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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All the Missing Girls

img_2938Here we go with a another new thriller with “girl” in the title.  Released on June 28 2016, All the Missing Girls  is pegged as the next thriller to be loved by those fans of The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl.   That should have been a clue for me to abstain but I was game to read another thriller this summer.

Nicolette Farrell left her small hometown in Cooley Ridge ten years earlier after the mysterious disappearance of her best friend Corinne.  She started a new life in Philadelphia after finishing her studies, with great job and rich lawyer boyfriend coming after.  It’s ten years later and Nicolette, alias Nic is enticed into returning to her hometown to help organize the family home, which will go up for sale to help take care of her ailing father. After only being there for a few days, Annaleise disappears and the mystery continues.  The key to this novel is its structure since the author, Megan Miranda decided to tell the story backward from Day 15 to Day 1.

Essentially I was intrigued by this book mostly because of the structure, but as I started  I quickly realized it wasn’t for me.  Firstly, all of the characters are unlikely and untrustworthy.  As the reader I was thrown into a setting that I was trying to figure out the entire time but there weren’t any clues.  The story is told from Nic’s point of view and she basically tells the reader everything.  Nothing is being shown.  The development is very natural so I just read to see what was happening next with no real desire.  I feel like the structure of the novel really impeded any real mystery in the story.  Not to mention, I didn’t care about the characters, what they went through ten years ago or what they were going through in the present.  They seemed to be two dimensional at best.  There was even one character who served no real purpose to the story.

As for the good stuff, Megan Miranda does have an easy to read writing style.  It flows very well.  Some of the best passages were those that conjured up atmosphere and a bit of spookiness and particularly for the scenes mentioning the woods, which are a very crucial part of the story.  She also had a clever idea of changing up the structure by telling the story backward, however it wasn’t enough to keep me intrigued. I was bored and couldn’t wait for it to be over.

Meghan Miranda is the author of four YA novels called Soulprint, Vengeance, Hysteria, and Fracture. She has also released another YA novel called The Safest Lies on May 24th of this year.  All the Missing Girls was Miranda’s first attempt at writing a novel for adults.

My Copy:  All the Missing Girls, ARC paperback, 368 pages

Rating: **

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The Blackbirds

The Blackbirds is the latest release from Eric Jerome Dickey, known for writing contemporary novels about African-American life.  Naughtier than Nice, the sequel to Naughty or Nice and One Night, a standalone were the last two novels he published in 2015.  For me, It’s been a while since I’ve read anything from him so I sort of knew what I was going to be getting into with this one.  Exquisite cover, 400 plus pages, this is that “girlfriend book” that everybody has been anticipating this 2016.

img_2867Four best friends as close as sisters, Kwanzaa, Ericka, Destiny, and Indigo are all trying to find love and solutions to their personal quandaries.  The novel is plot driven like only Dickey knows how to do.  He has his writing formula down to a science.  It’s funny, zany, sexy, over the top, heartbreaking, and explanatory.  Dickey has found a way to balance what would be considered a typical urban erotica novel, while packing it with loads of social commentary.  He makes references to all sorts of incidents from police brutality to political to social media, etc.  The Blackbirds is brimful of urban expressions and millennial lingo, so if you’re not hip to the groove I suggest you read it with the urban dictionary open.

The themes seem to be typical of what Dickey writes – sexuality, homosexuality, male/female – mother/daughter – father/daughter relationships, cheating, female friendships, illness, etc.  It touches on just about everything. The thing that surprised me the most was the quantity of sex in the novel.  I knew it would contain sex but not to that extent.  Sex scenes took over the story in the second and third parts of the novel.  So if you have a problem with reading erotica, this won’t be the book for you.  Surprisingly, there is no mention on the stunning cover about the novel being erotica, but when you look on the inside flap it’s written at the top in red.  Now this has intrigued me because when books are written by white authors they always put some kind of trigger warning that it contains copious amounts of sex, etc.  So I’m wondering how is it that this novel has no mention of it on the front cover.  Could it be that Dutton thought that the way the book was going to be marketed that only black readers would be interested in it?  Or is it that Dutton assumed that black readers like reading about sex so no need to point out the obvious?  Or maybe it’s just that Dutton doesn’t think that white readers will go for this one anyway because essentially it will be in the black interests section in Barnes & Noble, so no need?

