Review: Monday’s Not Coming

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Review for "Monday's Not Coming" by Tiffany D. Jackson (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I’ll admit it: Monday’s Not Coming has been one of my most anticipated reads this year. I read this in a few days and I’m definitely giving this a solid 4 stars.

The story begins when Claudia, the main character, returns from a summer vacation to discover that her best friend Monday Charles has not show up for their first day of eighth grade. No one seems concerned. Claudia’s parents caution her not to worry, but she knows better. After several weeks pass, Claudia begins to ask around about her friend. The school says she hasn’t registered. Monday’s mom says that she’s with her father, Monday’s sister says she’s with an aunt. The police also dismiss her concerns, labeling Monday as a probable runaway. Despite the setbacks, Claudia is more and more determined to find her best friend as the novel progresses.

I loved the setting of this book, as well as Claudia’s character. Claudia resides in Washington, D.C., a city with predominantly Black residents. There are thoughtful explorations here of gentrification, the educational system, the child welfare system, as well as class tensions in Black communities. Go go music, the National Mall, and the Anacostia neighborhood are all very prominent “characters” here as well. I loved it all. Also memorable is Claudia herself, a very complex character. Monday is her only friend, but she represents way more than just a friend–she’s Claudia’s other half. Once Monday’s disappearance takes hold, Claudia’s dyslexia becomes more visible to those around her. She is compelled to take remedial tutoring, which she hates. Claudia also enjoys dance, but lacks the confidence to stand out.

The execution of this novel has some problems, though. This is definitely one of those “down the rabbit hole” kinda books, where nothing’s a given and you’re gonna go through some hoops before you get to the Big Reveal at the end. The hoops here are four timelines that run parallel throughout the book, labeled “Before” (events before Monday’s disappearance), “After” (events after we discover what happens to Monday), “Before the Before,” and “2 Years Before the Before.” It’s confusing. I understand Jackson’s use of ambiguity here, but all of the various timelines and events made this a muddled mess. There is a twist at the end, but by this time I was so lost in the mire of the timeline that I have to admit that the only reason I didn’t skip pages was because I genuinely wanted to find out what happened to Monday.

To tell you more about this book takes it dangerously into spoiler territory. It definitely shines for its fearlessness. It is one of the first YA books that I’ve read in which Black girl friendships are problematized and presented with the realness that they deserve. It is also one of the first YA books that speaks directly to the phenomenon of “Missing White Woman Syndrome,” the term first used by PBS News anchor Gwen Ifill to describe society’s tendency to treat the disappearances of young, affluent White women as media events with constant, around the clock national coverage, despite the fact that men, along with women and children of color, comprise the majority of missing persons cases. For Monday’s disappearance, no one joins a search party. Her picture is not in the newspaper. She’s not even on the nightly news.

4 stars. If you read nothing else in 2018, please read this. You don’t want to miss it.

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Review: Barracoon

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Review for "Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" by Zora Neale Hurston (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Barracoon is the field work of legendary writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. It is the story of the last known survivor of the African slave trade, Cudjo Lewis, in his very own words. In 1927, Hurston traveled to visit Cudjo to his home in Alabama, and over several weeks interviewed him directly, transcribing his account of how he was taken captive at the age of 19 in an area now known as the country of Benin and transported illegally to America in 1860. She completed a book containing Cudjo’s story in 1931. However, her book never found a publisher and remained locked away in her archives at Howard University for over 80 years.

The reasons why Barracoon was never published are quite obvious. For one, Hurston insisted that Cudjo’s voice be heard and he be allowed to speak in his own dialect. Second, it implicates Africans as profiteers within the nexus of the slave trade, a fact that many historians have long denied. Originally named Oluale Kossola, Cudjo was captured by a rival tribe and was sold into slavery, a common practice on the continent for hundreds of years. He spent three weeks in a stockade (called a barracoon) and was subsequently shipped to America on a ship named Clotilda. Once in America, Kossola is renamed Cudjo and lives as a slave for five years until he is freed by Union soldiers in 1865. He eventually marries and has six children, all of whom die before his own death in 1935.

If you are unfamiliar with rural Black Southern dialect, you will have a helluva time with this book. Hurston was right to insist on not changing Cudjo’s words, and as you read this book you will understand why. I am fairly familiar with the cadence and the speech patterns of Black dialect, yet I still found it helpful throughout this book to read Cudjo’s words aloud, his speech ‘as is’ is critical to the understanding of his story, along with Hurston’s prose. Also telling were the many times in the book where Cudjo refused to speak, preferring instead to sit on his porch and eat a peach or share a watermelon with Hurston in silence instead of talk about the horrific experiences he’d gone through.

