When I Was the Greatest

by Jason Reynolds
First sentence: “‘Okay, I got one.'”
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Content: There is swearing, including multiple f-bombs, and talk of teenage drinking. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Allen — call him Ali — lives in Bed Stuy in Brooklyn, and while it’s not the best place to grow up, it’s not the worst, either. He has a mom who works hard and cares a lot about Ali and his sister Jaz. And even though his dad is a bit of a loser, he also cares. The next-door neighbor kids — Needles and Noodles; Jazz game them the nicknames — not so much. They’re brothers, and Needles as Tourettes Syndrome, which makes Noodles simultaneously super protective and incredibly dismissive of his brother.

It’s basically a slice of life story; this is Ali and Noodles and Needles and their lives and interactions. The only conflict that happens is when they invite themselves to a party they are not suposed to be at, and then Needles’ has a spasm and inadvertantly starts a fight.

It’s not my favorite of Reynolds’ books, to say the least. I disliked his portaryal of Tourettes, and while i think he was trying to deal with acceptance of disabilites in the Black community, I think he fell short of the mark. It was good enough to finish, but not good enough to really like.

The City We Became

by N. K. Jemisin
First sentence: “I sing the city”
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Content: There is violence, including sexual assault, and many f-bombs. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

In this universe, cities are alive, not just in the metaphorical sense but literally. There is a “birth” that results in the city being embodied in a person. Sometimes this doesn’t work — New Orleans was a stillbirth, for example — but mostly it does. Except: in the case of New York City, something has gone awry. It’s not a stillbirth, but it’s not alive, yet.

So the city adapts: five other people wake up, one for each borough. Their purpose is to get together, work together, and wake up New York as a whole. But, they meet unexpected problems in the form of an alien entity that is trying to stop this city from ever becoming alive.

Oh, my word this was so good. I think I liked it better than her Broken Earth trilogy. It’s clever, it’s fun, it’s got a Neil Gaiman feel to it. And I adored the characters as well as the way Jemisin played with race and New York stereotypes in the book. It as a joy to read, one that I plowed through incredibly quickly. And while it stands well on its own, I am fascinated to see where Jemisin takes it with the sequels.

White Smoke

by Tiffany D. Jackson
First sentence: “Ah. There you are.”
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Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs and some teenage marijuana usage. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Marigold is looking for a fresh start. Or, at least that’s what she tells herself. She, her brother, her mother, and her stepdad and step-sister are headed away from California, away from Mari’s mistakes and moving to Cedarville for a fresh start. It doesn’t hurt that her mom got a residency there, with free housing. Except: Cedarville isn’t that great of a place. There’s something… off about it. Mari’s hearing sounds in the house. There are smells, and things go missing. Not to mention that every. single. other. house in the neighborhood is boarded up and decrepit looking. It’s all… very, very weird.

I think the mileage on this one depends on how horror-savvy you are. I’m not, so I found it spooky and intimidating and atmospheric. And I had to put it down often just to drop my anxiety levels. But, I suppose if you are the sort of person who likes horror and reads/watches it often, this one might not have the same effect. I did like that Jackson was exploring the idea of gentrification ad the impact it has on the (mostly black and poor) community. I also liked that she talked about unfair incarceration because of drug laws, and how those laws fall differently for black and white people. This horror story has some meat to it.

And then there’s the ending. Without spoilers, I’ll just say it’s kind of abrupt and weird. I wonder if there’s a sequel, because so much is unresolved. Or if Jackson meant it to be that way. At any rate, I found it a fun enough ride.

Black Boy Joy

edited y Kwame Mbalia
First sentence: “Homegoing.”
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Content: there is some slight romance. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but my teacher considered it a YA novel, so it’ss good for all ages?.

Here are the things I liked about this book:

It’s super diverse, even though all the authors are black men. There are science fiction stories, poems, art, contemporary stories, and ones based in mythology. They have protagonists that are non-binary, interested in sports, and interested in music and art.

