The Coldest Winter Ever

The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah9781439119976

publication date: 1999
pages: 284
ISBN: 978-0-7432-7010-6

In one of the major books that fueled the renaissance in urban fiction, Sister Souljah presented a compelling story of a young black woman’s life as part of a culture of drug-dealing.

The Coldest Winter Ever followed Winter Santiaga, the self-proclaimed queen of the projects, who lived in Brooklyn with her family, including her drug lord father, Ricky Santiaga. Winter’s life began to change on her sixteenth birthday, when her father announced plans to move the family out of their vigorous urban neighborhood and into the rarefied New Jersey suburbs. However, Winter’s world really fell apart when her father was arrested by the FBI for drug-trafficking and RICO violations.

Winter was a wonderful main character. She was the perfect anti-hero, long before Walter White was introduced. Almost every move Winter made seemed morally wrong or, at least, against her best interests. And yet I wanted her to succeed throughout the book. I was rooting for her even as she knocked out an old woman with a sock full of rocks.

The tone of writing was punchy and stylized. As an example, here was a fun passage that showed the heat and sexuality of some teenagers:

Now I loved Poppa but I hated the way he cock-blocked. Every teenage girl wants to cut loose and get close to the fire, but I was like a pot of boiling milk with the lid on. You know that’s ready to explode and slide down the side of the pan.

Although the writing was animated throughout the book, the plot in the middle did become dull. Fortunately, that only lasted for about fifty pages and, by the end of the book, I was completely immersed again in Winter’s story.

Souljah has been explicit that she wrote this book with particular messages in mind. Specifically, she wanted to show that drugs lead to a hopeless path and that young people should apply their talents toward a legal business, and to create role models for black men, women, and families. Souljah’s explicitness of purpose made the book preachy at times. There were literally passages of speeches given by a character named Sister Souljah as she was speaking to a group of people about how to live their lives.

The characters in the book were also unambiguously anti-gay. Seemingly, Souljah shared that view. That made the book seem, at the best, dated and, at the worst, hateful.

The book contained a lot of sex, drugs, and language, and an irresistible story of a person who was trying to get theirs in a world that seemed set against them.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

Senior Critics blog
Salon
YA Books Central

Drink the Tea

Drink the Tea by Thomas Kaufman 9780312607302

publication date: 2010
pages: 294
ISBN: 978-0-312-60730-2

In Drink the Tea, Thomas Kaufman attempted to present a detective story set in Washington, D.C. Generally, his attempt failed. I didn’t care about the mystery, the other parts of the plot, or the characters. Additionally, Kaufman’s writing was generally confusing or ineffective. I will say, his themes and motifs were engaging enough.

The plot followed P.I. Willis Gidney as he searched for his friend’s missing daughter. The plot also contained multiple flashbacks to Gidney’s own tragic childhood, as an orphan in the D.C. system. The plot found Gidney haranguing politicians, bugging government workers, shaking down criminals, lying to cops, scaring innocent civilians, and just generally annoying everyone. This bit of dialogue from the first chapter was a good representation of how irksome Gidney was throughout the entire book:

Steps Jackson leaned across the table and said, “I want you to find my daughter.”
I stared at him, my coffee cup halfway to my lips. “You’ve got a daughter?”
“Why would I ask you to find a daughter I don’t have?” A wave of irritation crossed his face.

Waves of irritation were constantly crossing my face as I was reading this book. Everything was so confusing, from the tiniest detail to entire plot points. Here was an example of a small detail that was confusing and just seemed like lazy writing, from a scene where Gidney was searching an apartment building:

The top floor was the same, until I reached the rear apartment. It looked like it had been lived in more recently, though I couldn’t say how recently. And, unlike the rest of the building, this apartment had been cleaned out, there was nothing in the corners, no trash, no papers. Only some torn black plastic trash bags.

OK. So. Was there trash in the apartment or wasn’t there? And if there was nothing in the apartment, what made Gidney think someone lived there? If the only thing that was in the apartment was trash bags, how in the hell could it look lived in?

Beyond the confusing nature of the writing, it was very stylized and clunky. Here was an example of the author being sarcastic about his own story:

Men and women draped themselves over wrought iron chairs, speaking the poetry of programming code. Two or three male customers were getting pretty steamed up about cryptology and freedom of speech. One of them got so angry that he actually sloshed coffee over the brim of his cup. Exciting times.

