Saturday, July 30, 2016

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

                I love it when words flow beautifully across the page. When the narrator is telling a story in a unique way, almost like a song, with a melody that flows and has entrancing rhythm. That’s what reading Brown Girl Dreaming was like. Each verse flowed. Each moment was eloquently described. Each passage was a memory and each memory was the story of childhood, race, family, the north and the south.
                In Brown Girl Dreaming Jacqueline Woodson tells her story of being a young black girl in 1960s and 1970s in the midst of the civil rights movement. She moved with her family from Ohio, to Greenville, South Carolina to New York City. Each location shed a different life on what life could be, how society viewed her and what was expected of her. It begins with the beginning of her life and the stories that were told to her of her own existence. It is simple in the way that stories are passed from ear to ear. In every way this book is a reflection of her life, of her childhood, of her stories, of her remembering.

                I really enjoyed this book. I usually don’t read a lot of verse or poetry but I had heard so many amazing things about this book that I had to give it a try. I checked this one out of the library and knew within the first ten pages that I wanted to own this book and share it. Woodson’s reflections and subtle references to the social climate are unnerving and powerful. One moment she is outside playing with her sisters. The next she hears people talking about Rosa Parks sitting in the front of the bus. Jacqueline’s mom is now talking about the marchers and sit-ins. Woodson thinks about why her skin makes her and her brothers and sister so different. Her childhood memoir written in verse is not only moving, it is appropriate for all ages. This is something that I feel comfortable reading to my 8 year old son, inviting questions and opening dialogue about the past. There is so much power in that. I enjoyed this book for many reasons but the way it can encourage conversations makes me want to recommend it to everyone. I give this 5 out of 5 stars. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story by John Berendt (1994)

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story by John Berendt

                Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a story about the many different types of people living Savannah and the culture that existed in the 1980s. It was 1981 when Danny Hansford was shot three times by Jim Williams in the study of the Mercer Home. Berendt, the author and narrator of this story, had known Williams and had met Hansford before his untimely death. Berendt would live in Savannah part-time throughout the course of the many trials Williams resulting from the killing and William’s cry of self-defense. As much about the murder as it is about the culture and people of those living in Savannah at the time, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is an interesting look at life in southern Georgia.
                It took me a while to really get into this novel. I expected the story to focus more on the actual murder case and trial. Instead, the first hundred pages of the book focused on many outlying characters and their situations. Not much of that was relevant to the Williams case. Berendt talked about his friendship with a drag queen, a lawyer/fraud, musicians and socialites. He basically presented a lot of information on how people lived in Savannah. I enjoy learning about characters as much as the next person but the story didn’t feel like it had a center. Sometimes he would speak on the trial and at another moment he was at a debutante ball afraid his drag queen friend would start harassing people. At times this book really seemed all over the place with its storyline. Berendt’s ability to write is what held the story together.

                Now Williams’s murder trial, in my opinion, should have been front and center. I think reading a nonfiction book that focused on a wealthy man, the death of his young lover, and his fight to be acquitted could have been really fascinating and well done. This reads like a novel because Berendt takes some privileges, which he admits in his author’s notes, that stray from this being a strict nonfiction. So while enjoyable and recommendable I must state that this is more of a characterization of those in living in Georgia at the time then it is a story about the relationship between Williams and Hansford and the case that occurred. I give this 3 out of 5 stars. 

