23 10 / 2012

Black Orchid Blues by Persia Walker

The cover may turn you off (so I’ve heard; personally, I love it), but this book was addictive!

Lanie Price, widower and gossip columnist in 1920s Harlem, is interviewing Queenie Lovetree aka “The Black Orchid”, an up and coming club performer, when a gunman comes in, shoots up the place, and kidnaps the rising star. Though Lanie is just an entertainment news reporter, she is also very nosey, and soon ends up investigating the mysterious incident.

The novel initially started off slow, but once the kidnapping went down, I COULD NOT PUT THIS BOOK DOWN. Walker makes you want to know the who’s, what’s and why’s just as much as Lanie does. Throw in a few historical/political facts of the day, a burgeoning love story that is complicated by past hurts and current career goals, and tons of info on the gay Harlem lifestyle, and you have a winner.

There were parts of the book that got really corny for me, and the ending seemed quite ridiculous, but the majority of the book was so intriguing that I honestly didn’t care. This book kind of came across like the Black woman’s answer to Dick Tracy. I can’t wait to read more of Persia Walker’s works.

I’d recommend this novel to those who love mysteries, historical fiction, and stories drenched in the culture of 1920s Harlem.

I’d also recommend reading Darkness and the Devil Behind Me first, because it is the first installment in the Lanie Price series. I wish I had known about this one prior to reading Black Orchid Blues so I could have read them in order.

Grade: B+

18 10 / 2012

Passing Love by Jacqueline E. Luckett

In the present day, Nicole-Marie Handy decides to spend a few weeks in Paris after her best friend dies and she realizes that her affair with a married man is coming to a dead end. In the 1950s, Ruby, defiant and in love, runs off with her musician boyfriend to create a life in Paris. She is stubborn and selfish but eager to get away from her strict parents and make a life abroad. Passing Love is the story of how these two vastly different women, find a way into each other’s lives all due to secrets and love.

I thought I’d be intrigued by Nicole’s story, what with her having an affair and rushing off the Paris to have some fun, but Ruby stole the show, in my opinion. I loved her no-nonsense way of getting what she wanted, when she wanted. I loved how she stuck by her man through thick, and (very) thin times. Nicole’s story, on the other hand, seemed to drag. Save for a slightly surprising incident near the end, there were times when I wanted to skip her chapters altogether, and only focus on Ruby.

I enjoyed the avid amount of history of Black Paris that filled this novel. It definitely made me want to visit the City of Light and take some of the walking tours mentioned in the back of the book.

I’d recommend this read for those who enjoy historical fiction, Paris, French, and a little bit of romance.

Grade: C

16 10 / 2012

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

I wish every 16 year old Black teen in America was mandated to read this book. Let me tell you why:

Michelle Alexander is a lawyer who previously directed the Racial Justice Project at the ACLU of Northern California, which spearheaded a national campaign against racial profiling by law enforcement. In this book, she unleashes tons of of research not just to cover the prison industrial complex, but to cover what happens from the very start to get so many Black men there. Starting from the War on Drugs, the mass incentives given to police departments to lock up as many people as possible, the tactics used to arrest as many Black people as possible, the court cases that made such tactics legal, the stats that illustrate how Black men are disproportionately targeted for crimes that white men commit in much higher numbers, the people and industries who benefit from the high numbers of black men and women in prison, the long lasting effects of prison (no voting, little access to aid in education and social welfare, break down of family and community) which create a revolving door back to prison, and how and why she believes the prison system is the legalized way to put Black people back in the position that so many of our grandparents dealt with in the times of Jim Crow in the South.

Much of the info is eye opening and will make the most dedicated American reconsider their loyalties. I kind of already knew some of what she shared, but not all. The truths in this book made me so angry that it took nearly three months for me to complete, but it was also helpful in better understanding the conditions that have led to so many Black men behind bars. She also gives the information in a way that keeps the reader very engaged, so that even though it is filled mainly with politics, law, and history, it was still extremely interesting.

I feel like if people knew the information in this book, they would do better. Period.

I’d recommend this to those interested in American history, Black history, the American justice system, American law enforcement, racial profiling, the history and effects of the prison industrial complex, and the history of the War on Drugs.

Grade: B+

16 10 / 2012

Just because I haven’t been posting reviews, doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading. I’ve been too busy to write. But, I found a little bit of time so here goes…

If Sons, Then Heirs by Lorene Cary

If Sons, Then Heirs is somewhat of a family saga, mostly set in South Carolina, about heir property given to King Needham from his master following the abolition of slavery. His widow, Nana Selma, now lives on the property in the present day and is worried that the land will be taken from King’s descendants when she dies. Enter Rayne, King’s great grandson, on the brink of starting his own family in Philadelphia, who visits Nana Selma a few times each year, but has no desire to take over the land. The story follows Rayne on his most recent visit to see Nana, chronicling their discussions of his family history, the hardships in claiming Needham ownership of the land (and the sneaky white folk behind it all), as well as him coming to grips with Jewel, his mother who sent him from New York one summer to visit Nana Selma (and his belligerent grandfather) when he was six, but never bothered to send for his return.

