Book Review: Behold the Dreamers

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Behold the Dreamers

Imbolo Mbue

Random House

380 pages

Buzzfeed has dubbed it one of the “Incredible New Books You Need to Read This Summer.” Big shoes to fill, right? Behold the Dreamers is the story of Jende Jonga, an immigrant from Cameroon who is in the US with his wife Neni and their son. Jende and Neni struggle to build a life for themselves in New York City while also dealing with the scary reality of being deported back to Cameroon. Jende’s visa is expiring and he must wage a legal battle in order to stay in the U.S.

The year is 2007 and Jende gets a job working as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a bigwig at Lehman Brothers who lives the American Dream with his wife Cindy and their two sons. As Jende’s employment stretches in to months, the relationship he forms with the Edwards family becomes less defined.

Behold the Dreamers was one of those books that gave me endless questions to think about (PERFECT BOOK CLUB BOOK). I finished it a month ago and I have so many unresolved feelings. I usually have pretty clear cut feelings when it comes to the characters I read about, but the way these characters were fleshed out was so flawed and so real, that I find myself desperately pondering their motives. I feel almost unable to judge any of them. They all made horrible, disgusting decisions at times (some of these decisions were much worse than others) but I could see their motivations and understand them in a way that made me more forgiving.

I absolutely loved this book, and will definitely count it among my favorites of 2016. The themes and characters are so relevant to today’s society.

 

Book Review: My Dark Places

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My Dark Places

James Ellroy

Random House Value Publishing

427 pages

James Ellroy was just a young boy in 1958 when his mother Jean was brutally murdered. Living in California at the time, James came home from weekend visitation with his father to find the cottage her and his mother shared swarming with police. From then on, James’s life was completely changed.

Having dealt with his parents’ bitter divorce, Ellroy explores in his memoir how the murder of his mother changed his perception of her over the years. At first, he seemed pleased to have her out of the way. His father held an unmasked contempt and hatred for his mother, so Ellroy no longer was forced to choose sides and could live happily ever after with his father. He realized pretty quickly though that maybe life with dad wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

Ellroy struggled to find his place in the world, and the backdrop of his anger and lack of ambition was the death of his mother. As he finally found his place in the world, his career as an author began to take root, and he found himself feeling more empathy for the woman he hadn’t seen since he was 10 years old.

Eventually, Ellroy hooks up with the detective working Jean’s murder as a cold case, and the two strive to uncover what happened to her all those decades earlier. I won’t spoil it for you by letting you know whether they were successful, but it was great following their investigation.

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I loved certain elements of this book. Ellroy was a huge fan of crime pulp fiction in the ’50s, and he used a lot of the jargon to really set the scene in that manner. I really loved that aspect and thought it was fresh and fun.

That being said, at over 400 pages I really felt this book could be edited to almost half that length. It started to feel never ending and I lost steam. On the flip side, I loved the combination of memoir and true crime. It worked really well, and Ellroy was able to break down the facts before interjecting his own thoughts and feelings into the narrative.

Book Review: All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

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All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

Brynn Greenwood

Thomas Dunne Books

352 pages

This was touted as a “meth lab romance” when it was chosen as an August BOTM pick, and that’s really what drew me in–

Wavy is a young girl living with two abusive, good for nothing, drug addicted parents. She is often neglected and left to her own devices, and is befriended by an adult man Kellen, who works as a drug runner for Wavy’s father.

Wavy is very introverted, to the point where she doesn’t even talk. She is obviously a very intelligent girl, but people don’t know what to make of her. Over the years, as Kellen becomes her rock and the one person she knows she can rely on, Wavy slowly emerges from herself and finds her footing in the world.

Meanwhile, you still have the very seedy setting of a trailer compound where everyone fawns over Wavy’s father. No one seems at all fazed that Kellen is spending such an inordinate amount of time with a minor child, driving her around on his motorcycle and showing up at her house at all hours. It sounds creepy as hell I’m sure, and yet I found myself rooting for Wavy and Kellen.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things spans over ten years, starting when Wavy was 8. {SPOILERS} And as time wore on and Wavy’s relationship with Kellen turned sexual, it almost seemed natural. And their relationship certainly didn’t feel sinister or wrong. And I began to wonder wtf was wrong with me that I wasn’t totally disgusted by their relationship.

I read some other reviews and chatter about this book as I finished it because I wanted to know whether I was alone in my feelings or not and I was relieved to see that I wasn’t. That was part of the reason I loved this book. It was one of those books that turned all my preconceived notions on their head and made me question how I truly felt. And it showed me that maybe everything isn’t as black and white as it appears. And I am still uncomfortable with how I feel.

I have to give a huge shout out to Book of the Month Club. I absolutely never would have chosen this book on my own. When it showed up as an August selection, I dismissed it straight off. And then I did a little digging, read some good reviews, went back and read the description multiple times, and ultimately decided to give it a shot. If you haven’t checked out BOTM yet, it is one of my favorite things ever. Check it out here.

If you’ve read All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, please share what your thoughts are!

 

Book Review: The Michigan Murders

 

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The Michigan Murders

Edward Keyes

Open Road Integrated Media

Ypsilanti Michigan, 1960s. A serial killer began to target young girls in a college town. Reminiscent of something along the lines of Ted Bundy, the young coeds were all discovered dead after seemingly disappearing into thin air.

There were several factors of this story that drew me in and made it more than your typical true crime fare.

First off, the setting was intriguing to me. College campuses during the 1960s had become very liberating places. This was right before tides started to turn, before crimes like that of the Manson family made people become wary. The climate was one of safety and trust, and more than one victim was killed after hitchhiking with her killer, despite not knowing them at all.

