Monday, September 30, 2013

#BookReview: Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

I really enjoyed this book once I got into it, but I feel like I should warn anyone that plans to listen to the audio version that it can be very confusing.  There are a lot of characters to keep up with and I've found that when that's the case, it's easier to actually read the book so you can refer back to previously read passages to figure out which character is which.  Since I listened to the audio version, I was confused for at least the first hour or so.  After that, it was smooth sailing.

Crazy Rich Asians revolves around three cousins, Nick, Astrid and Eddie.  Members of a family so wealthy that they own homes in places the average person doesn't even know exist, the Youngs are a force to be reckoned with, as Rachel Chu soon finds out.  The ABC (American Born Chinese) girlfriend of Nick, Rachel is a New York professor who thinks she's going home with her fellow professor boyfriend to visit his family for the summer.  Nick fails to tell her that she's about to walk into a lifestyle that looks like something straight out of Dynasty meets Dallas multiplied by 100, and will have to navigate an obstacle course only made more challenging by the fact that she's an American.

The beautiful Astrid seems to have it all, a new baby, a loving husband, and she reigns over Singapore society.   She's blissfully unaware of any problems in her world.  Though money has always bought her happiness in the past, this time it may prove to be a hindrance instead of a help.

Even as a child, Eddie was a bit of an ass.  Nothing has changed as he's gotten older.  Always concerned about having the best of everything and more money than anyone else, he's also obsessed with making sure his family is always photographed looking their best in the Hong Kong society pages.  Others live and learn from their mistakes, but Eddie has been making the same ones his whole life.

Though Astrid and Eddie's stories are touched on, Eddie's less than Astrid's, it's really Rachel and Nick that are the focus of Crazy Rich Asians.  The characters that Kevin Kwan has created are so over the top that one thinks he made them up, while secretly wishing people like this really exist.  Big screen rights have already been sold and I'm dying to see what becomes of this entertaining story in the hands of Hollywood.

416 pp
Listening time: 13 hours and 53 minutes
Published: June 2013

Theme: Marry Me by Jason Derulo

Friday, September 27, 2013

#BookReview: Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove by Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson

"But sometimes I only remember things through records.  They're a trigger for me, they're Pavlov's bell.  Without thinking about the music, I can't remember the experience.  But if I think long enough about a specific album, something else always bubbles up."

That quote right there sums up why I love Questlove and his love of music.  Friends and family make fun of me because no story I ever tell is complete without referring to a song or album that was out at the time. I can remember exactly what I was doing the first time I heard "The Double Dutch Bus" (getting my hair braided by my play mama at day camp), Doug E. Fresh & Slick Rick's "The Show" (walking to day camp) or the whole LL Cool J "Bigger & Deffer" tape (riding the bus from a sewage treatment plant on a science camp field trip).  So I can definitely feel where Questlove is coming from.  Music has been such an integral part of his life from the beginning.

Raised in a musical family, Thompson began playing drums in his father's group at a young age.  He didn't just play the drums, he studied his craft, attending a performing arts high school in Philadelphia along with bassist Christian McBride, members of Boyz II Men and fellow Roots member, Black Thought (Tariq Trotter).  A bit of a nerd (okay, more than a bit), Thompson's nerdiness has been balanced out by the rough around the edges personality of Trotter almost from the conception of their group.

It's difficult to review this book because there's so much I want to say, but I'll just say that music lovers must read it.  There are a lot of a-ha and oh yeah moments throughout.  Some of my favorites are:

  1. Thompson is a KISS fanatic
  2. He writes reviews for his own records and lays them out like a Rolling Stone page.
  3. Steppin' Out by Joe Jackson (not THAT Joe Jackson) is one of those songs I thought no one else knew, yet it made his extended play list for 1982.  The same goes for Sheila E's Yellow in 1985 and Carole King's Chicken Soup with Rice in 1975.
  4. He has a theory that hip hop evolves in five year cycles, and he's probably right.
  5. When an artist dies, there's a special stipulation that allows their songs to be played for a 48-hour period at the standard rate for news purposes, which allowed The Roots to play Michael Jackson songs on air the day after his death.

Published: June 2013
Disclaimer: Copy of book received from publisher, opinions are my own.

Theme: I Love Music by The O'Jays (from Soul Train because ?uestlove)

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

#BookReview: The Wedding Gift by Marlen Suyapa Bodden

It was common for slave masters to see their offspring with enslaved women as property and not as their actual children.  So it's no surprise when Sarah, the daughter of house slave Emmeline, is trained to be a personal maid to her sister, the daughter of the master and mistress of the estate.  And when Clarissa is married off later on, Sarah is given to her so that she may continue her role.