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Client by John Grisham (1993)

The Client by John Grisham

                Well, it isn’t every day you watch a man blow his brains out, after trying to stop him from committing suicide, and your little brother goes into shock. But it is a day that will change your life. Take Mark Sway for instance. He was an eleven year old boy, teaching his little brother how to smoke in the woods behind his trailer park, when a black car pulls up. He had no idea that Jerome Clifford was in the car. He had no idea that Clifford represented a mafia man accused of murdering a U.S. Senator. The last thing Mark ever thought would happen was Clifford telling him where the senator’s body was buried. But now Mark has the information that the District Attorney wants and the mafia is willing to kill for.
                I’m not going to sugar coat anything: this book was really damn good. I have never read a John Grisham book in my life (what a failure on my part) but I am glad this was the first. I know this story because I remember this movie but I had no idea how amazing this story really was. Mark is a confused, scared boy who is very mature for his age but still has a somewhat childlike innocence about him. He cares deeply for his mother and brother and ultimately all of his decisions are made because of their safety and his own. He happens to hire Reggie, an attorney with a tumultuous past and she almost becomes a surrogate mother but she is intense. Then there is the power hungry, arrogant bastard Roy Foltrigg. What an easy character to understand and dislike. And here is the background of an amazing story.

                The Client has everything I want in a suspense. The action starts at the very beginning and the tension is always there. The characters pull you in and keep you turning pages. It has been a really long time since I’ve seen the movie. And let’s face it: the movies never (or very rarely) compare admirably to the book. With my shaky memory I was still fully invested within 20 pages of reading this story. Now, I will have to admit that I did shake my head quite a few times because some of the decisions made me want to grab Mark by his collar and shake him vigorously but since he is a fictional character I was unable to do so. This novel is one I can highly recommend. I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars. This will not be my last John Grisham novel, but this was a hell of a way to pop the cherry! 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

                When Ruth looked into the file of newborn Davis Bauer she saw the words “NO AFRICAN AMERICAN PERSONNEL TO CARE FOR THIS PATIENT.” That note wasn’t there that morning when she started her shift. That note was placed there after Ruth, the only African-American nurse in Labor and Delivery, checked on the patient that morning. Young Davis’s father Tuck demanded to talk to Ruth's supervisor and she was reassigned. Two days later the newborn goes into cardiac arrest while Ruth was the only nurse left to attend to him. Even though a code was called by Ruth’s supervisor, she was found doing nothing, only participating when instructed by her supervisor. Davis died and Tuck believes that Ruth is the reason why he is dead. Ruth loses her job, is arrested in the middle of the night and charged with murder. Kennedy is the public defender handed the case and she must find a way to prove Ruth’s innocence while not confronting the one issue that placed them in the courtroom: race.
                It’s funny. Writing that above blurb makes this story sound much less complicated than it is. I sat reading this book and dealt with different levels of frustration, horror, anger and just an overwhelming sense of unease. I am a big proponent of talking about race. I do not agree that ignoring the problem will simply make it go away, so I am going to start with the few things I didn’t like and then continue with the many things I did like.
                I wasn’t satisfied with the depiction of Ruth’s lifestyle. I say that because her field is a very successful one and with the death of her husband, an active duty military serviceman, she would have been in a completely different financial situation. There were no extenuating circumstances mentioned in the story, so I am unclear why she would present a military widow and yet completely exclude the benefits that she would receive and never reference the military community, outside of Ruth’s husband’s death. It seemed unnecessary. In all honesty it seemed like a cop out and it rubbed me the wrong way the entire book. There were other ways to depict an African American woman, who has held a job as a nurse for 20 years and is a homeowner, than as a struggling homeowner sleeping on a pull out couch in a one bedroom townhouse.   Portraying Ruth as successful and prominent would not have made her argument against racism and racial prejudice any less valid. It would have more likely strengthened it because people are under the absurd notion that the more affluent you are the less racism affects you and that is simply not true.
                Now to things that I actually did enjoy, particularly the decision of what three main characters to use as point of view characters: Ruth- the African American nurse on trial for murder, Tucker- the White Supremacist father, Kennedy- the White public defender who took this job because she could afford to make a difference because of the success of her husband. Each of these characters takes on a different story arch and personal journey that causes a constant reevaluation of morals. What Picoult thrives at is creating diverse characters, full of depth, well rounded and realistic. That particular ability shines in this book. Picoult was most effective in the way she approached the opposing views of Ruth and Tucker. Both had a lot of very strong emotions and experiences that shaped them in entirely different ways and created these two opposing personalities. No one wants to look into the mind of a raging racist but with Tucker you have no choice. He is brutal and honest about how he feels being a White man in the world. Kennedy on the other hand is a White woman but she isn’t racist. What she is discovering though throughout the course of this novel is her privilege and that affects her in ways she didn’t realize. Ruth’s journey has to do with re-examining her life, the things she thought she had overcome, only to have reality come crashing down on her. Each narrative was very well done, very well executed, and honest. If you are going to have a novel where the main issue revolves around race you have to try to be as honest as possible. Or the novel will fail.

