Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Repost: Featured Author for December - Maya Angelou

This month's featured author is Maya Angelou. I had someone else in mind, but at trivia night a few weeks ago she was the subject of one of the questions. I was amazed that my table mates didn't know more about her. The average person knows that she wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or they remember her inaugural speech for President Clinton, On the Pulse of Morning. You may know her for her poetic stylings in Still I Rise or for the younger generation, as an elder in Tyler Perry movies.

Readers, I'm here to tell you that Madame Angelou has lived! I picked up her then complete collection as a freshmen in college 20 years ago and was blown away. The books shown above cover her life from the beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969); the ages 17 through 19 as a single mother working as a prostitute and madam in a brothel in Gather Together in My Name (1974); Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (1976) covers her marriage to a Greek sailor, her dance career (did you know she once partnered with THE Alvin Ailey?), and the recording of her first album.

The Heart of A Woman (1981) reflects on her time as a member of the noted Harlem Writer's Guild; her time in Egypt and Ghana; her close friendship with Malcolm X; and raising a black man in America. All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986) finds her back in the United States working as a songwriter for Roberta Flack, writing short stories and preparing for her role in Alex Haley's Roots miniseries.

When I tell you Madam Angelou has lived a full life, she truly has. As an impressionable young woman, I was so blown away by her story. Recounting now all that she has done in the time period that's not even covered by these books is even more stunning. My hope is that you will take the time to get to know and appreciate this woman who is truly an American treasure.

Originally posted Dec. 4, 2009

Monday, May 19, 2014

#BookReview: UNBREAK MY HEART by Toni Braxton

Fans of the oldest Braxton sister already know her story as it has played out in the tabloids and in the reality show with her sisters, Braxton Family Values.  There's not a whole lot to be learned in her new memoir, Unbreak My Heart, that we don't already know, but she does provide some insight into why she's made some of the decisions she's made.  She's open and honest about her relationships with her parents, her sisters and even her ex-husband.

To watch her on the family reality TV show, one might think that Toni's mother, Evelyn, has always been supportive of her career.  It came as a shock to me that this was not the case and that Evelyn, at one point, tried to turn the other sisters against Toni for getting signed to a label when the sisters did not.  Keeping this in mind, Toni has always reached back for her sisters, even when it wasn't necessarily in her best interest to do so.
In the African-American community, a certain idea has persisted for generations: If one gets, we all get.  We're all in the boat together, so we must all get out together.  In my family, it was taboo to separate from the group.  But secretly, that's exactly what I wanted to do.  I didn't simply want to be an extension of my parents and siblings.  I wanted to be an individual.
Toni also speaks of how the family idea that you needed to suppress your feelings and push through prepared her for life in show business.  It might seem that this lesson was lost on her sisters as they seem all too happy to put their lives on display.  It's noticeable that of the five, she is the sister that appears on TV the least and seems to be the least willing to share details of her life with the viewing audience.  Indeed, Braxton Family Values is a project she did to pay back the debt her mother imposed on her for making it so many years ago when her sisters didn't.

She speaks of how painful bankruptcy was, not once, but twice, along with the chatter about how she found herself in that situation.  She talks of the embarrassment she felt after appearing on the Oprah show, where Oprah seemed to take pleasure in berating her about how she'd spent her money.  Toni has stated a number of times that tour costs and not an extravagant lifestyle were to blame for her first bankruptcy.  Her second was the result of failure to perform in Las Vegas after health problems forced her to cancel her contractual obligations.

In reading Unbreak My Heart and even watching her on TV, you get the feeling that though Toni may have some divaish ways about her, she is ultimately a humble person.  She is grateful for the opportunities she's been given and exhibits a quiet grace as she speaks about raising an autistic child, separating from her husband and quitting (and returning) to an industry that eats its own.  Fans of her work, and even those unfamiliar with her prior to reading her memoir, will definitely come away with an appreciation of what she has endured.

