Book Review: Kindred by Octavia Butler

Book Description:

60931Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her 26th birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stays grow longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana’s life will end, long before it has a chance to begin.


Kindred, a neo-slave narrative (fictionalized account of slavery), shows how slavery can still affect us, even when we’re generations removed from it. For Dana, it has a very literal effect. While unpacking her things in her new home with her husband, Kevin, Dana falls under a sudden dizzy spell that sends her back in time to antebellum Maryland, where she meets a distant white relative (hence the title, Kindred). She’s drawn to him each time his life is in danger and must assimilate herself into a very different era and culture — become a slave — and when needed, save his life enough times so that he can eventually father her great-grandmother. Every time Rufus draws her, the stay grows longer, extending from hours, to months, to even years, and Dana must come to terms with the fact that she must play the part of a slave woman, denying herself the basic freedoms she had back in 1976, in order to survive until she can find a way back home.

So often we treat slavery like a history lesson — a dark chapter in our country’s distant past that we choose to forget or pretend has no relevance in today’s world when that couldn’t be further from the truth. Slavery very much becomes a reality for Dana, and no matter how hard we try to ignore it, it has been a reality for us too. Think of terms such as light skin vs. dark skin (house slaves vs. field slaves), Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, the “N” word, white guilt, or white privilege — all are effects of slavery that still sting today.

Chapter three presents an excellent example of white privilege. It’s Dana’s third trip back, and this time, Kevin accompanies her. In this chapter, we learn that Kevin is white. For two months, Dana and Kevin “act” out their roles of slave and slave master. Then Kevin makes the mistake of saying life in antebellum Maryland isn’t so bad. To him, it would be like acting, but Dana is constantly reminded how she fits in this world. She sees the little black children play slave auction, learning their own objectification early. She’s forced to watch a man have the skin whipped off his back — a warning to the other slaves against insubordination. And later, she herself receives the same beating for teaching another slave how to read.

But Kevin will soon learn that antebellum life isn’t so easy, and it will age him, tremendously.

Reading Kindred made me want to retrace my family tree, as Dana had. While my Ancestry DNA results revealed a lot about my heritage, they did little to connect me with my distant relatives, so I found a 100% free database to search for records using the names I had from our family tree.

Unfortunately, especially for blacks in America, we will inevitably reach a date where all the information suddenly stops. For me, it was 1870, roughly seven years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery in the U.S. From that 1870 census, I learned that my great-great-grandfather, who was rumored to have been white, was actually labeled mulatto, and his parents — also mulatto — were more than likely born slaves. As far what happened to them prior to 1870 — who their parents were, who their masters (and most likely my distant relatives) were — I’ll probably never know.

That’s how slavery slaps you in the face sometimes.

Like it slapped Dana, and beat her, and whipped her, and attempted to rape her. That’s another harsh realization Dana has to face about her ancestors (and I about mine, as well); it’s highly probable that she — or rather, her great-grandmother — was not conceived from a mutual love between two parents, but from one overpowering the other simply because there’s nothing that tells him he can’t.

What’s most striking about this novel is its concept of home. The more time Dana and Kevin spend in the past, the harder it becomes for them to adjust to normal life when they return “home.” And even when they’re back in 1976 California for good, the first thing they do is fly to Maryland to visit their ancestral home to see what happened to the people who had become like family to them.

Of course, they’ll never know what happened. If they did, we wouldn’t still be asking questions today.

Why do we continue to run back to the past? Yesterday, I was telling my aunt that every year, there’s a new movie or television special out about slavery. This year, Hollywood is releasing two feature films: Free State of Jones and The Birth of a Nation. On TV, the History Channel is presenting Roots on Memorial Day, and Underground premiered earlier this Spring on WGN.

I fear we’ll always have questions about our troubling past, and no matter how many books we read, how many movies with watch, how many plantations we visit, or how many historical databases we search, we’ll never find the answers we seek. We may be over 150 years removed from slavery, but it’s not rid of us yet. It probably never will be. It’s why I love how this novel ends so much. Some may find the ending unsatisfying, but can any answer we receive from slavery ever truly be satisfying? What happens on Dana’s final exit from the past is a very literal and physical illustration of how slavery snatches so much away from us, even when we’ve never experienced it ourselves.

Kindred is probably the best novel I’ve read so far this year, and while I felt some parts could have been edited or polished better, especially in the beginning and in some of the character dialogue, it didn’t make that much of a difference on my score…

4.5/5 stars!