                Small Great Things did not fail in any shape way or form. There were a few circumstances I didn’t care for, Ruth’s financial situation was the main one I felt I needed to address but beyond that I was really satisfied with this novel. If anyone is uncomfortable with confronting the topic of racial inequality, racism, and/or white privilege then this may not be the book for you. Or it may be the book that challenges you. You will be confronted with many different views on race, racial inequality, white privilege and white supremacy. You will be challenged to go outside your comfort zone and evaluate how racism affects you. There were so many instances that Ruth relayed, Kennedy acknowledged and Tucker praised that made me cringe, not in terror but in the honesty of their speech. This book will have the power to not only make you uncomfortable but it will make you question yourself, the way you look at people and the way you judge skin color. Highly recommended novel for those who won’t simply disregard all that’s being presented in this book as false or grossly exaggerated. Go into reading this book with an open mind, ready to experience race relations through the eyes of three entirely different people with three different stories to tell. I give this novel 4 out of 5 stars. 

Thank you Netgalley for this advance review copy in exchange for an honest review. 

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Teacher Misery: Helicopter Parents, Special Snowflakes and Other Bullshit by Jane Morris

Teacher Misery: Helicopter Parents, Special Snowflakes and Other Bullshit by Jane Morris

                If you are looking for a book that is going to sugarcoat how amazing it is to be a teacher then you might as well throw this book out of the window because this is not the book for you. But this is the book that people need to read to understand the climate of schools in this era. Classroom teachers are severely underappreciated and neglected. This book written by a teacher under the pseudonym of Jane Morris is a testament to the everyday struggles of teachers in public schools.
                Morris decided to separate this book into three different parts: Students, Parents and Administrators. Why you may ask? Because these are the three different elements that teachers have to deal with. Each part is equally depressing and distressing and you won’t want to believe any of it. Unfortunately I have enough experience working in classrooms to believe and acknowledge that the crazy she mentions is all too plausible. I wish I could read this book, shake my head and exclaim “There is no way any of this true.” But I would be lying to myself and to you.
                What Morris did really well with this book is provide examples of why so many problems exist in this day and age. Work samples from students in her class, statements from other teachers, combined with her experiences creates a case for teachers and their frustrations. When you are trying to teach a class and students are disruptive, disrespectful, uninterested and unengaged you look to parents and administration to help. If the parents are clueless or entitled or don’t care then the next step is administration. When administration leaves you out to dry what do you? You’re hands are tied.
                There is a problem right now with the education system in the United States. I don’t have the answer but what it boils down to, in my opinion, is supporting the teacher in the classroom. They don’t have a leg to stand on and that’s what it is so depressing and absurd. I enjoyed this book because I am so glad someone is speaking out. She needed to speak out. More teachers need to speak out in the same way Morris dead. Give examples. Speak on the problems and the misunderstandings with parents and how much things have changed. Respect for the teacher has fallen. It’s obvious in the attitude of parents, students and administration. I’m not sure we are preparing kids for the real world anymore.

                I recommend this book for many reasons. Morris is a great writer who did a great job at presenting her case. She is funny and entertaining. She is above all honest with her interpretation and the things that she sees around her. I liked the variation in text and material. Overall, this books needs to be spread around the country. She isn’t the only person that feels this way. There are thousands of other people out there like her and their voices need to be heard. 