Very interesting premise, what with the property law situation and the family history thrown in, but Cary lost me a few times in the book because the story seemed to be too complicated, especially for fiction. There was Nana suffering from illnesses and trying to get property ownership settled; Rayne and his girlfriend, Lillie, and their financial struggles in Philly; Rayne getting used to being a stepfather to Lillie’s son, Kalil; Rayne struggling with his newly found mother, Jewel; Jewel’s story, and her husband’s battle with cancer; King’s story of the land, his tragic death, and family history…as you can see, there was a lot going on. In addition to that, the story was almost boring and it was a bit too long for my liking. Had I not previously enjoyed Cary’s memoir, Black Ice, I would have given up on this novel early on.

I liked the positive themes of family working together to preserve their history and land, Rayne eventually embracing the responsibilities that come with manhood, and the very uplifting conclusion, so there was some good to finishing it.

I’d recommend this to those who like historical fiction, stories about Black migration and property ownership, heavy family and manhood themes, and novels with an introspective male protagonist.

Grade: C+

17 9 / 2012

Open City by Teju Cole

Along the streets of Manhattan, a young Nigerian doctor doing his residency wanders aimlessly. The walks meet a need for Julius: they are a release from the tightly regulated mental environment of work, and they give him the opportunity to process his relationships, his recent breakup with his girlfriend, his present, his past.

But it is not only a physical landscape he covers; Julius crisscrosses social territory as well, encountering people from different cultures and classes who will provide insight on his journey—which takes him to Brussels, to the Nigeria of his youth, and into the most unrecognizable facets of his own soul.

Teju Cole is a very smart, articulate writer. I am fascinated by how his mind works. Needless to say, I have mixed feelings about this novel. It is very literary, and though I am wont to enjoy books that fall into this genre of fiction, this story was more dull than interesting, which caused me to fight through to the very end.

Cole is extremely descriptive, giving a massive amount of history and other intricate details about the architecture that Julian encounters during his daily walks. The people that he meets along the way are treated with a similar kind of dignity, like relics and landmarks whose circumstances and actions must be explained, even if it has nothing to do with the actual point of the story. This book is definitely a written portrait of the human condition, with Julian meeting people from all walks of life, various cultures and countries, and sharing how their interactions affect him.

Julian came across more dull than his acquaintances, though, which made it very hard to enjoy the book. I can hate or have disdain for a main character, but being bored by him is torturous. Cole made up for it with the smart and slightly humorous minor characters scattered throughout the book.

I’d recommend this for those who have a deep affection for literary fiction.

Grade: B- 

28 8 / 2012

An Accidental Affair by Eric Jerome Dickey

James Thicke is a man whose mysterious past runs as deep as his violent streak. He’s channeled the intensity of his soul into twin passions-success as a screenwriter, and marriage to movie actress Regina Baptiste. In the midst of filming his latest script, starring Regina and leading man Johnny Bergs, James receives a video of his wife caught in the most compromising of situations.

Hours later, the clip of the on-set infidelity has hit the Internet and gone viral in the blogosphere and across all channels of social media. James responds to the affront by savagely attacking Johnny Bergs, and the spectacle has both the paparazzi and the police amassing at the married couple’s estate. James goes on the run, but only as far as the city of Downey, California. As James tries to protect Regina from Hollywood’s underbelly, lust, blackmail, and revenge become his constant companions. Does an accidental affair spell permanent danger?

I haven’t been as enthused about Dickey’s novels for a while now. His stories used to be one of my “Black girl who loves to read” staples, but I eventually either grew out of his story lines or he stopped putting much effort into creating enjoyable books. From the above book synopsis, one would think that this story would be entertaining, but unfortunately, An Accidental Affair falls into the “un-enjoyable” books category.

My book club chose this for our August themed “New Novel” selection. From the get go, the book was filled with name dropping and attempts to put the reader into the world of the modern blog and social network driven media. Every few pages contained a blog entry or a Facebook status or a reference to a tweet. That would have almost been ok had the story line been somewhat believable and not ridiculously repetitive, but all it did was add to the already long list of irritating quirks within the book that were excessively distracting:

  • Every characters’ full name was given every single time they were mentioned
  • Every character always wore a t-shirt with a quirky saying on it
  • The author seemed to intentionally keep the race of the two main characters a secret
  • There were full pages of dialogue with no mention to who was speaking, or HOW they were speaking, resulting in a lot of confusion about the conversations taking place

This book was unneccessarily long as well. Had it been cut down by 200 pages, or even reduced to a novella, I think I would have enjoyed it much better. Not being too much of a fan of erotica, I thought I’d be severely turned off by the sex scenes, but the actual scenes weren’t so bad. The circumstances surrounding them were, though, causing much of the story to be completely unbelievable.