Published: May 2014
Disclaimer: Copy of book received from the publisher, opinions are my own.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Books I Can't Wait to Read! Summer 2014 edition

Summer is upon us, though you'd never know by the weather.  Here in St. Louis, it's 90 one day and 50 the next.  None of that matters, because summer is coming and with it, warmer weather and some fantabulous reads.  I've put together a list of books I'm either dying to read or have already read and I'm dying to share them with you.  After making my list, it dawned on me that every book was either written by or about a person of color and, with the exception of two, they were all written by women.  As the recent campaign says, #WeNeedDiverseBooks.  And since one of the reasons I review books here is to shine the light on authors of color, let me share some of those diverse books with you.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Release date: June 3, 2014
Why I picked it: I love the simplicity of the cover and I need to know what Hannah knows!

Summary: A haunting debut novel about a mixed-race family living in 1970s Ohio and the tragedy that will either be their undoing or their salvation
Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet . . . So begins the story of this exquisite debut novel, about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee; their middle daughter, a girl who inherited her mother’s bright blue eyes and her father’s jet-black hair. Her parents are determined that Lydia will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue—in Marilyn’s case that her daughter become a doctor rather than a homemaker, in James’s case that Lydia be popular at school, a girl with a busy social life and the center of every party.

When Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together tumbles into chaos, forcing them to confront the long-kept secrets that have been slowly pulling them apart. James, consumed by guilt, sets out on a reckless path that may destroy his marriage. Marilyn, devastated and vengeful, is determined to find a responsible party, no matter what the cost. Lydia’s older brother, Nathan, is certain that the neighborhood bad boy Jack is somehow involved. But it’s the youngest of the family—Hannah—who observes far more than anyone realizes and who may be the only one who knows the truth about what happened.

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
Release date: June 3, 2014
Why I picked it: I stayed up late reading it.  The characters & their stories blew me away.

Summary: Arturo and Alma Rivera have lived their whole lives in Mexico. One day, their beautiful fifteen-year-old daughter, Maribel, sustains a terrible injury, one that casts doubt on whether she'll ever be the same. And so, leaving all they have behind, the Riveras come to America with a single dream: that in this country of great opportunity and resources, Maribel can get better.

When Mayor Toro, whose family is from Panama, sees Maribel in a Dollar Tree store, it is love at first sight. It's also the beginning of a friendship between the Rivera and Toro families, whose web of guilt and love and responsibility is at this novel's core.

Woven into their stories are the testimonials of men and women who have come to the United States from all over Latin America. Their journeys and their voices will inspire you, surprise you, and break your heart.

China Dolls by Lisa See
Release date: June 3, 2014
Why I picked it: I usually love Lisa See's work & this book is no exception. Loved it!

Summary: In 1938, Ruby, Helen and Grace, three girls from very different backgrounds, find themselves competing at the same audition for showgirl roles at San Francisco's exclusive "Oriental" nightclub, the Forbidden City. Grace, an American-born Chinese girl has fled the Midwest and an abusive father. Helen is from a Chinese family who have deep roots in San Francisco's Chinatown. And, as both her friends know, Ruby is Japanese passing as Chinese. At times their differences are pronounced, but the girls grow to depend on one another in order to fulfill their individual dreams. Then, everything changes in a heartbeat with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Suddenly the government is sending innocent Japanese to internment camps under suspicion, and Ruby is one of them. But which of her friends betrayed her?

Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok
Release date: June 24, 2014
Why I picked it: I wanted to see if Jean Kwok  avoided the sophomore slump & she does!

Summary: Twenty-two-year-old Charlie Wong grew up in New York’s Chinatown, the older daughter of a Beijing ballerina and a noodle maker. Though an ABC (America-born Chinese), Charlie’s entire world has been limited to this small area. Now grown, she lives in the same, tiny apartment with her widower father and her eleven-year-old sister, and works—miserably—as a dishwasher.

But when she lands a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio, Charlie gains access to a world she hardly knew existed, and everything she once took to be certain turns upside down. Slowly, within this new arena shy, clumsy, unfashionable Charlie’s own natural talents begin to emerge, and gradually her perspective, her expectations, and her sense of self all are transformed—something she must hide, at great pains, from her father and his suspicion of all things Western. As Charlie blossoms, though, her sister becomes chronically ill. As Pa insists on treating his ailing child exclusively with Eastern practices to no avail, Charlie is forced to find a way to reconcile her two selves and her two worlds—Eastern and Western, old world and new—to rescue her sister while also keeping her new found confidence and identity.

Forty Acres by Dwayne Alexander Smith
Release date: July 1, 2014
Why I picked it: A-ma-zing! Just...add this to your TBR list right now.

