Review: Stateway’s Garden

47558005

Review for "Stateway's Garden: Stories" by Jasmon Drain (2020)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This is a collection of interconnected short stories about life inside of one of Chicago’s now-demolished South Side housing projects, Stateway Gardens. Mostly set in the 1980’s, the stories follow a set of brothers, Tracy and Jacob, and their relatives as they navigate poverty, racism, drugs, and violence of their home.

Neither Tracy or Jacob’s father is around, which leaves their mother as their primary caregiver. She works long hours and rarely has time for either of her sons. Most of the stories are narrated by the younger Tracy, such as “BB Sauce,” “Middle School,” and “Stateway Condo Gentrification.” He grows up to be a highly inquistive young man amidst the ugliness around him and the eventual demise of the projects. Tracy, his older brother, chooses a slightly different path, becoming a teenage father and drug dealer. He narrates “Stephanie Worthington” and the very last story.

For me, these stories were hard to get into. The first few stories are choppy and aren’t very compelling, there’s wasn’t much to draw me into them or their characters. The same continues through much of the middle of the book, and although most of the action seems to take place toward the end, it was anti-climatic and showed very little sense of cohesion throughout. Ultimately I had to really push myself to finish this, which is a shame, given the passion and the beauty behind its subject matter.

Three stars. I expected better.

Review: Girls Like Us

42642039

Review for "Girls Like Us" by Randi Pink (2019)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

This YA story follows four girls dealing with pregnancy in the summer of 1972, right on the eve of the historic Roe vs. Wade decision which resulted in the decriminalization of abortion in America. To understand this story, it’s very important to take in the social climate of the time, which gave unmarried women very few choices when faced with an unplanned pregnancy. Having a child out of wedlock was not socially acceptable, those who could afford to could hide out in an unwed mother’s home until the birth and then place their child up for a closed adoption. The other option was to visit a person who performed abortions using questionable and often unsafe methods. Many women died in these botched, ‘back alley’ abortion procedures from blood loss, poisoning, infection from unsterile instruments, etc. It’s a sad, horrific history that, in 2019, certain people in political power would like to see women return to. I’ll step off of my soapbox for now, however.

“Girls Like Us” first introduces us to sisters Ola and Izella, the older of which, Ola, is expecting. Their mother, Evangelist, is a religious zealot and they make a pact to not tell her about the pregnancy. Ola and Izella visits a neighbor, a conjure woman who offers a quick home remedy to get rid of the baby. Meanwhile down the street, another young girl, Missippi, is pregnant from a rape by an older relative. When her father discovers what has happened to her, he sends Missippi up north to a woman who runs a home for young unwed pregnant women. In the home for pregnant women, Missippi meets a White young woman named Susan, the free-spirited daughter of a politician. Although their lives are different, they are in many ways the same. Their stories intersect with those of Izella and Ola, later on, in a dramatic way.

Overall, I liked this story, but I wasn’t engaged with any of the characters. I understand what the author was trying to do by universalizing the stories of women pre-Roe vs. Wade, but I think the writing was rushed here and a bit bland. Also, the ending was just kinda…there. I definitely get the connection to modern day stories, but felt this could have been written better.

I give this a 3.5. I’m very interested in what this author does next.

Review: Full Disclosure

43879437. sx318

Review for "Full Disclosure" by Camryn Garrett (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Finally, a YA book that takes on race, sexuality, and HIV infection in an educated and meaningful way. Like, finally…

Simone Garcia Hampton is an ordinary Black teenage girl growing up in San Francisco–obsessed with directing plays on Broadway, embarrassed by her parents, and totally crushing on a boy she likes. Adopted as a young child by her two gay fathers, Simone is HIV positive, passed to her in utero from her birth mother. Although Simone is outwardly healthy and successfully takes medication to keep her viral load down, she lives in constant fear of her ‘secret’ getting out. Once Simone begins to show interest in Miles, a boy in her school’s drama club, she begins to receive notes from an anonymous source, threatening to publicly reveal her HIV+ status. Not wanting to give up what she’s got with Miles and risk losing her friends, she struggles with whether or not to continue keeping her status a secret.

