Sunday, January 25, 2015

#BookReview: A Christmas Prayer by Kimberla Lawson Roby

Synopsis: Alexis Fletcher hasn't had a merry Christmas in five years-not since her mother passed away. Every December she remembers the joy her mother brought to everyone during the holiday season and feels the pain of her absence, even more so now that she and her sister are barely speaking. More than anything, Alexis wishes her family could be whole again. However, with her wedding fast approaching, Alexis might just be ready to make some holiday memories with a new family of her own. Alexis's fiancé, Chase Dupont, is everything she ever dreamed of. He's kind, handsome, fully supportive of Alexis's career, and the CEO of a large company. But outside forces threaten to derail this happy couple from ever reaching the altar. As tensions rise, a dramatic event causes Alexis to question everything. Will fate give her what she needs to finally embrace the season that has brought her so much pain? Will Alexis get her wish for a happy holiday? Or will her Christmas prayer go unanswered?

Review: I'm always glad when Roby takes a break from the Curtis Black story line. Like a lot of people, Alexis lost an important family member and it affects how she does (or does not) celebrate holidays, but especially Christmas. As someone that lost someone during the holiday season, I could relate to her story. I appreciated her relationship with her fiance, though I have to admit that I kept waiting for him to screw up. He seemed too perfect at times. His mother, on the other hand, is determined to make Alexis's life miserable and she does a good job of it. Of course, because this is a Christmas story, it has a happy ending. I think it was originally publicized as a novella, but at 192 pages, it reads like a full length story, one that is mostly enjoyable.

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Published: October 2014

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

Monday, January 19, 2015

Guest Post: Dr. King at 85 by Pearl Cleage

This post originally appeared January 20, 2014 courtesy of Atria Books & Pearl Cleage.

I met Martin Luther King when I was fifteen years old. He lead a freedom march in my hometown of Detroit, Michigan, and 250,000 people turned out for it. My father, a radical Black Nationalist, spoke at the rally, too, and was invited to the private reception held afterward. My father was not a believer in the redemptive power of non-violence, and from his vantage point on the west side of Detroit, he could advocate self-defense and black power without expecting to see the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross on our front lawn the next day. But despite their different approaches to our common problems, my father had great respect for Dr. King and for his work, so that day, they stood there, talking like old friends; two activist ministers, one Baptist, one Congregational, both known for their passionate oratory and their unwavering commitment to the Movement. I was just happy to be a fly on the wall.

I don’t have a copy of the speech Dr. King made that afternoon in Detroit, but I remember feeling what my friend Andrew Young calls “freedom high” after he spoke. I remember being in awe of his courage and what he called his “abiding faith in America,” even in the darkest, most violent days of the Civil Rights Movement. I was proud to shake his hand when my father introduced me and even prouder to be able to tell Dr. King yes when he asked if I was a good student.

But that was fifty years ago. If he had lived, Dr. King would have turned eighty-five this year. It’s hard to believe, but even harder to admit that we continue to struggle to make that famous dream come true. Of course, there has been progress on all fronts and I understand both the real and symbolic significance of the election and re-election of President Barack Obama, but Dr. King had a bigger idea than putting one man in the White House and if we’re not careful, the transformative nature of his radical vision for the country he loved will get lost in the official holiday hoopla.

On January 15, people are urged to use the federally mandated holiday as “a day on not a day off,” and encouraged to do some volunteer work in their communities. But somehow, as I watch the coverage of smiling politicians serving meals at homeless shelters, or businessmen and women in overalls painting a community center, I wonder if this is the best way to honor a man who was talking about changing the very nature of our society; about ending war around the world; about redistributing income to feed and clothe and house our neighbors simply because they are our neighbors.

To truly honor Dr. King, we have to recognize that his dream was so much bigger than one historic election, and so, too, must ours be. Our dream has to carry within it a lifetime commitment to active involvement in both community and government because that’s what democracy is all about – citizen participation. And I admit that kind of work is hard and time consuming and frustrating and requires lots of exchanges with folks who don’t always see things the way see do and will require convincing or compromise, but what’s the alternative? Non-participation leaves us to the less than tender mercies of those whose dreams are rooted not in fairness, but in money; not in the participation of the many, but in privilege for the few.