Although I thought the book was pretty bad, there were some things I liked about it. Washington, D.C. was generally presented in a specific and detailed way, as though it was a character in itself. And some of Kaufman’s writing was effective. I liked this passage that occurred after Gidney was arrested:

[The guard] said, “This way.”
Meaning, follow me, asshole, down this long, musty green hallway that smells like piss with these sickly green fluorescent lights that flicker and strobe and into this changeless dungeon a city block long where you can breathe the same air you breathed twenty years ago and see the same faces staring at you as you walk the hallway and have the same cell you had as a kid and step to the side as the door slides open and without a word walk inside this cell because this is your cell and you know it and maybe you’ll get out soon and maybe you won’t but one thing for sure, the sound of the cell door closing is the loudest, most final sound you’ll ever hear.

This was a detective story without an engaging mystery, surrounded in generally poor writing. Although there were some bright spots, I would not recommend Drink the Tea.

2/6: many problems

other reviews (somehow, people gave the book generally positive reviews):

Mysterious Reviews
Amazon
Goodreads

Iron Cast

Iron Cast by Destiny Soria9781419721922

publication date: 2016
pages: 376
ISBN: 9781419721922

This YA book reminded me of 2007’s book The City of Bones, the first of the Mortal Instruments series. They were both set in an urban world cloaked by a veil of mystical characters and phenomena. The main characters in both lived in a secret, separate haven built specifically for them. The plots involved enemies who were closing in and there were always hints of distrust, even betrayal. Further, both authors focused on quotations, poems, and music as part of the dialogue and as important plot points.

Although Iron Cast, which was set in pre-Prohibition Boston, might have been an heir to The City of Bones, there were some things it improved on – and others it wasn’t as successful with. I enjoyed the two main characters from Iron Cast, Ada and Corinne, very much. Ada was a second generation Swahili-Portuguese immigrant and Corinne was the sequestered daughter from a wealthy family. What brought them together was not their personalities or their backgrounds but that they both suffered from a mysterious affliction known as “hemopathy,” which gave them the ability to manipulate the minds of others using words or music, and an aversion to iron. Ada and Corinne were compelling, intricate characters that presented a wonderful example of female friendship. The best writing centered on Ada or Corinne. For example, here was a small bit from Corinne’s inner monologue:

She had spent her whole life trying to always be the cleverest person in the room, and it was just now occurring to her how boundless her own stupidity was.

The plot of the book was interesting enough. Ada and Corinne lived in the Cast Iron, an iron-free hemopath sanctuary run by Johnny Dervish. To pay Johnny back for giving them shelter, the girls ran cons and illegally entertained non-hemopath’s at Johnny’s club. The book focused on the girls’ schemes, as their iron-free world was threatened by those on the outside. Although the larger plot was fine, individual plot points were very contrived and unconvincing. I won’t be specific because I don’t want to give anything away, but several turns within the plot seemed designed merely to get Corinne and Ada to some predestined outcome.

Additionally, a large focus of the book was on words and music but those sections were often dull and tedious. Many passages quoted poetry or other lyrics but they held no passion or fire. After a while, I just skipped over them.

However, the book did contain some good writing. The description of the hellish Haversham Asylum was especially effective:

They went through a doorway at the end of a long corridor that opened into a large, low-ceilinged room. The sharp smell of disinfectant assaulted [Corinne’s] nostrils. This room was brighter than the corridors, with bright medical lamps that glared off the white tile and stainless steel surfaces. The brilliance temporarily blinded Corinne, and they were several steps into the room before she recovered. Once she did, the only thing she could really see was the man a few feet away from her. His face was so skeletal that for a split second she thought he was dead – but no, his gray smock moved barely with the slow rise and fall of his chest.

