Wednesday, September 30, 2020

500 Miles From You by Jenny Colgan

You know I stan books about people of color or written by people of color, but did you know I also love books about small towns and villages, especially in the countrysides of England, Scotland or Ireland? I know, makes no sense, but it is what it is. I started binge reading Jenny Colgan books last year because almost all of her books are about women escaping from a big city who end up in those places, taking on new and unexpected adventures.When William Morrow Books offered me a copy of 500 Miles from You, I pounced on it because Jenny Colgan. Y'all ... Jenny Colgan *whispers* gave us a Black protagonist! 

Lissa is a nurse in London who witnesses a horrific incident and needs a break from the harsh realities of the city. Cormac is a nurse/paramedic in a small Scottish village. If you've read Colgan's The Bookshop on the Corner and The Bookshop on the Shore, this is the same village of Kirrinfief, so you'll see some familiar characters. Through a trading places kind of program, the two switch jobs and Lissa finds herself in Scotland and Cormac ends up in London. 

Early on, Colgan makes mention of Lissa's friend Kim-Ange's ethnicity in a casual kind of way. She doesn't go into details about her skin tone, which is my least favorite way for authors to describe characters, but a reference is made about her culture that lets readers know. Similarly, Lissa's race is never directly mentioned. Lissa's curly hair is mentioned often, but a lot of people have curly hair. My a-ha moment came when she references her Antiguan grandmother. Now it's possible to be a white Antiguan because colonization, duh, but Antigua is 97% Black plus someone makes a rude off color remark about Lissa being "different." Colgan just slid Lissa on into her book just for me. Ok, maybe not for me, but I appreciate her doing it and not making it weird bydescribing her as milk chocolate brown, etc. like so many authors do. More, please!

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson

Trust Jacqueline Woodson, national treasure that she is, to have you smiling and crying within moments of the other and leave you feeling hopeful even in the most dire of circumstances. Her latest, Before the Ever After, explores the story of a family affected by CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Written in the verse format she's come to be known for, Woodson's beautiful words take readers on a journey of how it feels to watch your world crumble through a child's eyes. 

 As Zachariah "44" Johnson, Super Bowl champion tight end, struggles with gaps in his memory and feelings of not quite being himself, his son ZJ struggles with watching the father both he and his friends adore become a stranger. Where his dad once joked around with and encouraged ZJ's friends, he's become an angry man who yells without provocation. Woodson gives words to Zachariah's inner thoughts, as well as those he expresses out loud. And those thoughts are important because that's where readers can see how frightened he is at who he's becoming. 

 Woodson gives ZJ a strong support group that I truly treasured because so often Black boys aren't portrayed as boys. There's a tendency to forget that they're children, but ZJ's mother, Lisa, at one point reminds him to enjoy being a child for a while longer. So as ZJ's world is crumbling around him, he has Ollie and Darry and Daniel to fall back on. When one of them calls for a meeting at the trail, it's understood that their friend needs them and they show up for each other. It's such a beautiful friendship that even with everything going on in ZJ's life, I left the story feeling confident his friends would get him through whatever obstacles he and his family were faced with.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories by Donna Miscolta

At just 286 pages, I should have been able to zip right through Donna Miscolta's latest collection of stories, Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories. But there was such a sadness to the collection that I had to swallow it in small bites. Living Color follows Angie from kindergarten through high school, each chapter dedicated to a different year of her life growing up in the late 60s through the 70s.

Kindergarten Angie lives in Navy housing in Hawaii, where her father is stationed, before moving back to California where her family is originally from. The middle child of three, soon to be four, she's overlooked by an exhausted mother and often distracted father, ignored and dismissed by her older sister, and spied upon by her younger sister. It's heartbreaking to watch a young Angie at first long for her family's attention and eventually learn to accept that she's never going to be enough of whatever it takes to make her someone worthy of their attention or affection. The members of her family always seem to be in a bit of survival mode and she always seems to be an afterthought, which is most apparent in her senior year.

Had she had a more fulfilling relationship with school friends or neighborhood children, Angie's stories wouldn't have seemed so sad, but with the exception of one person, her friendships with her peers seemed to be fleeting and she often found herself an outsider. Interestingly enough, it's not her "brownness" that sets her apart from her classmates. Angie is just weird and awkward and can't seem to figure out how not to be. I think this, coupled with her family dynamic, made this a really difficult read for me.

Another thing that threw me off - the author, like so many white authors, makes white characters the default. Nowhere is this more apparent than the introduction of a Black character. Up until that point, we know Angie is Mexican-American, but rarely if ever is the race of any of her classmates brought up, aside from a reference to the color of someone's hair, which doesn't quite tell the reader what race that person is. But the first time a Black person shows up in the story, his color is immediately referenced, though it doesn't add anything to the story in particular, which tells me that she saw all of the white people around her as the default, but this boy was "different" from her norm. There's another reference to a Filipino classmate where it's important for us to know that he wasn't white, so I don't want you to think I had a problem with the author noting race or ethnicity in all instances, I'd just like authors to be more aware of their biases when writing and recognize that white characters don't have to be and shouldn't be the default in their stories.

