Concrete Rose

Concrete RoseConcrete Rose by Angie Thomas (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: YA

Setting: Garden Heights

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Dion Graham

Source: my own collection

Length: 8:17:00

Published by: Harper Audio (12 Jan 2021)

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Concrete Rose is the sequel story to Thomas’s The Hate U Give. This tells the story of Maverick Carter when he was a teenager struggling to find his place in the world. Maverick always expected that he would grow up to be in a gang like his dad. His future as a gang member seemed cemented when he learns that the baby of one of his classmates is also his. Selling drugs seems to him to be the only way to make enough money to make ends meet, support his son, and help his mother with their bills. When his girlfriend Lisa also becomes pregnant, Maverick understandably freaks out. He assumes he will never amount to anything and so why NOT join a gang and sell drugs? His part time job working for Mr Wyatt’s store has shown him that “honest work” doesn’t pay anything. When Maverick suffers a catastrophic loss, he finds that life takes you in directions you never expected and that the help we might need is right there with us if we can open our eyes enough to see it.

So, I loved this book. I have loved all of Angie Thomas’s books so far, which is a record not even Neil Gaiman holds with me. This is a sequel to THUG but you don’t have to have read that one to get this one. I love how she weaves in bits of her other novels throughout the narrative. For example, when Lisa’s mom kicks her out of the house, she goes to stay with Miss Rosalie and takes her friend Brenda’s bedroom. When Brenda comes to visit with her new baby, they all get a kick out of meeting baby Khalil. That hit me right in the feels when I realized it is Khalil from THUG. Little tidbits like that really bring the story to life and serve as sort of an insider’s view for those of us who have read the other books, but it isn’t necessary to get the story. It is fully standalone. 

The power of names is a strong theme throughout the story as well. Maverick names his son Seven because it is the number of perfection, and to him, his son is perfect. Maverick says his father named him so because he wanted him to be a freethinker and independent. The course of the narrative leads Maverick all over but he does eventually live up to his name, though not at all in the way he expects. 

I how Mr Wyatt was a father figure to Maverick, teaching him some transferable skills and encouraging him with tough love. Mr Wyatt talks a lot about his garden, especially his roses, which are stronger than they seem and can grow anywhere, even through concrete. I assume the title, and the theme of hidden strength, is inspired by the poem “The Rose That Grew from Concrete” by Tupac. Maverick has that strength and his life could easily have been ceaseless heartbreak and danger. But he chooses to do what he thinks is best for his family, and his losses to date have shown him what he DOESN’T want for them or for himself. He is brave enough to try something that is out of his realm of experience, and like the rose, he learns that he can bloom. “Long live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else ever cared.” 

I could really go on about this book all day but I will just stop before I actually do so. If you haven’t read any of Angie Thomas’s books, you are really missing out. This would be a good place to start, but honestly I think you should read THUG first. This one will have more of an emotional impact if you know Starr’s story already. 

Favorite part/ lines:

  • The apple don’t fall far from the tree, but it can roll away from it. It simply need a little push.
  • We left the roses untouched. I expected them to be dead by now, but they got blooms as big as my palm. … “What I tell you? Roses can bloom in the hardest conditions.”

Reading Women 2021

Heyyyy, this year I decided also to outline what I might read for the Reading Women challenge. I tend to complete that challenge most years, too, but rarely write about it. I don’t know why, especially considering how hard I try to amplify women’s voices, work, and literature. Probably it’s because many of the tasks here overlap a little with the Book Riot Read Harder challenge so I don’t focus a lot on this one in its own right. Here’s what I’m thinking of. Where possible, of course, I am going to overlap with the Read Harder tasks. Every book listed is written by a woman, which makes sense because it’s the Reading Women Challenge. 

A Book Longlisted for the JCB Prize: A Burning by Megha Majumdar, which I already own, so bonus! Or Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara sounds really good as well.