MINOR SPOILER: Another interesting avenue was the killer himself. The fact that he ended up being more clean cut is what reminded me of Ted Bundy, and that drew my interest. It is frightening when you think that one of your own peers could brutalize you in such a way. I think we all expect cold blooded killers to look and act the part, and that wasn’t the case with this group of murders.

As far as true crime goes, The Michigan Murders wasn’t anything especially innovative or new, but it was well written and kept my attention. I read it after reading Maggie Nelson’s memoir The Red Parts, about the trial of her aunt Jane Mixer’s killer. Jane was originally included on the list of victims known as the Michigan Murders, and this book was originally published long before her true killer was discovered. The two books make great companion pieces.

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I had two minor quibbles with The Michigan Murders. The first was that everyone in the book, including the victims and the killer, were given pseudonyms. I am not sure why that was done, as I have read a good amount of true crime and can’t think of any other true crime book where unilaterally all names were changed. It’s a minor issue, but I like to look up the various people on Google as I read to get a good visual in my mind (this book had no accompanying photos), so that made it more difficult and forced me to do a bit more research.

I also wish that the current published had added an update or epilogue (other editions may include a recent epilogue, I’m not sure). This book was originally published almost 40 years ago and no update has been written since the original publication. It would have been interesting to know what was going on with the victim’s families and the killer, not to mention the Jane Mixer angle could have been discussed.

Overall, if you are a fan of true crime, this is a solid read.

I received an egalley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Woman in Cabin 10

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The Woman in Cabin 10

Ruth Ware

Gallery/Scout Press

352 pages

Imagine you’re on a cruise ship and you’ve just witnessed a woman get shoved overboard in the middle of the night. You raise the alarm but no one believes you. You know what you saw . . . but did you really see it?
Lo is an up and coming writer for a travel magazine and she has been granted a once in a lifetime opportunity to travel on the maiden voyage of a luxury liner. Lo boards the ship already with a frazzled frame of mind after being the victim of a home invasion just day earlier. Her emotions and anxiety only ramp up when she witnesses a woman being thrown over the railing of the neighboring cabin. She quickly calls for help, but when ship’s security arrives at her cabin minutes later, she is informed that the cabin next door has been vacant during the trip.
The Woman in Cabin 10 continues on with Lo convinced that she saw what she saw, while security on the boat constantly discredits her. I loved this book mostly because it employed one of my favorite literary devices: the unreliable narrator. As the book continued on, I had no idea what to think of Lo. She was so sure of everything and never wavered from her stance. And yet, I couldn’t believe her. The evidence against her was strong and I was in the camp of “she’s over stressed/over tired and just imagining things.” For the sake of the story, I won’t reveal whether I was right or not!
I chose this as my BOTM pick for August and I am so glad I did! It was the perfect summer mystery to read by the pool, and the second half especially had me completely engaged. I did find the beginning to drag just a bit but I absolutely thought it was worth it, and the cruise ship setting worked well.
Now I need to know, should I read Ruth Ware’s first book?

Book Review: The Fireman

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The Fireman

Joe Hill

747 pages

William Morrow

This seemed to be the book of the summer, which is actually one of the reasons I picked it up.  Therefore, chances are you know something about it. A brief synopsis for those who are wondering wtf I am talking about:

Harper Grayson is a school nurse who has been caught in a plague ravaged world. It’s unknown how it started, but a spore has developed that has the ability to cause people to literally ignite and go up in flames. Terror runs rampant as everyone does their best to avoid this new plague, so as you can imagine tensions are astronomically high and the world as we know it is no more.

Harper escapes to a commune type place, where a bunch people infected with the dragon scale are hiding out. I will leave it at that because I don’t want to give too much away.

As I mentioned before, this is one of the “it” books of the summer. Joe Hill, the author, is also Stephen King’s son. Those are the two main reasons I bought this book (the third reason being that it was on sale for Amazon Prime Day). Otherwise, I never would have picked this up on my own. I don’t dislike dystopian fiction but it’s not my favorite.

I thought The Fireman was just ok. The storyline was interesting and I liked how Hill really explored what happens when society is dictated by fear and power. Ultimately though, this book was just a bit too long for me. I am not opposed to behemoths, but it has to be done well and in this case, I felt like it was done just for the sake of it and not because the story actually needed to be that length.

It seems like reviews have gone both ways for this one, so tell me what you thought.

Book Review: Miller’s Valley

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Miller’s Valley

Anna Quindlen

Random House

272 pages

This is the coming of age story of Mimi Miller. Her family lives in their namesake valley, a small, unassuming town where everyone knows everyone. Mimi enters into her teenage years in the 1970s a local battle is waging over the land where she lives. Constantly flooding, it has become apparent to the higher ups that the valley should be flooded, and the state government has been after landowners for years trying to buy the property so they can set such a venture in motion. Mimi’s family, among others, is refusing to sell, and tensions flare as the possibility of being forced from the only home they have known for generations becomes very real.

As much as Miller’s Valley is about local politics, it’s also not. Mimi experiences the same jubilations and downfalls as any other teenager, and we experience her as she treads through a difficult friendship and also as she enters into her first romantic relationship.

It’s hard to describe how quiet and self effacing this book is. Mimi is more of an observer, so we get to see her life through her eyes as she discreetly goes on from day to day. I was utterly rapt as I hastily read to see what would happen next, despite the fact that Miller’s Valley wouldn’t be referred to as a plot driven book.

I have only read one other book of Quindlen’s, Black and Blue, and it was so long ago that I don’t remember it at all or even whether I enjoyed it. I hope her other books are as great as this one and I look forward to seeking them out.