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Book Review: Pretty Baby by Mary Kubica

pretty-baby-mary-kubicaBook Description:

She sees the teenage girl on the train platform, standing in the pouring rain, clutching an infant in her arms. She boards a train and is whisked away. But she can’t get the girl out of her head… 


Have you ever read a book that just completely ruined your life? You never asked for it. You just wanted something to occupy the time when work was slow, or when boyfriend still hadn’t called you back. You didn’t expect to get swept into this twisted realm of lies, sexual abuse, kidnapping, and murder, to the point that once you finally got to the end, you had a mental break just like the characters.

While many novels that I’ve read lately lollygag for the first two or three chapters before finally getting to the plot, Mary Kubica’s Pretty Baby opens right into the action.

Heidi Wood, a charitable woman who works for a nonprofit organization helping illiterate refugees and other unfortunate souls, spots the wretched Willow Greer with her infant daughter standing in the pouring rain—apparently invisible to the rest of the commuters on the train platform—and can’t resist the urge to help her. Eventually, she invites Willow and baby Ruby back to her home, much to the dismay of her never home investment banker husband, Chris, and her temperamental 12-year-old, Zoe.

As the novel progresses and you learn more about Heidi and her past, you start to wonder if maybe it wasn’t Willow she wanted to save, if maybe her motivations for bringing Willow and Ruby into her home were more perverse than we might have thought. Eventually the question becomes not whether Willow will pose a threat, but is she or any of the other characters safe, alone in that house with Heidi? Once you reach the climax of the novel, everything happens so quickly, you’re forced to go back and read it again to identify the exact place in the novel where it all suddenly went south.

Overall, Pretty Baby is a great read. There were some parts where the plot dragged, but I’m glad I stuck it out. I wouldn’t quite classify it as a psychological thriller. In a psychological thriller, I want my head to spin, and unfortunately, Kubica’s plot twists didn’t surprise me as much as I wanted them too. However, there were some surprises that I didn’t see coming, and while I figured out the ending early on, the quickness of how everything deteriorated was definitely a shock.

Unfortunately, I do have two major issues that almost got this book shelved. First, am I the only one who thinks that telling a story from three or four different points-of-view is extremely overdone? Personally, I think it disrupts the flow of the story, especially if the next character’s chapter doesn’t pick up where the last character left off. For example, the end of one of Chris’ chapters had me dying to know what happened next. Unfortunately, I had to go through six or seven Willow and Heidi chapters to get there. It didn’t help that all of Willow’s chapters were set in her past (by the way, the novel is written in present tense—something excitingly different). By the time I got back to Chris, the novel had jumped to the next day, and all that tension from his previous chapter was gone.

Secondly, I absolutely hated Willow’s foster father, Joseph. Not because he was an unlikeable character, because anyone who reads my writing knows I live for unlikeable characters. Joseph, however, was obnoxiously unlikeable, and his character was so stereotypical that I was left wondering if Kubica put any imagination into his profile at all. Why is it that every literary antagonist that is a devout Christian is so despicable that his very existence would cause Jesus to swallow his own vomit? I’ve seen this type of character in too many novels. Note to writers, if you’re thinking about making your novel’s main antagonist a hypocritical Christian, stop right there! I promise you, it’s been done before, in every genre. There is no way you will ever be able to make that kind of character original. Avoid the melodrama and take another route.

Thankfully, Willow’s chapters were usually short, so I didn’t have to deal with that disgusting pig for long.

Other than those two cons, I really enjoyed Pretty Baby, and for that, I give it (drum roll, please) . . .

3/5 stars!
3-5

A lot of Amazon reviewers said that her debut novel, The Good Girl was much better. I’ll be the judge of that. I’ve already downloaded the free sample, and if I like it, I’ll buy the book and finish reading, but first . . .

 

Why I Didn’t Finish It: The Ophelia Cut by John Lescroart

ophelia-cut-john-lescroatBook Description:

When a brutal rapist is murdered, a loving father stands accused of the crime. Defense attorney Dismas Hardy must defend his brother-in-law and old friend Moses McGuire in a thrilling case that hits far too close to home.


So, I’m thinking about starting a new book review series title, “Why I Didn’t Finish It.” I know it’s strongly advised that authors don’t give bad reviews, but as some of you may know, I didn’t find my pot of gold at the end of the reading rainbow in 2015. I read a dismal five books! While I attempted to read plenty more, I found myself giving up on a lot of novels for a variety of reasons—editing, dull plot, unbelievable characters, etc. So, in case that drought continues in 2016, I just want to explain to you how it is absolutely possible for an avid reader such as myself to only finish five books in a year.