An Author from Eastern Europe: Maybe Seeing People Off by Jana Beňová. Or There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. Eastern European literature seems really fucking long, depressing, and boring from what I can tell. These two seem tolerable. There is a reason I’ve never read War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, or The Brothers Karamazov. Is it just because it’s frigid winter for like 10 months out of the year there? Is there not enough vodka? Too much vodka? I mean, FFS, I could hardly get through The Death of Ivan Ilyich and that wasn’t too bad, relatively speaking. But by the end of it, I wanted to swim in a barrel of vodka. Is vodka made in barrels? Whatever the fuck it’s made in, I wanted to swim in it.

A Book About Incarceration: Affinity by Sarah Waters! That should be awesome. Sarah Waters is awesome.

A Cookbook by a Woman of Color: Caribbean Potluck by Suzanne and Michelle Rousseau. I will need to track down a Caribbean restaurant near me so I can also eat all the food.

A Book with a Protagonist Older than 50: Illumination Night by Alice Hoffman. I love Alice Hoffman.

A Book by a South American Author in Translation: Savage Theories by Pola Oloixarac.

Reread a Favorite Book: Jeez. So many could go here.

A Memoir by an Indigenous, First Nations, Native, or Aboriginal Woman: Heart Berries by Terese Mailhot. This has been on my radar forever. 

A Book by a Neurodivergent Author: Maybe Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis (autism) or All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders (Sensory Integration Disorder). I think I own the Anders book, so probably I’ll read that.

A Crime Novel or Thriller in Translation: The Vegetarian by Han Kang. I don’t know how this is really a crime novel, but it is listed as such on the Pan Macmillan site (Our Favourite Crime Novels in Translation) and I’ve had it for ages, so I’m gonna go with that. 

A Book About the Natural World: The Long, Long Life of Trees by Fiona Safford, Rain: Four Walks in English Weather by Melissa Harrison, or To The River: A Journey Beneath the Surface by Olivia Laing. 

A Young Adult Novel by a Latinx Author: Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo.

A Poetry Collection by a Black Woman: Audre Lord seems popular, so I will try her writing. Or There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce by Morgan Parker.

A Book with a Biracial Protagonist: Caucasia by Danzy Senna. Probably there are a ton of books I will read that can cover this one, but on the off chance none of them do, I will try this one.

A Muslim Middle-Grade Novel: Shooting Kabul by NH Senzai. I got this for my daughter a while back because I wanted to read it.

A Book Featuring a Queer Love Story: Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston.

About a Woman in Politics: The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt by Kara Cooney, or maybe Nefertiti by Michelle Moran. Or, because she’s fucking awesome, The Truths We Hold by Madam Vice President Kamala Harris!

A Book with a Rural Setting: Real Queer America by Samantha Allen from my RH list can cover this. So can The Round House by Louise Erdrich. 

A Book with a Cover Designed by a Woman: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (cover design by Abby Weintraub).

A Book by an Arab Author in Translation: Women of Sand and Myrrh or Only in London, both by Hanan al-Shaykh, or Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea.

A Book by a Trans Author: Red, White, and Royal Blue will also work for this one. So will Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender

A Fantasy Novel by an Asian Author: These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong because I own it, but OMG there are so many I want to read! 

A Nonfiction Book Focused on Social Justice: When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele or White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo.

A Short Story Collection by a Caribbean Author: The Pain Tree by Olive Senior seems like a great collection. 

BONUS READS:

A Book by Alexis Wright (Waanyi Aboriginal): The Swan Book

A Book by Tsitsi Dangarembga (Zimbabwean): Nervous Conditions 

A Book by Leila Aboulela (Sundanese): The Translator

A Book by Yoko Ogawa (Japanese): The Memory Police sounds awesome. 

Catch-Up Round: A Cook’s Tour and The Deep

A Cook's TourA Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain

Genre: food memoir

Setting: global

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 274 pp

Published by: ecco (30 July 2001)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Just like his various TV shows, this book takes readers on a global tour with Anthony Bourdain. He travels, eats, gets drunk with the locals, and writes about it, which is basically my dream job. He covered regions from Russia to Mexico, the UK to Asia, and many places in between in search of the perfect meal. 