I loved this book. I feel it is definitely a story that demands to be told, especially when there’s an open bigot in the White House and one ignorant public figure in particular who is dumb enough to actually open his mouth to suggest that “slavery was a choice.” This book seems timely and well-intentioned, in the climate of so much rhetoric that seeks to undermine the horrors of slavery and its present-day implications.

Highly recommended–don’t miss this one.

Review: Passage

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Review for "Passage" by Khary Lazarre-White (2017)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

“Passage” is a short novel set in NYC in the winter of 1993. Warrior, the main character, is a highly intelligent young Black man who personifies the rage and pain of his everyday existence. He hates cops (cleverly called “blue soldiers”), school has little usefulness to him. It is not hard to imagine why, as this story lays bare much of the reasons for Warrior’s nihilism. He is also fighting the demons from the past and present that threaten to take his soul, literal and figurative battles that come up in this text time and time again.

It is interesting that 1993 is the date given for this novel; it is about a year after the world saw the rage of the Los Angeles riots. Even though it is set in Black America’s collective past, this story definitely could have been the present, or even the future. Despite talk of a post-racial society where things are said to be “equal” and every person can still achieve their dreams, it is quite clear that racism still exists, that the legacies of slavery still exist. The title “Passage” alludes to multiple themes: the Middle Passage, the dehumanizing journey that Africans were forced to take by ship to the New World to be sold as slaves, Black men’s rites of passage invoked as means of everyday survival. Even the cover art calls your attention–it’s of a young Black man in profile, a hoodie covering half of his face. Echoes of the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin are still very much alive in this novel.

In the end, I still gave this book three stars. It wasn’t because this book was bad, but because, in theory, I liked the idea of it more than its actual living form. There’s a hazy mix of mysticism, magic, and spiritualism here that, in my opinion, should not have been so hazy. Reading this took massive amounts of effort, mostly due to frequent interpolations of various plot points. Clearer storytelling would have helped immensely.

I definitely recommend this book, however.

Review: Heads of the Colored People

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Review for "Heads of the Colored People" by Nafissa Thompson-Spires (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Short story collections are always hit or miss. You end up either liking some or none of the stories at all. The stories are either too long or too short, the plots are too much of the same or too loosely put together with little overall theme. “Heads of the Colored People” was an exception, I liked every last story in this volume.

Nafissa Thompson-Spires hits the ball out of the park with this one. All of these stories are of Black people living on the fringe of what’s considered “normal” behavior. In this volume, there are Black men who cosplay, Black women who do AMSR (yes–even I had to look it up), Black men and women with anxiety issues, Black women at war with their bodies, Black men professors who passively aggressively war with coworkers, Black millenials obsessed with social media attention. Some of the stories were connected, with several selections detailing the ongoing saga between two Black girl frenemies, Fatima and Christinia. Some of the stories were funny, some of them were quite cringe-inducing, but it was alright because it’s clear that they were meant to be that way. Clearly, Thompson is a writer who is not afraid to write with honesty and just go there.

In the end, I believe this book is effective because it achieves exactly what the title suggests. The author gets deep into what’s in the “heads” of Black people, which, we find out, are a multitude of pressures–the pressure of being the only Black person in their environments, the pressure of being a representation of what non-Black people think of when they conceptualize typical Black “behavior,” the pressure of being Black in American society. Questions like: how does one cope with being angry–without being perceived as the stereotypical “angry” Black man/woman? characterize this book, and I’ll be thinking about the answers for a long time after I read it.

I loved reading this from start to finish. I will definitely watch for future efforts by this writer.

Review: Let’s Talk about Love

Hey folks!

I’m writing this from a hotel in Manhattan. I’ve been here for 5 days now for an education conference and so far I’m totally in love with the city. Anyone who would like to see my NYC adventures can follow me on my IG: kellythegreat.

Anywho, on to the review:

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Review for "Let's Talk About Love" by Claire Kann (2018)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I’m sad to say that I didn’t really like this book.

It’s disappointing because I wanted to love it, to grab it and go out and buy my own instead of a library copy. I did finish it, but honestly, after 25 pages, I knew this wasn’t the book for me.