At the heart of our citizenship will always be the right to vote. While we can’t forget that it has been sanctified by the blood that was shed to guarantee it to all Americans, we also have to admit that no matter how much we celebrate that sacrifice, it is worthless if we don’t participate in every single election and vote as if our lives depended on it. Because they do.

I’ll bet if I asked how many of you voted in the 2008 presidential election and then how many voted in the mid-terms there would be a sharp drop in numbers. This is not a test, but think how different things might be in Washington today if everybody who voted in the presidential race had been able to sustain that level of personal connection; that level of hope and optimism and active citizenship without getting distracted from the ever challenging task of shaping our still young country into a place we all can be proud to call home.

But something happens to a lot of us between presidential elections. We get distracted or busy or, worse, we get cynical. We start talking about how our vote doesn’t matter and label any effort to organize us as hopelessly romantic and out of date. We talk about how there is no difference between elected officials as if all those votes on health care and a woman’s right to choose and immigration and education and declarations of war are just so much hot air when, in fact, those votes shape the way we have to live our lives every day.

Now don’t think I can’t see some of you shaking your heads at my Sixties-child rhetoric, reminding me gently that we know all that, but my question is, if we really do know all that, how come we don’t vote every chance we get? How come we don’t build on the legacy of all those brave souls who marched up to register when segregation was still the law of the land and they knew it might mean their lives and the lives of their families? How come we don’t walk proudly to the polls with the full knowledge that we are actually taking responsibility for what goes on in this country and not just fussing about what’s wrong with it.

And there is a lot wrong with it. I am not naive and these are tryin’ times. But Dr. King said: “You cannot get discouraged. When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born.” It is our blessing and our challenge to be a part of that struggle every day because that is Dr. King’s real legacy and his greatest gift.

So here’s my suggestion. Let’s decide that we’re going to honor Dr. King twice this year. Once, by registering to vote and then again by actually voting in the mid-term elections and every election that comes after to put some people into office who understand what Dr. King meant when he said:

“I believe that even amid today’s mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that sooner or later, all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. If this is to be achieved, mankind must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”

Can I get an Amen?

Atlanta-based Pearl Cleage is a best-selling author and award winning playwright.  Her memoir Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons, and Love Affairs was published in April 2014 by ATRIA Books.  She is a proud registered voter.

Post appears courtesy of Atria Newsroom.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

#MiniReview: Tell Me Something Good by Jamie Wesley

Publisher: Entangled (Lovestruck)
Published: August 2014

Synopsis: Two radio show hosts. One show. Who will come out on top?

In a moment of restlessness, Tate Grayson sold his multimillion-dollar company and spun his love of sports into a radio talk show. Life, and love, is too short to take seriously—a fact he enjoys rubbing in uptight radio host Noelle Butler’s face.

After the death of her parents, a tragedy she blamed on herself, Noelle vowed to live a controlled, focused life. Now a psychologist, she channels her need for connection into her radio show. But when the arrogant sportscaster next door tells listeners men shouldn’t get married, she’s all too happy to yank the silver spoon out of his overprivileged mouth.

Their heated on-air arguments are a hit, but when the station director forces them to do a joint show for two weeks, Tate and Noelle object. They can’t stand each other, despite the attraction sizzling beneath every interaction. But if they can’t pull the struggling radio station back from the brink, they’ll lose their jobs. Or worse, their hearts.

Review: I don't normally care for romances, but this made my pea-sized Grinch heart grow just a little bit more. Quick and easy read with likable characters.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

#BookReview: Driving the King by Ravi Howard

336pp; Genre(s): Historical Fiction, African-American
Release date: January 6, 2015

The excitement in the air is palpable as the town of Montgomery, Alabama prepares for a concert by hometown boy made good, Nat King Cole.  Most excited is a former classmate of Cole who shares his name, Nat Weary. Recently returned from war, Weary plans to propose to Mattie, the woman that waited for him while he was gone.  When Cole is attacked on stage, Weary comes to his defense and pays the price for defending his friend from a white man, 10 years in jail.

Not one to forget his friends, especially one whose life has been put on hold for acting on his behalf, Cole offers Weary a job upon release from prison as his driver and bodyguard in Los Angeles.  Weary's role offers us a behind the scenes look at Nat King Cole as he struggles to create his television show and put it and keep it on the air, no easy feat in 1956.  Away from the studio, it's a treat to watch Cole interact with his close knit staff.  Much like audiences of Ava DuVernay's Selma finally get to see Dr. King portrayed in a very human way, Howard offers us the same with Nat King Cole in Driving the King.