It focuses on joy and celebration, even when it touches on hard things like funerals.

It’s a delight to read.

Not all the stories are equal, but that’s to be expected in a short story collection. And sometimes the joy felt unearned, but that’s because we weren’t given enough time with the characters. (Another fault of short stories.)

Even with the faults, it’s an excellent collection. Highly recommended.

Two Black Historical Fiction Books

Finding Langston
by Lesa Cline-Ransome
First sentence: “Never really thought much about Alabama’s red dirt roads, but now, all I an think about is kicking up their dust.”
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Content: It’s short, with short chapters and about an 11-year-old. There is some bulling. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Set in 1946, the book follows 11-year-old Langston, who has recently moved to Chicago with his father from Alabama. It’s a bit about a southern Black family trying to make a life in a big city. It’s not easy: they live in a one room apartment, Langston is bullied because of his accent, and they don’t have the comforts of family being nearby. The one thing Langston finds that is welcoming is the branch of the Chicago Public Library . he finds Black authors and learns about Langston Hughes. It makes grieving for his dad mother and the dealing with the bullies at school easier.

It’s a sweet family story, one with sympathetic characters (I even liked the dad), and a good look into issues surrounding the Great Migration. It went quick because it was short, but it had some complex character development and dealt with touch issues like classism and Northerners looking down on their Southern neighbors. I’m glad I read it.

Harlem Summer
by Walter Den Myers
First sentence:”I like Harlem in the summer except when it gets too hat, which it had been for the last week and we hadn’t even reached July yet.”
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Content: There is some violence and talk of people drinking but it’s short. It’s in the Teen section of the library, but I’d probably up t it in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Set in Harlem in the 1920s, it follows the summer of a 16-year-old named Mark. He gets a summer job at the Crisis, a magazine run by WEB DuBois celebrating the “New Negro”. All Mark wants to do, though, is play his saxophone and impress Fats Waller (who was a real person!) with his jazz. Unfortunately, that gets him into a whole mess of trouble involving stolen whiskey, gangsters, and Langston Hughes.

I didn’t like this one as much, partially because I felt like it was a who’s-who of 1920s Harlem, which is fine and all, but doesn’t led itself to a really great plot. But I also kept thinking of Kendi’s description of assimilationists, and how they wanted Black people to “prove” themselves to white people. That was a huge part of the book, the talk of “New Negros” and how the 10% was going to save the rest of the race. And that’s just, well, racist. Myers may have been poking fun at them; in the end Mark decides that the Crisis and the people there aren’t nearly as much fun or interesting as the people involved in jazz music. Even so, it bothered me. I didn’t hate the book, but I did struggle to finish it, and it just wasn’t what I had hoped it would be.

Black Girls Rock

by Beverly Bond (editor)
First sentence :”There is a palpable blissfulness in our magic.”
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Content: It’s marketed to adults but there’s nothing objectionable. It’s in the Sociology section of the bookstore.

Bond put together a series o short personal essays from a bunch of famous Black women: activists, politicians, actors, musicians, and artists. They each told a small slice of their own story and successes. I’m not sure what the purpose was; possibly it was hoping to inspire other Black women to become their best selves. Maybe it was a collection to highlight the diversity in black Black womanhood (which it did well) and the range of experiences and successes Black women have had.

I wanted to like the book more than I actually did. I like the idea of the book. I like that this book exists. But reading it was a bit of a chore. Some of the essays were well, not great. You could tell that many weren’t writers. And while I wanted to care about their stories, I didn’t always.

Is it an important book? Yes. Was it a good one? I’m not entirely sure.

Go Tell it On the Mountain

by James Baldwin
First sentence: “Everyone had always said that John wold be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father.”
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Content: There is violence, some talk of sex, a liberal use of the n-word, and some swearing. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

This one is difficult to describe plot-wise. It takes place over one night, as John, the son of a preacher in New York in 1935, goes to the church to clean and pray with his parents and other church-goers. Over the course of the prayers, we learn that John is not the biological son of his father, who resents his mother for not being more repentant for her sin of bearing John out of wedlock. We learn that John is conflicted about his stepfather, and the idea of church. We learn that John’s mother is just doing what she needs to do, and that his aunt — his stepfather’s sister — has held a lifelong grudge against her brother.