Summary: What if overcoming the legacy of American slavery meant bringing back that very institution? A young black attorney is thrown headlong into controversial issues of race and power in this page-turning and provocative new novel.

Martin Grey, a smart, talented black lawyer working out of a storefront in Queens, becomes friendly with a group of some of the most powerful, wealthy, and esteemed black men in America. He’s dazzled by what they’ve accomplished, and they seem to think he has the potential to be as successful as they are. They invite him for a weekend away from it all—no wives, no cell phones, no talk of business. But far from home and cut off from everyone he loves, he discovers a disturbing secret that challenges some of his deepest convictions…

Martin finds out that his glittering new friends are part of a secret society dedicated to the preservation of the institution of slavery—but this time around, the black men are called “Master.” Joining them seems to guarantee a future without limits; rebuking them almost certainly guarantees his death. Trapped inside a picture-perfect, make-believe world that is home to a frightening reality, Martin must find a way out that will allow him to stay alive without becoming the very thing he hates.

The Amado Women by Desiree Zamorano
Release date: July 1, 2014
Why I picked it: I love stories about families of women.

Four Latinas struggle for their piece of the American Dream, but will it evaporate when confronted with family tragedy?

Southern California is ground zero for upwardly mobile middle-class Latinas. Matriarchs like Mercy Amado-despite her drunken, philandering (now ex-) husband-could raise three daughters and become a teacher. Now she watches helplessly as her daughters drift apart as adults. The Latino bonds of familia don't seem to hold. Celeste, the oldest daughter who won't speak to the youngest, is fiercely intelligent and proud. She has fled the uncertainty of her growing up in Los Angeles, California, to seek financial independence in San Jose. Her sisters did the same thing but very differently. Sylvia married a rich but abusive Anglo, and, to hide away, she immersed herself in the suburbia of her two young daughters. And Nataly, the baby, went very hip into the free-spirited Latino art world, working on her textile creations during the day and waiting on tables in an upscale restaurant by night. Everything they know comes crashing down in a random tragic moment and Mercy must somehow make what was broken whole again.

Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique
Release date: July 10, 2014
Why I picked it: Someone told me it's a good read & it sounds interesting.

Summary: In the early 1900s an important ship sinks into the Caribbean Sea, just as the Virgin Islands are transferred from Danish to American rule. Orphaned by the sunk vessel are two sisters and their half-brother, now faced with an uncertain identity and future. Each of them is unusually beautiful, and each is in possession of a particular magic that will either sink or save them.

Chronicling three generations of an island family from 1916 to the 1970s, Land of Love and Drowning is a novel of love and magic, set against the emergence of Saint Thomas into the modern world. Wholly unique, with echoes of Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, and the author’s own Caribbean family history, the story is told in a language and rhythm that evokes an entire world and way of life and love. Following the Bradshaw family through sixty years of fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, love affairs, curses, magical gifts, loyalties, births, deaths, and triumphs, Land of Love and Drowning is a gorgeous, vibrant debut by an exciting, prize-winning young writer.

 A Pinch of Ooh La La by Renee Swindle
Release date: August 5, 2014
Why I picked it: I read her last book (Shake Down the Stars) & absolutely loved it.

To get to happily ever after, sometimes you need to start from scratch....

Abbey Ross, who runs her own bakery in Oakland, California, is known for her visually stunning wedding cakes. But lately, Abbey’s own love life has become stale. According to her best friend, Bendrix, Abbey’s not the spontaneous young woman she was when they were teenagers listening to the Cure and creating attention-grabbing graffiti. Of course, her failed relationship with a womanizing art forger might have something to do with that. Nevertheless, it’s time for Abbey to step out of the kitchen—and her comfort zone—and Bendrix has even handpicked a man for her to date.

Samuel Howard is everything Abbey’s dreamed of: handsome, successful, and looking to raise a family. But a creamy icing might be needed to hide a problem or two. When Samuel complains about disrespect for the institution of marriage, Abbey’s reminded of her nontraditional family, with thirteen children from various mothers. And when Samuel rails about kids having kids, Abbey thinks of her twenty-year-old sister who’s recently revealed her pregnancy.