Alice is a bi-romantic, asexual Black girl college student. As the story opens, she is being dumped by her girlfriend Margot because her gf believes that she doesn’t want to have sex with her. Heartbroken, Alice moves out of their shared space and into an apartment with another friend, Feenie, and her boyfriend. Meanwhile, she develops an intense romantic attraction for one of her co-workers, Takumi. The remainder of the book details Alice’s romance with Takumi and her struggles with her asexuality, as well how she deals with a whole host of family problems to boot.

I liked this novel because it is the first book I’ve read in which asexuality (or “ace,” as some asexual individuals call themselves) is discussed like the very real thing that it is. It is not ‘weird’ or a mental illness. Although there are a wide variety of perspectives on sexual activity within this community (some do have it, some don’t), it is widely accepted by people who identify in this manner that it is an orientation, not a “choice.” Even though they may lack interest in sex, they do indeed have romantic inclinations. Alice, the main character of this book, is featured in this way. I appreciate the fact that this book’s purpose was to allow people to understand asexuality without the long-winded explanations of an academic paper or a textbook. It’s timely and informative.

My dislike of this book, however, was in the characterization of Alice. While she’s not the worst character I’ve ever encountered, I loathed the way the author portrayed her–less like a real college student and more like a 12 year old. For example, Alice has mental categories called “Cutie Codes” to describe her attractions to people. She constantly refers to this all throughout the novel: Cutie Code Orange, Cutie Code Red, Cutie Code Yellow, all the way to Cutie Code Black (Takumi, according to Alice, is the ‘perfect’ black). She also has the nerve to refer to a tv character on pg. 48 as a ‘cutie patootie badass.’

((*eyeroll*))

Are you serious? What adult (or, as I said earlier, anyone over the age of 12) in 2018 talks this way? While I can understand making character relatable and giving the protagonist some quirks, the author was trying entirely too hard for this angle. Alice’s wide-eyed, child-like nature was problematic for me, because I don’t think real ace people go around acting like a bubbly 12 year old. It’s completely ok for an ace character to say someone’s hot or that someone they like is sexy without resorting to infantile language associations.

And the writing…while it’s not bad, it’s nothing to write home about. This book is plagued by an overuse of parentheses, usually employed between paragraphs to represent Alice’s thoughts. This is weird, because this book is written in 3rd person. If there is so much emphasis on the thoughts of the main character (which there is) why not use the 1st person and make it official? Reading this book in a 3rd person POV seemed unnecessarily awkward, because I always had the sense that it was a 1st person narrative.

Once again, I appreciate the diversity of racial representation in this book (a Black ace female, an Asian male), as well as what it attempts to do when it comes to portraying a sexual orientation that few people understand. I just wish it could have been executed better.

2 stars.

P.S. – The cover is Cutie Code Black.

Review: Tyler Johnson Was Here

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Review for "Tyler Johnson Was Here" by Jay Coles (2018)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

From the moment I saw this book I knew I had to have it. I’m always down for YA books by and about people of color that are overtly political in nature, as well as books that challenge young people to think critically social issues. And yes, THAT cover. Gor-juss…

“Tyler Johnson Was Here” is just such a book that is destined to provoke conversation, particularly on police killings and the role of Black Lives Matter movement. The novel centers on the lives of twins, Tyler and Marvin, growing up in the fictional town of Sterling Point. The twins are raised by their single mother while their father, who is incarcerated, makes frequent appearances throughout the book in the form of letters written to Marvin.

Even though this is the story of twins, the story is told through Marvin, the more grounded of the two. Marvin hangs out with his friends Guillermo and Ivy, makes decent grades, watches reruns of “A Different World” and hopes to get into MIT. Tyler is the more restless twin, directing his energies toward social pursuits and hanging with a tough crowd. Much to Marvin’s dismay, he notices a rift between him and his brother and cannot convince Tyler to stay away from trouble. One night, after a party thrown by a local drug dealer, Tyler does not return home. Several days later, he is found deceased. A leaked video reveals that Tyler was unarmed when he was shot by police. As Marvin deals with his grief and anger over his brother’s death, he turns his efforts to protest and making sure that his brother’s memory isn’t forgotten.

What’s wrong with this book? A lot. Hell, I’m just going to bullet point here:

— The pacing of this novel was a problem for me. We’re told on the front flap of the book that Tyler is going to disappear and later be discovered dead. However, the characters do not discover Tyler’s death until well over halfway into the book. I felt as if the author could have skipped the ‘missing’ part, because it slowed the pace of the novel significantly. You’re literally just sitting around waiting for the inevitable for the first 150 pages. That’s not fun.