I really liked this book. There’s tons of recent information here about living with HIV that I was not aware of, which has the power to educate younger readers without coming off as boring or preachy. There’s also a lot of progressive, sex-positive talk that I think teens will appreciate–frank discussions about masturbation, sex toys (Simone and her friends go into a sex shop), ob/gyn visits, etc. Simone is also pretty open with her sexual desires, a pretty taboo topic in YA. This book also spot-on with various forms of racial and queer representation: Simone, Miles, and her Pops are Black, her Dad is Latinx, one of her friends is Asian and bisexual, another is a lesbian and asexual.

This book is all around pretty rad, so definitely read this one.

Review: Pet

38612739

Review for "Pet" by Akwaeke Emezi (2019)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

I will start this review by first saying that this is not the book for everyone. It’s marketed as YA, but I don’t think its intended for a general mainstream YA audience. I certainly think that that’s perfectly fine because anyone who stumbles upon this gem of a book, whether child or adult, will definitely love it like I did.

“Pet” is a novel about evil, particularly one that silences its victims and is ‘hidden’ in plain sight. I won’t be more specific than that because I’d give the novel away. The main character is Jam, a Black trans girl who lives in a Lucille, a futuristic, utopian version of an American city in which bad things have been banished and ‘monsters’ no longer exist. Jam is accepted and loved by her parents and her best friend, Redemption, as well as Redemption’s family.

One night, while exploring one of her mother’s paintings, Jam brings a monster to life. At first she is afraid, but then the monster explains the reason for its existence: to hunt a real-life monster. The creature, which Jam calls Pet, confuses her at first, until it is revealed that the location of the monster to be hunted is within her best friend Redemption’s house.

Right at about 200 pages, this is a short book that packs a heavy punch. It has a surreal feel to it, but the deeper questions it asks are based in a gritty, everyday reality. What are monsters made of? Who or what are angels? How do you tell the difference between the two?

Earlier in this review I said that this is not a book for everyone. I say that because I think we’ve become too used to YA with “grown” teenagers (kids who are 16-18 years old who seem to know every damn thing that’s going on around them). “Pet” is not such a novel. Jam is a 15-year-old girl and her naivete about the danger around her matches every bit of her age. Perhaps some readers will find this frustrating, but I found a book that speaks to the sensibilities of an actual child refreshing. Also, this book is all about queer representation, as I said before Jam is a trans girl; Redemption’s family is portrayed as possibly polyamorous (there’s a woman, a non-gender conforming person, and a man), in addition to several aunts and uncles living with him and his brother who also function as his parents.

I could type all day about this book. Definitely read it though, 4.5 stars.

Review: Slay

And just like that…I’m back. My dissertation is finished, and I’m furiously overjoyed about it. I’ll upload a nice pic of me in my cap and gown for ya’ll in a few weeks. December 12 is my official graduation date. Yay me!!!

Anyway I’m chock full of reviews. Forgive me as I unload them upon you over the next few weeks…

43723509

Review for "Slay" by Brittney Morris (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

When I first heard of this book being about Black girl gamers, I had to have it. It was on my TBR pile long before it was published, so my expectations were pretty high. It’s rare that a book deals with Black adolescent girls in certain intellectual contexts, even rarer for that focus to be on the world of gaming, which is, whether we like it or not, still a very strongly White male dominated culture.

Anyway, SLAY is a book that celebrates Blackness. No, really, it does. In addition to the storyline, I was pleased to find recent references from Black popular culture memes and such. At the center of the novel is Kiera, a teenage girl growing up in Seattle who is one of the few students of color at her high school. Although she is surrounded by friends and a caring boyfriend, she feels like an outsider. To pass the time, Kiera created SLAY, an MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role-playing game) for people of color to come together, collect cards, and battle for points. Black gamers come together from all over the world to play SLAY to be proud of their identities and to find a refuge against the racism that’s prevalent in the gaming world.

