Review: A Land of Permanent Goodbyes

Review for "A Land of Permanent Goodbyes" by Atia Abawi (2018)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This is a heartbreaking, modern day story about a young man named Tareq from Syria who loses his mother, several of his siblings, and his grandmother in the tragic bombing of his home during the Syrian war. He flees with his father and sister to his uncle’s home in Raqqa, though he soon discovers that it is not safe in this location either. Tareq eventually leaves Raqqa with his cousin and escapes to Turkey. However, due to the large amount of Syrian refugees like himself, there are few job opportunities available. Deciding to continue his journey into Europe to gain asylum, Tareq travels to Greece, hoping to gain some kind of sense of normalcy.

I liked the premise of this book but its execution was a firm ‘no’ for me. Though the story itself is extremely compelling, the author’s choice to go with an omniscient narrator, “Destiny,” was a strange one. “Destiny” interrupts the story often, giving us its thoughts on war, the human condition, people’s sufferings, insights on various unconnected character’s lives, etc. I didn’t like this. As a matter of fact, every single time “Destiny” began to narrate I found myself skimming pages and disengaging from the story. I feel there was no need for this kind of storytelling, Tareq’s story was certainly strong enough to maintain its own narration.

Also included in this story is a young Greek woman’s account of her interactions with Syrian refugees. Although she is connected to the events of the novel, the author’s choice to include her narration (in addition to “Destiny”) was odd as well. Other than a shallow representation, her account of the events were pointless and really seemed to serve no purpose other than to propagate a kind of ‘kind White savior’ trope.

When I got to the end of this, I noticed this was a YA book. This book is pretty graphic in its descriptions of war–there are descriptions of beheadings, executions, and other pretty harsh realities that a child is in for should they decide to read this. But as an educator, I don’t believe in censorship, so this is a very eye-opening and timely book.


Review: I Stop Somewhere


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: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

Review for "I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter" by Erika L. Sanchez (2017)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Before I begin, lemme say that I hope that everyone is having a wonderful winter holiday, whether it’s Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or just a few days of physical rest from work.
Now, onto my review. Kinda spoiler-y, so beware…

Julia is a Mexican American teenager living in inner-city Chicago. In the first 25 pages we learn that her life really sucks: her older, “perfect” sister Olga has just been run over by a bus, her dad stays drunk and emotionally unavailable, and her overly domineering mother projects all of the expectations that she had for her older daughter onto Julia. As a result, Julia stays depressed and angry, transferring her rage back onto her family and the people around her.

While it’s an understandable anger that this character has, man…I’ve never read a YA book with a character this unbelievably gross. Julia is truly a monster that is equal parts cruel and arrogant, with a haughty demeanor to match. I can understand sarcasm, dark humor, or even a whip-smart kinda protagonist, but this character is just a plain jerk. All throughout the novel she internally mocks and belittles the people around her, even her own sister in her casket. When she speaks she is not nice either, cursing at folks, whining, and talking down to people unless it involves something she enjoys. It seems that the author wants us to empathize with Julia’s plight, but this was not possible for me. There was really nothing redeeming about her character here at all. Nothing.

There are plot problems too. Very early on in the novel Julia discovers a possible secret that her deceased sister kept from everyone, but then this story line is abruptly dropped. It’s picked up again and we learn a little more about it, but then it’s dropped again, picked up a little later on, then dropped again. This goes on for 250 pages or so. By the time the “secret” is revealed, it’s not really a secret anymore and you already know what happens, nor do you care. Also a problem was the multitude of issues in this book being juggled around in a maddening circle–abortion, teen sex, rape, mental illness, suicide, class issues, racism, being an undocumented immigrant, LGBTQ issues–with such minimal focus devoted to each that you’d rather the author had just chosen two or three issues and written accordingly. For this reason ending seemed terribly rushed to me.

Lastly, at about 60% in, there is a romance in this novel. Julia meets a wealthy young white man in a book store and within 10 pages, they’re kissing. In another 15 pages, they’re meeting up over at his place and having sex. The too-instant nature of their supposed attraction makes no sense to me, given just how plain evil Julia is toward everyone else in the book. I realize it’s YA and romance is practically a requirement in this genre, but I dunno…I just didn’t like it.