— Characterization fell a bit flat in this book as well. Even though I felt I understood Tyler, when I finished this I realized that I really didn’t. The limitations of a single perspective (Marvin’s) is apparent here. We know he was a good kid who got mixed up in a troubled crowd, but we’re never told the exact nature of his last days, his dealings with his friends. The author spends a great deal of time making the point that although Tyler may have been troubled, this was no reason for the manner of his death. While this is true, I think this point would not have required so much emphasis with more character-building as far as Tyler was concerned.

— There’s also a side character that goes absolutely nowhere: an aunt who’s a police officer, mentioned several times in the novel, who’s “always on the phone” with Marvin and Tyler’s mom. Considering that the police are the bad guys here who murdered Tyler and all of law enforcement in this book is portrayed as the epitome of evil, a relative of Marvin’s who happens to be a cop may have added to the complexity of this book. But that’s never explored. Weird.

— Marvin meets a girl, Faith, through his attempts to discover his brother’s whereabouts after the fateful night at the party. They eventually become involved with one another, but I never got a sense of their chemistry, her relevance to the story beyond the standard YA romance requirement, or really why she is in the book at all.

— The multitude of references to the tv show “A Different World”: Marvin is obsessed with this show, viewing it as a way to “understand” diverse Black characters. I’m not sure why this is, especially when there are more modern (and diverse!) shows with Black characters that could have been referenced here. I’m an 80’s baby, so I watched “A Different World” as a teenager (it went off the air in 1993, right as I went into high school). A teenager in 2018 still fixated on characters from a show from well over 25 years ago seemed strange, kinda like a kid who watches a dated show like “Hogan’s Heroes” expecting to find enlightenment. Yikes.

Comparisons to “The Hate U Give” are inevitable (both have Black main characters, both are about the subject of police violence), and if I had to pick between the two I’d say in a heartbeat that “The Hate U Give” is the much better book. Despite my criticisms, however, I won’t go lower than 3 stars for “Tyler Johnson Was Here.” I also wholeheartedly recommend this to other people to read. Even though TJWH has problems in its execution, I respect what it does accomplish successfully, and that’s place the narrative surrounding police violence in the hands of Black youth, within the context of their own language and culture. The value of those things in and of itself is immeasurable, respectable, and deserves notice.

And yes, the cover. It’s quite beautiful.

*sigh*

Review: Speak No Evil

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Review for "Speak No Evil" by Uzodinma Iweala (2018)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Nah, I didn’t like this book. Thankfully it’s a short one (about 200 pages), so I was able to muster the courage to get through it quickly without chalking this one up as a DNF.

“Speak No Evil” is the story of Niru, the first generation, American-born son of conservative, upper class Nigerian parents. Although he lives a life of material wealth, he cannot escape the realities that cause him considerable distress: impossibly high standards set by a successful older brother, police harassment due to driving while Black, the racist microaggressions by White classmates at the prep school he attends. The one person he relates to is Meredith, a classmate to whom he confesses that he is gay. His father discovers his secret and, after a violent confrontation, takes his son to Nigeria to visit a special preacher to “pray the gay” out of him. Niru returns to school but his spirit is even more troubled, restless, and confused. He is a shadow of his former self.

The story doesn’t end there. Niru goes continues struggling with his sexuality before meeting a violent end, the circumstances of which did not seem to go with the premise of the book. It is obvious that the author wanted to prove a point about race with Niru’s demise, but I dunno…this kind of “switch” seemed uncalled for. There is also a shift in narrative–when Niru stops talking, Meredith steps in and ends the book. I didn’t like this either. I think he could have stayed with the original voice. The inclusion of Meredith’s voice seemed rather sloppy to me, kinda like he originally drafted two novels and put them together in the same book.

Strangely, I also found this book terribly hard to read. I shouldn’t have, though. Iweala writes this book in the same way he did his last, “Beasts of No Nation.” There is no speech punctuation in that book either, whole conversations appear within huge blocks of text. Though the lack of punctuation didn’t bother me in BoNN, for some reason, it bothered me immensely here. Perhaps it is because there was more description and internal thoughts with “Beasts of No Nation,” less dialogue. I don’t know. Hmmm.

I won’t give this book one star, I respect Iweala greatly as a writer. I just don’t think this particular book was my cup of tea.