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.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.

Audiobook: Velvet Was the Night

by Sylvia Moreno Garcia
Read by Gisela Chipe
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: It’s very sweary, including multiple f-bombs, very violent, and has on-screen sex. It’s in the adult section of the bookstore.

Maite, 30 years old and still unmarried, works as a secretary in a law firm in Mexico City in 1971. She’s bored with her life, lonely, and has only one thing to live for: the next issue of Secret Romance, a comic romance she follows. She reluctantly agrees to take care of her neighbor, Leonora’s, cat when she leaves the the weekend. The problem only begins when Leonora doesn’t come back. Determined to get her pay, Maite falls headfirst into a world od activist student, Russian spies, double-crossing government agents. She’s not the only one looking for Leonora, either: Elvis, who works or a shadowy government figure, is trying to track her down as well. Told in alternating narratives, Moreno-Garcia paints a picture of an underground Mexico City in the 1970s that was dangerous as it was alluring.

I’m not quite sure what to think of this one. I don’t usually go for thrillers, and so I don’t know who it stacks up in the genre. I didn’t particularly like any of the characters, though they grew on me as the book went on. Maite is so incredibly pathetic, it was hard not to feel sorry for her, but she got some pluck and drive as the book went on. Elvis seemed like a one-note character, but became more complex. At the very least, it kept me reading, which does say something. Though that may have more to do with the narrator, who was fabulous, than with the story I really enjoyed Chipe’s narration; she definitely knew how to pull the listener in, and keep them entertained

I’ve been saying at work that Moreno-Garcia doesn’t write the same book twice. If you like noir, you might like this one. It is a fascinating picture of a time in history, and she’s a good writer. I just don’t know if this is a great book.

News of the World

by Paulette Jiles
First sentence: “Captain Kidd laid out the Boston Morning Journal on the lectern and began to read from the article on the Fifteenth Amendment.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some violence. It’s in the adult Fiction section of the bookstore.

Captain Kidd is a veteran of several wars, but, now at 71, he just wanders over north Texas performing readings of newspaper articles from around the world for a dime admission. It’s not a great life, but since his wife died, it’s a decent one. Then at at stop in Wichita Falls, he is paid $50 in gold to deliver a girl — Johanna — who was kidnapped by the Kiowa tribe when she was six. Now, four years later, she is being returned to the family she has left down near San Antonio. He agrees to take her, even though the journey will be dangerous, and they set out. The rest of the story is really just about Kidd and his developing bond with Johanna, through their good times and trials.

I didn’t dislike this one — even though I have an issue with authors who don’t use quotation marks for dialogue — but I din’t love it either. In retrospect, this one may have been better for me on audio, because I wouldn’t’ have been distracted by the form. I did like Kidd’s relationship with Johanna, though there was a part of me that felt like the book had a bit of a white savior complex: sure Johanna was kidnapped (which was wrong) but she had acclimated to her new life with the Kiowa. Why does she need to assimilate with the white people? Was the bits of her life with the Kiowa accurate (probably not)? Why is it important that men rescue a white girl from the “vicious natives”? It just felt a bit off to me, especially since the book was written by a white woman.

So, yeah. It’s not a terrible book, but it’s not a great one either.

Libertie

by Kaitlyn Grenidge
First sentence: “I saw my mother raise a man from the dead.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.

Igniting Darkness

by Robin LaFevers
First sentence “Maraud awoke to the sound of retching — a retching so violent his own stomach clenched into a fist and tried to punch its way out of his throat.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: Grave Mercy, Dark TriumphMortal Heart, Courting Darkness
Content: There is a lot of violence and abuse. It’s in the YA section of the bookstore.

I am thinking that LaFevers needed to write this duology because, while Mortal Heart ended on a positive note, there were many threads left hanging open. And it’s just nice to tie everything up.

Picking up where Courting Darkness left off, this one is more political intrigue (beause Genevieve has the ear of the French King and is trying to sway him away from being advised by his sister, the regent), machinations (Sybella vs. her horrible brother), love (which is always quite satisfying) and war (Sybella, Genevieve, Beast, and Maurad manage to spectacularly put down a rebellion).

At this point, it’s safe to say that if you liked the rest of the series, you will like this one. It’s a bit overlong, and I was truly losing patience with the king who was petulant and super dense, but I suppose LaFevers needed to keep it a little bit historically accurate.

In the end, though, it tied up all the loose ends and gave everyone if not a happy, then a hopeful, ending.

The Fountains of Silence

by Ruta Sepetys
First sentence: “They stand in line for blood.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: October 1, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some violence, and some talk of sexual assault and affairs. It will probably be in the Teen section (grades 9+) for more “mature” themes than the YA section usually holds.

The one thing that Sepetys does better than any other person writing historical fiction out there is finding the stories underneath the major events, and focusing in on what the decisions of dictators – in this case, General Francisco Franco of Spain — have done to ordinary people. (Well, she did write one book that didn’t head in that direction, but go with me here.) She looks at the lives of the peasants — in this case Ana and her siblings, who were children of people involved in the resistance during the Spanish Civil War — and how the strict rules and the fear effect their daily lives.

It’s 1957, and Ana has gotten a job at the Castellana Hilton, a posh hotel that has opened up in hopes that Americans will go to Madrid on vacation. One such American is Daniel, the son of a Dallas oil tycoon, who would much rather be a photojournalist than go into the oil business. They strike up a friendship (romance?) as David looks into the hidden worlds under then shine that is the Castellana Hilton.

There’s more going on than that in this book: Sepetys touches on the kidnapping of children — the government would take newborns away from parents, and tell them that their children had died soon after birth — and on the general fear that the Guardia Civil inspired in the population. It’s a lot for one book, but Sepetys handles it all without letting it overwhelm the more personal stories of the book.