A lot of the book was just okay. But, Iron Cast created an intriguing world with two engrossing main characters that were worth the read. Ada, especially, as a person of color in early 1900s Boston, was especially captivating.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

Olivia’s Catastrophe blog
School Library Journal
Heart Full of Books

The Book of Speculation

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler9781250055637

publication date: 2015
pages: 339
ISBN: 978-1-250-05480-7

The Book of Speculation alternated between two linked story lines. The first, set in modern day, told the story of Simon Watson, a down-on-his-luck research librarian. Simon was desperately trying to hold on to the coastal house his family grew up in. With a diminishing career, a suicidal mother, a negligent father, and a roving sister who visited only once every few years, Simon felt the house was the only earthly thing he had to cling to. That changed when he was mysteriously sent an old ledger manuscript that contained his grandmother’s name and described an even older circus troupe, and when his sister arrived home, taking a break from her own life as a traveling circus performer.

The circus ledger detailed the second story line, set in the 1780s, about a traveling group of circus performers. That story focused on Amos, a mute man who became apprenticed to a fortune-teller and dreamed of finding and keeping love. One day, love fell into his lap in the form of Evangeline, a young woman with a gift for the water who was marketed by the circus as a mermaid.

The Book of Speculation was saturated with themes and motifs. There was water, of course, and drowning. Tarot cards and symbols. There were also themes of home, obsession, family, and the past as shackles. There were no subtle metaphors in Speculation: for example, Simon’s house, a relic of his failed family, literally hurt his leg and hampered his ability to walk away when one of the floorboards broke and swallowed him whole.

All these various plots, and themes, and characters, and fantastical elements – mermaids, circuses, tarot cards – fell flat for me. I didn’t care too much about Simon, which meant I didn’t care too much about the people in his constant dramas. Also, so many things seemed just a little bit off. I kept asking myself, “Does that make sense?” “Would someone do that?” “Do they really use lathes to angle doors?” (As far as I could tell – no.) For example, here was a passage from Simon’s narrative that rang false:

Alice cracks the door. Swollen eyes, a red nose, face bruised from crying.

Frank [had already] told her everything. I’m sorry and wish we’d never come. The worst is she’s a pretty crier and learning that is awful.

Learning she was a pretty crier was really the worst part about that situation? It wasn’t what Alice was crying about or what Frank told her or why you’d confront a grieving woman in the first place? It was that her face still looked pretty with tears on it?

Although the plots and characters often fizzled, Swyler imbued the book with vivid and effective imagery. As an example of writing that left an indelible image in my mind, here was a passage of Simon reading to his newly-returned sister, Enola:

[The story] is from the Bolokhovskis. She wants me to read Eglė. I do. Slowly, the way Mom used to, unraveling the story of the farmer’s daughter who would become Queen of the Serpents, and her children who were turned into trembling trees. All folktales have a price. Enola listens silently, pressing her forehead to my shoulder, letting me remember her.

The book was a steady read, so if any of the themes above intrigue you, you might want to pick this book up. However, I don’t have anything particular to recommend about it, either.

3/6: more good that bad

other reviews:

Bits & Books
npr
The Book Reporter

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorne9781338099133

publication date: 2016
pages: 308
ISBN: 978-1-338-09913-3

I’m sure this review was too late for most of you readers. Either you were planning on reading this new play and you’ve done so, or you had no interest in reading it and my review would not sway you. Just for fun, though, and because I love Harry Potter, I’m putting this review out there.

This book – it’s actually a script – returned to the story of hero wizard Harry Potter nineteen years after the seventh book ended. Harry was now a father to three young children who were experiencing their own adventures at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Cursed Child focused on Harry’s middle son, Albus, as he encountered his own brand of troubles at Hogwarts. The book included much about Harry. However, there was definitely an emphasis on the next generation.

Obviously, this little play was surrounded by anticipation. Harry Potter was one of the most cherished and endlessly examined book series of all time. As I was reading, I tried to keep my expectations in check because it would be impossible for something to live up to the original series. However, I thought this book was a lot of fun.