No one knows that Kiera is the creator of SLAY. She keeps her creation a secret from family and friends and her boyfriend Malcolm, who feels like games are a distraction and tool of the “evil White man.” All goes well until a gamer is killed as a result of a conflict related to SLAY. Suddenly SLAY is all over the news and branded as racist. Even worse, a troll with bad intentions begins to stalk Kiera online.

Overall, I had a lot of fun reading this book. There are some deep, intra-racial issues discussed here that I liked, such as what makes an authentic “Black” experience, the need for safe spaces, the ubiquity of Anglo and mainstream ideals. It’s interesting that so many games out there are based on systems of belief and characters that are Eurocentric in nature (wizards, castles, elves, and so on) and no one questions the ubiquity of it. Even sadder still are the experiences of harassment and racism by Black gamers in these White-dominated online spaces. Yet when a Black girl gamer goes to create a game based on Afro-centric standpoint, she is vilified.

The only complaint I have is that most of the side characters were a bit one-dimensional. There are also some other POVs of SLAY gamers sprinkled in at certain places that I would have personally left out. It’s forgivable though, I won’t dwell on it. This is a great book, a must read!

Review: Everything Inside

43064139

Review for "Everything Inside" by Edwidge Danticat (2019)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I’ve said this and I’ll say it again: short story collections are usually hit or miss for me. Although I love the genre, I always end up liking some, none, or most of the stories therein. This collection is an exception to the “some, none, and most” rule, as every single story here is a literary achievement.

I’ve read just about everything Edwidge Danticat has written, from “Krik? Krak!” to “The Dew Breaker” to “Breathe, Eyes, Memory” and everything in between. “Everything Inside”is a wonderful collection of eight short stories, all featuring characters from the Haitian diaspora living in Miami. Her characters deal with death, love, and loss and their lives are complicated. Each story is well written and thought out, with beautiful language that leaps off the page.

Favorites here include “Dosas,” a story of romantic entanglement and betrayal featuring a husband, wife, and a female lover; “In the Old Days,” about a woman who meets her dying father for the first time, and “Without Inspection,” a harrowing tale that narrates a Haitian emigre’s final thoughts as he falls 40 stories from a building to his death.

Five stars. Hands up, way way up.

Review: The Nickel Boys

42270835. sy475

Review for "The Nickel Boys" by Colson Whitehead (2019)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I meant to write this review a lot sooner, when I first finished this book this summer. It’s quite excellent, so here goes…

“The Nickel Boys” is a historical fiction, based on the all-too-real Dozier School for Boys, a hellish reform school for adolescent males that ran from the early 20th century until 2011 in a rural part of the Florida Panhandle. In the early days, black and white boys were separated upon entry, with the black boys performing more physically grueling tasks. Housing and food were minimal, and any resistance to authority was met with brutal physical punishment from the guards and caretakers. Due to harsh treatment, several boys died and were unceremoniously buried on and around the school’s campus over the years. After its closure, due to the high number of unmarked graves, an anthropology team from the University of South Florida began the task of digging them up with the goal of identifying them in 2012. According to the latest report, over 100 burials have been documented, many of them unnamed and undocumented.

Colson Whitehead takes this history and brings us the story of Elwood Curtis, a do-gooder boy being raised by his single grandmother in Tallahassee in the early 1960’s. Elwood believes in the message of Dr. Martin Luther King, choosing pacifism in the face of Jim Crow racism. After being falsely accused of stealing a bicycle, he is sent to the Nickel Academy. Once there, he meets another student by the name of Turner. While paired for tasks outside campus and in the local town, Elwood and Turner form a deep friendship, with Turner’s realist outlook as the perfect complement to Elwood’s idealism. Together, they navigate the torturous contours everyday life of the Nickel Academy.

True to history, there are brutal scenes in this book, but I felt they were necessary and not gratuitous. Colson Whitehead shows us just what we need to know and moves on, this book makes it point perfectly in less than 250 pages. Not one single word was wasted here, and five stars aren’t enough to review it. This book is a victory, a straight slam dunk.

If you haven’t already, definitely read this book. If you’re at all like me, you will be unable to put it down.