The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett***-****

This book wasn’t on my radar until it hit the best seller lists. The premise is a provocative one, and so I hopped online and ordered a copy of the audio book from Seattle Bibliocommons. It held my attention all the way through, but when it concluded, I felt a little cheated.

The chief protagonists are two girls, twins, raised in a tiny (fictional) town deep in the American South. The whole town is Black, and everyone—everyone—is light skinned. Sisters Stella and Desiree become restless as they come of age, and they conspire to run away to the big city. They pack a few things, gather what money they can, and head for New Orleans. The time is the mid-1900s. They arrive, find a place to stay, and get jobs. One day Desiree comes home from work, but Stella doesn’t. She’s gone. Enough of her things are missing to suggest that she hasn’t met with foul play, yet Desiree is her twin, and she is undone by Stella’s unexpected departure. Not even a note!

Stella is in the North; Stella is passing for Caucasian. But to do so, she has to cut all family ties. Her new husband has no idea.

The story progresses, and Desiree does the opposite, marrying a man who is very dark. Their daughter is what might be called blue-black. Now neither twin can comfortably return to Mallard, with one too Black, and one not Black at all, as far as anyone can tell.

The story progresses through various life changes, and eventually the focus is on the twins’ daughters, one each. Of course, the reader must wonder whether the sisters will ever be reunited, and if so, what will happen then.

When the book is over, I feel as if I am leaving the table before I’m full. There were so many opportunities here, and the author squandered all of them. The protagonists never develop to the point where I bond with any of them, and I cannot tell what the author’s purpose is here.

This book is for sale, but don’t break the bank to get it. Read it free or cheap, or give it a miss.

The Dead Are Arising, by Les Payne*

I haven’t been this disappointed in a long time. From the moment I saw this book listed on Net Galley, I was eager to read it, given that the promotion promises a lot of new information about this courageous man, a powerful advocate for the rights of people of color. When I didn’t receive a galley, I awaited the book’s release, and I went out and bought it. Less than halfway into it, I was absolutely sickened.

For starters, not all new information is important or necessary information. There’s a lot of minutiae here, as well as a fair amount of Black History 101 material, interesting to those unfamiliar with the Civil Rights Movement, Jim Crow, Northern red-lining practices, and so forth, but a real snore for those of us already steeped in these things. But beyond that—and one could argue that these historical basics are necessary inclusions for a lot of readers—Paine goes to a great deal of trouble to destroy Malcolm’s legacy.

Academics do this sometimes, and surely it’s no coincidence that the top three examples that come to mind are all biographies of African-Americans that fought for their rights, and aren’t alive now to object to what is being said about them. (In addition to Malcolm, recent biographies of Frederick Douglass and Muhammad Ali come to mind, the latter two slandered by two different authors.) Picking through the tiny, often insignificant details of their lives and combing through their speeches and writing, these authors go to great pains to “expose” small details that conflict with one another, or other signs of inconsistency, with the clear implication that the subject was a liar and a fraud.

For shame!  

Let’s talk about that for a minute. I am a grandmother myself, and I can think of important aspects of my life, especially my younger years, for which my own motivations were and are complicated, and if asked about them I am sure I would have given different answers in my twenties, my thirties, and so on. Our own thoughts and motives have a lot of layers. Perhaps we become more insightful later in life, or perhaps our memories are no longer as sharp as we believe them to be. But because we are not famous, or notorious, depending upon points of view, we are unlikely to have some academic interviewing everyone that ever fucking knew us, or combing through every speck of written documentation we leave behind us, searching for all possible details that may bring our integrity and veracity into question.

For me, it matters very little whether Malcolm’s early life was exactly as he told it. It is his ideas, and his courage in expressing them, that made him a legend, and that’s what I look for in his biography. In the 1960s, almost no African-American (or colored, as they preferred to be called during that period,) Civil Rights advocates dared to come right out and say that Black people were not only as good, but in some cases better than Caucasians. And it is Malcolm’s political evolution during the last year of his life, the time when he broke with the Nation of Islam and embraced a working class perspective that included fighters of every race, that galvanizes me. Malcolm raised a powerful voice in opposition to the U.S. war against the Vietnamese people, quipping after President Kennedy’s assassination that it was a case of “chickens coming home to roost.”

This takedown of an iconic Civil Rights warrior is shabby in every sense. For those interested in Malcolm’s political and social evolution, I recommend the book titled Malcolm X: The Last Speeches. Usually, the best way to learn about someone is to see what they themselves had to say. In this case it’s doubly true.

