Review: Girls Like Us

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Review for “Girls Like Us” by Gail Giles (2014)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Sooo…I cried while reading this book. That’s twice in one week now, and the week’s not even over with yet. Darn.

“Girls Like Us” is the story of Quincy and Biddy, two “Speddies” (their term for special education students) who graduate from high school at the same time and are placed in a living assignment together by a school caseworker. The girls live together in a small apartment above Miss Lizzy, a wealthy elderly woman, in exchange for cooking and cleaning and helping around the house with physical tasks. At the beginning of the story, Quincy and Biddy are not friends and are polar opposites. Biddy is white and, we learn, was born with her mental disability. Quincy, a mixed race girl, was ‘normal’ until around the age of 6 when she was physically assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend and brain damaged as a result. Biddy is shy and timid, and Quincy is outwardly aggressive and opinionated. Quincy is slightly higher functioning than Biddy and holds a job at a local grocery store, Biddy helps Miss Lizzy around the house. Eventually they settle into their lives together and uncover the pain of their pasts and work through the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse that they have endured.

This book is presented in alternating chapters between the perspectives of Quincy and Biddy. One of the problems with this technique in other novels is that multiple voices sometimes have a tendency to get muddled and begin sounding the same–but fortunately, this problem never once happened in this book. Ms. Giles does an excellent job of maintaining a clear, distinctive voice for both characters. There were colorful spellings and pronunciations that were spot-on, it was evident that Ms. Giles knows this population (a blurb in the back of the book says that she taught special education students for 20 years) and is familiar with the inner thoughts of special needs people.

Although this was a short book with simple narration, it is not an easy one to read. There were definite adult themes of physical and sexual violence. The characters’ stories were so heartbreaking that there were a couple of times that I had to close it and I almost didn’t finish. The author did a fantastic job of demonstrating the struggles of young people with disabilities. Powerful stuff.

Before I end this review, I wanted to say that I think the reason why this book was so powerful for me was because my mother was a special education teacher for over 25 years. She’s no longer in the classroom, but when she was, she taught students with severe mental and physical disabilities. I could see the stories of so many of her students reflected here. Her choice to work with the disabled is the reason why I will always have a heart for special needs people, because they deserve our compassion and respect. ❤

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Review: This Raging Light

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Review for “This Raging Light” by Estelle Laure (scheduled to be published in January 2016)

Rating 2 out of 5 stars

Special Note: This book is currently available on Amazon, although the publishers’ copy I have in my possession says “January 2016” as the scheduled publication date. For purposes of this review, I will go with the publication date of the copy that I was furnished with.

I struggled to finish this one. Well, ok…I kinda liked it. When I say that, I really mean that I think I liked the idea of it more than its actual execution on paper. So many things in this book just didn’t work for me.

Beware, spoilers abound (#sorrynotsorry)…

Lucille is 17, and her life is turned completely upside down when her mother decides she’s had enough and abandons her and her 9 year old little sister Wren to go “on a vacation.” Her father is in a mental hospital and the supposed cause of their mom’s breakdown. The book begins 14 days after their mother’s departure, with Lucille taking on the role of caring for herself and her sister without alerting anyone to the predicament they are in. She eventually finds a job and leans on her friends to care for Wren while she’s working in the evenings after school.

Which leads me into what I didn’t like about this book. Lucille gets herself into a complicated romance with Digby, her best friend’s twin brother who is very taken by someone else. Her best friend turns on her for some weird reason that’s never really explained. There’s drama at her job. There’s issues with her father, whom she visits several times in the story. There’s also some mysterious benefactor who seems to be aware of Lucille and her sister’s plight and keeps slipping in and doing nice shit around their house (leaving baked muffins, mowing the lawn). It’s far too many plot points and in the end NOTHING is truly resolved. Well, take that back–you DO find out who’s dropping off the damn muffins, but that’s about the only subplot that finds an ending here. Lucille’s mother’s abandonment is the lynchpin of this book, but the reader gets nothing as far as any kind of resolution to this.

The writing style of this book is a bit strange too. A lot of short, short sentences that left me struggling to understand what the author was trying to present the main character as. There is growth in the character of Lucille from the beginning to the end of the book, but I don’t know…I think I just wanted more here. Like perhaps why she is so ga-ga for Digby in the first place. Their relationship is really awkward, and Lucille seems to get no more in return than his general concern about her and her sister’s welfare. Weird, because when this book begins, the main character is quite love struck with this dude. Perhaps if this relationship had more of a backstory, then we’d get why he’s going through the trouble of cheating on his girlfriend with her. Otherwise, it just seems flat.