Thank you to Netgalley for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Saturday, July 9, 2016

End of Watch by Stephen King

End of Watch by Stephen King

                And here we are again with retired detective Bill Hodges and his partner Holly Gibney. Martine Stover, a woman who was paralyzed from the chest down after the massacre at the City Center is dead. It’s being ruled a murder-suicide. At least it looks that way. Her mother was found dead in the bathtub and it’s obvious she took her own life. But Pete, Hodges’s old partner called Bill for a reason. The situation doesn’t feel right. As the police officially closed their case, Hodges and Gibney begin their investigation and it leads them back to what should be a dead end, Brady Hartsfield. Hartsfield has been in the Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic for years. The nurses call him a gork, the lights are on but nobody’s home. But Hodges had been hearing rumors about strange this happening around Hartsfield. Rumors about things moving, water faucets turning on, and blinds rattling when no one is there to move them. Now Hodges is being forced to believe that Mr. Mercedes might be up to old tricks with these new abilities.
                I’m not sure how much justice I’ve done this book with the above blurb but at least I tried. If you’ve read the first two books of this trilogy then you are very aware of the toxic relationship that developed between Hodges and Hartsfield. End of Watch takes that relationship, magnifies it upping the ante and the stakes. Brady is back and more powerful than he has ever been. Hodges and Holly are wrestling with an issue they can barely understand. They are running on pure instinct and skill. That and Hodges’ ever growing notion that Hartsfield isn’t done with him yet.
                The foundation laid down by the first two books makes the end of this trilogy thrilling and satisfying. Readers are already familiar with all of the relationships and the character building continues. I loved seeing how time has strengthened the relationship between Holly and Bill. It was odd in the beginning and it’s still odd but there is something so natural and endearing that is extremely enjoyable to be read. Brady is something to behold and the mystery behind his new powers and how he is putting them to use is really the driving force of the novel. Throughout these novels the readers have been very aware of the motivations of the villains and have had to watch the protagonists string the clues together. Luckily, our good guys know what they are doing and don’t mind putting themselves out on a limb to solve a problem. This book is no exception.
                I’m satisfied. Actually I am more than satisfied. I feel vindicated. End of Watch was nonstop from beginning to end and I could not put it down. It was more than what I thought it would be and by the end I was completely absorbed in the story and anxious. This is how you successfully end a trilogy. Risk it all and don’t hold back. Highly recommend this novel. I honestly feel like End of Watch truly brought this story full circle and delivered. I give this 5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx (1992)

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

                I’m not going to lie. This book was a struggle for me. From the very beginning of the novel I felt completely disconnected. I didn’t care for Proulx’s writing style. I didn’t care for the pace. I didn’t necessarily care for the plot. I’m saying all of this early on so you can understand why this review may have a very negative tone.
                The Shipping News is the story of Quoyle, whose philandering wife has stolen his kids and left him, leaving a hefty amount of debt and a note. She dies in a car accident and he is able to retrieve his kids around the same time his father and mother die. Quoyle then decides to move with his aunt and two children to the small town in Newfoundland where his family hails from. There he begins working for a newspaper.
                I think I understand what Proulx was trying to do: create a novel about an adult male and how he recovers from loss. The problem was she created a character that in my opinion was devoid of any likeable characteristics. And there wasn’t much growth. He came off as a character you wanted to pity. Someone who wasn’t used to making many decisions, was easily manipulated and walked all over. I can only root for a character for so long. If he doesn’t start to root for himself then I can’t commit. Eventually there was growth, near the end of the book. The world building was ok. I got a complete sense of how miserable it would be to live there.

                Overall, this book just felt shallow to me. This book won a Pullitzer prize so obviously a lot of people have loved this novel. The cheese will stand alone and proudly. This book wasn’t for me. It may be for you but I wanted to more depth from all the characters. I wanted a more meaningful plot. I wanted some rhythm to the pacing of the novel. I wanted to fall into this story and I didn’t. I give this novel 2 out of 5 stars.