This will be a super short review. I loved this book. I gave it 4 stars instead of 5 just because I thought the Russia section was overly long, and there were a few places where he seemed to have run out of words and kept using the same one over and over. That is bad editing, not really Tony’s fault, though. One of my favorite parts was in the Russia section, though, where he went into the frozen pool. LOL! 

I read this to complete a Read Harder task (read a food memoir about a cuisine you’ve never had before). I have had many of the cuisines in this book, but not all of them. I can honestly say I’ve never had any kind of Russian food, and some of the UK food. Though last time I was there, I did try black pudding and thought it was delicious. Anthony Bourdain is the reason I tried it. I wanted to read this book again now because I still miss him. 

The DeepThe Deep by Rivers Solomon (Website)

Genre: fantasy

Setting: the ocean deep

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 166 pp

Published by: Saga Press (5 Nov 2019)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This was a super original fantasy set in the Caribbean. The Wajinru are basically mermaids, the water-breathing descendants of pregnant slaves who were thrown overboard through the Middle Passage. They live almost entirely in the present, with all their culture’s collective memories housed in one Historian. Once a year, all the Wajinru gather inside a huge room built specially for the gathering and the Historian, Yetu, passes all the memories to the other Wajinru. Yetu, though, is highly sensitive and being the receptacle of all the horrible memories of her ancestors is a burden that is killing her. She has to decide whether to leave her group and let the memories remain in the others or if she is willing to sacrifice her life for the wellbeing of her whole community. 

I did like this novella a great deal, though I found it kind of confusing in some parts. Once I got the Wajinru culture figured out, it got easier, though some of it was pretty nonlinear and threw me off a little bit. Overall, this story was complex and well-crafted, especially considering how short it is. The world-building was awesome.

Akata Witch

Akata Witch paperback cover

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: fantasy, MG

Setting: Near Abuja, Nigeria

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 349 pp

Published by: Viking Children’s (14 April 2011)

Her Grace’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunny is a young American girl born to Nigerian parents. Although she was born in New York, her family returned to Nigeria when she was 9 so that Sunny and her brothers could grow up knowing their culture and heritage. Sunny doesn’t feel like she fits in anywhere, since in America she is considered Nigerian, and in Nigeria she’s considered American. Everywhere she goes, she is albino. She can’t go in the sun and carries an umbrella with her everywhere. She can’t play soccer except sometimes at night with her brothers. And on top of it all, now she is seeing visions in candle flames. 

Her childhood friend, Orlu, and their neighbor Chichi discover that Sunny is a talented witch, for lack of a better term. So are they, and Sasha, a friend from the US who was also born to Nigerian parents. The four of them make an oha coven, a group of people whose magic and physical traits are perfectly balanced. Their mentor begins training the children and helping them to learn the extent of their juju. However, none are skilled enough to take on a brutal murderer of children who is himself a highly advanced juju man. And yet, they must confront him not only to save innocent lives, but to prevent an ancient and terrible being from being brought forth into their world.

A super fun and speedy read from Okorafor. The descriptions of Nigerian culture are evocative and rich and, even though this story is at its heart a fantasy, I feel like I was able to learn a bit about Nigerian culture by reading it. My favorite parts were where there were food descriptions. We can learn so much about a place and people through the food they serve. I absolutely am inspired now to look up some Nigerian recipes and give them a try. 

There was a strong theme of the bonds of friendship throughout this novel. Without friendship and trust, none of the kids would have survived the various magickal events and tests they endured. As they mature, I think the idea of their perfectly balanced group is that they will pair off into couples, thus strengthening the magic of the entire group as well as individually. I’ll see if I’m right when I read the sequel, Akata Warrior

So far, this is 5-0 in favor of Okorafor! I’ve read all three Binti novellas, Who Fears Death, and now this one and have really enjoyed all of them. That’s almost unheard of for me. This one is a younger book than I would typically read, but I still liked it a lot and it covers one of the Read Harder tasks. Recommended for all who enjoy fantasy, especially if you are looking to branch out and find books set somewhere other than the US or Britain, and who like to learn about various cultures.