I liked the plot: it had a low point and an emotional climax and there was a twist that took me by surprise. I also liked the characters, both old and new. There was continuity with the characters I was familiar with from the original book series. This scene was a great example, where the main characters were unexpectedly gathering in Professor McGonagall’s office:

PROFESSOR McGONAGALL: Right. Very sensible. I expect . . . there will be quite a few [volunteers].
RON bursts in. Covered in soot. Wearing a gravy-stained dinner napkin.
RON: Have I missed anything – I couldn’t work out which Floo to travel to. Ended up in the kitchen somehow. (HERMIONE glares as he pulls the napkin off himself.) What?
Suddenly there is another rumble in the chimney and DRACO comes down hard, surrounded by cascading soot and dust.
Everyone looks at him, surprised. He stands and brushes the soot off himself.
DRACO: Sorry about your floor, Minerva.
PROFESSOR McGONAGALL: I dare say it’s my fault for owning a chimney.
HARRY: Quite a surprise to see you, Draco. I thought you didn’t believe in my dreams.
DRACO: I don’t, but I do trust your luck. Harry Potter is always where the action is at. And I need my son back with me and safe.
GINNY: Then let’s get to the Forbidden Forest and find them both.

That was simply classic Harry Potter. McGonagall’s dry chiding. Ron constantly doing slightly the wrong thing. Draco being the only polite one. A Weasley sounding a call to action.

I liked the new characters, as well – especially Albus Potter’s best friend Scorpius. He was a sensitive, intelligent kid with a great sense of humor. Here was some fun dialogue between Scorpius and Albus, on top of the Hogwarts Express:

SCORPIUS: Okay, now we’re on the roof of a train, it’s fast, it’s scary, this has been great, I feel like I’ve learnt a lot about me, something about you, but –
ALBUS: As I calculate it we should be approaching the viaduct soon and then it’ll be a short hike to St. Oswald’s Home for Old Witches and Wizards . . .
SCORPIUS: The what? The where? Look, I am as excited as you are to be a rebel for the first time in my life – yay – train roof – fun – but now – oh.

Although I liked a lot about Cursed Child, the writing was not as captivating as the book series. I think most of that was because this was a play and not a book. Because this was a play, I couldn’t read about the rich inner lives and monologues of any of the characters. As a play, this story would be more visually compelling than a book, but it does not create the same immediate and long-lasting connections with the characters.

Also, Cursed Child had some of the same flaws as the original series. People were always getting outraged for seemingly no good reason. And these people weren’t kids anymore; now they were adults! There were little riddles and adventures that didn’t actually make a lot of sense but did provide good fun. And many of the small plot points were just a little too convenient.

My mind cannot fathom separating this book from the original series, so, if you have never experienced the Harry Potter series, I have no idea whether you would like this book or if it would even be understandable. However, if you were a fan of the original series, I thought this play was a likable continuation, as long as the constraints of a play are kept in mind.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New York Times
The Independent (this review quotes a 10-year-old kid’s review)
Read at Midnight

Butterfly Winter

Hi all! I’m sorry for my extended break. I was busy with the holidays and then, this January, I’ve been doing the final edits for my friend Beaufield Berry’s first book: Childhood Friends. But all should be back on track now. Thank you for reading!

Butterfly Winter by W.P. Kinsella9781586422059

publication date: 2011
pages: 300
ISBN: 978-1-58642-205-9

W.P. Kinsella, probably most famous for writing Shoeless Joe – the inspiration for the movie Field of Dreams, wrote several books and stories that centered around baseball and magical realism. Butterfly Winter was just such a book, and was the last book he ever published.

The book introduced Julio and Esteban Pimental: twin brothers born in the fictional Latin American country of Courteguay. The boys were born playing baseball and quickly ascended the ranks and began playing professional ball in America at the age of ten. They went on to play for several successful years as their home country of Courteguay was consumed by human rights abuses that were put into place by a string of homegrown dictators.

Butterfly Winter exhibited a lot of what might be called “magical realism,” but was what I would call nonsense. Here’s an example of a story told about a baseball pitcher who carried around the arm of another pitcher, who had recently died:

What happened next, and this is a secret between us, resulted in Milan Garza’s finest year in the Major Leagues, the year he won thirty-five games.
“Milan Garza used to carry the arm in a tuba case. . . . Milan Garza told the Old Dictator that he pitched until he got tired, or was being hit too hard, then he let Barojas Garcia pitch for a while.”
“A portable relief pitcher?” asked Julio. . . . “Is that how it happened?” Julio asked.
“If it isn’t, it’s the way it should have happened,” said the Wizard.

