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February 16, 2020

Book Review: My Sister, the Serial Killer

My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite

The thing you have to know about this book is that is it a well-written tale with intriguingly described and mostly likeable chracters. Except for adding a few local quirks, the fact that it is set in Nigeria is mostly irrelevant.

But all of this is spoiled by an ending that is confusing and unsatisfying. I'll avoid getting into why I think that to avoid spoilers. Suffice to say that I turned the page and found out I had just read the final chapter and was moving on to the acknowledgements page. I thought I has missed something.

Before that, though, it was a quirky, fun book. Yes, the title is accurate. The opening chapter gets started right away on why that is. The narrator, Korede, make no bones about her sister's proclivities, or her own participation in covering up those crimes.

If it were non-fiction, it would be disturbing. But as fiction it works in a bizarre, if facetious manner. Korede probes her motives in excusing her sister's actions. She has mixed feelings, sometimes justifying, oftentimes condemning, her sister's murders, but seems unwilling to actually stop them. Why? Her sister has the privilege of being pretty.
The resemblance is there -- we share the same mouth, the same eyes -- but Ayoola looks like a Bratz doll, and I resemble a voodoo figurine.
Ayoola seems blithely unaware of the consequences of her actions. She neither plans her murders, nor thinks about them afterward. She fully expects Korede to solve any fall out. Korede feels compelled, even obligated, to protect her younger sister. She enjoys literally cleaning up Ayoola's messes and organizing the fixes.

So it's kind of the saga of two sisters: One responsible; one not, both accepting of their lot in life. Or it's about being the breaker or the fixer. Or maybe it's just a story about various ways to stab men and clean up afterwards, told in two-part harmony.

Whatever, it's an enjoyable read. Just don't expect any answers.

February 3, 2020

This Week in Books, 10th Ed. Black Authors

Black Authors White People Should Read

In the past few years I have made a concerted effort to read more female writers and writers of color. Last year, I started counting, and half of the authors I read were women, and more than a quarter were people of color. I am improving from the days of reading almost exclusively white male authors.

So in honor of Black History Month, I am recommending several writers of colors and their books, and what I have learned from them.

Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan: With this novel, set in the 19th Century, Edugyan gives us an extraordinary work filled with powerful and explosive  writing, Through the title character, Edugyan shows some of the true horrors of slavery, not just in the routine dehumanization of people of color, but in the lifelong impact it has on them, She shows the depravity of its systemic brutality. She shows how it allows white people to decry its savagery while simultaneously benefiting from it.

Red at the Bone, by Jacqueline Woodson: Woodson goes a step beyond the present, and shows how history and family and ancestory affect black lives today, She shows how bigotry and hate and violence in the past impacts the present and the future for black Americans. Bonus book: Read her Another Brooklyn, about groing up black in Brooklyn.

On the Come Up, by Angie Thomas: Thomas uses Bri, the smart, hip, talented, and ambitious protagonist, to show us what it's like to grow up as a 16-year-old black girl living in black ghetto in an otherwise white world.  Bri discoves how people judge her through lenses tinged with bias and outright bigotry. Her teachers condemn her as "aggressive." White parents claim her rap lyrics causeviolence. Many -- even her fans and neighbors -- see Bri as little more than a ghetto hoodrat.

My Name is Leon, by Kit De Waal: A British writer of Irish and Kittian descent, De Waal writes about a mixed-race child in England trying to find his way. After Leon's mother falls ill, social services take him and his younger, white brother, who is adopted almost immediately. Leon stays with his white foster mother. He learns the difficulties in being a black boy in white Britain while bonding with a group of black men from the West Indies.

Celestial Bodies, by Jokha Alharthi: It tells the stories of a multi-generational family growing up in Oman at a time of massive societal change in the Middle Eastern country. It's the first book originally wriitten in Arabic to win the Man Booker prize, It's mostly about three sisters trying to adjust to the changing culture, and it also explains the village of al-Awafi where they live. It does so through many voices, which reach a cohesive whole that is sad, but compelling and illuminating.

January 26, 2020

Book Review: Full Throttle

Full Trottle, by Joe Hill

Let me start by saying the introduction to the book, in which Hill talks about having a famous father, is wonderful. Also, I liked two of the stories -- Late Returns, and You Are Released. The former is based on the idea of not wanting to die in the middle of reading a book, and involves a curious display of time travel. The latter is set on an airplane when a nuclear war breaks out. It's told from the variety of perspectives of the people on the plane, and it works well.

The rest, well -- let's just say they are the bad and the ugly of Sergio Leone's trilogy.

Usually, I enjoy Hill's writing, especially his  novels. A couple of tales in this short story collection might have been better had they been given more room to grow. And the title story, which he wrote with his father, Stephen King, has been published before.

Some of the others, though, are bad. Meandering, pointless, and, quite frankly, boring.

Take By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain, for instance. It's a tale about two children finding a dinorsaur body along the waters of the lake between Vermont and New York, whih takes on the legend of Champy, the lake's resident "monster." But the tale is dull, and it focuses more on the children and their siblings arguing with each other. The ending is confusing.

