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
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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.”
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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.

Parable of the Sower

by Octavia E. Butler
First sentence: “I had my recurring dream last night.”
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Content: There is a lot of violence, some frank talk about sex and rape, and some mild swearing (with one or two f-bombs). It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

It’s 2024 and the world has gone to hell. Climate change, drugs gone rampant, violence due to poverty and desperation, the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Fifteen-year-old Lauren Olamina lives with her father, step-mother and three-half brothers in a walled and gated community that isn’t rich, but is surviving pretty well. Lauren’s biggest obstacle is her hyperempathy — a condition that allows her to feel and experience another’s pain if she sees it — which makes her extremely vulnerable. And then, as the years and book goes one, things get worse. Lauren finds herself in the open, trying to survive the growing chaos, and finds, among other things, a birth a of a new faith.

I remember reading an Octavia Butler ages and ages ago, or at least trying it. I wasn’t successful. I’m not sure which one it was, but it just didn’t connect with it. But this one? Maybe it was the time — it begins basically in our present — and my awareness of our current political situation, but this felt not just like fiction, but, well, prophecy. It’s less about the characters, though I did care about them and what happened to them, and more about the way the characters interact with the world. It’s a survivalist tale, it’s a dystopian — though it’s in the early stages of being a dystopian — it’s a book about trusting each other and yet not making oneself vulnerable. It was disturbing, thought-provoking, harsh, brutal, and very very hard to put down. I went out and picked up the sequel because I need to now how this story ends.

I’m so very glad I read it.

From the Desk of Zoe Washington

by Janae Marks
First sentence: “The day I turned twelve, I was certain it’d be my favorite birthday yet, but then I got the letter.”
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Content: It talks about wrongful imprisonment, but in a very age-sensitive way. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore, but would probably be good up through 6th or 7th grade.

Zoe is just a normal twelve-year-old: she likes hanging out with her friends, she lvoes baking, and she just wants to enjoy the summer (even though she’s currently fighting with her former best friend and neighbor, Trevor). Then, on her birthday, she finds a letter from her biological dad, Marcus, whom she’s never met, because he was arrested and convicted of murder before she was born.

Curious, she opens the letter, and then decides — against her mom’s will — to write him back. They start a relationship of sorts and when Zoe asks why he’s in prison, Marcus says he is innocent and was convicted wrongly. That sets Zoe off on a hunt to prove to herself — and her mother, and possibly the world — that Marcus is who he says he is. Along the way, she gets an internship at a bakery and learns a bit about that world, and makes up with Trevor.

It’s a very sweet little book, this (no pun meant with the baking, though I do wish there was a recipe for the Fruit Loop cereal cupcakes in the back) story of a girl getting to know her biological dad. Marks finds a balance with the parents — Zoe isn’t trying to replace her stepdad, whom she calls “dad” — but she does want to know this person who, up until this point, was just a sperm donor. I liked that Marks brought out that the prison system is not always about justice: Marcus had a bad lawyer, yes, but Zoe’s mother was also convinced that because the system found Marcus guilty that must have meant he was. We’re all so conditioned to believe that, and I appreciate that Marks explained that it’s not true in a way a younger kid could understand. I liked that Zoe had a good support system of adults around her, but that she also gets in trouble when she does things that, well, a kid would get in trouble for.

It was a very charming book, and one that is dealing with heavy subjects — like wrongful imprisonment — but not in a heavy-handed way. I truly enjoyed it!

The Cooking Gene

by Michael W. Twitty
First sentence: “The Old South is a place where people use food to tell themselves who they are, to tell others who they are, and to tell stories about where they’ve been.”
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Content: There are a few swear words, and the use of the n-word. It’s in the Cooking reference section of the bookstore.

This is essentially two things in one: Twitty’s personal memoir and his professional cooking journey. One part of that — his cooking journey — I found incredibly fascinating. Twitty has dedicated his career and life to recreating and understanding the food and cooking methods that the enslaved people used when they were brought to this country. I think that’s fascinating and valuable, and I found those portions of the book to be interesting. The other part — his personal memoir — was rooted too much in DNA testing and DNA connections to his ancestors as he tried to figure “himself” out. I enjoyed the parts where he was talking about his youth and growing up, but I didn’t connect so much with his musings about ancestors. I get that it’s important to him — especially with his work — but I just didn’t connect with it.

Part of that was the circular method that Twitty used to tell is story. It seemed to start in the middle and wrap around itself and while parts were fascinating, the whole was just a bit outside of my reach.

In short: I really wanted to like this a whole lot more than I ever actually did.

Libertie

by Kaitlyn Grenidge
First sentence: “I saw my mother raise a man from the dead.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: March 30, 2021
Content: There is tasteful on-screen sex and use of the n-word. It will be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

It is the middle of the 19th century, and Libertie is a free Black girl being rasied by a single mother who has the audacity to become a doctor. And who wants only the best for Libertie. Which is to say, she expects Libertie to follow in her footsteps and become a doctor as well. The weight of that is so much for Libertie, that before her mother can find out that she flunked out of college, she marries and runs off with a man — her mother’s assistant — to Haiti. Only to find that the freedom she was hoping for isn’t there.

It’s less about the plot, though, than it is about Libertie and her relationship with her mother. There is very much a push-and-pull there; with Libertie wanting love and unconditional acceptance, and her mother showing her love with the expectation of excellence. It’s set in a world where there is slavery, racism, and colorism but that only brushes up against the plot. It’s mostly about expectations: those that are placed upon us by others — parents, spouses, society at large — and the ones we place on ourselves.

Greenidge is a very talented writer, and I think Libertie is a character that will stay with me for a while. I’m not sure I thought the ending was realistic, but I appreciated it. It was a good read and I’m glad I read it.

Deacon King Kong

by James McBride
First sentence: “Deacon Cuffy Lambkin of Five Ends Baptist Church became a walking dead man on a cloudy September afternoon in 1969.”
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Content: There is swearing, including many f-bombs, and the use of the n-word. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

The plot of this one is almost incidental: Deacon Cuffy “Sportcoat” Lambkin (who also gets called Deacon King Kong for the amount of hooch he drinks) shot (but did not kill) a local drug dealer, who used to be a kid that played on a baseball team Sportcoat coached and umpired in the projects in Brooklyn. And, because of this, Things Happen. What the Things are doesn’t really matter: this is a novel that is propelled by the characters. And there’s a whole mess of characters. So many that when I tried to listen to this on audio, I got lost with who was who. But, reading it helped keep some of them straight. It’s a whole neighborhood full of characters, their wants and needs and desires and connections to each other. And McBride truly captured a moment in time, and a place, as the people of this Brooklyn neighborhood lived their lives and tried to keep things together as much as they could.

I didn’t absolutely love this book, but I didn’t dislike it either. It’s funny at times, and always interesting, if you like charioteer-driven novels.