There isn’t much of a plot, it’s more of an exploration of the ways in which racism, enslavement, and patriarchy have affected the lives of these characters and the way they use religion to justify or explain or hide from the world. I’m not entirely sure it comes off as favorable to religious people; religion seems like a crutch to escape and a means of punishment rather than a means of worship and service. But that’s my white privilege talking; I have never been enslaved and I don’t know how religion works in that world. It was a fascinating read (possibly not one that I would recommend while on painkillers) and a complex one, even if it lacked plot.

Blackout

by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is mild swearing and three f-bombs. It’s in the YA section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

The basic premise is this: it’s a hot summer day in New York City, and the power goes out at 5 p.m. The six different authors then set about telling six interconnected stories about what happens — romance-wise — once the lights go off. It takes place in Manhattan and Brooklyn, with both straight and gay couples, as the night goes on.

If there is goign to be short stories, I think, I prefer them when they are interconnected. Think of this as the Black, summer version of Let it Snow. It’s light, it’s fluffy, it’s fun, it’s swoony. People you don’t normally think of writing romance — Angie Thomas, Nic Stone — write solid stories that fit in beautifully in-between Jackson’s longer, multi-chapter anchor story. I loved the characters, I thoroughly enjoyed the stories, and thought it worked together really really well. In short: It’s a brilliant concept, brilliantly executed.

Definitely pick this one up.

Rise to the Sun

by Leah Johnson
First sentence: “My best friend has always been the first person I run to when it’s time to blow up my life.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some swearing, including multiple f-bombs and some talk of sex. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Olivia is a mess. She dates a lot, but her relationships never last. And her last one ended really, really badly. She just needs to get away, so she convinces her best friend, Imani, to drive to northern Georgia to a music festival where Imani’s favorite band is headlining. A best friend’s weekend is what they need.

Toni just graduated from high school, but ever since the sudden death of her father, she’s not sure if she wants to follow the stable path her mom has set, or follow in her father’s footsteps and pursue music. She’s at the festival to figure things out.

But when Olivia an Toni collide (almost literally), everything gets thrown up in the air as they try to figure out the sparks between them.

Much like Johnson’s first book, this one simultaneously is a joy of Black girl romance while having more difficult themes – like the death of a parent, or the expectations of parents – underneath. It’s a fun, delightful, breezy read, and one I’m definitely glad is out there Johnson writes some pretty spectacular YA books, that are much-needed in this market.

How the Word is Passed

by Clint Smith
First sentence: “The sky above the Mississippi River stretched out like a song.”
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Content: It talks about violence toward enslaved people, uses the n-word (in context) and some mild swearing. It is in the Biography section of the bookstore.

Clint Smith has written an absolutely beautiful book. It’s not an easy book to read, though the premise is simple: he visits several historical sites that are connected with the slavery in the United States, and recounts his experiences and analyzes the information presented at the sites. He talks to all sorts of people — visitors, tour guides, the people in charge of the sites — in order to get as wide a snapshot as possible.

He recounts his visits to seven sites: Monticello, Whitney Plantation, Angola Prison, Blandford Cemetery, Galveston Island, New York City, and Gorée Island. Some are delving into their history of enslaving people, others not so much. Smith works to understand and critique an inform the reader not just about the history around the sites, but how their interaction and presentation of the past is affecting and informing us today. In short: in order to reckon with the present, we need to reckon with teh past.

It sounds like a difficult read, and it is at times, but Smith’s writing is so beautiful, it doesn’t feel like a chore to read this. He is a poet, and it shows: his descriptions of the places and people, his journalistic interactions, his presentation all draw the reader in and made me, at least, want to read more.

Possibly one of the more important books I’ll read, but also one of the more beautiful ones.