All in all, I wouldn’t recommend this story to anybody. It almost came across as if Dickey may be stuck in a contract requiring him to produce a certain amount of books, so he’s doing that, but not using the talent and thought in structure that put him on the map. I hope he gets back to writing good, entertaining novels, soon and very soon.

Grade: D

28 8 / 2012

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin

When Baba Segi awoke with a bellyache for the sixth day in a row, he knew it was time to do something drastic about his fourth wife’s childlessness.

Meet Baba Segi …

A plump, vain, and prosperous middle-aged man of robust appetites, Baba Segi is the patriarch of a large household that includes a quartet of wives and seven children. But his desire to possess more just might be his undoing.

And his wives …

Iya Segi—the bride of Baba Segi’s youth, a powerful, vindictive woman who will stop at nothing to protect her favored position as ruler of her husband’s home.

Iya Tope—Baba Segi’s second wife, a shy, timid woman whose decency and lust for life are overshadowed by fear.

Iya Femi—the third wife, a scheming woman with crimson lips and expensive tastes who is determined to attain all that she desires, no matter what the cost.

Bolanle—Babi Segi’s fourth and youngest wife, an educated woman wise to life’s misfortunes who inspires jealousy in her fellow wives … and who harbors a secret that will expose shocking truths about them all.

This was BookTini’s July book club selection for our International theme. Based in Nigeria, Shoneyin’s novel burrows deep into the polygamous lifestyle of the well off Baba Segi, and his conniving and dangerous wives who will stop at nothing to make sure their position in his life is safe.

Though polygamy is taking a downturn in the African country, it still remains a practiced custom among those who have yet to embrace the mostly modern practice of monogamy. So what happens when a polygamist adds a modern, educated woman to his list of wives, a woman who couldn’t fit in as wife #4 no matter how hard she tried?

Jealousy, stubborness, and “mean girl” antics permeate throughout the story. When the beautiful and sophisticated Bolanle is heralded as Baba Segi’s new wife, the older, more experienced wives begin to worry that she’ll soon take over their household. But when it is apparent that Bolanle can’t bear any children, the women use that to their advantage to keep her low on Baba Segi’s totem pole.

Shoneyin doesn’t just regale us with negative stories of women, though. She makes sure to include every wife’s back story, starting from their birth, so that each woman’s reasoning for their actions is apparent: powerlessness will make you do what you have to do to survive.

I greatly enjoyed this peek into Nigerian life, customs, and tradition. Though the  ending seemed to wrap up much too quickly, leaving me (and much of my book club) wanting more, the overall story was entertaining. The book club had a great time discussing what we all would do if ever put in such a situation.

I’d recommend this to those interested in African literature, Nigerian lit in particular. Also, those who are interested in stories filled with polygamy, the lives of women in Nigeria, and cat fights.

Grade: B

14 8 / 2012

Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey

Introducing Detective Inspector Darko Dawson: dedicated family man, rebel in the office, ace in the field—and one of the most appealing sleuths to come along in years. When we first meet Dawson, he’s been ordered by his cantankerous boss to leave behind his loving wife and young son in Ghana’s capital city to lead a murder investigation: In a shady grove outside the small town of Ketanu, a young woman—a promising medical student—has been found dead under suspicious circumstances. Dawson is fluent in Ketanu’s indigenous language, so he’s the right man for the job, but the local police are less than thrilled with an outsider’s interference. For Dawson, this sleepy corner of Ghana is rife with emotional land mines: an estranged relationship with the family he left behind twenty-five years earlier and the painful memory of his own mother’s inexplicable disappearance. Armed with remarkable insight and a healthy dose of skepticism, Dawson soon finds his cosmopolitan sensibilities clashing with age-old customs, including a disturbing practice in which teenage girls are offered to fetish priests as trokosi, or Wives of the Gods. Delving deeper into the student’s haunting death, Dawson will uncover long-buried secrets that, to his surprise, hit much too close to home.

Darko has a temper. His mother disappeared when he was a child. His son has a hole in his heart. His mother-in-law is a pain in the ass, and his partner is a lazy, womanizer. To make matters worse, Darko is sent off to solve a crime in Ketanu, a community considered “bush” or antiquated, shuttled away from city life and his family until the job is done. Though the novel starts off painfully slow, once Darko is sent on his way to Ketanu and begins his investigation into a promising medical student’s murder, it was hard to put this book down.