Disclaimer: A copy of this book was received from the publisher; opinions are my own.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie

"Elikem married me in absentia; he did not come to our wedding."  When I read those words, I thought surely this novel was set in the past because who does that in the present. While the book is set in the past, it's not in the distant past, it's 2014. 

The bride, Afi, has been given a mission by the family of her betrothed - force the break up of your husband and his girlfriend and return him to the family fold. That's not a small order, is it? But it seems a small price to pay for all Aunty Faustina Ganyo has done for Afi and her mother. And it's a win-win for Afi. She gets to leave her small town for Accra and an opportunity to study fashion design. Indeed, a small price to pay for marrying someone you've only met in passing and never with the intention of marrying him.

Initially I thought His Only Wife might be reminiscent of Lola Shoneyin's The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives, but that notion is quickly disavowed with Afi's arrival in Accra. While the author's description of Afi's life back in her home town is full of family members and detailed descriptions of their personalities, their backgrounds, etc., giving readers a chance to get to know them, descriptions of the people she meets in Accra tend to be more superficial. I never really felt like I got to know them so I had difficulty determining if their motives were sincere.

I think I expected more of His Only Wife than the author was able to give. Afi reads more like an impressionable early teen than an adult woman. Her story line is steady in some parts and rushed in others. It's the rushed parts that needed more detail and consistency to give the book some balance.

Disclaimer: Copy of book received from publisher but in no way influenced my review.


Tuesday, September 1, 2020

When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole

I’ve been lusting after Alyssa Cole’s When No One is Watching ever since I saw it pop up in the publisher's catalog. And I patiently waited as I saw others post about it, but my day has come! This creepy thriller landed on my doorstep a few days ago and I couldn't wait to dig in ... in the daylight hours.

Described as Hitchcock’s Rear Window meets Jordan Peele’s Get Out, it’s the story of a Brooklynite who starts to dig into what happened to her old neighbors who left for the suburbs when the gentrifiers started moving in. Cole really shines with historical fiction and royal romances but I was excited to see what she could do with the thriller genre.

Y'all! I read this during the day time for a reason. I'm scary af. But even reading it during the day wasn't enough. I literally had to remind myself to breathe at time. Like did the Rona get me? Is that why I can't breathe? No fool, it's because you're holding your breath, afraid of what will happen next.

Cole might possibly have written the scariest take on gentrification that I've ever read or seen. Whew, this book, y'all. This book! Go ahead and add it to your TBR list because yes.

Disclaimer: Copy of book received from publisher but did in no way influence my review.

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw

*taps ๐ŸŽ™️* Is this thing on? Yes? Ok. Let me introduce you to your new favorite author - Deesha Philyaw. Deesha isn't a new author, she's been writing for a minute, but what she does in The Secret Lives is something special. She flips the script and portrays "good church girls" as the real women and girls they are, not some perfect beings who worship at the altar 24/7 and never let their slip show.

The Secret Lives is not non-fiction, and I feel like that needs to be emphasized before it's tosssed aside as such. This is a collection of nine short stories that explore a variety of experiences in the lives of women. From the great-grandmother who frets over whether it makes more sense to keep her 14 year old granddaughter home from church so she can't openly lust over the first lady of the church or if she should send her to Sunday School in hopes that she'll have the sin knocked out of her to the daughter of a dying woman who seeks relief with a stranger in a parking lot; from a girl who lives her mother's shame as a preacher's mistress to a woman who has strict instructions for her married lovers — Philyaw brings the reality of these women's lives to our attention and shines a light on those subtle nuances that we tend to overlook.

Within these pages, you're sure to find a woman or girl whom you connect with, I know I did.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria

It's been a minute since I devoured a book in less than a day, but Alexis Daria's You Had Me at Hola drew me in from the first page with her leading lady, Jasmine, and her male counterpart, Ashton. I love stories with big, messy but loving families, sexy men with secrets, and women who know what they want. Daria did not let me down!

From the beginning, readers are introduced to Jasmine and her cousins Ava and Michelle, and I immediately want books about Ava and Michelle too because they are snarky and awesome and insightful and I want to see more of this family, especially their abuela. It's said that cousins are your first friends and Ava and Michelle know Jasmine's history of falling for men better than most and are determined to keep her on track with her plan to becoming a leading lady.

Ashton Suarez is a sexy man with secrets. As soon as I understood he came from the telenovela world and was hoping to go more "mainstream" by doing a bilingual show, I immediately thought of Rojelio De La Vega from Jane the Virgin and couldn't get him out of my head, which is fine because have you seen Jaime Camil? You haven't? Ok, I'm going to pause while you go Google him because you need to understand the levels of fineness we're talking about. ๐Ÿ’ƒ๐Ÿพsalsas to Celia while I wait๐Ÿ’ƒ๐Ÿพ Ok, you've seen him? Good, let's continue.