Ravi Howard touches on so many historical aspects, using Weary as a guide point.  Weary's relocation to Los Angeles and his introduction to people like Almena Lomax, who runs a local Negro paper, the third in town, brings to mind those who participated in the great migration from the south to California, extensively covered in Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns.  In turn, Howard uses Lomax to remind readers of the Montgomery bus boycott taking place and then drives the point home when Weary returns to Montgomery for a special concert by Cole.  The 10 years in jail plus the one he spent in Los Angeles brings Weary back to a town caught up in a movement.  The Mattie that he so willingly let go while he was in jail has grown into an underground leader of the boycott.  Life in Montgomery has gone on without him.

I loved the characters and their background stories.  As I read Driving the King, it was easy to imagine the crowd and theater gathered for the first concert and the return concert 11 years later.  I could see Almena Lomax approaching Weary on the sunny streets of LA.  It felt like Easy Rawlins' LA and I almost wished Weary would bump into him.  Ravi Howard is a solid writer and it's been far too long between 2007's Like Trees Walking and Driving the King.  Let's hope he doesn't make us wait another eight years for his next book.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Colorful Lit Alert, Winter 2015

Quarterly alert of books you might enjoy by authors of color and/or about people of color that are often overlooked.

Arrows of Rain by Okey Ndibe
304pp; Genre(s): Fiction, Nigeria
Release date: January 6, 2015

In the country of Madia (based in part on Ndibe's native Nigeria) a young prostitute runs into the sea and drowns. The last man who spoke to her, the "madman" Bukuru, is asked to account for her last moments. When his testimony implicates the Madian armed forces, Bukuru is arrested and charged with her death. At the first day of trial, Bukuru, acting as his own attorney, counters these charges with allegations of his own, speaking not only of government complicity in a series of violent assaults and killings, but telling the court that the president of Madia himself is guilty of rape and murder. The incident is hushed up, and Bukuru is sent back to prison, where he will likely meet his end. But a young journalist manages to visit him, and together they journey through decades of history that illuminate Bukuru's life, and that of the entire nation. A brave and powerful work of fiction, Arrows of Rain is a brilliant dramatization of the complex factors behind the near-collapse of a nation from one of the most exciting novelists writing today.

Driving the King by Ravi Howard
336pp; Genre(s): Historical Fiction, African-American
Release date: January 6, 2015

The war is over, the soldiers are returning, and Nat King Cole is back in his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, for a rare performance. His childhood friend, Nat Weary, plans to propose to his sweetheart, and the singer will honor their moment with a special song. But while the world has changed, segregated Jim Crow Montgomery remains the same. When a white man attacks Cole with a pipe, Weary leaps from the audience to defend him—an act that will lead to a 10-year prison sentence.

But the singer will not forget his friend and the sacrifice he made. Six months before Weary is released, he receives a remarkable offer: will he be Nat King Cole’s driver and bodyguard in L.A.? It is the promise of a new life removed from the terror, violence, and degradation of Jim Crow Alabama.

Weary discovers that, while Los Angeles is far different from the deep South, it a place of discrimination, mistrust, and intolerance where a black man—even one as talented and popular as Nat King Cole—is not wholly welcome.

An indelible portrait of prejudice and promise, friendship and loyalty, Driving the King is a daring look at race and class in pre-Civil Rights America, played out in the lives of two remarkable men.

God Loves Haiti by Dimitry Elias Léger
272pp; Genre(s): Fiction, Haiti
Release date: January 6, 2015

A native of Haiti, Dimitry Elias Léger makes his remarkable debut with this story of romance, politics, and religion that traces the fates of three lovers in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and the challenges they face readjusting to life after an earthquake devastates their city.

Reflecting the chaos of disaster and its aftermath, God Loves Haiti switches between time periods and locations, yet always moves closer to solving the driving mystery at its center: Will the artist Natasha Robert reunite with her one true love, the injured Alain Destiné, and live happily ever after? Warm and constantly surprising, told in the incandescent style of José Saramago and Roberto Bolaño, and reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez’s hauntingly beautiful Love In The Time of Cholera, God Loves Haiti is an homage to a lost time and city, and the people who embody it.

