Friday, September 30, 2011

My shelves runneth over...

with lit from female authors.  Am I a femireader?  Yes, I made that word up, hush and let me have it.  During yet another passionate conversation about books, I came to the startling realization that I'm slightly prejudice against books by men or with male lead characters.  I'm not talking about Grisham or Patterson or Sanford or Stephen King.  I can read about Grisham's many male characters and Patterson's Alex Cross series, as well as Sanford's Lucas Davenport series, but the average male author, not so much.

Don't get me wrong, I love Ravi Howard, Jabari Asim, Roy Pickering and Daniel Black.  Their works fascinate me and I thoroughly enjoy reading them, but I don't actively seek books by or about men.  And it's not that they're not writing, they are.  I remember when Eric Jerome Dickey first started out.  I loved his books, but I remember loving them because he wrote from the point of view of a woman so well.  The other male authors I mentioned write from the male perspective and I still enjoy them, so I don't think writing from the female perspective is the determining factor in whether or not I'll enjoy a book written by a male author.  I've certainly digested my fair share of E. Lynn Harris and Carl Weber, not to mention some of Omar Tyree's horrid work.  But I guess as a woman, I want to read things from the perspective of other women.  Am I limiting myself by doing so?

I had a conversation with a co-worker some years ago about her husband's reading habits.  I know a lot of men that will only read non-fiction, but her husband read just about anything, with the only requirement being that it was written by a man. He said that, in his opinion, women authors just didn't get it.  Their writing was unrealistic and too sentimental. I remember thinking how can he just stereotype female authors like that?  But is he really any different from me? Somewhat.  I don't shun books by men like he does books by women.  A quick glance at my bookshelves will show an almost equal representation of male and female authors.  I think I have something to learn from both sexes.

Going even further, I think that I, and everyone else, has something to learn from both sexes and all races.  I'd like to think that my shelves are just as diverse when it comes to race as they are when it comes to sex, but they're not.  Though I don't actively seek male authors, I do actively seek Latina, Asian and other people of color authors, particularly women.  Do I feel more of a kinship with them and seek a better understanding because they're women? Probably.

So what do your shelves look like? Do you find that you prefer male to female authors or have you ever given it a thought? How diverse is your reading selection?  Are you a proclaimed femireader or will you read anything, even the cereal box?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

#BookReview: Red Polka Dot in a World Full of Plaid - Varian Johnson

Had I not been desperate for something to listen to on a recent road trip, I probably would have never picked up this book.  That's not to say that anything was too terribly wrong with it, it just trended on the YA side and that's not really my thing.  But given the choice between listening to this and the same 10 songs over and over again on satellite radio, I went with this.

Red Polka Dot is the story of Maxine, a recent high school graduate, who learns that the father she always thought was dead is, in fact, alive and well and living in Oklahoma.  Determined to meet him, she sets off on her own from South Carolina, only to have car problems.  Her best friend Deke comes to her rescue and the two make their way to Oklahoma where Maxine discovers that not only is her father Jack alive, he's white.

This first effort from Varian Johnson was crammed with entirely too many messages for such a short book.  There was Maxine's discovery that she was biracial and how it affected her outlook after believing that she was black for 18 years. In addition, she had to deal with how others around her reacted to her as a result.   There was also a strong Christian lit element with Deke and Jack both talking about their beliefs repeatedly and trying to convince Maxine to come back to church.  And then there was the problem of defining her friendship with Deke.  In the midst of this, she had to find time to create and define a relationship with her newly discovered father.  And like a soap opera, the author managed to wrap all of these issues up with a nice neat bow within a week.  While this may have played out well for a younger reader, it was too idealistic for a cynical older reader like me.

What did you like about this book?
It had good messages, there were just too many of them to give any one proper attention and fleshing out.