Kindred

Kindred by Octavia Butler

Genre: let’s call it magical realism

Setting: 1976 and the antebellum South

I read it as a(n): kindle book

Source: my own collection

Length: 287 pp

Published by: Beacon Press (1 June 1979)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Dana is a modern young Black woman, married to a white man called Kevin, and they are both authors. They have recently purchased their first real home together and are in the middle of unpacking when Dana feels dizzy and falls to the ground. When the dizziness passes, she finds herself outside and hears a child yelling for help. Since Dana isn’t a dick, she rushes to help and ends up saving a young boy named Rufus from drowning. The boy’s father comes across them and, thinking Dana is trying to harm his son, aims a rifle at her. Dana is then transported back to her home, soaking wet and covered in mud from her rescue efforts. 

Over the next few weeks, Dana finds herself inexplicably called back to what she learns is the antebellum South, to a plantation with slaves. Somehow, anytime Rufus is in mortal danger, he pulls her back in time to him, completely unintentionally. Dana learns that Rufus is one of her ancestors and she has to keep saving him until he is able to father the child who is her direct ancestor. Each time Dana goes back, she stays longer and the trip is more dangerous for her. She eventually figures out that when she herself fears for her life, she is able to return to her own time, which is moving more slowly than the past. Dana spends hours, days, and months in the past and yet her own time period only moves forward by a few minutes or days even for her longest period spent in the past. Dana has to learn how to survive in a harsh past, retain Rufus’s trust enough that he doesn’t harm her himself just because he can, and keep her husband Kevin safe during her travels as well. 

This story was a difficult and yet un-put-downable read. Difficult because of the subject matter but a very fast and engaging read. Even though it was written in 1979, there was not actually much reference to technology so it didn’t feel dated. In fact, it could have been written this year and would have been hailed as a timely discussion on race relations and equality, given the ongoing protests surrounding police brutality towards Black people. It was a horrifying read as well because it explores topics such as slavery, which is to be expected from the book’s premise. What was worst, though, was Dana’s thoughts on how easy it can be to become accustomed to injustice. The discussion of racism was deep and explored some of the ways in which it has become institutionalized in America even today. Some scenes reminded me of part of Angie Thomas’s novel The Hate U Give where Starr and her brothers received “the talk” from their parents. Not the sex talk, but the talk about what to do and how to act if and when they are stopped by a police officer. The fact that such talks are considered a necessary part of parenting for so many people is heartbreaking, and Butler’s novel shows readers partly why that has come to be. 

Dana adapted fairly quickly to her new environment, not because she was somehow weak or didn’t resist hard enough, but because she had to adapt or die. Part of the discussion on how quickly Dana had to adapt to slavery conditions was also the sense of mutual obligation between many of the characters. They all tried to look out for each other and take everyone’s well being into consideration, even if it was sometimes to their own detriment. But parents, for example, would do whatever was necessary to spare their children and to keep them with them rather than being sold to different places far away. I can understand that; there is nothing I wouldn’t do to keep my daughter safe with me in those conditions. Despite Dana’s ability to adapt quickly to her new circumstances, she was not spared from being on the receiving end of some awful abuse, and she lived in constant fear of being sold to a plantation further south that was notorious for its truly brutal conditions. A modern person worrying about being sold – if that doesn’t absolutely horrify you, then you must be part of the problem.