In their younger years, Sarah and Clarissa were playmates and it's because of this that Sarah learns to read.  Clarissa's mother, Theodora, isn't the typical plantation mistress, in that she's more educated than most.  While she knows that it's illegal for Sarah to know how to read and write, she teaches her anyway at Clarissa's insistence that she won't attend lessons without Sarah.  This sets the stage for Sarah to escape later and this is really the problem I have with the book.  It seems so formulaic.

The author is determined to give Sarah's story an atypical ending and get her to the place she wants her to be by story's end.  Instead of letting the story fall into place naturally, she manipulates it to give the outcome she wants.  So much time is spent focusing on the story that she's trying to tell, that she forgets to develop her characters.  For example, the story is Sarah's, but she is never fully developed.  Readers don't get invested enough in her story to care.

On the flip side, Bodden has Theodora narrate the other side of the story.  Not only do we know much more about her, we also empathize with her character.  She becomes someone we could like because the author takes the time to humanize her.

I think it was important to Bodden to tell this story.  It should have been just as important to develop her characters.  The Wedding Gift is a valiant first time effort.  I can only hope that the author learns how to better narrate and create multidimensional characters the next time around.

Published: September 2013
Disclosure: Copy of book received from publisher, opinions are my own.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013


I have only been waiting on this book for two years.  Actually, a little over two years, but who's counting?  Even as 32 Candles was released, Ernessa T. Carter promised that a new book was coming.  She let us see chapters and everything.  Then life happened and the book was delayed.  Imagine my surprise when I saw someone mention The Awesome Girl's Guide last month.  I squealed with glee knowing that it would just be a matter of time before I'd have a chance to immerse myself in the world of Ernessa and her true to life characters.

Why the title?  I know it will throw some people who see it and automatically assume that it's another self-help book for women written by the latest Twitter dating guru.  It so is not.  Remember Davie Jones from 32 Candles?  Well she's back in a lesser role as the author of said self-help book.  You know how awesome Davie is (remember her invitation to crazy line?), so just imagine the kind of advice she gives.

If you say you want to find an extraordinary man, and you've got a habit of turning down social invitations, I mean any social invitation at all, then I just plain don't believe you're serious in this endeavor.  When you're searching for true love, you had best take every invitation you get, because for all you know, somebody's handing you an Invitation to Extraordinary.

Why do I love Ernessa's writing so much and why should you buy this book as soon as you finish this review?  Because we all have friends just like the people she writes about.  She doesn't create worlds so ridiculous that no one can imagine actually living in them.  And her characters are multidimensional and human.

Alternate cover
Though only one of the women claims to be looking for love, in actuality, all four of them are. Sharita is a by the book accountant whose professional life is on track, but her love life fell off the rails a long time ago.  She hates stepping out of her comfort zone and will find every excuse to avoid social gatherings, so when she does meet a man (most likely at work or the grocery store), she goes ghost on her friends, only to reappear when things don't work out.  I could write a book on people like that, and if you think about it, you have a friend just like that.  Or maybe you're that friend, I'm not judging you (yes, I am).

Thursday is the queen of one month stands.  Right, not one night stands, one month stands.  This love them and leave them queen can attract men like bees to honey, she just doesn't want to keep them.  As soon as it seems like the men are catching feelings, she gives them the old heave ho.  When Davie's book falls into her lap, coupled with a recurring dream about a mysterious man, she begins to think that she might finally be ready to settle down with the one.

Risa is a hot mess.  When I first started reading about her, I immediately thought of Lynn from Girlfriends.  Risa doesn't mooch off of her friends like Lynn, but she is determined to make it as a musician.  Her budding career was stunted before, but she has a plan to make a comeback.  All of her friends think she's out of her mind, but Risa knows that if she becomes the rock star she's meant to be, The One will come back to her.

While Sharita, Thursday and Risa are all friends from college, Smith College to be exact (Ernessa's alma mater), Tammy joined the group after the trio relocated to Los Angeles.  Readers will remember Tammy from 32 Candles as James Farrell's younger sister who tormented Davie Jones in high school.  Tammy is the character that we know the least about, but we do know that Davie is now her sister-in-law.  Most of the focus of the book is on the other three ladies, with Tammy kind of flitting about the perimeter as she tries to learn to love herself, but when she steps into the story, she does so in a big way.

At 494 pages, it seems like this could be a long read, but it's really not.  Carter's writing has a way of pulling you in and not letting you go, so the pages fly right by.  No one's story line is predictable and I promise you'll find yourself talking to the characters at times.  I absolutely loved this book and can guarantee that I'll be re-reading it soon.

Published: September 2013
Disclosure: Copy of book received from author, opinions are my own.

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

Friday, September 20, 2013

#BookReview: Life in Spades by Frances Frost

I'm usually hesitant to read books by authors that approach me through email or social media.  It's not that I don't think they can write, it's that most of the time, they disregard my review request guidelines and try to pitch books that don't appeal to me in the least.  Then along came Frances Frost with her novel Life in Spades.