What didn't you like about this book?
The narrator of the audio book has the same last name of the author.  While Johnson is a common last name, I couldn't help but wonder if she was related to him.  That could be the only plausible reason for using her as the narrator.  I picked up a distinct Caribbean lilt in her voice, which was distracting since the character was supposed to be from South Carolina.  Another problem was that the narrator was only capable of doing three voices even though she gave voice to every character in the book.  As a result, all of the male characters, with the exception of Deke, sounded like an old white man sitting on his porch holding a shotgun and all of the female characters, with the exception of Maxine, sounded like Florence Jean Castleberry (that's Flo for those that remember the TV show, Alice).  It may have been more economically feasible for the author to use a relative to narrate, but the voices she used were annoying and made listening to the book almost unbearable.

What could the author do to improve this book?
Pick a theme and stick with it.

Listening time: 5 hours, 50 minutes
Published November 2005

Theme: At Seventeen by Janis Ian

Monday, September 26, 2011

#BookReview: The Taste of Salt - Martha Southgate

Everybody has something that they're trying to hide or that they're ashamed of or would like to pretend never happened.  In a family where addiction is your legacy, it's a safe bet that if you don't confront the issue head on, it's guaranteed to rear its ugly head sooner or later, and probably when you least expect it.  And so it is with Josie Henderson and her family.
I love breathing underwater but still being safe, held, protected.  I love the weightlessness.  I never feel that the rest of the time.  Life weighs a ton.  That's why I love the water.  Nothing weighs anything there.
A marine biologist, Josie has always loved the water.  It's her escape from everything that ails her, anything that weighs her down.  As a child, the water was an escape from the destruction alcoholism brought to her happy family.  As an adult, it allows her to keep that same family at bay in Cleveland while she works in the Northeast.  But you can't run from your problems forever and when Josie's brother Tick sinks into the depths of alcoholism himself, she's forced to return home once again.  And just like that, the weightlessness that water gives her is taken away.  Back on dry land, life once again weighs a ton.

While Josie is quick to point out her father and brother's addiction, it takes her much longer to realize its affect on her.  She goes to great lengths to avoid anything that will weigh her down.  Though she's married, it's apparent that her husband loves her much more than she loves him.  Having kids would weigh her down, so even as she's approaching the time when her biological clock should be ticking out of control, she has no desire for them.  And when the weight of being in an interracial marriage weighs on her even slightly, she seeks something easier, something that weighs less.

Told from the perspectives of Josie, Tick and their parents, Ray and Sarah, The Taste of Salt is simply amazing.  Watching Ray's drinking spiral out of control so much so that it costs him the family that he dearly loves and to watch Tick do the same years later is scary, but makes you ask why would he follow his father's path knowing where it would end, having experienced it as a child.  What makes Sarah love so hard and for so long? And at one point does Josie realize that the water can't save her from everything.

What did you like about this book?
Martha Southgate's book always make me think. While I can easily breeze through works by other authors, I find that I have to give myself time to read, think and savor each word with her.

What didn't you like about this book?
I can't think of a thing.

What could the author do to improve this book?

Published September 2011

Theme: Aguas de Marco by Antonio Carlos Jobim & Elis Regina

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Day in the Life...

of a book blogger that happens to be black...or African American, whatever floats your boat.

7:00 a.m. Rise & shine
7:30 a.m. Check to see if Blogger FINALLY worked out their kinks and posted today's post at 7:30 instead of 9:30 or 5:30
8:30 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. Do the job I'm actually paid to do
5:30 p.m. Check email
5:32 p.m. Let out a loud exasperated sigh as I read the following:

Hello <---note that I don't have a name, just a generic hello, because this has already been pitched to every black book blogger on the net.
My name is Denise and I was referred to you by a friend on Goodreads. I'm an Urban lit authoress and I've recently authored a novel titled, Streets is Talking.
What's wrong with this picture you might ask. #1 I don't do urban lit & #2 even though it's a real word, certified by the dictionary and everything, I abhor the word 'authoress!'  Like what is that even about?

