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Book Review: The Conductors by Nicole Glover

Cover of the book The Conductors.

Summary:
Hetty Rhodes was once enslaved, but she ran away with her sister, only her sister was caught while she escaped. She began returning south to try to free her sister, but with her repeated trips became a Conductor on the Underground Railroad, alongside a man named Benjy, using their magic to help others escape. Now the Civil War is over and she and Benjy, who is now her husband, have built a life for themselves in Philadelphia. He’s a blacksmith, she’s a seamstress, and they both solve crimes in their spare time that the white authorities can’t be bothered with. When one of their friends turns up dead in an alley, their investigation takes them throughout Black Philadelphia on a hunt for answers.

Review:
The premise of the worldbuilding for this book reminded me of Thieftaker (review), the first in the Thieftaker Chronicles, which I really enjoyed, only set in the 1800s rather than the 1700s and with a Black woman lead rather than a white man. I say this as I was excited and thought this was a good thing. I remember thinking at the time that I wished there were more alternate history fantasy books and I was excited when the next one I saw brought such diversity to the genre.

I liked the magic in this book. I thought it was a great analogy for colonizing culture versus Black and Indigenous culture. The colonizing culture (Sorcery) requires the use of tools (wands) but the wands make that magic very powerful. The Black and Indigenous cultures use Celestial magic, which doesn’t require tools (they draw sigils instead). It can become very powerful but takes more study and time to become so. Anyone with magic being able to pick up a wand and wreak some havoc with very little knowledge as an analogy for weapons like guns I thought was great.

The book also demonstrates the community the Black folks of Philadelphia built up, which included those who freed themselves by running away, those who were freed by the Civil War, and those who were born free. There is a male/male relationship included among Hetty’s friend group, as well as a woman who experienced infertility and adopted a baby.

What didn’t work for me was the order in which the plot was told. The book starts in post-Civil War Philadelphia with Hetty and Benjy (her husband) working together to solve cases, in much the same way they used to work together as Conductors on the Underground Railroad. How Hetty escaped, met Benjy, and how they worked together as Conductors was told through a series of broken up flashbacks throughout the book. For me, this didn’t work. I was much more heavily invested in the stories being told in the flashbacks than in the present mystery, largely because a lot of the present storytelling relied upon the relationship between Hetty and Benjy and, without the full flashbacks, I had no understanding of the relationship between Hetty and Benjy. I needed to know why they were, for example, married but just for propriety’s sake. I needed to know why they decided to work together as Conductors in the first place. What finally pushed them to get married? I was so confused and felt so much like I was dropped into the middle of a pre-existing world that I went and double-checked to make sure I hadn’t accidentally started with the second book in a series. Characters, even beyond Benjy and Hetty, kept talking about things that had recently happened in a way that felt like they had happened in a previous book. For example, the character who adopted a baby, the line about that felt like how the second book in a series will remind you of what happened in the first with that having been a key plot point in the first. I would say, in general, that for me, everything would have worked better if the first book in the series had been how Hetty and Benjy met and became Conductors together, maybe ending with them solving their first case as investigators after the War. Then this could have been the second book, perhaps with some additional flashbacks to inform us of some things from during the War.

I am sure that there are others that will read that paragraph and think “oh I like that vibe,” and that’s great. I hope this review helps this book find its audience. For me, though, I simply don’t like being dropped into the middle of the story.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 384 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson

December 29, 2020 Leave a comment

Summary:
17-year-old Enchanted Jones has been making it work at her new highschool in the suburbs where she’s the only Black girl. She has a good reputation on the swim team, and she takes care of her little siblings after school while her mom and dad work to afford their kids’ private schooling and their new house. But what Enchanted really wants to do is sing – an idea her parents aren’t too fond of. When she goes to a reality tv show audition, she meets R&B singer Korey Fields. He takes a shine to her, but that might not be the good thing she thinks it is.

Review:
I read this book in less than 24 hours because I simply could not stop thinking about Enchanted and needed to find out what happened in her world. This book both manages to be about important issues but also doesn’t feel like it’s an “issues” book. It’s Enchanted’s story, and that happens to involve today’s issues because today’s issues are real.

This book is about a lot of things, but many of the things it’s about come right back around to how society treats Black girls. How we treat them like they are grown up, when they are still children. This book beautifully depicts how truly adolescent Enchanted is – something that many of our adolescents are not allowed to be but Black girls especially. Enchanted is interested in boys and has feelings about them but she also loves Disney movie night with her little siblings. She has big dreams of stardom but she also just misses seeing her grandmother and swimming with her in the ocean. She has typical adolescent breakthrough moments of realizing what you saw and thought was beautiful as a child might actually be something else. This book asks us to believe girls, but to believe Black girls especially, because so many others will just look at them and say “oh they knew what they were doing, they were grown.”

