Camilla's Roses

Camilla’s Roses is Bernice L. McFadden’s sixth novel.  I’ll have just reached the halfway mark on my book challenge to read all of her books in order of publication this year. So far this has been an interesting challenge.  I’m enjoying observing how her writing style has developed and improved with each novel.

Not knowing what to expect, I have to say that Camilla’s Roses took me on a rollercoaster ride of emotions.  The novella is separated into three distinct parts – the present, the past, and the present.  McFadden uses the section on the past to show us img_4109Camilla’s upbringing, her relationship with her family, and her coming of age.  She is born to two parents who are weak, incompetent, and driven by their personal demons.  Luckily for Camilla she is raised by her grand-parents despite the difficulty of having to take care of so many people in their home.  With all the difficulty of growing up that Camilla had she only wanted to leave and to never look back once she went off to college.

The novella develops twists and turns in ways you won’t be able to predict.  With sensitivity McFadden exposes the good, the bad, and the ugly of the ups and downs of life.  “We forget about the people we love sometimes.” (Camilla’s Roses, p. 120)  Camilla learns that she can’t hide from her past and her family, for this is what has  made her who she is.  However, is she ready to reconcile with all of those difficulties in her past and become an even better black woman in the end?

Bernice L. McFadden’s writing style in Camilla’s Roses can be described as rhythmic and  sharp.  At times the transitions are so quick that if you’re not paying attention you just might miss a piece of important information that’s been dropped unexpectedly.  This story is tightly recounted and gives loads of information throughout, which is probably why the second part, the past, is the longest part of the novella.  It gives Camilla’s and her family’s back story.  Despite it’s 203 pages, I didn’t feel too unsatisfied at the end, although I’d have liked to have seen what became of her husband.

For any of  you out there interested in reading more from black women writers Camilla’s Roses wouldn’t be a bad place to start.  I’d say it’s a little snack of what is to come if it’s your first read of Bernice L. McFadden.  I think I’d have to suggest  Sugar as the ideal first book to pick up from McFadden’s list of novels because it is an incredible story with complex and unforgettable characters.   If you’re interested in themes that touch on black women, black community, mother/daughter relationships, colorism, and more Camilla’s Roses is for you too.  Check out the video below to learn more about how Bernice L. McFadden started her writing career.

My copy:  Camilla’s Roses, hardcover, 203 pages (Dutton)

My rating:  * * * * 

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Hunger A Memoir of (My) Body

According to my electronic dictionary, hunger means a feeling of discomfort or weakness caused by lack of food, coupled with the desire to eat or a strong desire or craving.  I must say that Roxane Gay’s memoir Hunger A Memoir of (My) Body was named appropriately.  She has a hunger but so did I as a reader and lover of her writing.  I have to admit I didn’t love Difficult Women.  I couldn’t understand the emphasis on these lost women who found themselvesimg_4070 in the most appalling situations.  I kept asking myself why.

I have read all of Gay’s works, except An Untamed State.  It is the novel I seem to be putting off.  I have been anticipating its true life brutally; even more now that I’ve read Hunger.  Nevertheless, I will be reading it and completing Gay’s list of writing.  I feel that now having finished Hunger, I understand her a bit more and can bring myself to accept the brutality and authenticity of her writing with my eyes wide open.  Difficult Women presented me a real challenge, as did Hunger.

Hunger is a confession of sorts.  It discusses sexual assault and recovering from that horrible experience alone.  It also discusses being a big woman and all the challenges that she faces from society and family.  Gay gave me a lot to think about in this memoir – everything from fat shaming, to eating disorders, to dating, family, and more.  She BREAKS it down!  There were things she speaks about in Hunger that I can relate to because I am also a big woman.  When she said “It is a powerful lie to equate thinness with self-worth.” (Hunger, p. 135), I just wanted to rent a billboard and have that phrase written on it.

The best thing about this novel for me was its natural perfect progression.  It begins and ends with the right tone.  We learn quite a lot about Gay’s feelings on many different subjects and I commend her for her raw openness.  She is brave, yet vulnerable.  I couldn’t begin to imagine how honest this memoir was going to be.  She is unbiased and unabashedly honest about some of the deepest problems in her life.  Hunger is a way for Gay to exorcise those demons from her past.  I’d like to think this memoir could help some people out there to accept and understand themselves better and to get help if they need it.