5:45 p.m. DM J Nic, my literary twin, about the latest shiggidy that ended up in my inbox
Me: Why did I get a pitch from XYZ publisher about rapper Blase' Blahs latest urban tale?
JNic: *crickets*
Me: Who in the hell told rappers to start writing books? Better yet, who told publishers that I'd want to read this crap? It's because I'm black, isn't it? Do you think they pitch this crap to BethFishReads or DevourerOfBooks?
JNic: Who?
Me: Exactly!
If you thought the shelves of the bookstore formerly known as Borders were segregated, the world of book blogging is really no better.  Publishers pitch books based on not only genres, but also the color of the author and the blogger.  Just because I'm brown doesn't mean I want to read every piece of lit written by another brown person.  No, I'm not interested in the garbage 50 Cent is peddling to urban youth, but I may be interested in that new Sophie Kinsella or Amy Tan so how about pitching me that instead?

A recent conversation with a good friend of mine led to a passionate monologue from me about the greatness of Algonquin Books.  I won't jump on the soap box and give you details about what I said, but here are the highlights.  Algonquin Books is hands down my favorite publisher.  There aren't black, white, brown, purple or pink books with them, just good books.  I've never gotten a pitch from them that was tailored for a specific audience.  It's more of a "we've got great books, you like great books, look at our great books and tell us what you want us to send you."

I watched with fascination as Tayari Jones toured the country this year promoting her book,  Silver Sparrow.  National reviewers, national public radio and book bloggers didn't dwell on the fact that the characters were African-American.  Silver Sparrow is the kind of story that can play out in families of any race.  In the hands of another publisher, it might have been banished to the 'Urban Lit' section of the bookstore and found itself nestled between Zane and Ice-T.  I really feel like a big reason for the book's success, other than the fact that it was amazing, was the way it was presented by Algonquin Books.

Publishers that continue to pigeonhole their authors and their audience are doing no one any favors. A good book is a good book is a good book regardless of who writes it.  If you write it, they will read it.  Publishers would do well to remember that and to stop selling everyone short.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

#BookReview: ONE FLIGHT UP by Susan Fales-Hill

This is what Sex and the City would look like if they ever tried diversity, well diversity beyond Blair Underwood.  Remember the season he played a sports doctor and hooked up with Miranda of all people??? Can we just take a moment to appreciate the chocolaty goodness that is Blair though?   Can we?!?!?!  Okay, I was having a moment there, but I'm back now.

So what was I saying? Oh yes.  One Flight Up is a look at the lives of four friends in Manhattan. Graduates of the elite Sibley School for Girls, Esme, India, Abby and Monique seem to have it all, but each has secrets that they share with no one, not even their best friends.

Attorney India has enough on her plate trying to keep up with her mother's latest divorce attempt and her own whirlwind romance with French chef, Julien.  So when the love of her life stumbles back into her world, she's forced to re-evaluate quite a few things.

Abby  loves literature, but being married to a sculptor who's always on the verge of being discovered means someone has to support the family financially, so she runs her family's art gallery even though it's not her passion.

She's always played with fire, but her friends have no idea that Esme is dangerously close to getting burned.  A spoiled woman of means, she treats Manhattan as her playground and the men in it as her toys.

Though she was their tormentor at Sibley, Monique has managed to work her way into the world of the trio of friends.  She's still as brash and rude as she was at Sibley and being a doctor has only added arrogance to her list of characteristics.

Susan Fales-Hill has worked on several award winning shows from The Cosby Show and Different World to Linc's.  A Manhattanite herself, with a true global flair, it would be great to see a mini-series or network series from Fales-Hill based on these characters.

What did you like about this book?
These women are fabulous! It's rare to see colorful chick lit that features not just one, but three women of color.  Each of them is successful in her own right and boldly claims what is hers with no apologies.

What didn't you like about this book?
As fabulous as their lives were, some of the situations seemed a little unrealistic.