It took me three months to read Pretty Baby, and it took me that long because I was really trying to give The Ophelia Cut a chance. Co-workers would see the book on my desk collecting dust and say, “Oh, I love his books! I can never put them down!” Well, I couldn’t even pick this one up. I literally fell asleep on the last chapter I read, and for most of the novel, I had no idea what was going on. Finally, a co-worker said to me, “It’s ok to let it go, Nortina.” So I did.

My mistake might have been choosing a book that was 14th in a series. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time, and when I found out, I was under the impression that it could stand alone. It couldn’t. From the beginning, I was lost. There were way too many characters to keep up with, and because I’d never read the previous books, I couldn’t connect with any of them. They also kept referring back to an event that happened in the last novel, and I felt Lescroart didn’t provide enough background on what happened or why it happened so that I’d understand how it would eventually connect to the events of this novel. Add on top of that, the main conflict of the story, the thing that hooked me into choosing the book in the first place, the above quoted description, didn’t even happen until well after I’d given up.

I might give John Lescroart another chance, preferably with a stand alone novel, but I’m on a mission to read more than five books this year, and I cannot be held back.

So what do you think? Have you read Pretty Baby or The Ophelia Cut ? How did you like them? I’m crossing my fingers that “Why I Didn’t Finish It” will be a one and done. I hate giving up on books.

My next novel to read is Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Hopefully it won’t be June before I write a review!

Book Review: White Oleander by Janet Fitch

32234Book Description

White Oleander tells the unforgettable story of Ingrid, a brilliant poet imprisoned for murder, and her daughter, Astrid, whose odyssey through a series of Los Angeles foster homes—each its own universe, with its own laws, its own dangers, its own hard lessons to be learned—becomes a redeeming and surprising journey of self-discovery.


First, I want to say that I had no idea this book was made into a movie. Of course, I was only seven when the book was published, and not much older when the film was released. I would like to see the movie, though, just to see how much it sticks to the source material, or if it makes minor (or drastic) changes (the relationship between Astrid and Ray comes to mind) to appease a “not so literary” audience.

Pros:

From the opening scene, I loved Fitch’s writing style. Her prose is very poetic, and it flows smoothly throughout the first pages. Her descriptions of California are so vivid. I could feel, smell, taste the air.

I was drawn most to Ingrid’s character. Even towards the end of the novel, when it became evident that the author wanted the reader to hate Ingrid, I still loved her. Ingrid’s this badass poet who lives a bohemian lifestyle and doesn’t allow herself to be distracted by emotions or men. That is until Barry comes in and changes things. This obnoxiously unattractive man who doesn’t even deserve a second glance somehow not only gains her attention, but also her heart, just to chew it up and spit it right back out.

The way Ingrid murders Barry is so beautifully romantic. She doesn’t shoot or stab him over a broken heart, seeking revenge. She doesn’t hate him. She’s more angry with herself for allowing the fling with Barry to even go as far as it did. But she won’t kill herself. That’s not Ingrid; she’s too proud for that. Instead, she boils down poisonous oleanders into a killer potion!

Unfortunately, even in fiction, you can’t murder someone and get away with it (unless you’re cop, but that’s another story). Ingrid is arrested, convicted of murder, and sentenced to life in prison.

Astrid, who at this point is only 12, is put into foster care where she meets a string of interesting people. First, there’s the promiscuous, Bible-toting foster mom and her pedophile boyfriend. Then there’s the bigoted slave mistress and the black, high class prostitute next door. Next, it’s the evil stepmother who forces Astrid and her evil stepfoster sisters to remodel her house and eat out of the trash. If things couldn’t get any worse, we have the sad, lonely wife who commits suicide, Mac Children’s Center where Astrid is beaten up on the playground by all the girls because the boys have wandering eyes, and lastly, the scavenging Russian who pimps  Astrid out both figuratively and (unknowingly) literally.

That is quite the experience for someone so young, and all of this happens over the course of six years. I don’t know if foster care is really this horrible, but Fitch makes you believe it. She brings the characters to life with her prose, and each character has a distinct voice. No two foster mothers are the same. Although each situation is bad, it’s bad in it’s own way, and we see how each situation molds Astrid into a different manifestation of herself, not always pleasant, but definitely a product of her environments.

Cons:

While I enjoyed this novel, it could’ve  ended 100 pages, even 150 pages sooner than it actually did. A little over halfway through the novel, the poetry of the writing declined, and it became a chore to read.

