Review of Mexico by Josh Barkan

I’m not usually drawn to collections of short stories however, after my local Barnes and Noble rearranged the ENTIRE fiction section, I made this rather rash book buying decision. Luckily, this ended up being one of the best decisions I’ve made. Mexico follows the stories of various characters who are simply living their lives and trying their best to avoid the violence surrounding the. Regardless of their best efforts to do the right thing and make the best lives for themselves, the violence manages to impact their decisions and day-to-day experiences.

The reason I usually steer clear of short story collections is because I feel as though they can be disjointed. Just as I feel connected to the characters in one story, it’s time to move onto the next one which I find very frustrating. Barkan, on the other hand, created a truly cohesive and moving collection of vignettes. He manages to transport the reader within each story with the strong, unique voices of each character and reaches a level a closure as the end of each one which allows for a seamless transition onto the next story. Furthermore, each story leaves the reader wrestling with the question of what really is the right thing to do in many of the circumstances each character faces, among other important questions about the human condition. Ultimately, the organic way in which Barkan captures how the violence from the cartels manages to snake its way into the lives of even the most innocent individuals is what makes this book so unique.

Mexico is a truly remarkable collection of short stories. I could not but this book down for the life of me because I was so moved by each characters story. Despite being a work of fiction, Mexico offers a refreshing perspective on what Mexican citizens are enduring in their day to day lives. If you’re looking for a book that no other collection of short stories will compare to, be sure to bump Barkan’s Mexico to the top of your reading list. You won’t regret it.

5 out of 5 stars

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Review of Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley

I am an absolute sucker for a good story about man’s best friend so when I happened about Steven Rowley’s Lily and the Octopus at my local public library, I couldn’t help myself. To put it simply, this story is about a man named Ted whose best friend is his aging dachshund named Lily. After discovering a tumor, or “octopus,” on her head, Ted struggles to come to terms with losing the one thing he never imagined life without.

As someone who lost a four-legged friend to an octopus of her own, I thought Rowley did a phenomenal job of capturing the unique bond between a person and their dog as well as the heart-wrenching moments when you are forced to say goodbye. However, I thoughts the personification of Lily’s brain tumor as an octopus watered down the significance of Ted and Lily’s relationship. As cheesy as it may sound, I found myself longing for a montage that showed how Lily has helped Ted through his various struggles. Instead, the reader is left to navigate these seemingly never-ending, elaborate, octopus-destroying fantasies that left me very confused. While I understand that referring to the tumor as an”octopus” was a coping mechanism for Ted, there were many moments, such as the inflatable shark bit, where I thought it went too far and absolutely overpowered what could have been a truly remarkable story.

While I do find Steven Rowley to be a very talented writer overall, I believe this story could have been a lot better. To put this book in the same league as Life of Pi simply because they both feature fantastical relationships between man and animals is absolutely ridiculous in my opinion. While Yann Martel’s Life of Pi offered eloquent and thought-provoking commentary on the human condition, Steven Rowley’s “octopus” did nothing more than detract from the beautiful relationship between Ted and Lily.

3 out of 5 stars

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Review of The Mortifications by Derek Palacio

I received The Mortifications by Derek Palacio through the Blogging for Books program in exchange for a review and honestly, I couldn’t make it past the first fifty pages. Set in 1980 during the Mariel boatlift, this novel follows the Encarnaciones, a Cuban family that is torn apart by the revolution. While Uxbal, the patriarch of the family, chooses to remain in Cuba, Soledad and their two children Isabel and Ulises migrate to Hartford, CT in search of a better life.

I had such high hopes for this book. Although this novel took place during an era that I am quite unfamiliar with, I looked forward to learning from and falling in love with what I thought would be a beautiful immigration story. However, Palacio offered less of a historical context than I had anticipated and moreover, the pace of the novel was excruciatingly slow. While I appreciated the lyrical nature of Palacio’s writing style, the lack of action of any sort failed to keep my attention beyond the first few chapters.

Ultimately, I am quite frustrated with myself for being unable to finish this book to the end. I truly wanted to love this book but the strange character dynamic and painfully slow pace was simply too much for me to get past. I would, however, give other works by Palacio a fair chance because his overall writing style was something I found quite enjoyable.

1 out of 5 stars

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