Part of the discussion on adapting is, I think, the ways Dana and the other Black characters view Tom Weylin and Rufus. Tom initially appears to be brutal, every bit the worst of the stereotypical slave owner. As the novel progresses, how he is viewed doesn’t change so much to liking him as to seeing how he is more or less a fair man operating within the social constructs of his time period. He is a hard man and sometimes does cruel things, but he is doing what is allowed for him to do and doesn’t really step out of those bounds, as disgusting as they are to our modern sensibilities. Similarly, with Rufus, he seems to grow up to take after his father in most ways, except that he is in love with Alice, and his father never would have loved a slave. Use her body, yes, but love her, no. Dana is able to forgive Rufus for so many wrongs, and he actually seems to do worse things than his father ever did. He makes overt threats to Dana, lies about sending her letters to Kevin when he got trapped in the past, and is a volatile drunk. His father at least never seemed to let himself get out of control like Rufus does. In many ways, Rufus is a pitiable character, largely lacking in understanding, empathy, or willpower. To be fair, though, I’d probably be blind fucking drunk all the time if I had to live in the South at that time of history. In any case, the way Dana and the other Black characters view the Weylins very much makes me think of Stockholm Syndrome. Maybe they were just as awful as one thinks they were but the effect was lessened over the course of the novel by the psychological impact of being held against their will, malnourished, beaten and whipped, and worked until they dropped.

Normally, I don’t care much for first-person perspective in novels. But I think first-person is the only way this novel could be as powerful as it was. If Dana hadn’t been the narrator, if we had a third-person POV instead, it would have created a distance between the characters, events they went through, and the reader; the situations she went through would not have been as visceral an experience for readers and thus the discussions on various issues would not have been as effective.

The title itself is a stark reminder that being related to a person doesn’t always mean they are your family. There’s a big difference between relatives and family. Rufus and Dana are related to one another. They have a sense of mutual obligation to each other, though an admittedly lop-sided one. But they are in no way family as I would define it. So that makes an interesting contrast throughout the book, especially when you consider Dana and her husband’s relationship, and her relationship with the slaves. She seems much closer to them than to Rufus, her actual relative. Similarly, her marriage to Kevin is illegal in the past and, I would imagine, is seen as at least odd in 1976. I don’t think interracial marriages were very well tolerated at the time. 

In any case, this was a terrific read, if difficult at times because of the things that happened to people. I definitely recommend it to any fans of timeslip, sci-fi, magical realism, or antebellum history. 

Jonny Appleseed

Jonny AppleseedJonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead (Twitter, Insta)

Genre: contemporary/literary fiction

Setting: Manitoba/Peguis First Nation

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 224 pp

Published by: Arsenal Press (15 May 2018)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Jonny Appleseed is about a First Nations boy who is gay and trying to figure out how to be his best self. His mother wants him to come back to the Reservation for his stepfather’s funeral. Getting there requires more cash than he has on hand and so he works extra at his job, which is as an online sex worker. During the few days it takes him to save enough cash to get home, Jonny reflects on the experiences from his past that have helped to make him who he is right now, with a fever-dream kind of feel to the memories.

I am honestly not sure how to write a review of this book that really encompasses my thoughts without making me sound like either an idiot or an asshole. I loved this book, though, and loved learning more about the Cree Nation, where Jonny as well as author Joshua Whitehead are from. Truly, it isn’t possible for me to have known less about the Cree before beginning this book, so it was an interesting reading and learning experience. 

I enjoyed learning some Cree words, though I absolutely have no idea how to say them. At first, I wanted a glossary because not all of the words used in the book were explained by context (or maybe I just didn’t get it), but then I decided that I liked that there was no glossary. It felt more real for the words just to be there, slipped into the narrative as they probably would be in normal conversation, and it is my job as a reader to figure them out. I always like learning about a culture that isn’t familiar to me and I appreciated the richness that was imparted through this story.

Many parts of this were heartbreaking. Not just because of how people treated Jonny as a Two-Spirit indigiqueer person, as he calls himself. But also because of how poor he and most of his acquaintances are, how hard they have to work to scrape together enough to buy something like a six-pack, or that they work hard just SO they can buy a six-pack or spirits. 

I think this is a book everyone should read. It will make you laugh, cry, and most importantly, think and empathise. 