Very highly recommended, like all of her books.

The Peacock Emporium

by Jojo Moyes
First sentence: “It was the third time in a week that the air-conditioning had gone out at the Hospital de Clinicas, and the heat was so heavy that the nurses had taken to holding battery-operated plastic fans over the intensive-care patients in an effort to keep them cool.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some swearing, including f-bombs, and some talk of sex. It’s in the Fiction section of the bookstore.

The plot of this is kind of hard to describe. It’s a mother-daughter story — Suzanna has always lived with the shadow of her mother’s flighty-ness; she left Suzanna’s dad and ran off with a salesman, and then died shortly thereafter. And it’s about class — because of her mother, and long memories of the town, Suzanna’s always felt like an outsider in her privileged English family. It’s about relationships and choices: Suzanna’s husband, Nick, has been on her case to have a baby, which she’s not happy about. It’s about friendship: Opening up her “Peacock Emporium” in the small town where she grew up, Suzanna makes a good friend in Jessie, and discovers what it Means To Live. And it’s about new love: Argentinian Alejandro moves to town and Suzanna realizes that maybe she’s been with the wrong man for 10 years.

I didn’t dislike it; I finished it, after all. And Moyes is a good writer. This one kept jumping back and forth in time, which made it kind of difficult to tell ages and time periods, but I didn’t mind it all too much. I didn’t love it, though. I guess nothing happened for most of the book, and then everything came down in the last 100 pages and maybe it felt rushed? I’m not entirely sure. I read this in bits and pieces over several months, which also may have contributed to me not really getting into the book.

Or maybe it’s just that adult fiction, sometimes, just doesn’t do things as well as it could. Not the best book out there, but not the worst either.

My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich

by Ibi Zoboi
First sentence: “These clouds are a concrete wall!”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: August 27, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s kind of hard to tell imagination from reality and the print is a bit on the small side for a middle grade book. It’ll be in the middle grade section of the bookstore, but I’d give it mostly to 5-6th graders.

Ebony-Grace lives in Huntsville, Alabama with her mom and grandpa, who works at the NASA space center. He’s only an engineer — there’s no black astronauts in 1984 — but he inspires Ebony Grace. They have their own imaginary world, where he is Captain Fleet and she is Cadet E-Grace Starfleet, and the go on Star Trek-inspired adventures throughout space. Except, now Ebony is being sent to her father’s in Harlem, which seems like a whole new planet — she dubs it No Joke City — with a whole bunch of “nefarious minions” that she can’t quite figure out. It doesn’t help that the friend she made last time she was in Harlem (three years ago!), Bianca, has moved on from space adventure games and is now jumping Double Dutch, breakdancing, and rapping with her crew, the Nine Flavas. Ebony has no idea how to fit in and just wants to go home.

On the one hand, this is a fun bit of historical fiction and I appreciated a geek girl main character. I loved that Ebony was super into space and science fiction and super knowledgeable about it. It was nice to see a Black girl be into something that is usually reserved for white boys. So yay for that! And I could relate to Ebony’s feeling of otherness, coming from the South and going to the north. I moved to Michigan from Utah right before 6th grade, and felt a lot of the same sense of outsiderness. I talked funny, I didn’t understand the lingo, and it didn’t help that I hadn’t really listened to the radio (like ever: I mostly listened to my parents records). This one will really resonate with kids who feel like they’re on the outside looking in.

What I didn’t like — what I reacted really viscerally and negatively to — were the adults in the book. I think they’re historically accurate: Ebony’s mom is more concerned with the way Ebony looks and that she’s polite and obedient to her elders, and her father isn’t much better. But I wanted to shake them all. They have a girl who is interested in SPACE! Why are they calling her crazy and telling her she needs to stop with the nonsense?!? Just because she’s a girl?!? The rampant sexism (again: historically accurate) drove me absolutely nuts. And it trickled down to the kids that Ebony met as well: they “grew up” and cared for more “grown up” things — clothes, boys, competitions, and I was so angry that they kept calling Ebony crazy and stupid for liking the things she liked.

I also had issues with the ending — Ebony never finds out what happens to her grandfather who gets in a bit of trouble off-screen and then suddenly dies (WTH?!) — but it’s a middle grade novel, so I can forgive that.

In the end, I’m not entirely sure what to feel about this book. I want to recommend it, because I like Zoboi and I like the idea of a geeky Black girl. I just may not be able to get past my anger at the adults.

Audio book: Where the Crawdad’s Sing

by Delia Owens
Read by Cassandra Campbell
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some talk about sex, as well as off-screen sex; domestic abuse, and an attempted rape scene. There is also some mild language. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

My co-workers have been raving about this for months, and I just hadn’t gotten around to reading it. A long drive home from Texas seemed just the time to give it ago.

It’s nominally the story of Kya, a girl who grew up in the marshes of North Carolina. Her father was an abusive drunk, and her mother and siblings all abandoned her to her father when she was seven. She basically raised herself, especially after her father left three years later. With some help from the African American community, she basically figured things out on her own. She did have one friend, Tate, who taught her to read and encouraged her in her scientific studies — she was basically self-educated, but also highly observant — of the marshlands. And then Tate left to go to college and didn’t come back.

It’s also a bit of a murder mystery. The bright young star in town, Chase Andrews, is found dead by the fire tower. And all signs point to Kya as the murderer. The question was: did she do it, or was she framed?

It’s a gorgeously written book, full of details about the natural world, and the narrator was marvelous. I was spellbound most of the way through the book. But I think I was more invested in the murder mystery part of that, because it was left without a tidy resolution. (Ah, adult fiction being so true to life.) I liked the characters, but it really was Owens’ storytelling that drew me in (and the narrator’s reading!) and kept me hooked in this book.

A really excellent read.