“I am realizing I am not worthless. Knowing that feels good.  My sad stories will always be there. I am going to keep telling them even though I hate having the stories to tell.  These sad stories will always weigh on me, though that burden lessens the more  I realize  who I am and what I am worth.” (Hunger, p. 251)

I read this book while listening to the audiobook with Roxane Gay’s voice – stong, unflinching and expressive.  She manages to make the reader smirk and smile despite the seriousness of the memoir.  She even uses pop culture and real examples, in order to make her thoughts crystal clear.  I recommend listening to the audiobook if you’re thinking about reading Hunger.  I’d even suggest reading Hunger first even if you haven’t read any of her other works.  Watch the video below where Roxane Gay is interviewed in Australia about Difficult Women.  It’s EXCELLENT!  Roxane Gay doesn’t sugar coat anything and that’s what makes her so awe-inspiring.

My copy:  Hunger  A Memoir of (My) Body, Roxane Gay (Harper Collins), p. 304

My rating:  * * * * *

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Behold the Dreamers

snapseedThe immigrant story has been the central theme to quite a lot of contemporary novels these past few years.  The release of Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers may have first been perceived as another typical immigrant story to join all the others, but actually it’s much more.

I was sent a Net Galley uncorrected proof in exchange for an honest review, so I opted to listen to the audiobook while reading simultaneously.  The experience was very interesting because I got to see what was edited and how the change of a few words can give a passage a totally different feel. The general story of Behold the Dreamers is a family from Cameroon united after some time. We the reader follow their ups and downs to remain in the United States and to hopefully obtain the proper paper work.

The story begins with Jende who is going through an interview with Clark Edwards to become his chauffeur.  Happily, Jende gets the job and Behold the Dreamers evolves and explores the dynamic relationship between the Edwards, the rich American family and the Jongas, the Cameroonian immigrant family.  Honestly, this juxtaposition between the two families is brilliant.  Mbue tells this story while favoring none of the characters.  What works the best in this novel is that the characters feel as if they could be real people.  They aren’t all good or all bad. They are characters that have all the possibilities of making wrong and right decisions.  Despite the wrong things these characters do, the reader will automatically find at least one of them sympathetic.  You’ll even be able to understand why they do and why they do things, even when you won’t necessarily agree with them.  That made this immigrant story an extremely refreshing and fair retelling.

From the beginning, the growing relationship between these two families seems promising.  They add to each other’s lives while still remaining at a comfortable distance.  Following their connections with each other is as fragile as the American economy.  There  is a constant nagging feeling of dread that haunts the reader.  What will happen next?

The Edwards family have everything and from outward appearances things are perfect, and  the Jongas are a struggling family trying to maneuver the difficulties from everyday day life, education, family issues, immigration bureaucracy, and money problems.  The funny thing is that both families have similar problems and are both affected by the financial market crash.  The question is which family will fall perfectly on their feet?  Or will both? Or neither?  Mbue uses the market crash of 2008 to show that it was an equalizer of sorts when it came to the damage that Americans and immigrants felt – losing their jobs, their homes, and even family.

Mbue’s writing is direct yet, you will be surprised by where it leads you.  It’s amazing to read this debut novel from a young writer who has come into her gift without loads of  practice.  True passion and well written.  I’ll link the video below where she talks about how Behold the Dreamers came about.  It goes to show you that the simplest idea came become an interesting book.  They just need to be developed.  So, if  you haven’t read this book I strongly encourage you to pick it up or even listen to the audiobook, which was brilliantly read.  The accents were perfect and really added another dimension to the story as opposed to just reading the book, especially if you’re not familiar with Cameroonian accents.

Behold the Dreamer, 380 pages – Random House, March 2016

My Rating:  4 stars

Recommended to:  Readers who enjoy immigrant stories.

Audiobook:  Excellent

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Here Comes the Sun

Nicole Dennis-Benn’s debut novel explores living on the island of Jamaica.  Masquerading img_3150behind a jovial gay cover in bright orange, yellow, and green, Here Comes the Sun, starts gently and insidiously goes places we aren’t prepared for.  The novel revolves around three unlikable main characters – Delores, Margot, and Thandi, who form an unforgettable trio.  Delores is a mother preoccupied with money and not enough to the real well-being of her daughters.  Margot her oldest daughter is motivated to work in the hotel and she gets to the point of selling her body to hotel guests to earn enough money to pay for Thandi’s education and the family’s house expenses.  Thandi, Delores’ youngest daughter, is 15 years younger than Margot.  She’s brilliant in school and is searching to be loved and accepted.  All the family’s desires of escaping poverty in River Bank are tied up in the hopes of Thandi succeeding at school and eventually going to medical school to become a doctor.