The small town’s inexperienced police chief has his own motives and keeps getting in Darko’s way, and old timey traditions and superstition make it difficult to get much work done. Darko lashes out at anyone who pisses him off, causing him trouble with his boss and with the townspeople. At one point, I didnt think I would enjoy this story, but I was eventually so invested in the characters and their secrets and customs and affairs, I felt like I was reading a script for an original Lifetime movie. The suspects were plenty, the drama was high, and just when you think Darko has the culprit figured out…NOPE!! Darko must try again.

Quartey also does good with mixing the modern Accra lifestyle with the slow bush ways of Ketanu, shining light on the modern amenities that many might be shocked are part of daily life in African countries, while also weaving in stories about the AIDs epidemic and the reverence of traditional healers and medicine.

I greatly enjoyed this story, especially the ending. Though it’s a different location, culture, and customs, it reminded me a lot of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency television series (not the books). I would love to see this novel hit the big screen.

I’d suggest this to mystery lovers, those who enjoy international settings, and/or are interested in Ghanaian fiction.

Grade: B

09 8 / 2012

And on the Eighth Day She Rested by J.D. Mason

Ruth Johnson has finally left her abusive husband of fourteen years and jumped feet first into “What the hell do I do now?” oblivion. Then into her life come three unforgettable women who turn her world upside down. Feisty, outspoken Bernice, a.k.a. “Bernie,” has been there and done that when it comes to love and marriage. Her ex-husband is settled down with his much younger wife and her kids are grown, and Bernie is looking to enjoy her fellow man—in more ways than one—no strings attached…or so she thinks. Sweet Southern belle May has it all: a beautiful home, two wonderful children, and a fine husband who worships the ground she walks on, yet a shadow hangs over what should be her equally perfect life, threatening to shake up her happy home. The older, wiser Clara is their guiding force, and when disaster strikes, all three women rally around her, determined to see her through it. Life is just getting interesting, and if they hold on to each other, they just might make it. 

I think Mason had good intentions with this story line. A woman is battered by her husband, finds the strength to finally leave, and in the process of building a new life, gains new friends who help her along the journey. I grew up reading many African American chick lit style books like this, and though I wouldn’t count them as the best of the best, it is usually quite entertaining reading of the “sister girl shenanigans” which occupy a special place in our culture, and in my heart.

But this book just wasnt that good. Not even good enough for me to finish.

The author seemed to dwell incessantly on the issue of Ruth and her violent and damaging relationship. There is only so much repeating of a scenario or particular feeling without any real progress that a reader can take, though. I felt like I was being hit over the head with the fact that Ruth was fat with low self esteem and fearful of her husband. It’s all good to know but…now what? And thats what I kept saying for well over 50 pages.

And then, to spend so much time on Ruth’s marriage situation (probably 1/3 of the book) and become invested, only to turn around and be hit with one short chapter to explain the lives of each of her friends didn’t flow too well for me.

It all boiled down to a boring book that couldn’t keep my attention. I tried,though.  Lord knows I did. But I had to give up on this.

I wouldn’t recommend this one.

Grade: D

08 8 / 2012

Glorious by Bernice McFadden

I’ve heard many great things about this book and the author, so of course when it finally popped up on my reading list, I couldn’t wait to crack it open. Glorious follows the life of Easter Bartlett, born in Mississippi in the early 1900s. Traumatized by the atrocities of racism and the effects it has on her family, she sets off for a better, easier life, stopping in various cities throughout the south and east coast, leaving behind a life of high drama and scandal. She becomes a lauded writer during the Harlem Renaissance, but betrayal eventually tears her world apart.

The book started off at a mesmerizing pace and had me captivated for the first few chapters, but I eventually began to feel like something was missing. Because I’ve heard nothing but good things about this book, I went to Goodreads.com to read the reviews to see if anyone else had a similar feeling, and stumbled upon two reviewers who hit the nail on the head:

"…most of the story felt like it was being told from a news reader. "Bermuda was hit with a hurricane. California experienced an earthquake.” While this style conveys news, it does nothing to capture the impact or feelings behind the news that would make a story interesting.”

This was my only complaint. The actual storyline was great, but I wanted so much more from it: I wanted to know how Easter changed, why she made her decisions, why she reacted the way that she did. I wanted an emotional connection to her, and less of a play by play of the events in her life. There was so much stuff that happened to her…so much, so it would have been great to have been allowed inside her head and heart and stay there for a little while.

I think the idea behind the book was fascinating, though. I love historical novels, especially those centered on Black life, dripping with historical anecdotes, and McFadden made sure she incorporated the signs of the times throughout every era of the novel. I also love the fact that she made the main character a writer during the Harlem Renaissance, one of my favorite times in history.

I’d recommend this to those who enjoy historical fiction, high drama, and quick reads.

Grade: B-