (May 7)

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Review: New Kid

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Review for "New Kid" by Jerry Craft (2019)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

This is a really cool middle grades graphic novel about school, race, family, and friendship.

The main character, Jordan (ironically, the name of my own son) is a 12-year-old kid who lives with his parents in the Washington Heights neighborhood of NYC. He loves gaming and drawing, and due to his good grades he begins to attend a wealthy prep school on financial aid, finding himself among the few students of color there. In his new school, Jordan finds that he has access to greater intellectual pursuits but at the same time he experiences an incredible amount of racism, mostly in the form of microaggressions by teachers and students alike.

The graphics and the art in this book are top-notch. Interspersed within the book are Jordan’s own sketches of his impressions of literature, art, and pop culture–which are quite humorous, to say the least. One of the most profound scenes towards the end is when Jordan eventually sees through many of his own prejudices and stands up for a fellow classmate.

Definitely buy this book. I’d recommend to adults and kids alike.

Review: A Few Red Drops

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Review for "A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919" by Claire Hartfield (2018)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I’ve been meaning to read more YA nonfiction, hence my interest in this book.

Overall, I’m disappointed in this book. First, the storytelling here is a jumbled mess. Although I understand that the 1919 Chicago race riot involved many factors (the Great Migration of blacks from the south to northern cities, racism and segregation in those northern cities, immigration to the U.S. by Irish and eastern Europeans, tensions in labor unions, etc) the author does not seem to take her audience’s interest into account here. The riot is briefly touched on in the beginning, and the next 10-15 chapters are dedicated to the aforementioned subject matter (labor unions, the Chicago meatpacking industry, the Great Migration, etc). She doesn’t really explain how or why these chapters are critical to understanding the riot and the topics seem to jump here and there and all over the place. I can imagine that a typical middle grade reader will lose interest in this book quickly, particularly because the connection between subjects is not made apparent in the beginning.

Second, the quotes used here are not thoughtful or insightful to the text. There are quotes by writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson (a New England transcendentalist) and Carl Sandburg, but only one by Langston Hughes. Excuse me….but where is the W.E.B. Dubois? Or even Ida B. Wells-Barnett? If we are talking about a riot that left a disproportionate number of Black people among the dead, wouldn’t one want to include the words of the leading Black scholars of the day? It is interesting that the author spends much time discussing Wells-Barnett and her role as a journalist within the Black community of Chicago, yet doesn’t include one quote from her in the whole text. Did she even read her at all? Anybody vaguely familiar with history knows that Ida B. Wells Barnett wrote MUCH about the Chicago race riot. Why are none of her specific quotes here?

The writing isn’t very engaging either. Much of the last 40% of the book is sources, which is fine if its nonfiction, but there wasn’t much in the first 60% of the book that was particularly memorable.

Two stars. Zzzzz.