When she first approached me about it back in March, my schedule was full.  She sent it anyway, well she tried to.  My post office shut down with no advance warning and it was returned to her, but she was determined to get it to me and I'm so glad she did.  I absolutely loved the women of Life in Spades.

One of the first things I noticed and appreciated about the women was their careers.  It seems that in most books about groups of women, there's an attorney, a doctor, your typical high-powered career. This group included a baker, an event planner, a realtor and an escort; not at all your typical careers.  Frost also makes them as likable as they are realistic.

While Gina deals with how her opinionated mother views her interracial relationship, Cookie is working to move from the past into the present with the new man in her life.  Sherry has done the marriage thing, but not the parenthood thing, and isn't really sure that she wants to.  As she accompanies some of the most accomplished men to events, Laura maintains a professional distance from her clients, which leads to a lot of lonely days and nights.

The women meet regularly over a few hands of spades, but their friendship extends far beyond that.  I enjoyed reading about their interactions with each other.  They seemed real and didn't sugarcoat anything to avoid hurting feelings, much like real friends do in real life.  If you enjoyed Terry McMillan's Waiting to Exhale, you're going to love Life in Spades.

Published: April 2013
Disclaimer: Copy of book received from author, opinions are my own.

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

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

#BookReview: Shake Down the Stars by Renee Swindle

Admitting that you have a problem is always the first step, right?  But if you won't admit you have a problem, even to yourself, what are others around you supposed to do?  As Piper Nelson quietly, and sometimes not so quietly, implodes, her family watches and you get the idea that most of them would prefer that she do it in private or at least out of view of the general public.

The death of her daughter left her devastated.  No one can tell anyone else how to grieve and the loss of a child is simply unimaginable.  Piper's family has moved on from the tragedy.  Her ex-husband is dealing with it in his own way.  The only person that seems to be stuck is Piper.

In a series of bad decisions, we watch as she spirals out of control, tries to find her way and stumbles a little more.  Piper's problems are only exacerbated by an emotionally distant mother and a self-absorbed sister.  Not only is Piper lacking in familial support, she's lacking in friends.  She literally has no support base.

As easy as it might be to feel sorry for Piper, you can't.  She pushes people away that try to help and she can be rude, but she's trying.  As unlikeable as she might be at times, you'll find yourself cheering for her.  The fact that she's a good person is undeniable.  She's simply someone that life has knocked down who is struggling to get back up.

I can't say enough good things about Shake Down the Stars.  Renee Swindle's writing is so good that I read it straight through and didn't stop until the last page.  If I had to compare her writing to another author, I'd say she writes in the style of a much better developed Susan Fales-Hill.  If there's one book you have to read this year, this very well may be it.

Published: August 2013

Theme: Like A Star by Corinne Bailey Rae

Monday, September 16, 2013

#BookReview: Who Asked You? by Terry McMillan

Stella got her groove back and so did Terry!  After the less than stellar novels, The Interruption of Everything and Getting to Happy, it seems that McMillan is finally back on track.  With writing as refreshing as when we first read her words with Mama, it would seem that the cloud that's hung over McMillan's writing has finally lifted.

As always, the main character is a black woman carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders, but B.J. (short for Betty Jean) isn't letting it weigh her down.  Sure, she has down days and sad moments, but you get the feeling from the beginning that she's going to be just fine in the long run.  It's been awhile since a McMillan book has given me a character that has a happy ending that they actually seem happy about.

Everyone wanted a piece of me and barely left me with a little crust.

B.J. is dealing with a trifling daughter, a sick husband, a soon to be released from prison son and a son that thinks he's better than everyone else, including the parents that raised him.  In typical McMillan style, sibling rivalry plays a role in the book and B.J. has to deal with her holier than thou sister, Venetia, and her smarter than thou sister, Arlene.  Each sister is dealing with her own set of problems and, through them, McMillan manages to touch on several issues that play roles in present day lives.

Every character in this novel has a voice, so the reader doesn't have to wonder what is going on in their story line and doesn't have to read it second hand from another character.  By doing that, McMillan draws the readers deeper into the story and ensures that they're invested in all of the characters, not just the main ones.  Where the "happiness" in her two previous works felt forced, by the time I got to the end of Who Asked You?, I felt like B.J. was truly happy with her lot in life.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and I'm glad to see McMillan back on track.

Published: September 2013
Disclaimer: Copy of book received from publisher, opinions are my own.