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • Home isn’t a space, it’s a feeling. … And it isn’t always comfortable – at least, not an NDN home. In fact, quite often, it’s uncomfortable. But it’s home because the bannock is still browning in the oven and your kokum is still making tea and eating Arrowroot biscuits. … And, given time, it becomes mobile – you can take those rituals with you, uproot your home as if it were a flower.
  • But I just laughed and I think he got mad – I wish he knew that when an NDN laughs, it’s because they’re applying a fresh layer of medicine on an open wound.
  • Don’t be thinking I don’t know who this is for – you like that Walker boy. I’m fine with that, son, Creator, he made you for a reason – you girl and you boy and that’s fine with me, but what’s not fine is you selling yourself short. You gotta leave if you wanna survive, and when you do you’re gonna need the steadiness of those hands, m’boy. You’re gonna need a rock and a whole lotta medicine. 
  • I am my own best medicine.
  • But the way he told stories was so sincere that I couldn’t help but become enamoured. That was when I learned just how much power there is in stories …
  • “Howa, he’s just snapped,” someone said, which made Jordan laugh. “Oh heck, that guy’s feeling no pain,” she said. That saying is weird, “feeling no pain.” I used to laugh at it too, but nowadays I think that they’re drunk because they’re feeling all kinds of pain.
  • My kokum had always told me that sleep was not a waste of time, that it was a time for healing, so I slept long and hard, waiting for my blood to leech out its memories and for my body to rejuvenate.
  • “But you – you my everything, m’boy, all this time you been my rock.”  “No, Momma,” I replied, “you’re my rock. I’m just the one who broke you.”  “Maybe,” she said, biting her lip. “But then you also the one who ground me. Ground me up into a medicine.”
  • …a good story is always a healing ceremony, we recuperate, re-member, and rejuvenate those we storytell into the world…

 

On the Come Up

On the Come UpOn the Come Up by Angie Thomas (Website, Twitter, Insta, Facebook)

Genre: YA/contemporary literature

Setting: Garden Heights, a fictional neighborhood

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Bahni Turpin

Source: my own collection

Length: 11:43:00

Published by: HarperAudio (5 Feb 2019)

Her Grace’s rating:  out of 5 stars

Bri Jackson is a 16 year old who wants nothing more than to be a rapper like her father was before he died. People call her Lil Law, an homage to her father’s stage name Lawless. But Bri is very much her own person with her own style and ideas, not a copy of her father. When she wins a rap battle in the ring, Bri finds herself suddenly in the spotlight, and not always in a good way. Navigating her way through a fledgling career in the music industry and helping/worrying about her mother’s unexpected job loss, Bri has to figure out how to be on the come up in a way that is true to herself.

Initially, I was hesitant to read this because how could it possibly be as good as The Hate U Give? I went ahead and bought it when it was an Audible daily deal, but I didn’t work up the nerve to listen until now. Am I ever glad I did! This was a fantastic novel! Thomas does such a good job of bringing readers inside the heads of her characters. You can really feel the anger, disillusionment, disappointment, and fear of the characters. Frankly, anyone who reads a book like this and doesn’t feel rage at all the injustice must have something wrong with them. Bri is angry, yes. She’s got an attitude and can be rude. But she was doing nothing wrong and got thrown to the ground by two grown male security guards at her school. That’s a whole lot of bullshit. I’d be furious if that happened to me, too. I’m furious just reading about it happening to a fictional character. 

I felt Bri’s pain and worry when she saw her mother and older brother trying to scrape together enough money to pay the utility bill AND also buy food; her shame when her shoes fell apart and she couldn’t afford new ones; her embarrassment at having to go with her mother to the food bank. Children shouldn’t have to worry about things like this, and it hurts and is shameful that children anywhere, let alone one of the richest countries in the world, deal with food insecurity and poverty daily. 

The references to various rap and hip-hop artists throughout the book made me want to listen. I’ve never been much of a fan of rap, but I know that some artists use it to highlight social injustice. This story made me want to educate myself better. 

I listened to this on audio and Bahni Turpin’s performance is fire. She is one of my favorite narrators anyway, but she really went above and beyond in bringing these characters to life, especially Bri and her music. Also, here is Angie Thomas rapping one of Bri’s songs. 