The setting of this novel is River Bank a quiet little village situated near a resort hotel, where cruise ships make frequent stops with nonchalant tourists.  Life in poverty on an island can make people do things they would have never thought of doing to survive.  The way Dennis-Benn uses light and darkness to convey the moods of the characters and to set a scene is masterly.  Told with luscious language and poignant analogies, she accurately paints the picture of the horrific situations facing Jamaicans in little sleepy towns near luxurious high-rise resorts.  As I was reading this novel, it made me think of A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid and the rage that ran through the novel.

“The darkness claims her, encircles her with black walls that eventually open up into a path for her to walk through.  She takes a few steps, aware of the one foot in front of the other; of the strangeness creeping up her spine, wrapping itself around her belly, shooting up into her chest, The scent of the bougainvilleas that line the fence is like a sweet embrace. The darkness becomes a friendly accomplice. Yet, the familiar apprehension ambushes her: Can she be seen?  She looks over her shoulder  and contemplates the distance it would take for her to walk to her house from here.  A good mile.  She stands in front of the bright pink house that emerges from the shadows.  It seems to gloss in the dark….”(Here Comes the Sun, pp. 15-16)

Here Comes the Sun is a novel that mixes a good plot with excellent character development. It’s obvious that Dennis-Benn set out to depict a story showing the sociological implications of the difficulties people on the island face, while balancing the plot with pertinent themes such as homosexuality, mother/daughter relationships, colorism, sexism, class, race, missing fathers and of course the long-lasting effects of colonialism on the thoughts and behavior of the island people.  You’re probably thinking that this sounds like a lot to put in a 345 page book, but it’s brilliantly balanced, paced, and speaks clearly to the reader.

Having four generations living under the same roof was Dennis-Benn’s way of having the reader follow and understand the difficulties of each character.  Dolores is a horrible mother but her discourse is obviously that of the after effects of colonialism.  Money is the only thing that she believes will get them out of where they are.  She would subscribe to the expression – You gotta do what you gotta do.  Delores’ voice and a few of the other secondary characters like Charles, Miss Ruby, and Maxi are always in Jamaican dialect which roots the reader into the tradition of life in River Bank.  The dialect isn’t hard to understand.  Saying the lines out loud can help you understand the meaning better if you struggle with reading dialect.  Margot hiding her homosexuality, her deep hatred for her mother, and her desire to earn enough money to leave River Bank and set up elsewhere drive her throughout the story and the lengths she goes to make this happen are mind-blowing.  Thandi who has the weight on her shoulders to succeed in school to save her family from poverty and at the same time doesn’t feel accepted in her school;  has seemed to take in all the derogatory things she hears about dark skin.  “Tsk, tsk. Well, God played a cruel joke on you.  Because, chile, if yuh skin was as pretty as yuh hair, you’d be one gorgeous woman.” (Here Comes the Sun, p. 25)  Sadly, she is so sure that she’ll be accepted if her skin is lighter.

You’ll be glued from the moment you begin to read this story, anxious to find out what’s going to happen next, shocked as you’re pulled through all the twists and turns.  All the secondary characters are just as memorable as Delores, Margot, and Thandi.  The only real problem I had with Here Comes the Sun was the ending, to be exact the last chapter.  I was really disappointed to not get the closure I was hoping for once the novel was finished.  I wanted to know what happened to the characters.  Chapter 40 left me dissatisfied.  I really enjoyed all the other parts of the novel and felt they were perfect.  Unfortunately, the outcomes of the characters are left hanging and inferred.  It felt like she had no idea how to finish this book or maybe she was reluctant to end the book with all the loose ends perfectly tied up.  Could she have felt that ending the book this way shows that life goes on, as if we the readers were just witnesses to a part of these characters’ lives?  I’m wondering if maybe she plans on using these characters for another book.  That would make a great second book. 😉  So, have you read this one and if not are you interested in trying it?

My copy:   Here Comes the Sun, 345 pages

Rating: ****

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Krik? Krak!

img_2994I’d never heard the words Kirk? Krak! and wondered what they meant when I picked this book up.  Reading the back cover, I learned that storytellers say Krik? and listeners say Krak! in Haiti.  Krik? Krak! is a poetic collection of connected short stories that explores the Haitian community in the United States and in Haiti.  The tradition of storytelling is a way of passing down moeurs and is an important part of Haitian culture.  This is specifically treated in this collection – passing culture from mother to daughter.