While I didn’t like this book, I do recommend you read it. It appears to be quite popular on Goodreads and with online reviewers, so everyone’s bound to have an opinion on it some way or another. My advice to the author: not terrible for a first time writer, but if you’re going to go the unlikable main character route, there has to be something else, that oompf factor to compel the reader to want to like reading forward. This wasn’t it.

Review: Long Way Down

Review for "Long Way Down" by Jason Reynolds (2017)
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Not the first novel in verse I’ve read but certainly one of the best.

Will is a teenager who has just lost his older brother in a shocking act of violence. The morning after, he finds his brother’s loaded gun and gets on his building’s elevator, going down, in pursuit of his brother’s murderer to kill him. At each floor, the elevator stops and a different person from Will’s past “gets” on, imploring him to think about his choices before it’s too late. It’s a fascinatingly interesting story, one that I think I actually respected more for the fact that it was written in verse–extraneous details skipped, only the bare bones here. It’s 300 pages or so but only took a couple of hours to read. The ending was a bit confusing, but after several reads I came to appreciate it for what it was–completely and superbly ambiguous to the reader.

As a former teacher I can see this being used in middle or high school classrooms, because there’s so many dialogue and discussion possibilities present with this book. It takes place during anytime and anyplace and anywhere and doesn’t offer any easy answers. Despite inevitable criticism to the contrary, I don’t see why this book should make the problem of violence a simple one, as everyone knows that it’s a complicated cycle that repeats itself over and over again. It’s also great reading for adults like me, I loved this book immensely.

This novel sets a pretty high bar for all other YA poetry books, which is good because I am starting to feel that this form of story-telling is becoming somewhat over saturated. Definitely recommended.

Review: There’s Someone Inside Your House


Review for "There's Someone Inside Your House" by Stephanie Perkins (2017)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Whew Lawd this was bad

First off, I love YA thriller/horror. If you spent your high school days reading R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike, then you know what I’m talking about. So when this book came out, I was on it faster than a speeding ticket.

This is my first Stephanie Perkins novel. From my understanding she mostly writes YA romance and this was her first foray into horror. After reading this drivel, it’s my determination that she should probably stick to writing romance.

The run-down: Makani Young, the main character, is sent to live with her grandmother in a small Nebraska town following her parents’ divorce and after a mysterious incident in her Hawaii hometown that’s not revealed until the end of the novel. She has eyes for Ollie, a pink-haired emo kid, and after they meet they make like rabbits for most of the book. While Makani and Ollie are exploring each other’s anatomies, meanwhile, there’s a psycho running around killing members of their high school student body for reasons unknown.

So where do I begin? For the whole “Who will be next?” hook, this book had only about 5 deaths and still turned out to be 99.9% romance. The book pivots between Makani and Ollie’s relationship and the killer’s next victim, which we follow in a brief chapter as it happens. We’re never told why the killer is picking people off, and his identity is fully revealed at about 60% into the book. What happens after this? Nothing. For me, it’s was a hazy blur of wtf moments and skipped pages.

And Makani and Ollie…what a mess. For a romance writer, the author manages to make their relationship strictly about lust and nothing else. Despite all the physical fun these two are having, it’s mindlessly boring. Even an old pervert like me started flipping pages after awhile. On to the next slashing please…

I was expecting more blood and gore here. Two stars.

Review: Moxie

Review for "Moxie" by Jennifer Mathieu (2017)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I know this book has gotten glowing praise from many of its readers, but I was underwhelmed with this one. I know I’m jumping off a cliff by saying this, but this book was just ok for me.

Vivian is an average teen living with her single mother in a small town in Texas. Aided by her mother’s Riot Grrl memorabilia and fed up with sexist administrators, Vivian makes an anonymous zine to protest the unfair treatment of girls at her high school and empowers them to fight back. The zine catches on, and most of the girls at the school eventually join in her fight. In the middle of all of the brouhaha, Vivian manages to snag the hottest artsy guy in school, who, it turns out, is sympathetic to her feminist goals.

My main concern with any feminist text is how it addresses intersectionality. As a woman of color, I’m critical of any text that claims to be feminist, yet focuses exclusively on the voices of White middle class women. Fortunately the author does address the issue, about midway through the novel when Vivian reveals that her mother once said that “Riot Grrls weren’t as welcoming to other girls as they could have been.” Well, no ma’am, they weren’t. There is a Latina and and Black girl at Vivian’s school who join the Moxie movement, yet we’re supposed to believe that their perspectives and concerns (jerky football players and dress code checks) are the exact same as Vivian’s. Sorry, but I simply don’t believe this. Where is race here? How does the author manage to make women of color so one-dimensional in this book? Gimme a break.

