Book Review: Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake (2018)

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Review #65

Owen and Mara are bonded as only twins can be. They share everything, and have no secrets from one another. So when Owen is accused of rape by Mara’s good friend Hannah, her world and everything she knows to be true is called into question. As lines are drawn between “Team Owen” and “Team Hannah”, Mara must face the choice between supporting the brother she loves or following her conscience.

This book left me feeling devastated. Author Ashley Herring Blake immerses her readers in a state of nearly desperate melancholy. No matter what choices Mara makes, she is turning her back on someone she loves. An eighteen year old girl is not emotionally mature enough to handle the situation that Mara finds herself in. Blake does a fantastic job of treating her characters like real people. Mara’s confusion, anger, and grief are real and visceral. I felt my heart breaking again and again along with hers.

Mara is utterly shattered when her twin brother is accused of raping her friend. Her emotional annihilation continues as Owen defends himself by saying that Hannah was willing at the time but is “crying rape” after an argument. Mara is an outspoken feminist who has been raised by her mother to rebel against gender stereotypes and fight for what she believes is right.Her faith is further weakened as she sees her mother side with Owen and dismiss Hannah’s claims as an “overreaction”.

This novel feels particularly relevant for where we currently are as a society. The #MeToo movement is making great strides at raising awareness of the sexual assault and abuse that women experience throughout their lives. But there are still instances every day where this sexually abusive behavior by men is shrugged off or normalized. There was a particularly crushing scene in Girl Made of Stars where Mara wears an outfit to school that is deemed inappropriate by her male principal, and she is promptly suspended for “not dressing like a lady”. This incident occurs while her brother, who has been accused of rape, enjoys the support and solidarity of his family and friends.

I could go on about the myriad of instances both small and large that Blake illustrates in her novel and how each one resonated with me and my experiences as a woman. Several of her character’s are also dealing with issues of sexuality and gender nonconformity which helps to paint a more inclusive portrait of a modern day teenager’s experience in high school.

By the time I finished the last page and closed the covers on Girl Made of Stars, I felt wrung out. I was equal parts despairing and hopeful, enraged and uplifted. I would absolutely recommend this novel.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Girl Made of Stars here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.


Book Review: Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala (2018)

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Book Review #41

On the surface, Niru’s life seems to be one of privilege and advantage. The son of wealthy Nigerian immigrants, at eighteen he is a track star who has already been pre-approved to go to Harvard. However, Niru is ashamed to be hiding a deep secret from his parents. Only his best friend, Meredith, knows what he is keeping from the rest of the world. Niru is gay.

What follows is one of the worst “coming out” moments that could possibly happen to a young man. After his extremely conservative father sees a Grindr notification on his phone, all hell breaks loose. He beats Niru, and then forces him to travel to Nigeria in order to undergo a religious ceremony that will supposedly cleanse him of the demons that are causing these “unnatural” urges.

This novel by author Uzodinma Iweala is a short and brutal look into the fears and anxieties that continue to plague homosexual teens. Mainstream acceptance of gay rights have grown by leaps and bounds in the past ten years, and yet there are still thousands of children who cower in fear at the thought of their family or church community discovering that they are different from the “norm” in any way. Niru, the protagonist in Speak No Evil, has his fears compounded by the fact that he is African-American and a child of Nigerian parents, a country where homosexuality is still punishable by up to fourteen years in prison in the southern states and death by stoning in the north.

Iweala’s prose manages to be simultaneously poignant and gut-wrenching. I found myself rooting so strongly for poor Niru, and was disappointed and disturbed when it seemed that his chances for happiness were thwarted again and again by his family and his confusion towards his own sexual orientation. The chapters that are narrated by Meredith, are no less heartbreaking as she watches her dear friend spiral into depression and her own life ambitions begin to crumble.

“Sometimes I stare at the family that owns me and I wish I were a different person, with white skin and the ability to tell my mother and father, especially my father, to fuck off without consequence, and sometimes I stare at the white cards of Bible verses Reverend Olumide has gifted me and think that there is still a chance to change my ways.”

The only reason I cannot rate this novel higher is that I found Iweala’s writing style to be quite frustrating. He doesn’t use capital letters or quotation marks to indicate when a character is speaking. Because the novel is written almost as a stream-of-consciousness, this makes sense but I found myself confused and annoyed in turns when I could not figure out what words were being spoken aloud and which were taking place in Niru or Meredith’s mind. I must point out that the lack of quotation marks is a personal pet peeve of mine, one which will not necessarily detract from the anyone else’s enjoyment as they read this novel.

I would absolutely recommend this novel. Speak No Evil presents an unblinking look into racial and gender politics which left me haunted for days after finishing it.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Speak No Evil here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara (2018)

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Review #37

The glitter and glamor of the Harlem drag ball scene is described through the eyes of four young transvestites. Together they form the house of Xtravaganza, led by Angel who is recovering from a dark past. Beneath the excitement and energy, all these women try to fight against the allure of drugs and the rising threat of AIDS.

“So I always say that when the world calls you a slut, just kick back your legs and fuck and enjoy it. Because if life don’t call you a slut, she’s gonna find something else to call you.”

The early pages of Joseph Cassara’s debut novel, The House of Impossible Beauties, are a little confusing. There is a fluidity of pronouns and personal names that make it difficult to determine exactly who is speaking at any given time. It also helps while reading this novel if you have some background in Spanish, as Cassara often interjects English sentences with Spanish phrases. Not being able to understand these phrases will not necessarily detract from the overall plot, but it did have the effect of constantly pulling me out of the novel while I tried to dredge up the remnants of my high school Spanish.

The House of Impossible Beauties switches perspective between four young drag queens who have moved to New York with tall dreams and even taller heels. Angel yearns to create a family to replace the one that rejected her. Venus strives to find someone who will love her for who she is and take her away from a life walking the piers at night. Juanito is a gentle and shy boy who lives to create his own fashions and dreams of seeing them walk down the runway at the drag shows. And Daniel is a tough butch queen who refuses to take shit from anyone, until he falls in love. These four band together to try to make a life for themselves in a world that has given them only disgust and revulsion.

All of this takes place against the background of the 1980’s drag queen ball culture, where the women are straddled between two very different lives. On one side, there is sisterhood and pride, strutting attitude and false eyelashes and desperate hope. On the other side, there is a life of turning tricks in the backseats of cars, of battling addiction, depression, and the cruelty of society. And in the background, like a horrible looming spider, is the threat of HIV and AIDS, a virus so terrible that it threatened to wipe out this community in its entirety. Like Shakespeare’s Scottish play, it is never directly referred to by name, as if to invoke its name would be to tempt death itself.

As I was reading, Darren Aronofsky’s horrifically beautiful film Requiem for a Dream kept flashing into my mind. There are the shared themes of people building castles in the sky and watching them crash down around their heads. There is the same sense of reckless hope that fuels a manic energy. And when the flame of that hope dwindles, all anyone is left with are the ashes.

Filled in turns with rage, romance, grief, and tenderness, The House of Impossible Beauties is a poignant and evocative novel. I would definitely recommend it.

My rating: 4/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!