To exacerbate my previous questions, I saw a comment made in the review section of Goodreads where a white man said he was disappointed by The Blackbirds.  “He said he had to quit before he plucked out his eyes and that it was dreadful.  He then commented that he was obviously not the the target audience and moreover he thought Dickey’s talent would shine through. Alas!”  (Goodreads user)  I didn’t realize the reader had to be the target audience to enjoy a book.  That’s a new one for me.  Granted, Dickey’s book isn’t 5-star in my opinion, but it isn’t totally bad either.  If anything he’s guilty of, it is of sensationalizing his book with too much sex and trying to develop too many story lines at once; which I believe is always a trap when there are several main characters.  For instance, there are a few story lines which are thrown together quickly to end the book just over 500 pages.  Those story lines should have been treated with more care, but instead their development was bypassed for some juicy sex scenes, which made the last 200 pages feel rushed.

Nevertheless, The Blackbirds is a nice escape read that titillates, amuses,  makes you smile, makes the head shake, and the mind say Amen (at times). It’s loud, hysterical, ratchet, violent, sexy, etc.  It’s a story that reads quickly, plot developing as well as characters growing.  It’s definitely worth picking up if you want erotica with a bit more real storyline.  EL James could take a few pointers from Eric Jerome Dickey.  I’m just sayin’ y’all. 😉

My copy:  The Blackbirds – hardcover, 508 pages

Rating:  ***

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The Housekeeper and the Professor

The Professor is an expert in Mathematics.  After a car accident his memory is blocked in 1975.  He lives alone in a little house in the back of his sister-in-law’s garden.  His main img_2902problem is that his short term memory only lasts 80 minutes.  As a result, he wears a black suit everyday that he pins little notes on to remind him of things he has just experienced.  This is how he can remember his housekeeper and her son Root.

The Housekeeper and the Professor was the last book I read with my book club this 2015-2016 school year.  What a pleasant quiet read to end on.  This will be the third book I’ve read from Yoko Ogawa who is a brilliant writer.  I read Revenge, Hotel Iris, and then this one.  The books were totally different in subject matter, but each as passionate as the other.  The Housekeeper and the Professor sensitively explores memory, memories, being understood, and relationships.

An element that stands out the most is the fact that only one person has a name and that’s Root, the Housekeeper’s son.  The Professor gave him this name “because…the flat top of his head reminded him of the square root sign.”  “With this one little sign we can come to know an infinite range of numbers, even those we can’t see.”  (The Housekeeper and the Professor, p.1) Ogawa has chosen to give no one else a name.  I believe this is so that she immerses the reader into the story quickly, while the focal point being Root.  Along with the series of math problems that essentially the reader can try to solve along with the main characters, Ogawa is trying to invite us into the Professor’s world (how he looks at people and situations) and the Houskeeper’s world(what she has to go through to connect and understand the Professor).  The Professor lives life in rapport with numbers, equations, and their relationship to each other.  He uses numbers to comprehend life around himself.  He tells his Housekeeper, “Math has proven the existence of God because it is absolute and without contra-diction; but the devil must exist as well, because we cannot prove it.” (The Housekeeper and the Professor, p.100)  However, love and memory are always filled with contradiction.  Besides the precedent themes, Ogawa is surely making commentary on what is considered to be a real family and  is it important how it is composed.

As the story goes on we witness a profound bond that is growing between these three individuals.  It’s touching, thought-provoking, and truly poetic.  With each page and each situation there is a comparison with an equation or something related to Mathematics.  Now for me this entire book could have been a disaster, since I hate Mathematics; but somehow, despite that,  I was compelled to read about the relationship that was growing between these three characters.  I’m sure you will get a tremendous amount of meaning and emotion from the story too.  It’s hard to believe Ogawa could say so much in so few pages, 180 to be exact.  Just a simple reminder to all those authors out there who feel the need to write 500+page books, get to the point or risk that nobody gets it and worse gives up.