Which brings me to the last issue: race. While she does addresses the problem of inclusivity, Mathieu’s fictional small-town Texas world is devoid of any mention of racism. I praise the author for addressing the elephant in the room, but I just don’t think it goes far enough. As far as gender, there is a reference to a lesbian character, albeit a brief one. The problems that arise from race, class, sexuality, and gender will always overlap (hint: why it’s called intersectionality), and I simply wanted more from the Black, Latina, and LGBTQ characters here. What you get instead with this book is a lot of romanticizing on the 90’s Riot Grrl movement, which, let’s face it, was not as inclusive to race and gender as it should have been.

Overall, not a bad book, but not a great one either. Three stars is my best recommendation here, though I look forward to (possibly) reading more of this author in the future.

Review: Life as We Knew It (Last Survivors, #1)

Review for "Life as We Knew It" by Susan Beth Pfeffer (2006)

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
Dumbest. Apocalypse. Ever.

I’m not a one star kinda gal unless I hated the book. Needless to say, I really really really hated this book.

First off, I love dystopian lit. This one rang a bell because it’s two of my favorite things: dystopian and YA. So I read it. And man, that’s where the problems began.

NOTE: Spoilers abound & I don’t care…

Part of the thrill of reading dystopian fiction is reveling in the fact that it COULD happen–you just never know where or when. Another part of the game is that the scenario presented has to be scientifically sound, even on a basic level. Not so with this book, because there ain’t no way in hell any of this shit in this book could actually happen. In this one, the moon is knocked off course by an asteroid (which, strangely, no one sees coming), which brings it closer to Earth. The tides fall out of whack, bringing massive tsunamis that kill most of the population in low lying and coastal areas.

Then there’s mosquitoes (huh? why?) that threaten the population with malaria, massive earthquakes around the world, and finally Yellowstone volcanoes, seemingly triggered by the gravitational chaos. There’s a little bit of ash, it’s dark early, and it’s cold out. Umm…excuse me…WHAT? A massive eruption in Yellowstone would spell death by burning ash and darkness for much of America within WEEKS. Not just a slight temperature change like it’s an early winter. And it certainly would not involve characters strolling around in their Pennsylvania hometown, going to the library and ice skating like there’s nothing going on.

And oh…the characters. Miranda is a 16-year-old high schooler whose diary makes up this book. She whines about not seeing her friends and being unable to eat as many chocolate chip cookies as she wants while the end of the world is going on. Her mother rails against the government and her daughter seeing boys. Somewhere in the middle of all the earthquakes and the electricity going out, the family still manages to send her little brother to baseball camp. Another one of Miranda’s friends is a religious psycho-nut who doesn’t want to eat because God will take care of her. As a matter of fact, nearly everyone in this book who holds Christian beliefs is portrayed as a delusional weirdo. Not that I care about the author’s personal beliefs about organized religion, but all the proselytizing didn’t help the narrative. At all.

There’s other improbable scenarios. There are no police, yet Miranda takes it on herself to wander around her hometown alone, going swimming and ice skating, seemingly unbothered. When the power comes on intermittently, the internet (somehow) works also. Services such as the post office and the library are still open, yet we’re told there is no gas. A deadly flu epidemic kills most of the people in the town and several members of Miranda’s family fall ill, but miraculously Miranda never falls sick and no one dies. When the family runs out of food at the end, Miranda spends her last bit of energy going to city hall and learning about all of the food shortages and crop failures out in the world–and then receives a bag of food that city hall has been giving out every Monday. How is this possible? If there is a shortage of crops, where does this food come from in a land of no gas?? The final abasement here is when the power comes on at the end of the book–despite the fact that we’re told most of the country is either dead and/or lying under ash. 

And the story just plain sucks. Page after page in the middle of the book is nothingness, just play by play details of the family’s life in their sunroom, having conversations about food and books and what not. Yawn.

Apparently there are three other books in this series, however, I won’t be reading them. I don’t recommend this, I’d stay far away from this book.