I can’t wait to see what Angie Thomas writes next, and I hope Bahni Turpin narrates it. 

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • Jay’s a people person. I’m more of a “yes, people exist, but that doesn’t mean I need to talk to them” person.
  • There’s only so much you can take being described as somebody you’re not.
  • That’s when I learned that when people die, they sometimes take the living with them.
  • But it’s kinda like saying one side of the Death Star is safer than the other. It’s still the goddamn Death Star.
  • Not everything deserves your energy.
  • All these flavors out here, and you choose to be salty.

 

Boy, Snow, Bird

Boy Snow BirdBoy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi (Website)

Genre: literary fiction/ magical realism

Setting: Flax Hill, CT (fictional)

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 308 pp

Published by: Riverhead Books (27 Aug 2013)

Her Grace’s rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

 

**Major spoilers below**

In mid-century Massachusetts, Boy Novak marries Arturo Whitman, a widower with a young daughter, Snow. Eventually, Boy has a daughter of her own, which is when it becomes clear that Arturo and Snow are light-skinned Blacks and they are ‘passing’ as white. 

Boy, Snow, Bird is touted as a Snow White retelling, but if that is true, I fucking missed the point. Yes, there was a bit of an obsession with mirrors throughout and a sense of competitiveness about ‘who is the fairest’ between Boy and Snow. Beyond that, I guess I missed the similarities to the fairy tale. This isn’t a real problem for me because I generally felt this novel was more a discussion on race relations and racism than anything else. 

I thought the first part of the book worked well, told from Boy’s point of view. She was raised in an abusive household by a single father and traumatized by his penchant for rat catching. When she turns 20, Boy flees from her father’s home in NYC to the small town of Flax Hill, MA, outside Boston. There, she begins her new life, finds new friends, and marries Arturo. She feels there is something weird or not trustworthy about Snow, which is about all I could suss out regarding the Snow White plot. The ‘evil stepmother’ sends away the child everyone loves and fawns over. This confused me because I wanted to know why Arturo didn’t object to his new wife sending his first daughter away. As a parent, I would never stand for someone wanting to send my kid somewhere else. 

The second part was from Bird’s POV. This didn’t work as well, partly because of the epistolary element. Why not just give Snow her own section if you want her voice to be heard? Also, this was the section that seemed to have the most magical realism, such as how Bird says she doesn’t always appear in mirrors. These elements were later dropped entirely in the third part and we never got a resolution to them. 

In the third part, which goes back to Boy’s POV, the novel just loses the plot. There is a lot of discovery and revelation but it felt contrived and not that connected to the story. It is here where it becomes the most apparent that the characters are also really flat and have been throughout. It was in this last part, about 25 or so pages from the end, where Boy learns that her father, Frank, was actually her mother. Frank had been Frances and she was a lesbian, but began living as a man after she was sexually assaulted in grad school. There was a really gross implication that transpeople become trans because of sexual assault and that they then proceed to become abusive sociopaths. Um, no. Just no. I am sure that’s not what Oyeyemi meant to imply, but the message is there nonetheless. I know that there are plenty of examples of people, especially women, living as men in the earlier parts of the 20th century (for example, Trenton Makes) and passing as men, similar to how some Black people passed as white. However, WHY? Why was the transgender thing even here? I don’t  understand what it was supposed to add to the story; the story wouldn’t have changed one bit if Frank really was Boy’s father and her mother really had died in childbirth. Unless it is just to highlight to Boy that Arturo and Snow passing as white shouldn’t be the shock it was since her own mother had passed as something she wasn’t for Boy’s whole life, whether she knew it or not. 

This was the first novel by Helen Oyeyemi that I’ve read and I do plan to read more by her. I liked her writing and the hidden bits of humor. Some of it was pure poetry on the page. I just didn’t care for this story or the way she handled trans issues. 