In the Tall Grass, which also credits King as a co-author, seems to be little more than a grotesque version of King's 1977 short story, Children of the Corn. Thumbprint had some interesting characters, but a weak story to bring them together. Mums, about a fanatical right-wing family and their son, is  more a rant against the alt-right movement to overthrow the government than anything else.

 The Devil on the Staircase pages
I liked that Hill took liberties with style and structure in two stories. One, The Devil on the Staircase, was written in a typography that resembles flights of stairs. A second, Twittering From the Circus of the Dead, is what the story implies -- a young girl's tweets from a mysterious circus in a small, isolated town. In both cases, the experimental typography and format worked better than the story.

January 20, 2020

Book Review: Day of the Locust

The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West

This short novel, written in 1939, portrays Hollywood as it was seen at the time -- insular, bigoted, contrived, full of ego and fury. Which, likewise, is pretty much how it is seen now.

The book was made into an Oscar-nominated film in 1975, long after its author was dead. Since then, it's been pretty much forgotten, but a friend and movie buff recommended I read it. It seemed like a short and easy read, so I did.

Short it was; easy not so much. Its writing is good -- tight but descriptive. But its story is meandering and vague, and sometimes seems like a series of random vignettes. More than halfway through, I wondered where the tale was going, and whether it had a point.

In the end, it got someplace with a vengence. And, oh my, it certainly has a point. It wasn't pretty, but is was a conclusion.

The tale centers around Tod Hackett, an artist and designer who moves to California with a goal of striking it big in the movie industry. There, he meets a series of chracters, each who seems to personify a Hollwood character, a stereotype, perhaps even a trope. There's the savage and angry midget, the starlet whom everyone lusts after, the losers, and the clowns. Tod is the guy who wants to be part of the surreal scene, and fit in with the Hollywood upper crust. 

Did I say surreal? Listen to a part of the description as Tod wanders around a Hollywood lot, looking for some of his friends: 
"He left the road and climbed across the spine of the hill to look down on the other side. From there he could see a ten-acre field of cockleburrs spouted with clumps of sunflowers and wild gum. In the center of the field was a gigantic pile of sets, flats, and props, While he watched, a ten-ton truck added another load to it. ... When he saw a red glare in the sky and heard the rumble of cannon, he knew it must be Waterloo. From around a bend in the road trotted several cavalry regiments. They wore capes and chest armor of black cardbord and carried long horse pistols in their saddle holsters."
Then there is Homer Simpson, who represents us -- the smiling yet vacant fan, who knows he will never be part of  the elite, but is content to linger around the edges and be exploited. Listen to how Tod describes him: "(Homer) was grateful and increased his smile. Tod couldn't help seeing all its annoying attributes, resignation, kindliness, and humility."

January 13, 2020

Book Review: The Sealed Letter

The Sealed Letter, by Emma Donoghue

Like the time period in which it is set, this novel takes a while to unwind and reveal itself, patiently narrating the daily comings and goings of its various characters.

Based on Codrington v. Condrington & Anderson, one of the earliest divorce trials in British history, Donoghue's novel shows she is at her best writing historical fiction with its roots in real life. This is one of her earlier novels, published in 2008, and focuses on two women at the center of the mid-19th Century British drama

Helen Codrington is the unhappy wife of Admiral Harry Codrington, part of an upper-crust family living well in a fashionable part of London after an assignment in Malta. The admiral also is unhappy and wants out. But according to British law at the time, his only recourse is to accuse his wife of the crime of adultery. Because she wants to continue to mother her two daughters -- and otherwise keep her good name and her station in life -- Mrs. Codrington denies the charge and must defend herself in court.

The second main character is Emily "Fido" Faithfull, an unmarried businesswoman and leader of The Cause, which is capitalized in the book. The Cause is women's equality -- such as it is seen in the 1860s -- and one of the issues is marriage and divorce equity. She is also Mrs. Codrington's close friend and confidant.

But as much as Donoghue is a feminist herself, the two female characters are portray as not very likable. (There are a few male characters -- the admiral, Mrs. Codrington's alleged paramours, lawyers, the investigator, and the judge -- but they are relatively minor and for the most part are not well described.) Admiral Codrington is mostly a stuffed shirt longing for glory he will never achieve.

Miss Faithfull is shown to be smarmy, repressed, prudish, and judgmental. At one point, she refers to her friend as "a demimonde." Mrs. Codrington is devious, flighty, untrustworthy, and selfish. 

The narrative plays out like an episode of Law & Order -- the characters are introduced, a hinting at some wrongdoing is alleged and investigated, the charges are brought and trial begins. It's quite a linear tale, crossing back and forth between characters, and giving some insight into their lives beyond the trial. But the main story is the trial as it played out, which becomes the focus in the second half of the tale.

And don't skip the author's note at the end. It gives some insight into the actual trial and what happened afterward -- and into the author's mindset in bringing the characters to life.