Soon Abbey is facing one disaster after another and struggling to make sense of it all. Her search for love has led her down a bitter path, but with the help of her unique family and unwavering friends, she just might find the ooh la la that makes life sweet.

Your Face in Mine by Jess Row
Release date: August 14, 2014
Why I picked it: It reminds me of Forty Acres (mentioned above) with a twist.

Summary:  One afternoon, not long after Kelly Thorndike has moved back to his hometown of Baltimore, an African American man he doesn’t recognize calls out to him. To Kelly’s shock, the man identifies himself as Martin, who was one of Kelly’s closest friends in high school—and, before his disappearance nearly twenty years before, skinny, white, and Jewish. Martin then tells an astonishing story: After years of immersing himself in black culture, he’s had a plastic surgeon perform “racial reassignment surgery”—altering his hair, skin, and physiognomy to allow him to pass as African American. Unknown to his family or childhood friends, Martin has been living a new life ever since.

Now, however, Martin feels he can no longer keep his new identity a secret; he wants Kelly to help him ignite a controversy that will help sell racial reassignment surgery to the world. Kelly, still recovering from the death of his wife and child and looking for a way to begin anew, agrees, and things quickly begin to spiral out of control.

The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar
Release date: August 19, 2014
Why I picked it: Because I loved her previous work, The Space Between Us

An experienced psychologist, Maggie carefully maintains emotional distance from her patients. But when she meets a young Indian woman who tried to kill herself, her professional detachment disintegrates. Cut off from her family in India, Lakshmi is desperately lonely and trapped in a loveless marriage to a domineering man who limits her world to their small restaurant and grocery store.

Moved by her plight, Maggie treats Lakshmi in her home office for free, quickly realizing that the despondent woman doesn’t need a shrink; she needs a friend. Determined to empower Lakshmi as a woman who feels valued in her own right, Maggie abandons protocol, and soon doctor and patient have become close friends.

But while their relationship is deeply affectionate, it is also warped by conflicting expectations. When Maggie and Lakshmi open up and share long-buried secrets, the revelations will jeopardize their close bond, shake their faith in each other, and force them to confront painful choices.

Did any of those appeal to you? Will you be adding them to your To Be Read list and pre-ordering them? What are you reading this summer?

Monday, May 12, 2014

#BookReview: Debbie Doesn't Do It Anymore by Walter Mosley

"How do you know I read?" I asked.  I never talked about books to anyone except my therapist and that one arrogant literature professor." 
"Theon told me.  I asked him did he get jealous with you havin' sex with all those young men and he said that it was only the books made him turn green.  He said that he always felt like he was about to lose you when you were lookin' in a book."

Synopsis: In this scorching, mournful, often explicit, and never less than moving literary novel by the famed creator of the Easy Rawlins series, Debbie Dare, a black porn queen, has to come to terms with her sordid life in the adult entertainment industry after her tomcatting husband dies in a hot tub. Electrocuted. With another woman in there with him. Debbie decides she just isn't going to "do it anymore." But executing her exit strategy from the porn world is a wrenching and far from simple process.

Review: Much like other characters created by Walter Mosley, such as Easy Rawlins, Socrates Fortlaw or Leonid McGill, Debbie Dare is on a journey to change who she is.  No longer satisfied with performing in front of the camera for millions to enjoy at home, she makes the decision to walk away from the world of porn.

While I was fascinated with her calculated ways, there was nothing distinctly feminine about Debbie.  Had Mosley not given her the name of Debbie or assigned a gender, I could have very well been reading about one of his male characters that I mentioned earlier.  I can't recall if this is the first book Mosley has approached from the female point of view, but my other thought is that perhaps he didn't mean to make her so masculine, but more unfeeling.  You would imagine that in Debbie's world, she's seen and come across a lot of unsavory characters and situations.  So perhaps the cold and unfeeling attitude that she affects is not a masculine one, but one of someone that has simply seen too much and is unfazed by things that would prompt reaction from others.  That's not to say Debbie is completely unfeeling.  She has a great deal of affection and respect for her doctor and another gentleman she becomes acquainted with following Theon's death.  More than anything, she keeps her distance from those she isn't sure she can trust.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book.  I felt like the ending was somewhat rushed after dragging out the time between Theon's death and the actual funeral.  I'd be much more interested in reading about what post-porn Debbie is up to these days.