Ultimately I’m on the fence with this book. It should have been a good story, but it felt unfinished and I never really connected with any of the writing, the events, or any characters here.

[NOTE: I received a free copy of this book from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt as a giveaway through GoodReads. This was my honest review.]

Review: Eleanor & Park

I wrote this review a while back. It’s been through several revisions and may go through a few more. Some spoilers abound, so beware…

  
Review for “Eleanor & Park” by Rainbow Rowell (2013)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I wanted to love this book. It’s been on all of the “Best Of” lists, everybody’s who’s anybody has reviewed it already, and its been damn near impossible to find in the libraries here for the last 2 years. So, naturally I jumped at the chance to read this when I stumbled into the YA section at my local branch and saw it sitting there. 

For everybody who doesn’t know, “Park & Eleanor” is a YA romance novel about the relationship between Eleanor, a slightly overweight girl with red hair and bad clothes whose family puts the capital D in “dysfunctional.” She lives with her mother,  young siblings, and her abusive loser of a stepfather, Rich, who terrorizes and bullies her. At the beginning of the story, the reader learns that Eleanor has been kicked out once before by Rich, and is forced by her long suffering mom to be ‘grateful’ that she has been allowed to return home. She is also bullied at school as well, for her weight and her appearance. Park is a half white, half Korean teen who gets stuck sitting on the bus next to Eleanor and eventually strikes up a friendship with her. From there, the friendship turns into romance. 

Let me start with what I did like first. I loved the music and pop culture references of this book. I’m a total 80’s baby, and all throughout are constant references to bands like The Smiths and Joy Division and other awesome music that I grew up listening to. I loved the references to TV shows like “Solid Gold” (GTFOH–now who remembers “Solid Gold?” I do!) and Walkmans and cassette tapes that were so full of WIN that I wanted to grab this book and never let it go. I’ll take a trip down 80’s memory lane any day. Whew!

Now on to what I didn’t like. The issue of race was kind of, well, strange in this book. Too strange. Park’s mother is Korean, his father is white, and they live smack dab in the middle of the cornfields of Nebraska in the 1980’s. Other than one reference by a classmate referring to Park as Chinese (you know, the “all Asians are Chinese” bullshit), there is never an instance where Park seems to encounter racism, among his peers or anyone else. And other than taekwondo lessons, Park seems to be almost oblivious to his Korean roots. Even his mother struck me as the “whitest” Korean lady I’ve ever read about. Why is Park’s Korean heritage completely whitewashed here? Or is it that Rainbow Rowell knows nothing about Korean culture, so she chose to exclude any thoughtful analysis of it here? One cannot simply say that Park does not encounter racism, or that race is not an issue in this book. If race is a non factor, it would seem that Ms. Rowell would have left this character as Caucasian and went along with the story. However, the added dimension of race is here, and it’s completely devoid of any meaningful commentary. Perhaps the reason why Park’s Asian-ness is in this book is to create a kind of fetishism, which Eleanor’s descriptions of Park completely fall into. She constantly describes the shape of his eyes (“almondy”) and his skin color (“honey”). And she refers to Park as “that stupid Asian kid” in the beginning far too much for my liking, to the point where it made me uncomfortable.

That’s not it either. Eleanor also has two black friends at school, DeNice and Beebi (WTF kinds of names are those?) and man…they are space cadets. They’re ridiculously immature, almost caricature-like, giggling and constantly beginning sentences with “girl,” obsessing over the men in their lives and going out dancing. As a black woman, I found their characterization so fucking ludicrous that I had to laugh whenever they appeared. Is this really what Ms. Rowell thinks young black girls are like? Come on.

Park and Eleanor’s romance is cute, but it seemingly comes out of nowhere. It’s literally like one day they hate each other (to Eleanor he’s the “stupid Asian kid”) and the next they are all over each other. Really? And why does Park like Eleanor anyway? Park’s attraction to her made little sense to me. Emotionally, he gets very little from her. We know she holds back because she is abused at home and psychologically damaged, but the characterization of Park as one who continues to radiate nothing but pure goodness in the face of her nonchalance (often to the detriment of himself) was quite unbelievable to me. Park IS in love with Eleanor, but it’s a blind, self-sacrificing, stupid kind of love and as a reader I knew it wouldn’t  last. I know I’m in the minority when I say that I was glad that it ended the way it did, ’cause good ‘ol Park was gonna run himself mad over this poor gal…

Logistically, this book dragged in the middle and I found myself skipping pages. The back and forth narration was cool at first, but after a while got confusing, because both Park and Eleanor’s voices pretty much sounded the same anyway. I wouldn’t rule out any of Rowell’s books in the future, but this one was a flat 3 stars, no more, no less.