Krik? Krak! opens with a short story of Haitian refugees that are attempting to escape the political strife and horrors of their country and are floating out to sea desperately trying to reach Miami, while shedding their personal items along the way and in some cases their lives.  Each story is told from the poignant point of view of Haitians however surprising these stories have a strong sense of universality about them as well.  Everyone has a sense of home, a sense of family, of culture, and a desire for a good life.  Danticat does a brilliant job of integrating the recurring themes of water, suffering, and hope.  Water is often portrayed as a barrier.  The barrier that surrounds the island of Haiti and separates it from the Dominican Republic.  Just as the ocean must be crossed to attain a hopeful life in the United States, water is the notion of escape along with the reminder of all the Haitians that didn’t/don’t make it.

It’s very hard to read these stories and not think about the refugees fleeing the horrors of Syria and immigrating to Europe.  Leaving one’s country and having to find the balance between acceptance into a new country and preserving the culture that was left behind.  Danticat’s writing is infectious with a dynamism of superstition and it enlightens the reader to Haitian history.  I strongly recommend reading this short story collection to learn more about Haiti and its people but mostly to experience the passionate manner in which Danticat evokes the honesty, courage, sensitivity, and authenticity of their stories.

Edwidge Danticat is a Haitian-American writer born in Port-au-Prince in 1969.  She was raised in Haiti by her aunt and uncle.  She finally joined her parens, who had left for the United States earlier, at the age of 12 in Brooklyn.  Danticat began writing at the age of 9 years old.  Her move to Brooklyn was difficult so she turned to literature for comfort.  Her first published writing in English was A Haitian-American Christmas: Cremace and Creole Theatre.   Some of the major themes that are dealt with in her writings are mother-daughter relationships, national identity, and Haitian diaspora.

She has been decorated with  countless literary awards and honorary degrees.  Having earned a Masters of Fine Arts from Brown University, Danticat has gone on to write many well-known titled books such as The Farming of the Bones, The Dew Breaker, and her latest novel Claire of the Sea Light.  On a high note, a young director named Easmanie Michel fell in love with Krik? Krak! and is working diligently to bring Edwidge Danticat’s short story Caroline’s Wedding to the big screen.  She believes that Danticat’s work will translate well on-screen and she has been entrusted to make it happen.  If you’re interested in keeping up with the new developments on this film project head over and check out Easmanie Michel’s Facebook page Caroline’s Wedding.

 

My Copy:  Krik? Krak!, paperback 224 pages

Rating: *****

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The Fire This Time

The Fire This Time.  Police brutality and systemic racism are plaguing the United States as if we hadn’t gone through the Civil Rights movement.  I living in France, a country without worry or anxiety when I go out, don’t have to face so much overt racism, nor too many microagressions, sit and listethe fire this timen to the countless horrific cases of police brutality ending in fatality.  I am almost fifty years old and am proud to have seen a black president and hopefully a female one.  However the hate crimes, police brutality, and systemic racism I fear I won’t see an end before my death.

Jesmyn Ward compiled a series of poignant essays called, The Fire This Time, that each explore the difficulty that black Americans are having today concerning race.  Some Americans may not even be aware of these difficulties that are well known to black Americans.  The subjects in this collection range from the  role of the black father, to Phillis Wheatly, to preserving our dead, to to simply walking. Each essay is just as important as the other.  There are important lessons to be learned through this read by ALL Americans.  It is a must read.  We can all learn something from The Fire this Time.  For example, I hadn’t heard about the Know Your Rights murals informing citizens of their rights when confronted with the police.  I also hadn’t heard about the remains of slaves found in the New England area that have been conveniently paved over and left to be forgotten.

Powerful, informative, and moving The Fire this Time will make you think and sadden your heart.  It will make you wonder why and where have we gone wrong and why do some Americans not feel that there’s anything wrong about all these recent events which have been going on for longer than a few years. “What Baldwin understood is that to be black in America is to have the demand for dignity be at absolute odds with the national anthem.”(The Fire This Time, )

Another important essay is by Garnett Cadoan. Since when is it a crime to walk. Apparently only if one is black is it a problem.  As a matter of fact a black man running, walking, and waiting on street corners for friends can get him into trouble and in some cases killed. “Walking while black restricts the experience of walking, renders in accessible the classic Romantic experience of walking alone.”(The Fire This Time, Black and blue by Garnette Cadogan)

If you don’t pick up Between the World and Me, I get it, but definitely check out this 5-star collection containing essays from important writers such as Edwidge Danticat, Jesmyn Ward, Mitchell S. Jackson, Claudia Rankine, Isabel Wilkerson, and many more.