What could the author do to improve this book?
Make it a series please.  I'm seeing Sofia Vergara as Esme!

Published July 2011

Purchase: Amazon | B & N | Book Depository | IndieBound

Monday, September 19, 2011


Okay, before I tell you about this hilarious read, I have to share with you a disclaimer I received from the author when she saw I was reading it on Goodreads.
***DISCLOSURES: If you find politically incorrect shows like The Office, South Park and Chelsea Lately detestable, childish and offensive, then my book is probably NOT for you. But I don't write with malice, it's meant to be lighthearted, snarky and harmless. 
I'm a Chinese gal and I lightly poke fun at all races, including my own. Growing up in Malaysia, people were a lot more tolerant and a little less sensitive about that topic. And sometimes I think it's healthy to be able to laugh at yourself, as long as it doesn't cross a line or go over the top. 
It really did make me cackle that she felt the need to defend her work prior to me reading it.  I can't tell you how many times I wished authors who've written horribly bad books would send me a notice of disclosure before I picked up their book.  I'm not easily offended and though I don't watch The Office or South Park, I've read a few Chelsea Handler books and enjoyed them.

Recent college graduate Madison Lee can't find a job, though she doesn't seem to be trying too hard.  So when her best friend, Karsynn Higginbotham, invites her to come visit her in the hotbed of excitement that is Pocatello, Idaho, Maddy takes her up on it.  The modern day Laverne & Shirley find themselves jobs in a call center, of all things, and that's where the fun begins.

You might think that there's nothing funny about answering phones all day, but Lim does a great job of keeping the dialogue light, funny and moving at a pace reminiscent of The Gilmore Girls.  Not only are the main characters well developed, so are the secondary characters.  I don't think Lisa Lim has anything to worry about when it comes to finding an audience for Confessions.

What did you like about this book?
Reading this book was really like watching a sitcom.  Though Lim doesn't go into a lot of detail about the character's setting, their voices ring through loud and clear giving you a full impression of who they are and allowing you to visualize the characters and the call center.

I also love how the author intertwines popular culture references.

What didn't you like about this book?
It didn't bother me, but there are some jokes that others might find slightly offensive.

What could the author do to improve this book?
I would have loved a synopsis at the end giving updates on Karsynn, Truong and the rest of the crew.

Published May 2011

Amazon | B & N | Book Depository | IndieBound

Friday, September 16, 2011

#BookReview: Secret Obsession - Kimberla Lawson Roby

Well she finally took a break from the ridiculously long story line of Reverend Curtis Black, but I can't say that Kimberla Lawson Roby did readers any favor with her detour into the crazy world of Paige Donahue. Paige has always lived in the shadow of her sister, Camille. From the time they were kids until now, Paige has wanted whatever Camille has, including her husband, and she'll stop at nothing to get him. Thank goodness this was a short read because the naivete of Camille and her husband, Pierce, combined with the far fetched schemes of Paige were hard to read due to the constant eye rolling on my part.

With at least 15 books under her belt, Roby still has not learned to fully develop her characters and give them plausible story lines. Yes, Paige is bat shit crazy, how do you give the reasoning behind it less than a page and then wrap up the entire story with a nice neat bow a few pages later without fully exploring the transformation from bat shit crazy to regular old crazy?

Paige and Camille's mother admitted a family secret that had a devastating effect on their lives and Roby didn't feel that it needed more than a paragraph? The people that Paige and Camille became was solely based on their childhood and the role that this secret played in it, but a paragraph will suffice? Oh, ok. I guess the author thought readers didn't require more or maybe she was only obligated to write a 200 page book and this one had hit 192 so she figured I could use the other eight pages to write my own ending. Hell, I don't know.

What did you like about this book?
Twas short.

What didn't you like about this book?
Relleh b, relleh? (Ok, seriously, in order to understand my usage of "relleh" you'll need to listen to Jay-Z & Kanye West's HAM. Tis hilarious!)