Yoko Ogawa is a Japanese author who has written over 40+ books.  She is known for her simplistic but poignant writing style full of detail.  Her protagonists are often women depicting the roles of women in Japanese society.  She also covers other themes relating to Japanese culture.  If you haven’t read anything by her, absolutely make the next book that you pick up be from Ogawa.  You won’t be disappointed.

My copy: The Housekeeper and the Professor, paperback, 180 pages

Rating:  **** 1/2 stars

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The Book of Harlan

 

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

Rating: *****

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The Birds of Opulence

img_2760If you don’t know how much mad love I have for Crystal Wilkinson’s writing, you’re going to hear all about it in this review of The Birds of Opulence, newly released in March 2016.  The story explores life in small town Opulence, focalizing on the Goode-Brown family.  The four generations of women, led by the spirited and strong-minded Minnie Mae.

The novel explores themes of womanhood, coming of age, mental illness, duty, and life.  Wilkinson introduces the characters, while planting the seed of this town and the culture that resides there.  The atmosphere Wilkinson cultivates will seize you and bring you along for the ride right from page one.  This is what is so incredible about her storytelling aptitude.  I was mentioning this to Andi from Estella’s Revenge and she said that she loved when that happened because a lot of authors don’t seem to know how to do that.  I gave that a long hard thought and I have to agree with her.  It isn’t easy to create an atmosphere and to maintain it throughout the story.

The descriptions of Opulence’s beautiful countryside, from the different women and the tests of life they go through, to the food, and the memories they recount, the story gives off deep meaning on many levels in very few pages.  As you may have guessed the birds are the principal women in the book.  We read about the the older women in the story and then we go full circle to the stories of their daughters.  Another interesting aspect is that Wilkinson has brought in characters from her previous connected short story collection called Water Street, which I reviewed and also loved.  So we have the chance to see Mona and Yolanda in The Birds of Opulence growing up and becoming young women, whereas in Water Street we only see them as women and one episode which is a memory is reality in The Birds of Opulence.  We also understand their how they become friends and their connection to each other which is not explained in detail in Water Street.

“Boy give you less to worry about.” (The Birds of Opulence, p. 5) is the phrase that rings like an alarm through the entire book, uttered by Minnie Mae.  Women and men aren’t equal in life’s challenges as much as we would like that to be the contrary and we witness the many injustices that happen to the different female characters.  However tragic these stories, there is still a silver lining despite its bittersweetness and an entryway to more future stories about the people of Opulence.

I encourage you all to check out Crystal Wilkinson’s other short story collections Blackberries, Blackberries and Water Street.  Her sensitive realistic writing style will suck you in and you won’t be able to put the book down.  The Birds of Opulence is a perfect puzzle piece to her previous work and I look forward to seeing what she writes next. Who knows maybe we’ll get to learn even more about Mona….

My copy: The Birds of Opulence – hardcover, 199 pages

Rating:  ****

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The Passenger

What would you do if the identity you’ve embraced for some time has fallen through and the passengeryour only option is to leave town precipitously and try to get another one?  This is the beginning of the newly released thriller, The Passenger by Lisa Lutz.  This story follows the chaotic journey of “Tanya DuBois” to her final truthful destination.

The story is told from Tanya’s point of view. She has a steady unsure voice, slightly naive and gladly not the bitchy deranged voice as the main character in The Girl on the Train.  Compared to The Girl on the Train, The Passenger takes a more realistic view of what can happen when one is all alone and must try to make the right decisions.  Often Tanya surprised me with her decisions but things become a lot clearer during the last thirty percent of the book.

I’d say there is quite a lot of suspense, however a few predictable parts.  I think it’s hard to event the wheel these days with thrillers.  All in all a good read. The chapters weren’t too long and a few of them are cut with emails to add to the suspense.  It was a page turner and not dragged out any longer than it really needed to be.  The only disservice to this book is to compare it to two other successful thrillers with irascible crazy lead female characters, which was done on the inside flap.  It didn’t need that comparison.  The Passenger is capable of enticing readers on its own.  Definitely check it out if you’re looking for a fast pace thriller, with a clever title.

My Copy:  The Passenger – Lisa Lutz (hardcover) 304 pages

Rating:  ***

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