Published: May 2014
Disclaimer: Copy of book received from publisher, opinions are my own.

Friday, May 9, 2014

#BookReview: Loteria by Mario Alberto Zambrano

As the story opens, there’s uncertainty on behalf of the reader about what is going on. Initially, we know that eleven year old Luz Castillo is living in some kind of facility. Her Aunt Tencha visits her, so she’s not without family. Something has happened to put her sister in the hospital and her father in jail and Luz isn’t talking to anyone about anything.
“Julie says the reason I don’t say anything is because I’m in deep pain. Like if pain were something she knew looked like me.”

Julie, Luz’s counselor, has convinced Luz to write down what happened to her, telling her that it might be the only thing that keeps her father from serving a long jail sentence. Luz is just as tight-fisted with her journal as she is with her words, sharing neither with anyone. But she tells her story to the reader using her loteria cards.

Similar to bingo, loteria is is a Mexican game of chance. Instead of calling out numbers, cards are pulled from a deck and announced by the object on the card or through a riddle tied to the card. Much like bingo, players match the card to the picture on their tabla, a board.

Chapter titles such as El Borracho (the drunk) and El Venado (the deer) almost serve as warnings of what’s to come. At times, hers is a happy home, but when her father has had too much to drink, no one is spared from his wrath, especially her mother. Up until a point, it seems that the good far outweighs the bad; however, when the bad hits, it hits hard and heavy.

Told with the naivete of a child that’s seen too much and doesn’t quite realize it just yet, Loteria reminds me somewhat of Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican, but much more of Bird of Paradise by Raquel Cepeda. Though those two works are non-fiction, the father-daughter theme is present in all of them. Much like the characters in the other books, Luz looks for validation in her father. She loves him without question, even though his faults are many and, at times, she’s a target for his anger. More than anything, she wants his acceptance and to please him.

I was drawn into Luz and her family's home life from the beginning until the end.  Zambrano's writing brings to life simple day to day interactions and makes them fascinating.  I can't wait to see what's ahead for this talented author.


Published: July 2013

Thursday, May 8, 2014

ICYMI: Walter Mosley & Michael Eric Dyson in Conversation

In case you missed it, Walter Mosley and Michael Eric Dyson sat down yesterday at the Schomburg Center in New York for an extended conversation.  As always, Walter was witty and warm and Michael talked a mile a minute.  If you weren't able to watch it live, you can catch it below.

Monday, May 5, 2014

#BookReview: YEAR OF THE CHICK series by Romi Moondi

Normally I would review books in a series separately, but as they were all pretty quick reads and I read them back to back, it seems easier to review the series as a whole. Year of the Chick (Book 1), Last Minute Love (Book 2) and Never or Forever (Book 3) are loosely based on the life of the Canadian-Indian author, Romi Moondi. If you love diverse chick lit, you’ll enjoy her writing.

When we first meet Romi in Year of the Chick, she’s living in Toronto with a sister she can’t stand. On weekends, the two are forced to pack it up and return to their parents who live a bit of a distance from the big city. It’s only their jobs that allow them the freedom to live away from home, as Indian women are expected to stay with their families until they’re married.

At work, at home, no matter where she is, Romi spends much of her time thinking about her lack of a love life. Her friends have no problems attracting men, some would rather not even be bothered, but Romi feels like the invisible woman in the room far too often. When clubbing, matchmaking and online dating fail to yield any results, Romi takes to blogging. If she’s not going to be a successful dater, the least she can do is write about her experiences so others can learn from her mistakes.

Each book highlights Romi’s experiences with a different leading man. Overall, they’re enjoyable, but if I had to pick a least favorite, I’d go with book 3, Never or Forever. Book 1 really drew me in and book 2 held my attention well enough, but book 3 just seemed to meander along a long and twisty road leading nowhere that abruptly ended. The Romi we meet in book 3 is certainly not the one we originally met. I wouldn’t necessarily attribute that to growth though; it seemed that she lost a bit of her spark. As much as I anticipated what was coming after Year of the Chick and Last Minute Love, I can’t say that I’m all that interested in following up to see what happens after Never or Forever.

Year of the Chick
Published: October 2011

Last Minute Love
Published: June 2012

Never or Forever
Published: September 2013

Purchase: Amazon