Review: Messed Up

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Review for “Messed Up” by Janet Nichols Lynch (2009)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Aww shucks, I loved this book.

R.D. is a 15 year old Mexican-American kid starting 8th grade for the second time. His father is out of the picture and his mother is long gone away, serving time in prison for a drug offense. He is taken in by his grandmother, but she suddenly leaves him with her boyfriend Earl to go off with another man, a biker. Earl is a kind man, a Vietnam veteran with “Agent Orange” who eventually cares for R.D. in his grandmother’s absence until he dies unexpectedly one day while R.D. is at school.

Even though this book begins with R.D.’s first (or second ‘first’ day) in the 8th grade, the real story starts after Earl’s death. His grandmother is unreachable in an unknown location, and the last thing R.D. wants is for Child Protective Services to get involved and take him away from the only home he’s ever known. R.D. vows to tell no one of Earl’s death and is forced to navigate the world as an adult in her absence–arranging his funeral, having no money for bills, shopping for food. He is also still a child so he also juggles typical teenage issues as well–meeting a nice girl, dealing with gang bangers, handling a crazy girlfriend, etc. There are a lot of subplots here (normally I don’t like a story that’s too complicated) but I did not seem to mind, as they were all completely necessary to show the onslaught of “real-world” decisions that a 15 year old is forced to make in the face of extraordinary odds.

On a personal note this book hit very close to home for me. I taught middle school for 10 years. In my career I saw hundreds of “R.D.’s”–children who have good intentions but due to a chaotic home life and situations that are completely beyond their control (interrupted schooling, poverty, parents who simply don’t give a shit) they lack the adult guidance and resources to make wise choices and be the ‘good’ students that we want them to be. They drift through school until they eventually drop out, usually around 16 or 17, and from there they become unfortunate statistics–caught in a cycle of chronic joblessness or criminals in the prison system. This story moved me to tears because I knew so many kids like this, and even though R.D.’s story ends on a happy note, dozens of them don’t.

When I looked on the back of the book and saw that the author was a middle-aged woman I was completely floored because her use of voice was extraordinary. R.D. talks like most kids do, for example, “says” is spelled “sez” and the observations that he makes about the world (which are pretty funny) are completely consistent with a child his age. Loved this.

I could picture this book specifically for picky teenagers who are reluctant to read because they complain that all books are “boring.”

Anyway, great reading experience. A+.

Review: The Accident Season

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Review for “The Accident Season” by Moira Fowley-Doyle (2015)

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Umm, don’t read this.

I went into this book based on the title alone. Accident. Season. Two words that don’t go typically together, because accidents are usually random events and they aren’t seasonal. Hence, I jumped into this book. Needless to say, I am not pleased.

Cara and her family are ‘cursed’ during a period every October in which they become extremely accident-prone. They clutch the railings of stairs, they pad the edges of tables, they wear extra layers of clothing to protect against potential injury and death. It happens so regularly during this particular time of year that Cara and her family accept this as a normal part of life. That is, until one day, Cara discovers a childhood friend eerily present in her family photos. She recruits her tarot card reader friend Bea to help her with her friend’s mysterious disappearance, as well as the source of her family’s accident season.

Sadly, the first 100 pages of this book are a complete waste. There is literally NOTHING that happens here to compel you to give a damn about any one of the characters. Luckily I picked up on this around page 25 and skimmed my way to the middle, and boy am I glad I did. I didn’t miss much.

Miss Dowley (bless her heart) muddles this book with a lot of vivid imagery–broken bridges, old bookstores, a mysterious typewriter, etc. There is a gothy kind of appeal here…it’s lush and dreamy, but it does absolutely nothing for this book because you’re too busy trying to figure out when the hell the subplots (the disappearance, the accidents, etc) are all going to come together in any kind of meaningful way. It’s terribly confusing, and confusion while reading fiction is never a good thing. And yes, for those that ask: I’ll take a bad book (bad writing, weak characters, bad everything) over a confusing book any day, ok?