Passenger on the Pearl: The True Story of Emily Edmonson’s Flight from Slavery by Winifred Conkling
176pp; Genre(s): Young Adult, Non-fiction
Release date: January 13, 2015

The page-turning, heart-wrenching true story of one young woman willing to risk her safety and even her life for a chance at freedom in the largest slave escape attempt in American history.

In 1848, thirteen-year-old Emily Edmonson, five of her siblings, and seventy other enslaved people boarded the Pearl under cover of night in Washington, D.C., hoping to sail north to freedom. Within a day, the schooner was captured, and the Edmonsons were sent to New Orleans to be sold into even crueler conditions. Passenger on the Pearl is the story of this thwarted escape, of the ramifications of its attempt, and of a family for whom freedom was the ultimate goal.

Through an engaging narrative, informative sidebars, and more than fifty period photographs and illustrations, Winifred Conkling takes readers on Emily Edmonson's journey from enslaved person to teacher at a school for African-American young women. Conkling illuminates a turbulent time in American history, showing the daily lives of enslaved people, the often-changing laws affecting them, the high cost of a failed escape, and the stories of slave traders and abolitionists.

This House is Not for Sale by E.C. Osondu
192pp; Genre(s): Fiction, Nigeria
Release date: January 14, 2015

A powerful tale of family and community, This House Is Not for Sale brings to life an African neighborhood and one remarkable house, seen through the eyes of a young member of the household. The house lies in a town seemingly lost in time, full of colorful, larger-than-life characters; at the narrative’s heart are Grandpa, the family patriarch whose occasional cruelty is balanced by his willingness to open his doors to those in need, and the house itself, which becomes a character in its own right and takes on the scale of legend. From the decades-long rivalry between owners of two competing convenience stores to the man who convinces his neighbors to give up their earthly possessions to prepare for the end of the world, Osondu’s story captures a place beyond the reach of the outside world, full of superstitions and myths that sustain its people.

Selected Letters of Langston Hughes by Langston Hughes
480pp; Genre(s): Literary Criticism
Release date: February 10, 2015

This is the first comprehensive selection from the correspondence of the iconic and beloved Langston Hughes. It offers a life in letters that showcases his many struggles as well as his memorable achievements. Arranged by decade and linked by expert commentary, the volume guides us through Hughes's journey in all its aspects: personal, political, practical, and-above all-literary. His letters range from those written to family members, notably his father (who opposed Langston's literary ambitions), and to friends, fellow artists, critics, and readers who sought him out by mail. These figures include personalities such as Carl Van Vechten, Blanche Knopf, Zora Neale Hurston, Arna Bontemps, Vachel Lindsay, Ezra Pound, Richard Wright, Kurt Weill, Carl Sandburg, Gwendolyn Brooks, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Alice Walker, Amiri Baraka, and Muhammad Ali. The letters tell the story of a determined poet precociously finding his mature voice; struggling to realize his literary goals in an environment generally hostile to blacks; reaching out bravely to the young and challenging them to aspire beyond the bonds of segregation; using his artistic prestige to serve the disenfranchised and the cause of social justice; irrepressibly laughing at the world despite its quirks and humiliations. Venturing bravely on what he called the "big sea" of life, Hughes made his way forward always aware that his only hope of self-fulfillment and a sense of personal integrity lay in diligently pursuing his literary vocation. Hughes's voice in these pages, enhanced by photographs and quotations from his poetry, allows us to know him intimately and gives us an unusually rich picture of this generous, visionary, gratifyingly good man who was also a genius of modern American letters.

Delicious Foods by James Hannaham
384pp; Genre(s): Fiction, African-American
Release date: March 17, 2015

Held captive by her employers-and by her own demons-on a mysterious farm, a widow struggles to reunite with her young son in this uniquely American story of freedom, perseverance, and survival.

Darlene, once an exemplary wife and a loving mother to her young son, Eddie, finds herself devastated by the unforeseen death of her husband. Unable to cope with her grief, she turns to drugs, and quickly forms an addiction. One day she disappears without a trace.

