Review of Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

“Sometimes the world don’t give you what you need, no matter how hard you look. Sometimes it withholds.”

— Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward

While beautifully written, I don’t think Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward was the book for me. Knowing that Ward is a fellow University of Michigan alum and that Sing, Unburied, Sing was on Barack Obama’s 2017 reading list, I desperately wanted to love this book, but I only liked it.*

*Which, I should note, is still a good thing and I do recommend this book if you are a fan of literary fiction!

Sing, Unburied, Sing tells the story of one family, their struggles, and their strengths. The story starts with Jojo, a thirteen-year-old boy who idolizes his grandfather and wants to be a man just like him. Jojo’s mother, Leonie, is struggling even more. With her children’s father in jail, past traumas haunting her, and a drug addiction, Leonie is not equipped to raise Jojo or her daughter.

The bulk of this story revolves around the journey of the family as they go to pick up the children’s father from jail. On the road, the family face more struggles that challenge their ways of thinking and makes them question the lives they are living.

There was no question that this book was beautiful and heartbreaking. As a literary fiction, it excelled. However, some logistical problems kept me from fully falling in love with this family’s story.

Just to quickly list them out:

  • The timeline was unclear. 
    There were times when it was obvious there was a flashback happening, but other times the flashbacks or memories were nestled into the chapters. This threw me off at times and I found myself having to go back and reread sections to figure out where in time I was.
  • I didn’t truly understand the character of Richie.
    While I know Richie was a very important part of Pop’s backstory, I don’t know why he had to be included in Jojo’s story. It seemed like Jojo was not at all receptive to Richie or his message. It didn’t seem like Richie served much of a purpose except to weave some supernatural elements throughout the story.
  • The magical realism wasn’t clear.
    The magical realism throughout this novel is what left me confused most of the time. It was never clear if the “ghosts” the family were seeing were actual ghosts or hallucinations or something else entirely. While Ward wrote these moments beautifully, I didn’t quite understand how the family was seeing these supernatural occurrences and why.

My biggest issue with this novel is that, by the end, I didn’t understand why I was told this story. The issues presented at the beginning were not resolved by the end. A lot of this novel could have been removed and the ending would have stayed the same. While I felt Ward’s prose was masterful, I felt like it didn’t progress the story at times.

Despite those negatives, I do think Sing, Unburied, Sing is an important novel that needs to be out in this world. It doesn’t shy away from racism or drug abuse. It talks about these issues and doesn’t glamorize them. It shows how racism has caused many of the family’s struggles. From Pop’s time in prison to the murder of Given to Leonie’s children having a white father, the family in this novel has always faced struggles due to racism. Sing, Unburied, Sing also shows how drug use has kept Leonie from being a mother to her children and how it has pulled them away from her. This novel takes the ugly things from this world and writes about them lyrically, which left an unsettled feeling in my stomach.

Overall, I liked this book. It gets a solid three out of five stars from me.

Review of Bird Box by Josh Malerman

“How can she expect her children to dream as big as the stars if they can’t lift their heads to gaze upon them?

— Bird Box, Josh Malerman

*Note: Bird Box is the middle book in this photo. The other two novels were pretty great too!

If you’re in need of a chilling, horrifying novel, Bird Box by Josh Malerman is absolutely something you need to pick up. It didn’t matter what page of this book I was on, there was always something terrifying that took place.

Bird Box tells the story of a post-apocalyptic world in which it is not safe to open your eyes. If you do open your eyes, you risk going mad. The world is filled with “creatures” that the human mind can’t comprehend and their presence has completely changed the way the world works. Bird Box centers around Malorie who has just found out she’s pregnant as the world is falling apart around her. Five years later, Malore is trapped in an abandoned house with her two children. Her children have been raised and trained for the perfect moment to leave the house in search of a safer life. One foggy day, it’s time.

This book chronicles Malorie’s and the children’s journey down the river to safety as well as Malorie’s life leading up to this moment. Each chapter alternates years and events, but stays centered on Malorie’s story.

The premise of this novel was different from the other post-apocalyptic novels I’ve read and I thought Malerman did a phenomenal job of creating such a chilling world. He weaved tension and anxiety throughout each of the pages expertly. I was kept on my toes with each page turn, unsure of what was about to happen next. Bird Box was the perfect length. Malerman edited his book so that each word was crucial to the story and nothing was lost.

I enjoyed this read immensely and the chills stayed with me for days. Also, Josh Malerman is a metro-Detroit native just like myself so he gets even more props for that! He’s also in a local band, check out The High Strung!

A solid 4 out of 5 stars for Bird Box. If you need a chilling, horror novel then you need to pick this book up!

When good plots go bad: A review of Trenton Makes

The first thing I want to note in this review is that Trenton Makes is not for everyone. It certainly wasn’t for me. Due to it’s writing style, fans of literary fiction might enjoy the prose of this novel, but the content is what really put me off.

Trenton Makes by Tadzio Koelb is a debut novel about a woman carving out her piece of the American Dream by assuming the identity of a man. The book is split into two parts; part one being set in the 1940s and part two taking place in 1971.

In the 1940s a woman kills her husband in a domestic fight and takes over his identity. As Abe Kuntsler, he successfully secures employment at a wire factory and woos an alcoholic dancer named Inez. He begins to make a home with Inez, but realizes his transformation is incomplete until he can secure himself a son.

In 1971, Abe’s life is deteriorating. The life he has created is falling apart due to the stress and pressure of his lies. Abe becomes desperate to hold onto what he built and begins searching for solutions in his dying city of Trenton.

Content warnings for Trenton Makes:

Rape, violence against women, homophobia, murder, domestic abuse, racist/offensive language, sexual abuse, alcoholism

 
Unfortunately, I could not finish this book. I finished part one and had to put it down. My biggest struggle was the prose. It was very vague and flowery which made it difficult for me to read without paying super close attention. I found myself having to reread paragraphs constantly to derive some meaning, but ultimately coming away with very little. While I could appreciate that the prose was beautiful, it was very difficult to understand. There are some flashback scenes to Abe’s life before he assumes his late husband’s identity where the prose is even more of a stream of consciousness and harder to understand. It should come as no surprise that one of Koelb’s influences is William Falkner.

Despite the prose, I was still really looking forward to seeing this plot play out, but there are scenes in this novel that really ruined it for me.

Uncomfortable content ahead:

Part one of this novel ends with Abe getting his wife (Inez) and a stranger blackout drunk and raping both of them. He then proceeds to help the stranger rape his wife.
I felt it was unnecessary to the plot and it made me very uncomfortable.

 
These scenes, particularly the one above, made me question what the point of this novel was and why Koelb included this information. After this scene I knew I didn’t want to see where the novel was headed and that’s when I decided to put it on my DNF shelf.

Overall, I give this book one and a half out of five stars. While I feel the uniqueness of the plot deserves some praise, this book wasn’t for me. Unfortunately, I cannot recommend it; however, if you’ve read this review and still want to give it a try Trenton Makes comes out on March 20th of this year!

However, I want to give a huge thank you to Doubleday books for sending me a copy of Trenton Makes in exchange for an honest review.