Jasmine has a plan, Ashton has a plan, can they both get what they want and stick to the plan? Yes and no.They can get it but there has to be some compromising on the parts of the both. Do they slide into the sheets and do the horizontal hokey pokey? Yes, it's a telenovela within a telenovela, did you really think there'd be no sex? And it's hot and steamy and whew!

As you can tell, I really enjoyed You Had Me at Hola, so much so that I'm adding Alexis Daria's backlist to my TBR!

The Secret Women by Sheila Williams

Elise, Carmen and DeeDee meet in a yoga class and quickly bond over the loss of their mothers. Whether their mothers passed years ago or recently, all of the women have some healing to do. Since all three have or need to sort through their mother's things, they decide to tackle the tasks together, leading to the discovery of the secrets their mothers kept from them when they were alive.

This book was an absolute "can't put down, must finish reading this or I won't be able to sleep because I'll be wondering what the characters are doing" read. I loved that the women were older and that their ages ranged from their 40s to their 60s, because that's life, right? Growing up, your friends tend to be your age, but as an adult, you make friends with people you have things in common with. So at 21, you probably never imagined you'd be hanging out with a 45 year old, but at 40something, the concept of age-based friendship becomes an illusion.

The other aspect of the book that I was really loved as the recognition of mothers are fully realized beings outside of being mothers. Ask yourself how old you were when it first dawned on you that your mother had a whole life before you came along, one that didn't include you. She didn't just wake up as your mother, she was out doing things, living (and probably well) long before you came along. These are things that all three ladies discover in The Secret Women. And learning these kinds of things then lead you to reconcile what you knew and what you thought you knew about your mother. Talk about a wig snatching read!

Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan

Can you go through a sophomore slump with your fourth book? If you count Crazy Rich Asians, China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems as one book, and I tend to see series that way, then yes, a sophomore slump with your fourth book is totally possible. I tried really hard to like Sex and Vanity, even contemplated quitting the book about a third in, but it's Kevin Kwan, right? So I persisted.

The book opens in Italy with an elaborate over the top wedding and the extravagant events leading up to it, so we're still looking at life through the crazy wealth lens. And that would be fine if the story line and characters weren't so dreadfully boring. Kwan spends a great deal of time telling readers what schools each character attended, from nursery school all the way through college or finishing school. Honestly, who cares? It didn't make any of them any more interesting.

The most interesting characters, in that they weren't so boring, so bland, SO vanilla, were the protagonist's mysterious love interest and his mother. Even the protagonist, Lucie, is boring. Though she's biracial (white and Chinese), her world is ridiculously white and she absorbs microaggressions daily from her family and friends without ever clapping back. I just ... Kevin Kwan, what were you trying to do with this book? Because you didn't.

Destination Wedding by Diksha Basu

Diksha Basu's The Windfall had just the right amount of quirkiness so Destination Wedding was high on my TBR list. That same quirkiness that shone through in The Windfall makes an appearance again in Destination Wedding, but where Basu mostly focused on a small cast of characters previous work, she does the opposite in her latest.

There were almost too many characters to keep up with, which made it difficult for me to initially keep them straight and/or care about their story line. At times, it felt like the story lines were meandering and characters who could have made the overall book more enjoyable were relegated to minor roles (e.g., the bride and groom).

It's also interesting to note the gratuitous white characters who were included in a story that centered Indian protagonists. I honestly can't say that the presence of either of them added much to the story and have to wonder if their addition was meant to broaden the writer's audience.

Always the Queen: The Denise LaSalle Story by Denise LaSalle

I came to Denise LaSalle's music in the latter part of her career, so I was surprised to find that she saw herself as a soul singer before she was ever a blues singer. I was delighted to see she was friends with some of my favorite blues musicians, e.g., Millie Jackson, Bobby Rush and blown away when I found out she wrote ZZ Hill's Someone Else is Steppin' In.

 Written in a conversational tone, Always the Queen felt like I was sitting at my aunt's house listening to her reminisce about her version of the good old days, whether factual or as she remembered them. At times, I had a difficult time determining whether the events Ms LaSalle wrote about were real or simply embellishments. Regardless, this was a quick and enjoyable read for anyone familiar with her music and her many business adventures.

Love's Recipe by Mila Nicks

I do love a good small town romance with a protagonist who's recently returned home. Usually there's some history between the love interests, but there's not the case with Love's Recipe so there are no serious hurdles to overcome as far as that's concerned. Nicks does highlight a contentious mother-daughter relationship, which is a bit of a departure from what we usually see in the small town romance genre, but it feels honest and refreshing in a genre where everything and everyone tends to be practically picture perfect.

The author does characters and their story lines really well. There's a bit of her next book, Wild, Dark Horses included at the end of Love's Recipe. Sign me up because the little I read of it already has me hooked.