Astrid’s inner dialogue increases dramatically in the second half of the novel. She continuously complains about her situation, blaming everyone around her, especially her mother, for her problems, but she still settles into that life. She has the opportunity to go home with a nice family & she chooses the crazy, drunk Russian chick instead. I didn’t have much sympathy for her after that. Bad thing after bad thing continues to happen to her, and 50 pages from the end, I feared that nothing would change, that there would be no real resolution.

I also thought the second half of the novel was overwritten, as if Fitch was trying to explain and force the reader to understand why Astrid made the decisions she did, but it was too much, it sounded very melodramatic, and worst of all, it slowed down the plot.

The last chapter seemed out of place. I think it’s set three years in the future. Astrid’s living in Europe with Paul— a foster kid she met at Mac and kept in touch with afterwards, although we saw about three pages worth of that relationship (I think his character could’ve been fleshed out more). The chapter seemed very depressing. Even after foster care, Astrid still chooses to be miserable. Personally, I think a better ending would have been the chapter before when she last visits Ingrid, and Ingrid, troubled by the hard young woman before her, admits that she would give up her life and freedom for Astrid to go back to the innocent, dreamy child she once was. It shows a vulnerable side of Ingrid we’ve never seen, and it gives us hope that things will get better for Astrid, even when her mother is imprisoned for life.

Too bad we don’t always get the ending we want. Still, I thought this was a good book, and for that reason, I give it . . .

3.5/5 stars
3-5-stars

Review: Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen

16130398Book Description:

The triumphant success of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” compels fledgling poet Frances Osgood to meet her literary idol, a mysterious, complicated man who soon has her under his seductive spell in an all-consuming affair. And when Edgar’s frail young wife breaks into their idyll to befriend her rival, Frances fears that deceiving Mrs. Poe may be as impossible as cheating death itself. . . .


 

What initially drew me to Mrs. Poe was Edgar Allan Poe, one of my favorite writers, and no doubt, one who has influenced my writing tremendously. Based on the description on the back cover, and the fact that the infamous Mr. Poe is the narrator’s love interest, I was expecting to descend into darkness with this read.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Poe fell flat for me. Although I love Edgar Allan Poe, I am not a fan of historical fiction (unless it’s literary) or romance, and to my detriment, that is exactly what this novel is.

Here’s my problem with the romance and historical fiction genres (bring on the lynch mob). So often with books I’ve read in these genres, there is absolutely no plot whatsoever. In romance, it’s usually some pathetic girl pining after a guy way out of her league who, by some miraculous wave of the cosmos, likes her back, and they go through this back and forth until eventually, they get together. The End. Usually these novels are complete snooze fests until the love interest enters the scene. Yawn. The similar happens with historical fiction. Again, there’s no plot, but this time, it’s because the author is spending the majority of the time trying to convince the reader that this story is history. The author spends pages upon pages describing the setting of every single chapter. The author randomly name-drops famous figures in history. (“Oh, look, there’s Walt Whitman standing awkwardly at the literary salon eating finger food!” He’s not doing anything, so why should we care?) There’s not much originality as far as story, the author just writes around whatever historic event the book is based on. We don’t get the actual event, just the characters’ reactions to it. Speaking of the characters, they also waste precious page space talking about other people in history in the way that we causally talk amongst friends and colleagues about current events today. Now, I’m sure that happened back then, but I don’t want to read about it in a novel, especially when it does nothing to progress the plot!

Combine all of that into one novel, and you have Mrs. Poe. This novel lacked a basic plot. Osgood spent half the novel at literary salons listening to people talk about other people and looking around for Poe. The novel also had an excruciatingly slow start. In fact, for me, it didn’t pique my interest until the last 100 or so pages. For an “all-consuming affair” between Osgood and Poe, I didn’t feel the passion. They exchanged several love poems published in Poe’s literary magazine, the Broadway Journal, of which the reader only saw two stanzas. Fortunately the flat secondary characters kept the reader up to date with their constant blabbering and gossip. (“I know you wrote [Insert poem title here].” “I know you’re [Insert pen name here].”) The attraction between Poe and Osgood wasn’t explained well. Apparently Poe was initially drawn to Osgood by her poetry, and she was drawn to him because . . . he liked her first?

To be honest, Mrs. Poe reminded me a lot of 50 Shades of Grey (a dreadful novel I surprisingly finished). A mysterious man stalks a woman for no apparent reason other than he’s pursuing a relationship that will never work. She falls for him, again, not really knowing why, and whines constantly about her predicament—why they can’t be together yet she still craves for his touch, again, we don’t know why.