I don’t recommend this book to anyone.

Well-Read Black Girl, by Glory Edim, editor****

Ahem. Yes, I am in fact, over two years late with this review. I can explain.

My dog ate…no, wait. I got a flat tire when…oh. Yeah, that doesn’t work.

So now I have to tell the truth, having failed miserably, as I usually do, at lying. Here it is. About a month after I received the galley to this book, courtesy of Net Galley and Random House, national news and social media went into a virtual frenzy discussing cultural appropriation. And I froze. I started examining everything I did through that lens, and I may have gone overboard. I looked at this galley and I thought, I have no right to review this thing. And when I read the introduction anyway, I feel it even more so. Not written with me in mind, was it? Was this the literary equivalent of reading someone else’s mail? And so I did the easy thing, which was to shove it onto the back burner and read something else. Repeatedly.  

Several months later, it occurred to me that nobody would even have to know if I were to sneak it out of my files and just read the article by Jesmyn Ward, which was actually why I had originally requested it. Ward is on my read-anything list. I read it, and I liked it, and then I shuffled it back into the file. No harm done.

This spring, as the world tentatively emerges, one hopeful toe at a time, from the isolation imposed on all of us by the horrific pandemic, I realize what I should have known all along: that anybody can read anything, and form an opinion about it; and that since I was granted the galley, I actually owe a review. I straightened my spine, dusted myself off, and sat down to read it. There was no blinding light or thunder from the heavens. Nothing smote me. I read it, and I lived to tell the tale.

Most of the authors here are new to me; in addition to Ward, I also know Jacqueline Woodson’s work a bit, mostly from my years teaching language arts, when I used her YA book. Everyone here included in this compendium is a strong writer, and they are largely preaching to the choir, since the audience are also bibliophiles. But the common thread, the point they drive home—and rightly so—is the importance of finding literature about girls that look like themselves. They speak of it as empowerment and validation.

Back in the stone age, when this reviewer was enrolled in a teacher education program, we were likewise taught the importance of inclusive literature. It seemed so obvious to me, this obligation teachers surely have to make sure all of their students are represented in the books their students read, or have read to them. I figured it was a no-brainer. But when I arrived at my first teaching position in elementary school, (heaven help me and those children both,) I was shown the supply closet and there were the classroom book sets. The main characters were Caucasian boys; Caucasian boys and girls; fluffy woodland animals, mostly male; and more Caucasian boys. I sadly examined my battered Visa card and drove to the bookstore to order better books. And I was further amazed to learn, later, that my colleagues, all of whom were Caucasian, believed that the school’s book collection was terrific. Their students loved those books, and that included the children of color that made up approximately half of the population there, they told me.

Sure they did.

The essays in Well-Read Black Girl are a much-needed reminder that racism isn’t always overt; sometimes racism is exclusionary, unintentionally so. And what silences young voices, and what teaches children that books, and life in general, are not about them, worse than discovering that they are not important enough to be included in books?

When I moved to secondary education, where I belonged, I visited the book room there, and I found a set of books about African-American boys, but the message inherent was that they are constantly exposed to drugs and gangs, and it will be hard as heck not to be drawn in. And once again, I scratched my head. These Black kids, most of them were from middle class homes, or loving, well supervised working class homes. Drugs? Not so much. And what did these books teach their Caucasian classmates about Black people? I sighed and got back in the car, already apologizing silently to my Visa once more.

This collection of essays is important, not because of any particular brilliance in composition; they are well written, but not memorable for the writing itself. Instead, they are the key to understanding, from primary sources, why Black girls need books that depict Black girls and women in a positive light.

I’ve assigned four stars to this book for general audiences, but for teachers in training, it is five stars. Every teacher training program should include these essays as required reading. We have to read it until we get it right.

Your House Will Pay, by Steph Cha*****

The quality that distinguishes Cha from other top-tier mystery writers is her absolute fearlessness in using fiction to address ticklish political issues.  Your House Will Pay is impressive. I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Harper Collins. I am a little sick at heart that I’m so late with my review, but this book is rightfully getting a lot of conversations started without me. It’s for sale now, and you should get it and read it.