Unbeknownst to eleven-year-old Eddie, now left behind in a panic-stricken search for her, Darlene has been lured away with false promises of a good job and a rosy life. A shady company named Delicious Foods shuttles her to a remote farm, where she is held captive, performing hard labor in the fields to pay off the supposed debt for her food, lodging, and the constant stream of drugs the farm provides to her and the other unfortunates imprisoned there.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Books That Rocked my Socks in 2014

I've been MIA in these blogging streets for a few months.  I didn't stop reading, but I lost my desire to write about what I was reading.  The year started off bumpy, then I read some really great stuff during the summer, but the fall and winter?  Nothing but 40 degree days, not literally, but fans of The Wire know what I mean.  I thought about posting on weekends, but I couldn't even bring myself to do that.  I'm going to try to get back into the flow of things, though I can't promise three posts a week, but I'll shoot for at least one lengthy one, probably on Sundays, and one mini review, likely on Wednesdays.

Of the 105 books I read in 2014, I was completely blown away by nine of them.  In no particular order, here they are.

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay - I still haven't written a review for this.  I read it while sitting on the beach in Jamaica last August.  It was definitely not a beach read, but I couldn't put it down. Parts of it were so brutal that I really did need to down a few pina coladas to make it through without crying.  It's amazing and brilliant and if you haven't read it yet, you must.

Any Known Blood by Lawrence Hill - Look for a review on this soon.  It was a late season listen.  At 15 1/2 hours, I thought I'd be listening to it for weeks since I tend to only listen while I'm driving (and I have a short commute) or when things are slow at work.  This saga of a black Canadian family had me mesmerized.  Told with a healthy dose of humor by a present-day screwed up family member, it traces the family's roots back to slavery in the U.S.  As I said, totally and completely mesmerizing.

Bedrock Faith by Eric Charles May - "After fourteen years in prison, Gerald “Stew Pot” Reeves, age thirty-one, returns home to live with his mom in Parkland, a black middle-class neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side." I didn't expect to get drawn in to Bedrock Faith as much as I did, but once I got started, I could not put it down.

Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton - There's no review I could write that would do this book justice.  The author/photographer takes pictures of people around New York.  What initially started as just posting pictures on social media blossomed into this book that's sure to put a smile on your face.  I look forward to his posts with daily reminders that everyone has a story to tell and you never know what's hiding behind the face of a perfect stranger.

Long Division by Kiese Laymon - It's rare these days that I read a book twice, but when I tell you this is one book that deserves it, it truly does.  I first listened to it in February, but could tell that I had missed out on a lot.  Listening to it while I worked didn't give me time to fully appreciate just how magnificent it was.  So I went back in June and actually read it and wow! Kiese Laymon put his whole foot in it.  It's time travel meets race relations meets identity crisis and it is everything.

Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile - I love books with kick ass heroines and Charley Bordelon is just that.  If someone told me that I'd inherited an 800 acre sugarcane farm in Louisiana, I'd ask how much I could sell it for, because I surely wouldn't carry my Midwestern butt down to the heat, humidity and sexism of Louisiana farm land.  Charley does and Baszile gives her a great family dynamic that adds even more to the story.  Fans of Attica Locke's The Cutting Season will love this.

The Language of Silence by Peggy Webb - If there's one book that I think didn't get enough or any love in 2014, it was this book.  It's kind of your typical "woman leaves abusive husband" story, but then it becomes so much more.  There's the suspension of disbelief that you're used to if you've read Erin Morganstern's The Night Circus or Aimee Bender's The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.  It's such an amazing and heartwarming story.  If I could put a copy in the hands of everyone that comes across this blog, I would.

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi - I'm always on the hunt for books that teach me, it's part of the reason why I started the "Books: Passports to the World" challenge a few years ago.  Prior to reading The Pearl, I was completely unaware of bacha posh and then it seemed like it was being discussed everywhere.  Hashimi breaks it down for readers in very real and relatable ways.  The back and forth story lines of women separated by generations is fascinating.  If you're like me, you'll tear through this one in one sitting.

Things I Should Have Told My Daughter by Pearl Cleage - The only author I've read that has had more occupations than I initially knew about was Maya Angelou until I read the latest from Mother Pearl.  She's got some words of wisdom that she so generously shares with readers. I appreciate that, but what I loved even more was finding out that she's like the aunt that you think is all prim and proper and then you see her cutting up on a Saturday night and realize she's wilder than you ever imagined.

Books that rocked my socks just a little less, though I still loved them:

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
China Dolls by Lisa See
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles M. Blow (review coming)
Into the Go-Slow by Bridgett M. Davis
Invisible Ellen by Shari Shattuck
Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henrique
The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob (review coming)
The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar

See you in these lit streets soon!