What could the author do to improve this book?
Learn that character development is key.

Published September 2011

Theme: Crazy Love by Ne-Yo featuring Fabolous (and that tooth of his)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

#BookReview: The GQ Candidate - Keli Goff

A more accurate title for Keli Goff's The GQ Candidate might be Primary Colors Part 2 or The Candidate's Friends. Some of you will remember the original Primary Colors, the 1996 novel that was loosely based on Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign. In The GQ Candidate, Keli Goff has created her own version, this time focusing on the candidacy of Luke Cooper, her stand in for Barack Obama.

We all know how the candidacy of President Obama turned out, so there's really no use in rehashing that story. But what Goff gives readers is a glimpse not so much into the life of a candidate for the office of president, but that of his family and friends. Without knowing who those characters were modeled after, it becomes a much more interesting story.

As far as the similarities to the Obamas, they were pretty obvious, though small changes were made. Luke, governor of Michigan (instead of a senator), is married to Laura Cooper, an accomplished educator (instead of an attorney). Instead of two girls, they're the parents of two boys. Luke is not biracial, as is the President, but he was adopted by a Jewish family as an infant.

What's new and different is seeing how Luke's candidacy affects his closest friends and how situations in their lives directly impact his campaign. If you're running for a public office, you're bound to have friends that could be liabilities. Do you cut them loose? Do you disavow your religion if it makes voters uncomfortable? If your friends are just as competitive as you, will they be able to stand beside and behind you while you grab the spotlight that they've always craved? Goff hits all of these points and more.

What did you like about this book?
Luke's circle of friends was very well developed. It was interesting to note the roles that all of them played in their relationships, both with each other and their spouses.

What didn't you like about this book?
While Luke's friends were well developed, he wasn't. It's almost as if he were a secondary character brought in only for the purposes of reacting to situations.

I also hate the title of the book. The explanation for why Luke was nicknamed "the GQ candidate" was shallow and certainly didn't live up to the reason given for it.

What could the author do to improve this book?
Either rename it so that it accurately reflects about whom the book is written or flesh out the story of Luke Cooper more so that the title fits.

Published July 2011

Theme: Eric B. is President by Eric B. & Rakim

Monday, September 12, 2011

#BookReview: The Personal History of Rachel DuPree - Ann Weisgarber

The book blogging community has been abuzz about this book for awhile, but it took some time for me to decide to read it. Even though I'm a fan of historical fiction and historical reality TV, like PBS' Frontier House, I wasn't sure that this story, set in The Badlands of South Dakota in the early 20th century, would be of interest to me. It's biggest selling points were that Viola Davis was working to option the rights to it and that it might be an interesting enough listen to keep my mother quiet on the five hour drive to take my daughter to college.

Rachel Reeves works as a cook in the boarding house of Mrs. DuPree, widow of the late Dr. DuPree and mother of Isaac, an army man. Before Isaac DuPree came home, Rachel believed that her days would be full of cooking for the boarders of the home. Isaac's stories about life in the army and his plans to stake a claim in the South Dakota Badlands fascinates both the boarders and Rachel.

Instantly smitten, Rachel dreams of marrying Isaac and starting life together. Mrs. DuPree will have no such thing and works feverishly to introduce Isaac to suitable upper class women. Isaac has no use for such soft women, but when the hardworking Rachel makes a deal with him that allows him to claim an additional 160 acres of land in her name in exchange for one year of marriage, he jumps at the chance. So begins their tale of life in the Badlands.

What did you like about this book?
It offered a story that hasn't really been told before. Although I was aware that there were African-American settlers, I can't recall reading any stories from their points of view. The author and narrator did an excellent job of bringing the harsh realities of life on the plains to life. Oh, and it kept my mother quiet for most of the trip!

What didn't you like about this book?
Isaac had an obvious disdain for Native Americans, so much so that at times I pondered ejecting the CD from my player. Though the possibility for his hatred was revealed eventually, I felt like the author really went overboard with her characterization of Native Americans as lazy and looking for handouts.