Our two protagonists are Grace Park and Shawn Matthews. They don’t know each other, but their families intersected one critical day many years ago.  The Parks are Korean immigrants, the owners of a small pharmacy.  The Matthews family is African-American, and they have never stopped grieving the loss of sixteen-year-old Ava, who was shot and killed one evening by Grace’s mother in a moment of rage and panic. The other thing shared by Grace and Shawn is that both were quite young when it happened. Shawn was with his older sister when she was killed and has memories of what happened; Grace has been shielded from the event and knows nothing about it until the past opens itself up in a way that is shocking and very public.

The story alternates between the initial event, which happened in the 1990s, and today; it also alternates between the Park family and the Matthews’.  The development of the characters—primarily Grace and Shawn, but also Shawn’s brother, Ray and a handful of other side characters—is stellar. Throughout the story I watch for the moment when the narrative will bend, when we will see which of these two scarred, bitter families is more in the right, or has the more valid grievance. It never happens. Cha plays it straight down the middle. Both families have been through hell; both have made serious mistakes, crimes against one another. And ultimately they share one more terrible attribute: both families have been callously under-served by the cops and local government, for which relatively poor, powerless, nonwhite families are the dead last priority.

Cha bases her story on a real event, and she explains this in the author’s notes at the end of the book.

As a reviewer, I am closer to this than many will be: my family is a blend of Caucasians, Asian immigrants, and African-Americans. I read multiple galleys at a time, shifting from one to another throughout the reading parts of my day, but it is this story that I thought about when I wasn’t reading anything.

The first book that I read by this author was from her detective series. When I saw that she had a galley up for review, I was initially disappointed that this wasn’t a Juniper Song mystery, but now that I have seen what Cha is doing and where she is going with it, I see that this had to be a stand-alone novel. There isn’t one thing about it that I would change.Highly recommended to those that love the genre and that cherish civil rights in the U.S.; a must-read.

Best Poetry 2019: A Bound Woman is a Dangerous Thing, by Damaris B. Hill*****

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Heaven, My Home, by Attica Locke*****

Attica Locke is a force to be reckoned with and the first mystery in the Highway 59 series, Bluebird, Bluebird was outstanding, so I jumped when I saw this, the second in the series available to review. My thanks go to Net Galley and Mulholland Books for the review copy. It will be available to the public Tuesday, September 17, 2019.

Darren Mathewsis a Black Texas Ranger, and his work is to unmask and prosecute members of the sinister Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. When the story opens we see that our protagonist is still drinking; he and his wife Lisa, who were estranged during the last book, have reached a détente of sorts. He will still drink, but it will be civilized consumption in front of his wife. A glass of beer. There. See, was that so bad? He has it handled. In exchange, he agrees to bring his work off the road, and so he is assigned to a supervisory position directing other officers in pursuit of the ABT. He doesn’t want to drive a desk, but it’s a concession he makes for her.

But Darren has gotten himself into an awkward spot, a compromising one. His mother—a woman that did not raise him but with whom he has recently developed a relationship of sorts—says it’s a shame that nobody has found the .38 used to kill Ronnie Malvo. Mack, who is dear to Darren, is a suspect in that homicide, and his mother has the gun. He tells himself that his frequent contact with her is a sign that they have a closer relationship and that the money and gifts he brings her are a pleasure for him to provide. But it’s not true; actually, his mother is blackmailing him.

And before you know it, he’s drinking hard, anywhere and everywhere that Lisa can’t see it.

Everyone that reads a lot of fiction in general or mysteries in particular develops a mental list of things they are tired of seeing. I for one could die happy if I never saw another alcoholic protagonist; I am also weary of seeing mean mothers. Why does every author have to take a pot shot at motherhood? But for every item on my list, there’s an exceptional writer that gets a pass because their prose is so solid, their voice so clear and resonant, their pacing so flawless, their characters so credible. Locke is one of those writers. (And to be fair, there are other features on my no-no list that Locke avoids nicely.)

So there’s the iffy marriage; there’s the bottle; there’s the blackmailing mama. But that’s not the half of it. Darren is sent into the field, despite his protests and his promise to Lisa, because there’s a missing child–the child of a member of the ABT– who has last been seen in a historically Black community, and the Rangers need a Black lawman to ease the way of the investigation. The Rangers don’t have a lot of Black officers to call out.

So next thing we know Darren is out in the boondocks, serving as a companion officer to a Caucasian sheriff that doesn’t really want much to do with Darren. In fact, the local power brokers, all of them white, are visibly uncomfortable in his presence, particularly when he enters private homes. And he knows that information is being withheld from him, not only by these people but also by Leroy Page, an elderly African-American man that was the last one to see Levi alive.