Because the plot was so “magical,” nothing made sense. Magic and possibility were used to explain everything. For me, this meant the plot had no meaning, and I was rarely interested in the story or the characters. Here’s an example of the exaggerated characters:

Julio was walking by seven months, however Esteban remained stable in the catcher’s crouch until he was nearly three. . . . The women immediately fell in love with [Julio]. He would stare arrogantly at the prettiest female in the audience, tug suggestively at his diaper, then unleash a wild pitch into the crowd, aimed, usually with great accuracy, at the stuffiest looking male present.

This kind of writing style, while boring to me, might be interesting and fun to someone else. However, the biggest problem I had with the book was its treatment of dark-skinned people and Latin American history and government. Most of the characters were explicitly light-skinned, and here were the descriptions of the two most prominent dark-skinned characters in the book:

[Julio] picked a woman who, while not unattractive, was of a type not desirable to him. She was a black girl with a wild tumbleweed of hair. She wore a read skirt slit to the waist, and a turquoise blouse that showed off her sloping breasts. She was brazen, not very intelligent, and almost impossible to understand when she spoke.

I thought that was pretty bad but then there was this description of another character:

Dr. Noir wore a smart vizored military hat with gold braid and epaulets on his shoulders the size of giant hairbrushes. His cheeks were like black, pockmarked grapefruit halves, so black they might have been polished. A round surgical mask, white as an angel, covered his nose, hiding the huge, slug-like lips Quita knew well from photographs.

As I am quoting this passage I honestly cannot believe someone had the temerity to put those words to page. I was going to include another passage that denigrated Haiti, but I don’t want to read any more of this stuff.

So with that said:

2/6: many problems

other reviews:

The Globe and Mail
Magic Realism Blog
Quill & Quire

S.

S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst9780316201643

publication date: 2013
pages: 456
ISBN: 978-0-316-20164-3

This book was a lot of fun. The physical book that the reader actually held in their hands was a first edition of the 1949 book Ship of Theseus by V.M. Straka. Within that Straka book, were notes in the margins, written by Jen, a college student, and Eric, a graduate student seeking his Ph.D. on Straka and his works. There were also several related papers stuck in the Straka book, like a copy of a telegram sent by Straka in 1924 and a postcard sent from Eric to Jen in 2012. All these different layers of narratives made for an intriguing book. There was also a lot of mystery within the Ship of Theseus story written by Straka, and surrounding Straka’s identity and death, and around Jen and Eric’s relationship and work.

The different narratives within the book gave me a choice as to how I could read it. I thought the best way I would be able to judge the Ship of Theseus text and the Jen and Eric annotations was to read each story separately. So I read Ship of Theseus and it’s footnotes first, without looking at Eric and Jen’s notes or the material stuck in the book. Then, after I read to the end of the text, I read the later notes and material.

J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst obviously spent time creating this book, and the effort paid off. The different voices of Eric, Jen, Straka, Straka’s editor, and other characters were all varied and interesting. There were several clues and codes within the book that the reader could investigate and untangle. Also, the added material within the book, like letters, photos, and newspaper clippings was all detailed and well-done. Probably the most exciting part in the book for me was when I turned a page to find a hand-written map drafted on a napkin. As I was unfolding the map, I felt like I really was going on an adventure.

I was impressed by the distinctiveness of the different character voices. For example, here was a passage from Ship of Theseus about its main character, S:

It’s not so much the killing that exhausts S. as it is the planning and rowing and trusting and traveling and stalking and killing and escaping and rowing and sewing and sailing and writing and sailing and writing and sailing and writing and planning and rowing and trusting, all the while knowing that Vévoda is hunting him, too. . . .

And here’s a typical passage in the margins between Eric and Jen:

[Eric]: Sometimes I wonder: how much of this am I doing just to get back @ Moody? And Ilsa, too?
[Jen]: You’re doing exactly what you would have been doing. You’re just a little more intense about it.
[Eric]: Apparently I’m allowing you to make rash decisions (which admittedly, benefit me indirectly).
[Jen]: You’re not “allowing” me to do anything.

Although I enjoyed the book, parts of it could be annoying. For example, it’s very nature made it self-indulgent. Doug Dorst was able to write a book and then write notes in the margins commenting on how interesting and well-written the book was. Also, the Ship of Theseus narrative was sometimes excessively stylized.

Overall, it was a fun, intriguing book that left several mysteries unsolved for those readers who want to solve puzzles on their own.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

The Guardian
Hypable
The Telegraph