Review: Five Days

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Review for “Five Days: The Fiery Reckoning of an American City” (2020)

Rating: 3 out 5 stars

This book follows seven citizens of Baltimore in the five days of rioting following the death of Freddie Gray in 2015. There are a wide variety of perspectives here: the activist sister of a victim of police violence, a white female public defender, the owner of the Baltimore Orioles, a young Black male protester, the husband of the local district attorney, the owner of a popular skating rink, a Black police lieutenant, etc.

Although I understand the inclusion and the purpose of the multiple perspectives; it’s not executed very well here. The chapters are short and there’s never enough plot build-up to form any kind of cohesive narrative. The tone of this book is emotionless and flat, there’s no nuance that separates one voice from the other besides the label of each speaker at the beginning of each section. Wes Moore does give some background in the opening pages on the ways in which racism, poor public policies, and bad policing ultimately led to the chaos that erupted in Baltimore, but he relies on too much blank space to tell this story. There’s little sense of the atmosphere of anger that started the protests in the first place.

All in all, I feel like this could have been a news article. The author takes the subject of a complex city with very complex problems and paints it with too broad of a brush. Better books on Baltimore include “The Corner” and “Homicide: A Year of Killing on the Streets” by David Simon.

Three stars. Get this one from the library.

Review: Clap When You Land

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Review for “Clap When You Land” by Elizabeth Acevedo (2020)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

This is a beautifully multi-layered novel written in verse. Much like her other two novels (“The Poet X” and “With the Fire on High”), Elizabeth Acevedo manages to hit the ball out of the park again. She’s incapable of writing bad books, she has a gift and it is plainly evident in her writing.

“Clap When You Land” is a dual, alternating narrative told by two sisters who, at the beginning of the novel, do not yet know that they share a father in the same man. Camino lives in the Dominican Republic and longs to go to Columbia University in NYC, where her father lives and works for most of the year. Yahaira lives in Manhattan and hasn’t spoken to her dad since she found out that he has another wife in the DR. Their lives are vastly different: Yahaira has a girlfriend and loves to play chess, Camino is a talented swimmer and works with her aunt, a local healer. Both girls’ lives collide when their father dies in an airplane crash on his way from NYC to the island. Slowly, the two girls discover one another’s existence and carefully begin to form a bond.

Once again, this is a wonderfully complex book that explores toxic masculinity, socioeconomics, family bonds, and coming to terms with family secrets. I highly recommend reading this, you won’t want to miss it!

Review: My Vanishing Country

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Review for “My Vanishing Country” by Bakari Sellers (2020)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Part memoir, part cultural critique, and part political analysis, “My Vanishing Country” is the story of Bakari Sellers, who became the youngest member of the South Carolina Legislature when he was elected to that role in 2006. Sellers, a lawyer and CNN analyst, grew up in the small rural town of Denmark, South Carolina. He writes with vivid imagery of fishing in local ponds, riding his bike on dirt roads, and, well…just being a country boy. This part of the book connected with me the most as a Southern girl myself and recalling my own memories of summers spent on my grandparents’ farm in Tennessee.

Despite growing up in a racially segregated rural setting, Sellers’ family history is rich with civil rights history. Both of his parents were activists; with prominent members of the movement such as Jesse Jackson, Julian Bond, and Stokely Carmichael counted among their friends. After graduating from Morehouse, Sellers went into politics and won a seat in the SC Legislature. After an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor, he returned to practicing law and became a political commentator and analyst on CNN. His public role on CNN became more prominent after the shooting deaths of 9 Black churchgoers by a white supremacist in his home state of South Carolina in 2015.

There are a lot of reviews comparing this book to J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” but honestly I don’t think that Vance’s book holds a candle to this one. Sellers gives a more balanced critique of Black life, highlighting the joy and the pain of growing up in a Black rural setting. There are also chapters that give analysis the 2016 presidential race, Black mental health, and other nuanced topics that Vance misses in his discussion of the white rural working class.

Overall I really liked this book. Solid 4 stars.

Review: All Boys Aren’t Blue

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Review for “All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto” by George M. Johnson (2020)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

It has long been my goal of mine to read more books by LGBTQ authors of color, so this book (along with its beautiful cover) jumped out at me immediately. This YA-focused book centers the experiences of George Johnson, a 30-something journalist and queer Black activist. It begins with his middle class upbringing in New Jersey and ends with his observations of life at a historically Black college in Virginia, highlighting the joys and pain of queer existence across many topics–homophobia, sexual abuse, violence, gender policing, denial, and finally, coming out.