There is a romance in this book (it’s YA, people!) but even that is, umm…confusing, weird, awkward, strange. I won’t say any more about it. Matter of fact, I won’t give away any details here, because honestly, it doesn’t benefit me to spoil it for those who really want to read it. Like really, what would be the point? It just sucked.

The cover’s nice though.

Review: Mosquitoland

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Review for “Mosquitoland” by David Arnold (2015)

Rating: 1.25 out of 5 stars

Meh.

I didn’t like this book. I read about 100 pages, put it down for a week, and still just…meh. The last 100 pages I skimmed through, I gave no fucks…

Anyway, “Mosquitoland” is the story of Mim (an acronym for Mary Iris Malone), a 16 year old girl living in Jackson, Mississippi with her newly-remarried father and stepmother. Her mother, the reader quickly learns, is reportedly sick and living in Ohio. Mim overhears her father and stepmother discussing her mother’s illness and proceeds to take a stash of cash and catch a Greyhound bus to her mom in Ohio. What follows as Mim goes on an almost 1,000 mile journey is a series of misadventures that I won’t go into for fear of spoiling the book, but she does meet several people along the way–some nice, some not so nice–and somehow manage to reach her destination. In the end she learns a lot about herself and the meaning of family.

The book would have been mildly enjoyable if it had not been for Mim herself. Mental illness is alluded to as the source of Mim’s problem, but it’s never definitively confirmed. She is sarcastic, but she’s so overwhelmingly negative about everything (her parents, her life, the people around her, etc.) that her particular brand of sarcasm never grew on me. Mim is very much like that bratty grade school kid you all know (only ten years older) who has no filter: many times in the story she was just plain obnoxious towards the people around her or just flat out rude altogether. I understood that living with her dad and stepmom in country bumpkin-ville wasn’t her cup of tea…but sooo many times in the story I wanted to roll my eyes and yell at her to get over herself. Sheesh.

Plotwise, this book is all over the place. In addition to the road trip, a large portion of the story is letters she writes in her journal and general retellings of past events. Honestly I was done with Mim’s (aka the author’s) Holden Caulfield-esque posturing in the first 50 pages. I kept reading because, in the end, I guess I just wanted someone remotely likable here. Pfffft.

Apparently, I am in the minority with not liking this book. It is currently receiving overwhelming praise by readers on Goodreads and has received a “Best Of 2015” nomination there. I can certainly understand why this is, Mim is somewhat of a manic pixie dream girl character with a hell of a story. In the end, it’s just not MY kind of story. I generally don’t care for road trip novels and this one was no exception.

The cover art is stunning, however. I’ve always wanted to climb on top of a moving vehicle and write. Yassss!

Review: Finding Hope

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Review for “Finding Hope” by Colleen Nelson (scheduled to be published in April 2016)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Closer to 1.75 stars, because “Finding Hope” didn’t do it for me.

I won’t spoil this book with small details because there’s still quite some time left before its scheduled publication date. In a nutshell though, this novel focuses on Hope and her brother Eric, teenaged siblings who live in a small town in Canada with their parents. Eric is a promising soccer star with a bright future until he becomes entangled in a vicious meth addiction and gets kicked out of the family home. Meanwhile, Hope is sent to a private boarding school where she falls in (and quickly out) of favor with a cadre of mean girls. Their lives intersect at the most unlikely moment and Hope and Eric both make choices that impact their futures.

The story is told in the alternating POVs of Hope and Eric. This book is all over the place and a lot of topics are covered: sexual abuse, bullying, drug addiction, homelessness, etc. Hope is naive and an enabler of Eric’s addiction, stumbling into one bad choice after another at her new school. Eric’s chapters are far more compelling than Hope’s, but the one thing that got me here was the bland storytelling, the predictable plot lines. There’s nothing in this story that you don’t see coming a mile away. Although I sympathized with both characters, they became quickly forgettable once I turned off my Kindle. There’s nothing the author does here to draw you to either of them beyond just a general understanding of their respective situations.

Wouldn’t read this again, but am open to reading more from this author. On a lighter note, I love the cover art of this book. BEAUTIFUL!

[Note: I received this advanced publisher’s copy from NetGalley and Dundurn Press in exchange for an honest review. :-)]

Other note: TOMORROW, NOVEMBER 29 IS MY BIRTHDAY!! YAYYY! I won’t tell you how old I am, other than to say that I have long been old enough to call myself a true “80’s baby.” I’ll pretend it’s my 32 birthday again, for the umpteenth time. Ha!