Locke is noteworthy for the way she creates a sense of disorientation, a murk that starts with the setting—swampy, dark, wet—and extends into the characters that withhold information and make remarks that are both overly general but also sometimes loaded with double meaning that he can’t decode. And into all of this mess comes his best friend Greg,  a Caucasian FBI man that has been sent in to explore the possibility of a hate crime here.

Part of Locke’s magic is her perceptive nature and the way she segues political events into the storyline. And so the pages fairly vibrate with betrayal when Greg, who knows from Darren that Leroy has not been forthcoming and won’t permit a warrantless search of his home, says that Leroy is guilty of a hate crime. The current administration takes a low view of such matters, Greg points out, and after all, Leroy referred to him as the “HCIC; Head Cracker In Charge.” Darren takes exception:

Cracker and nigger are not the same, and you know it,” Darren said.

“If we don’t prosecute hate crimes against whites—if that’s what this is,” Greg said, just to get Darren to hear him out, “if we don’t prosecute crimes against white lives to the degree that we do those against black lives—“ 

Darren laughed so hard the bourbon nearly choked him.

“They need to see the FBI taking every hate crime seriously.”

“So this is the Jackie Robinson of federal hate crime cases?”

It’s preposterous, of course. For one thing, as Darren points out, there’s no body. The child may be alive. But he is shaken by his friend’s behavior, and when Lisa drives out to visit on her day off, Darren is further concerned by how intimately she and Greg regard one another. It’s one more thing he doesn’t need, and at this point he has nobody left, apart from his very elderly uncle, who tells him the truth and isn’t hiding anything.  He does his best to help Leroy, but Leroy doesn’t trust him and is also not telling him everything, and he’s forced to recognize that this elderly man that reminds him of his uncles and Mack is, after all, another stranger.

Meanwhile, Darren makes a decision that knocks up against the ethics that his upbringing and his profession demand.

The tension builds and there’s no putting this book down. I stayed up late because I couldn’t sleep until I knew the outcome, which I did not see coming.

Locke is brilliant and seems to me like a shoo-in for a Grand Masters Award. This book and the one before it are highly recommended.

In West Mills, by De’Shawn Charles Winslow***

I received a review copy of this book courtesy of Net Galley and Bloomsbury. It’s for sale now.

Winslow’s debut is set in 1941 in North Carolina. Our protagonists are Azalea Knot, an alcoholic school teacher in an African-American community, a woman shunned by her neighbors and kinfolk for her unconventional behavior and obnoxious personality. Otis Lee has family troubles of his own, but seeks redemption by helping Knot, who has two babies out of wedlock at a time when you really could not do that without terrible social repercussions. Otis is a helpful sort, and ultimately, the story becomes one about the family we choose.

I abandoned and restarted this book three times, and in the end, I never did engage with it much. I read the first thirty percent, the last twenty-five percent, and skimmed the middle. The writing style didn’t speak to me, and I couldn’t understand why Otis would care about Knot. But to be fair, Southern fiction has been a competitive genre for several years, and I was reading books by Attica Locke and Jesmyn Ward at the same time I read this.

I have a hunch Winslow is just warming up. He’ll be one to watch in the future.

When I Was White, by Sarah Valentine****

Sarah Valentine was raised to believe that she was white, and that her dark complexion was the product of her Greek ancestors. But whereas she does have Greek ancestry in her DNA, Sarah is also of African descent. This strange but compelling, searingly honest memoir came to me courtesy of Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press; it will be available to the public tomorrow, August 6, 2019.

Valentine is an excellent writer, and she spins us back in time to her childhood, spent in a private school, a Catholic upper middle class family, celebrating European cultural events. She is the only African-American or mixed race student at her school, and every now and then, someone there will make a remark that infers she is Black. This puzzles her. Her own mother makes remarks bordering on White Supremacy, assumptions about the habits and character of Black people; of course, none of this should apply to Sarah, in her view, because she insists that Sarah is Greek and Irish, and Irish, and Irish.

Reading of her experiences, I am initially surprised that such culturally clueless, entirely white parents would be permitted to adopt a Black child; but here’s the thing. She isn’t adopted. She is her mother’s biological child, and to talk about who her biological father is, is to recognize that her mother was not always faithful to her father. It’s a keg of dynamite, one that her parents carefully navigate around. Not only have they not spoken about this to Sarah; they have not spoken about it to each other. It is a fiction that holds their marriage together; toss a tablecloth over that keg of TNT there and for goodness sake, don’t bump it.