I loved this book. It wasn’t until the end that I truly realized how rarely the queer Black experience has been written about, and done so with such honesty. This title opens doors because it calls not just those who are outside of gender norms, but allies as well to a path of self healing and understanding.

Definitely read this book. You won’t regret it.

Review: Black Girl Unlimited

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Review for "Black Girl Unlimited" by Echo Brown (2020)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Trigger Warnings: sexual abuse, sexual assault/rape, suicide ideation

Echo is a Black girl growing up on the East Side of Cleveland in the late 90’s. Although she is academically gifted and goes to a special school, her family life is in turmoil. Her father is an alcoholic and her mother is crack addict, wounded by deep trauma in her past. Her brothers fare no better, caught up in street life and criminal activity. Despite the dysfunction around her, Echo learns early on in her life that she is a wizard and possesses a collection of psychic abilities that she’s inherited from her mother. Echo’s abilities include bending time and space, predicting the future, astral projection, the ability to see people’s ‘veils’ (a psychic kind of ‘darkness’ that invades their being), and perform miracles (hypnosis/mental suggestion, etc).

The novel follows Echo on her journey as a wizard from age 6 until she goes off to college. Each chapter is a lesson she learns along with the help of other women wizards about living with the darkness and becoming a better person. Despite the fact that I really liked this book, there were some issues here. Although I was able to suspend disbelief and accept Echo’s identity as a wizard, the text transitions between the past and present during certain scenes where the ‘magic’ was taking place was a bit hard to follow, with breaks occurring in paragraphs and picking up elsewhere as if it was the same thought. Cool technique, just not executed as well as it could have been.

Another issue was the over-burdening of the text with soooo many peripheral characters. Brown’s main focus seems to be sexual abuse, religion, drugs, and colorism. However, there’s a myriad of characters that pop in and out of the book that seem to represent other issues and didn’t add much to the story. There’s a friend who’s a Black Panther who spouts Black nationalist rhetoric on a whim, a Muslim friend who wears a hijab, the hostile, middle class husband of her mentor, and a gay Asian friend who’s just kinda…there.

Some of the more graphic scenes made this book very tough to read but I appreciate Brown for writing about them. I’m not sure how the publisher is marketing this, but I would not consider this a book for YA readers. Older adolescents and adults are the more ideal audience here. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone under 18 unless they’re super mature.

Overall, I really really liked this. 4 stars.

Review: Everywhere You Don’t Belong

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Review for "Everywhere You Don't Belong" by Gabriel Bump (2020)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I should have loved this book, but for me it was just ok.

“Everywhere You Don’t Belong” is the story of Claude McKay Love, a Black boy growing up on the South Side of Chicago. After being abandoned parents at a young age, he is raised by his grandmother, a former Civil Rights activist, and her queer friend Paul. As people come and go throughout Claude’s life, his awkwardness is the clear focal point of all of his interactions. After a violent riot in his neighborhood, Claude takes up journalism, using the opportunity to escape Chicago and go to college in Missouri. When a family friend turn up at his college dorm, he finds that escaping his past is not so easily done.

This book is told in short vignettes rather than a traditional narrative. There’s an irreverent quality to this book that I appreciated, with some great imagery and memorable dialogue that’s (at times) quite hilarious. Unfortunately, this is a book that doesn’t have much to offer as far as a plot. The characters are compelling but not well rounded, and there’s a repetitiveness here that don’t hold up well to the short, story-by-story structure that it’s told in.

I gave this three stars. I would be interested in reading further books by Gabriel Bump, his voice definitely distinct and original.

Review: King and the Dragonflies

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Review for "King and the Dragonflies" by Kacen Callender (2020)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Kingston lives in a small, unnamed Louisiana town with his parents. A few months prior, his older brother Khalid was killed. Before he died, he cautioned King to stay away from Sandy, a white boy at his school who has recently come out as gay. Throughout the story, King is overcome with grief for his brother, associated throughout the book with dragonflies, which King believes holds the spirit of Khalid. With his father telling him that “boys don’t cry” and his mother emotionally distant, King often escapes to the bayou to mourn and think about his brother.

One day at the bayou, King begins talking to Sandy. Despite warnings to stay away, the two boys become friends. Complicating his grief for Khalid and his friendship with Sandy is King’s realization that he is gay. When Sandy goes missing, King is forced to come to terms with his identity, as well as coming out to his family and friends.

This novel directly addresses many issues: homophobia in the Black community, toxic masculinity, racism, fear, child abuse, loss and grief. It’s an excellent novel that takes many of these hard-to-discuss tropes and manages to make them palatable for child readers, while at the same time not diluting their importance.

Review: Stateway’s Garden

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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

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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

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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.