I also had a problem with Rachel's naivete as it related to Isaac. While he treated her as nothing more than a breeding ranch hand with little regard for her opinion, she followed him blindly repeatedly, at times to the detriment of their children. The characterization of Rachel as a physically and mentally strong woman seemed to be in direct conflict to the Rachel that kowtowed to Isaac.

What could the author do to improve this book?
The book was left with a bit of a cliffhanger. I don't need a sequel, but I would have liked a few follow up chapters just to wrap up the story line.

Listening time: 10 hours, 9 minutes
Published August 2010

Theme: Could've Fooled Me by Rachelle Ferrell

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

#BookReview: Dreams of Joy - Lisa See

Readers of Shanghai Girls, the 2010 New York Times bestseller from Lisa See about sisters Pearl and May, will be glad to know that See has continued their story with this year's Dreams of Joy.  Having narrowly escaped the Japanese bombing of Shanghai in 1937, the sisters find themselves setting sail for America to live in marriages arranged by their father to pay off  his gambling debts. Shanghai Girls covered the lives of Pearl and May from 1937 through 1957.  Dreams of Joy picks up right where it left off, this time focusing on Joy, daughter of Pearl, but biological daughter of May.

Convinced that she is to blame for her father's problems with the FBI, and his subsequent death, Joy is determined to leave her family in Los Angeles' Chinatown.  Her studies at the University of Chicago and participation in a Chinese students organization open her eyes to the lies that she believes the United States has told about China and Chairman Mao. When Chairman Mao issues a call for those of Chinese descent to return to their homeland, Joy sees not only an opportunity to participate in the Great Leap Forward, but to also meet the artist father that she recently discovered.  Filled with a naivete that many teens and twentysomethings possess, Joy soon finds that the magical world she imagined is less than desirable and anything but magical.

The Great Leap Forward of the People's Republic of China (PRC) was an economic and social campaign of the Communist Party of China (CPC), reflected in planning decisions from 1958 to 1961, which aimed to use China's vast population to rapidly transform the country from an agrarian economy into a modern communist society through the process of rapid industrialization, and collectivization.  The Great Leap ended in catastrophe, resulting in tens of millions of excess deaths.[2] Estimates of the death toll range from 16.5 to 46 million,[3][4][5] with estimates by demographic specialists ranging from 18 to 32.5 million.[6] Historian Frank Dikötter asserts that "coercion, terror, and systematic violence were the very foundation of the Great Leap Forward" and it "motivated one of the most deadly mass killings of human history."

As it was in Shanghai Sisters, Dreams of Joy is told in first person by Joy and, also, by Pearl. It's interesting to see the changes in Shanghai through the eyes of Pearl, who has returned to retrieve her daughter.  It's also interesting to note the changes in Joy's voice from the idealistic youth who first arrives in Shanghai to the realistic adult she becomes in a few short years.  Fans of historical fiction and/or mother-daughter relationship are sure to appreciate this one.

What did you like about this book?
 Pearl and May have such a strained relationship, even though they're best friends and sisters.  I was worried that there would be no resolution to the argument that drove a big wedge between them.  Dreams finds them working toward resolution through a series of letters written back and forth while Pearl is looking for May's daughter that she has raised as her own.

What didn't you like about the book?
Pearl discovers that a relative she thought had passed years ago was actually alive and living in a village that they come across.  It seems a little fairytale-ish and unlikely that out of all the villages in China, they would pass through this particular one.  It doesn't take away from the story, and perhaps it's cynical of me to think that this couldn't happen, but as a reader, you'll need to judge for yourself.

What could the author do to improve this book?
There's very little to improve.  The historical references were very enlightening and offered much insight into a period of which most Americans are probably unaware.

Published: May 2011

Theme: Harvest Time by Dianne Reeves  

Friday, September 2, 2011