I came away feeling sorry for her father.

There’s a lot more going on between Sarah and her parents, particularly her mother, a talented but not entirely stable parent who assigns impossible standards to her daughter. Meanwhile, as Sarah grows up and leaves for college, the fiction of her heritage is uncovered, first as a mere suspicion, then later as fact.

This isn’t an easy read or a fun one. It can’t be. Sarah’s pain bleeds through the pages as we see the toxic ingredients and outcomes in her story; her mother’s mental health and her own, as well as eating disorders and the implosion of her parents’ marriage. The particulars of her lifelong struggle make it impossible to draw a larger lesson in terms of civil rights issues; there are some salient points that will speak to women that grew up in the mid-20th century as Sarah’s mother did, and as I did. And here we find one small spark of optimism, the fact that when women are raped, whether at college or elsewhere, we stand a greater chance of being believed than we did in the past. Still, it’s a grim tale overall, and I don’t think there’s any other way Sarah could honestly have told it.

Bluebird, Bluebird, by Attica Locke*****

Attica Locke’s mysteries are consistently excellent, so when I found a review copy for this first entry in her Highway 59 series, I felt as if I had struck gold. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Mulholland books. This book is for sale now.

Darren Matthews is a Black Texas Ranger, and he’s in big trouble. He’s suspended from the force, and his wife Lisa has thrown him out of the house until he cleans up his act. She doesn’t want to be married to a man that is so careless of his own health and safety; if he takes a desk job and quits drinking, he can come home to his family. But right now he’s on his own, and right now he’s still drinking, and it is in the process of moving from one drink to another that he meets Randie, the recent widow of Michael Wright. The official story the local sheriff tells is that Michael killed Missy Dale, a Caucasian woman whose body was dragged from the swamp behind Geneva’s bar, and then himself. The only problem with that theory, Darren discovers, is that Michael died before Missy. Darren thinks they were both murdered.

As Darren goes deeper into the case, after receiving short-term, conditional support from his boss, he finds more elements that suggest a murder and subsequent cover-up. He’s closer to the truth; the sheriff and another local big-shot are closer to apoplexy; and he’s less likely to go home to Lisa.

Attica Locke is one of a handful of consistency brilliant mystery writers in the US. Her capacity to carry me to the murky rural South and create taut suspension that makes me lean forward physically as I follow the story is matchless. I’ve read more than a hundred other books between her earlier work and this one, yet I still remember the characters, the setting, and above all, that brooding, simmering dark highway. This is what sets her apart from other authors in an otherwise crowded field.

I also like the way she addresses racism, and here Darren investigates the role of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas; I ache as I read of the continuous injustice that Darren, Michael, and so many others face both within this story and in real life. And I want to cheer when Darren says that he will never leave, because the ABT and other White Supremacy groups don’t get to decide what Texas is. It is as much his story as it is theirs, and he will fight for it.

“Darren had always wanted to believe that theirs was the last generation to have to live that way, that change might trickle down from the White House. When, in fact, the opposite had proven true. In the wake of Obama, America had told on itself.”

Darren risks his life once again in his determination to dig up the rotten hidden truth and lay it out in the sun where everyone can see it. The ruling scions of Lark are equally determined to prevent him from doing it. The intensity of this thing is off the charts, but fortunately I know this author’s work well enough not to start reading it close to bedtime, because once I am into the book’s second half, I will have to finish it before I can do anything else, including sleep.

The good news for me and for other Locke fans is that this is the beginning of a series. I received this galley after publication, and now the second of the Highway 59 series, Heaven, My Home, is slated for release in September. (Watch this blog!)

Highly recommended.

Make Me a City, by Jonathan Carr***

I am always on the lookout for something different, and so I leapt at the chance to read this publication free and early. Thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt. It’s for sale now.

The story is set in and around Chicago, back when the city was first born. It tells a tale of shifting alliances and double crosses; yet in other ways it is an old story, one in which a Caucasian interloper cannot bear to see a Black man rise to a position of wealth and influence. It’s not an easy read.

Conceptually the story is strong, but the author tries to do too much at once. Shifting points of view; development of disparate characters; and an old time dialect that is challenging all by itself serve to render the story muddy and confusing. Too much is lost, and at the halfway point, I gave it up and commenced skimming.

Despite this, I believe Carr is a talented writer and I like his ideas. I would read his work again.