Favorite part/ lines:

  • The first coffee of the morning is never, ever, ready quickly enough. You die before it’s ready and then your ghost pours the resurrection potion out of the moka pot.
  • For reasons of my own I take note of the way people act when they’re around mirrors.
  • The general advice is always be yourself, be yourself, which only makes sense if you haven’t got an attitude problem.
  • If you wish to be truly free, you must love no one.
  • I told her that magic spells only work until the person under the spell is really and honestly tired of it. It ends when continuing becomes simply too ghastly a prospect.
  • She was only fifteen. At that age embarrassment is something you can actually die of.
  • People underestimate the freckled.
  • I’d have liked for him to say my name again, though. You know how it is when someone says your name really well, like it means something that makes the world a better place.
  • Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy. I’d hide myself away in them, setting two mirrors to face each other so that when I stood between them I was infinitely reflected in either direction. Many, many me’s. When I stood on tiptoe, we all stood on tiptoe, trying to see the first of us, and the last. The effect was dizzying, a vast pulse, not quite alive, more like the working of an automaton.

 

Such a Fun Age

Such a Fun AgeSuch a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (Website, Twitter, Insta, Facebook)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: literary fiction

I read it as a: hardback

Source: my own collection

Length: 310 pp

Published by: Putnam (pub date)

 

Emira Tucker is a 25 year old black woman who is struggling to find her path in life. She’s about to get kicked off her parents’ insurance and is juggling two jobs, having a hard time paying rent, and really wants to find a full time job with benefits. In the meantime, she is a part-time babysitter to Alix Chamberlain’s eldest daughter, Briar. Alix is a blogger and something of a social media influencer, and she thinks she knows what is best for Emira. When an incident occurs at a local fancypants grocery store and Emira is accused of kidnapping Briar, events transpire to alter the course Emira thought she was on. The confrontation at the grocery is caught on video and the man who filmed it, called Kelley, also thinks he knows what is best for Emira. Eventually, the various relationships and power dynamics shift and Emira does what is best for herself.

This was a really fast and easy read, though I think it fell apart at the end. It was too easy and wrapped up all the loose threads too neatly. The characters, except for Emira and Briar, seemed kind of like they were being pushed into a stereotype. But this was a novel making a social commentary about ‘woke’ culture and how so many people are trying so hard to be woke and not racist that they end up being racist for lack of self-awareness. It was a commentary on the white savior mentality and how what one person thinks is best may not actually be best for another person. 

Reid did a good job making Alix and Kelley into unreliable narrators. I really didn’t know who was telling the truth and who wasn’t, or what their motives were for a while. Emira’s voice is strong throughout and she develops a lot as a woman throughout the story. Everyone thinks people who have finished college and are in their mid-20s must know what they want to do in life, but so often that is not the case. I thought it was nicely done to show some of the real life struggles new adults face in their daily lives. 

The part that I felt was the most well written was the actual event at the grocery store. Yes, I know things like this happen all the time and it is awful. But Reid is adept at making readers feel the anger, fear, and humiliation that goes along with someone else assuming you are breaking the law simply because of the color of your skin or what you are wearing. That’s a bunch of racist fuckery and it should have no place in civilized society. It infuriates me when I see news reports of incidents like this, and books like Reid’s that make you more strongly empathize with victims of racism are vitally important. I am not a black woman; I will never know what it feels like to have someone assume I’m breaking the law just by being there. But hopefully, one day soon, racism won’t happen and it will be viewed with the disgust and contempt it deserves from everyone. 

Though I thought there were some plot holes and structural flaws, Such a Fun Age was a terrific read and I strongly recommend it. 

Salvage the Bones

Salvage the BonesSalvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (Website, Twitter)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: literary fiction

I read it as an: hardback

Source: library

Length: 261 pp

Published by: Bloomsbury (30 Aug 2011)

Salvage the Bones is technically a story about Hurricane Katrina. Really, though, it is about one family, the Batistes, living in extreme poverty in southern Mississippi. Narrated by Esch, the pregnant 15 year old only daughter in a family of boys, the 12 days of the story leading up to Katrina making landfall explore the family dynamics and dramas of Esch’s life. 

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