Eventually, the title character, Mrs. Poe, makes an appearance. Her character is very childish, petty and jealous. Although sickly, suffering from consumption (tuberculosis), she supposedly finds a way to attempt to end Frances’ life on a few occasions, all while smiling in her face pretending to be her friend. It seems as though even Poe is afraid of poor, near-death Virginia.

I’ll give Mrs. Poe 2.5 stars simply because the writing was good, and although the setting was too descriptive at times, I did feel like I was in 19th century New York. However, the story as a whole was boring and drawn out until, like I said, the last 100 pages, which by then was too late.

By the way, I hate that every time I think to write a book review, it’s always a bad one. Maybe one day I’ll read a book that changes my life, and I’ll share it with you.

How Many Books Does It Take to Kill Your Brain Cells? Fifty

When I first heard that Fifty Shades of Grey started as fanfiction, my first thought was, “wow, it must really be good.” I couldn’t have been more wrong. I do not understand how this book was ever published or why so many people love it. What’s more disturbing is the number of women who love Christian Grey. Seriously?! There is nothing attractive about a man who doesn’t understand BOUNDARIES. Take it from a girl who’s been stalked by her boyfriend. That shit is creepy. Even as I type this, I fear that he’s cyber stalking my blog under some alias email address, and the minute he reads this post, he’ll freak and show up at my house, demanding I tell him if I ever really loved him because he always loved and worshiped me and did everything to make me happy under his delusional, manipulative definition of a happy, loving relationship. Newsflash ladies, this is the real Christian Grey—a needy, whiny, controlling, manipulative figment of a man. Just take away the money and the supernatural good looks and you have my creeper ex-boyfriend.

All that aside, the book just isn’t good. PERIOD. There is absolutely no plot whatsoever. We just wander around aimlessly in Ana’s stupid, schizophrenic mind (Instead of telling Christian to see Dr. Flynn about his stalker tendencies, she needs to see the doctor about the two little women living inside her head) until we get to the mind-blowing sex, which is really quite boring, and suddenly, after 500+ pages of nothing, we find ourselves at the end when Christian finally punishes her FORREAL and she runs crying, only to come back four days later because that’s apparently where the second book starts. WHAT?!

Fifty Shades of Grey

The book couldn’t be more repetitive. Ana says Jeez so much, the word actually slipped out of my mouth one day at work. I wanted to shoot myself! The sex is also repetitive, and did I mention boring? I mean, after you orgasm “gloriously” so many times, what else can you do? And it’s so UNREALISTIC too! What 21-year-old virgin, who’s never even masturbated, orgasms after only getting her nipples sucked?! Are you kidding me?! He hasn’t even touched her “down there” yet! Give me a break! I was over Fifty Shades halfway through the first chapter, but after reading that first sex scene, I wanted to throw my kindle across the room. I don’t care how “experienced” Christian Grey is, no man can make a woman come that easily and that many times during sex.

At the end of the day, this book has too much fantasy for it to be believable. And that’s the scary part—people are calling it fantasy. Whose fantasy is it? A middle-aged housewife’s or a teenage girl’s? Quite frankly, the book reads like it was written by a teenage girl. Anastasia Steele is so stupid and naive . . . and STUPID. You can’t be a 21-year-old college student, with a seemingly promiscuous roommate, and be that much of a ditz. Yet every man in the world wants her! WHY?!

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

If Christian Grey wasn’t some fantastical character pulled from a teenage girl’s (or middle-aged woman’s) wet dreams, he would be that sociopath we see on the news, who shoots his ex-girlfriend, ex-wife, ex-fiancé, etc. all because she left his possessive, controlling, “you can’t leave me, I do everything for you,” needy ass. Look ladies, you say you want a man who wines and dines you, treats you like a queen, takes you hang gliding, buys you expensive first editions of your favorite novel days after meeting you, worships the ground you walk on, wants to be with you every minute of every day, makes unannounced visits to your house to “surprise” and “please” you, constantly keeps tabs on you so that he knows where you are, who you’re with, and what you’re doing in case he has to sweep in to “save” you, and blah blah blah. You think that’s fantasy until you get it and realize how much of a nightmare it really is. Take it from a girl who’s lived the less rich, less handsome version of the demigod that is Christian Grey. He is not the type of guy you want to dream of dating. And his promises to change are just another ploy to keep you trapped. Run. Run fast, and run far away.

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And I will be running from these books. There’s no way in hell you can make me read the other two. I’m thankful I only wasted $2.99 on this one. It was on sale, I assume, because of the release of the movie, which I also will not be seeing.