Theme: Life My Blues by Sherry Dyanne

Monday, September 9, 2013

#BookReview: WHAT THE RIVER WASHED AWAY by Muriel Macleod

The first thing everyone notices about What the River Washed Away is the cover.  I know when I saw it on the shelf at BEA, my first thought was, "Why are they re-issuing The Darkest Child?"  The advance copy of the book noted that this was not the final cover, so I thought, well then they'll change it, because if I noticed it, others will.  And you all did.  I had at least five people ask me on Goodreads if it wasn't the same cover as Delores Phillips' acclaimed novel.  Apparently, the publisher decided to stick with the cover.  It has been almost 10 years since The Darkest Child was published, but they must not know that readers have minds like elephants.  Now that we've cleared that up, let's jump into the book.

It's 1908 and eight year old Arletta lives in the backwoods of Louisiana with her Mambo, the area's voodoo queen.  With knowledge imparted on her by her own mother and generations of Mambos going back to Haiti, Mambo is drunk with power.  She's so drunk with power that she leaves Arletta alone in the cabin for hours while she's out doing God only knows what.  You see, while Mambo uses her power for good, in most instances, she also uses the power in her hips, so there's no shortage of men streaming in and out of her and Arletta's lives.  One of those men has no use for Mambo once he spots Arletta, but Mambo is too busy to notice and admonishes Arletta to keep her mouth closed, lest she become the next victim of lynching.

Years later, Arletta has moved from that cabin, forced out by Mambo and her new man, Quinn.  Looking for an education and a better life, Arletta and her best friend move in with Ms.............., an English woman who has no problem with black boarders, as long as they're Christians.  Arletta will attend however many church services she has to if it means getting her hands on Ms.            books.  Settled in and enjoying her job at the NAACP, Arletta's world is thrown into turmoil when another girl is found, hurt the same way those men hurt Arletta so many years ago.  With Nellie and Mambo's help, Arletta is going to make sure what happened to her never happens to anyone else.

I wasn't sure if I was going to like this book.  A blurb on the back says it's based on a true story.  The problem with that is, you never know if everything is true or if just parts of it are true and the author built around it or what.  I've decided for myself what parts I choose to believe are true.  I do question whether or not a white woman, from England or otherwise, would be allowed to take in Negro boarders with little to no consequences in early twentieth century Louisiana.

Overall, I really liked the book, but was just a bit confused about the dialect Macleod chose to have Arletta use.  While she spoke perfectly passable English living in the backwoods, as a child that had been taught to read and write by her grandfather, her dialect in the city reverted to that of an uneducated person at times.  I'm not sure if the author forgot mid-story what her character was capable of, but it was distracting to go from one dialect to another without warning.  There was a big twist in the book that I was not expecting at all.  Actually, there were a few.  I like that the author didn't seem to follow a set script with the story lines.  Add this one to your must read list.

Published: July 2013
Disclaimer: Copy of book received from publisher, opinions are my own.

Friday, September 6, 2013

#BookReview: Bootlicker - Steve Piacente

 It's Big Ike Washington's turn.  He's been the go to man for the black communities of South Carolina for the longest.  It's not that Ike has that much power as mayor of small town Kilgo, it's that he has the ear of U.S. Senator Lander McCauley. That, combined with the congressional redistricting of the state, is enough to insure that Ike Washington will be the first black congressman from South Carolina since Reconstruction.

How is a small town black mayor like Ike connected to such a powerful senator? Everyone in Kilgo knows that Ike has been McCauley's boy for years, but no one knows the price he's paid for that.  Haunted by what he witnessed as a teen, Ike keeps his mouth shut.  And that seems like a small price to pay in his quest to fulfill his political aspirations, but is it?

As a reporter, Dan Patragno has aspirations of his own.  His immediate goal is to move from the homicide section to anything else at the Charleston Herald-Leader.  His long-term goal is a position at the Washington Post.  A story on Big Ike's Washington run for Congress may be just the thing Dan needs to get there.  A story exposing Ike definitely is.

Bootlicker really makes you question just how far you're willing to go and how many secrets you'd be willing to cover up to get to where you want to be.  At times, I felt sorry for Ike; at other times, I was repulsed by him.  Here's why.  The shame of selling out and the fear of repercussion kept him from telling his wife and his mother his secret and if you can't tell the person you're sleeping with your secrets (or the woman that raised you and probably knows you better than anyone), whom can you tell?  On the other hand, how selfish, low down, trifling, conniving and greedy do you have to be to accept the favors and benefits that go with keeping said secret?

I can't remember where I first heard about Bootlicker, but the subject matter fascinated me, so when the author reached out to me, I immediately agreed to read it.  It turns out that he was going to BEA too and, as luck would have it, we ended up standing in the registration line together and had a nice chat.  A journalist turned communications specialist and professor, Bootlicker is his second novel.  His first, Bella, is a prequel to Bootlicker, but as Steve told me in line, both books can stand alone.  After reading Bootlicker, I can't wait to dive into Bella.

Published: September 2012
Disclaimer: Copy of book received from the author, opinions are my own.

Theme: Regret (No More) by Ambrose Akinmusire