My copy: The Fire This Time, ebook 240 pages

Rating: *****

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My Book Club Shortlist 2016-2017

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To New Release or Not

If you’re an avid reader like me, your worst nightmare is standing in front of your bookcase (insert picture of bookcase overflowing with different sized books with colorful enticing spines and a few stacks on the floor because there’s no more room on the shelves) and trying to find the next book to rock your world. We all want to find a book that’s a knock it out of the park 5-stars. However, the number one problem is that we can’t help but be convinced to read some of the many new books released every month instead. Frankly, new releases can be a real dilemma. How does one choose from the plethora of newbies out there.

Well If you’re the kind of person that reads all the new books because you feel automatically left out of the literary conversation if you don’t, then this post is for you. If you’re dying to get to some lesser known but hopefully interesting reads you’re in the right place. I’m going to to share with you some of my anticipated new releases this year. Some of them you can already find in the shops and a few I’ve already read. Moreover the particularity of this list is that they are all diverse authors:

lazarettoLazaretto is Diane McKinney-Whetstone’s sixth novel. She is especially known for writing her successful bestselling contemporary novel Tumbling. One of the dominant aspects to McKinney-Whetstone’s novels is that they are set in her hometown Philadelphia. This is equally the case of Lazaretto which explores the arrival of immigrants whose first stop is the Lazaretto quarantine hospital. The Philadelphia Lazaretto was the first quarantine hospital, built in 1799, in the Untied States. Henceforth, this novel of historical fiction, plays out the story of the black community of Lazaretto, set in the aftermath of the Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Fans of McKinney-Whetstone, I’m sure will be impatient to read Lazaretto which was released on the 12th of April. Her last novel was published in 2005, called Trading Dreams at Midnight.
in other wordsIn Other Words was released earlier this year in February and it is one that I personally can’t wait to peruse. Jhumpa Lahiri moved to Rome with her family in 2012 with the intention of immersing herself in Italian culture and language. Writing daily in her journal in Italian, her goal was to master the Italian language. Through the pages of this autobiographical novel, we see how Lahiri deals with a journey into new words, writing, learning, and being understood. For all of those who have ever had to live in a country while learning the language, In Other Words should be a relevant read. Lahiri wrote In Other Words in Italian; so that is inspiration to all language learners.

I had the pleasure of already reading and enjoying the next two books that I’m recommending The Book of Harlan by Bernice L. McFadden and The Birds of Opulence bythe book of harlan Crystal Wilkinson. The Book of Harlan spans six decades and turns around Harlan the main character. The setting goes from Harlem Renaissance to Paris jazz clubs in Montmartre, Paris to the dark, horrific Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Just check out my review to hear more about it.

The Birds of Opulence develops a story in a small Kentucky town called Opulence. Four generations of women living under the same roof can make the birds of opulencefor a lot toes being stepped on. However, the stronger mothers love their daughters the more difficult relationships seem to be. Wilkinson explores major themes such as mother/daughter relationships, male/female relationships, community, race, and coming of age. Characters found in Wilkinson’s previous short story collect called Water Street appear in The Birds of Opulence. It’s a little book that packs a punch. Check out my review here.
The Blackbirds is the latest Eric Jerome Dickey release, April 19th. I haven’t had a chance the blackbirdsto read it yet, but it’s on my TBR for this month. It’s a chick-lit or as I would like to refer to it as a “girlfriend book”. The blackbirds are four young women Kwanzaa, Indigo, Destiny, and Ericka, friends but close enough to be sisters. Of course they are all looking for something in particular – love, health, etc., however it’s their friendship that they value the most or do they.

Last but not least I recommend The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter the castlereleased at the end of January this year, which is an epic historical fiction covering 1941 to the twenty-first century. It is written by The Wire tv writer and playwright Kia Northern and has been highly anticipated. Two white brothers growing up in rural Alabama and two black brothers growing up in a small town in Maryland whose families will encounter and conflict. Obviously not a simple story but an enticingly captivating one told in 800 pages. I’m looking forward to encountering all the various historical references; definitely a read to keep us engrossed and pondering. Personally, I can’t wait to get to it. It’s on my TBR this month.

I wrote this post as a guest on Callaloo Soup.  Thanks for inviting me!  Check out Francine’s creative simplicity, inspirations and resources blog.  You’ll find everything from journaling, scrapbooking, reading recs,  and plenty of other great ideas to lead your wholesome slow living life.

 

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The Book of Harlan

 

My copy: The Book of Harlan – hardcover, 346 pages

Rating: *****

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