The book is also about how wealthy abusers groom girls and take advantage of their wealth and power to separate girls from their families. The abuse depicted in this book is realistic and depicts emotional, sexual, and physical abuse and could be a trigger, so please do note that. That said, the author depicts just enough abuse for us to know what’s going on, but it never feels gratuitous or unnecessary.

While this is YA, it has important content for adults too, especially if you regularly come into contact with adolescents. Highly recommended.

5 out of 5 stars

Length: 384 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

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Book Review: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

April 18, 2020 1 comment

colorpurpleSummary:
Alice Walker’s classic about Celie and her life in the deep American South between WWI and WWII. The simplest plot summary is the survivor of both rape by her father and a forced loveless marriage who then finds love with her husband’s mistress, Shug Avery. But it’s so much more than that.

Review:
For Black History Month in February I thought it was high time I got around to reading The Color Purple, which is also hailed by many of my friends and fellow members of the LGBTQ+ community as a classic for us as well. When I saw Audible had the audiobook version read by Alice Walker herself, well, it was a sign, and it was time.

I had always hesitated to read it because the plot summary made me not sure the book would work for me. Rape and incest are plots that I struggle with as is cheating in a marriage. But this book surprised me. It told what needed to be told about Celie’s childhood without dwelling on it too much or in a sensational way. And by the time Celie and Shug were getting together, I was rooting for them. Because how much of a real marriage is it when neither partner wants it?

There are many strengths to The Color Purple, but three things really stood out to me. First, it helped me to see the gray areas of people’s lives and experiences and how not everything is as clearcut as it might at first seem.

Second, the way Celie’s voice in the writing grows and changes as she grows and changes and then how the letters from her sister come in midway making it partially an epistolary novel – it’s incredible.

Finally how it explored the American “justice” system and its real impact on people’s lives and how often responses to crimes are racially motivated. It wasn’t preachy but it was very moving.

The only reason I’m not rating it at 5 stars is because, for me, it was not a life-changing book. I enjoyed it, and I respect it. However, I know for many others it is a life-changing book, and if you have been on the fence about reading it, I encourage you to do so.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Giveaway: Everlasting: Da Eb’Bulastin by Rasheedah Prioleau (INTERNATIONAL)

July 11, 2015 1 comment

cover_everlastingIt’s the third giveaway of 2015 here at Opinions of a Wolf.  Woohoo!!

There is ONE ebook copy of Everlasting: Da Eb’Bulastin (review) available courtesy of the author, Rasheedah Prioleau!

What You’ll Win:  One ebook copy of Everlasting: Da Eb’Bulastin (review) by Rasheedah Prioleau.

How to Enter:  Fill out the Rafflecopter by clicking here!

Who Can Enter: INTERNATIONAL

Contest Ends: July 21st at midnight!

Disclaimer: The winner will have their book sent to them by the author.  The blogger is not responsible for sending the book.  Void where prohibited by law.

Book Review: Everlasting: Da Eb’Bulastin by Rasheedah Prioleau

July 11, 2015 4 comments

cover_everlastingSummary:
Aiyana Gamelle has been sleepwalking, waking up on the beach of the half Gullah, half Native American Sa’Fyre Island off the coast of South Carolina.  But she knows she’ll soon be transitioning to being Queen of the Gullah half of the island, due to being directly descended from both the founders and a mysterious African goddess, so she brushes it off and focuses on the festival she’s organized on the island to bring in more revenue.  But when an important island guest is murdered and her grandmother passes away before the official crowning ceremony, an unwanted family curse is slowly revealed.

Review:
This is one of the six indie books I accepted for review on this blog in 2015.  Everything about it from the title to the description stuck out to me both as something that I hadn’t seen a mainstream publisher get around to trying in many years and also as something that piqued my interest.  An island that’s half Gullah and half Native American? (Never heard of the Gullah? Check out this informative article about them).  A woman inheriting a position of power from another woman? A family curse? Yes please!  I am happy to say that the book more than lived up to my expectations, it also had some unexpected elements that I was delightfully surprised by.

The known history of the island and the Gamelle family is well told early in the book.  It comes through in bits and pieces at just the right times.  There is never an info dump.  Similarly, Aiyana and her siblings are slowly revealed, going from how you may first perceive them to more well-rounded characters throughout the book.  The island and the people on it are incredibly well described.  I had no trouble imagining what this island may be like, despite having never been to the Carolinas myself.

One thing that caught me by surprise in the book and that I think should be promoted more in its promotional materials, as it’s something that is often sought after, is the romance between Aiyana (who is half-Native American and half-Gullah, since her mother dated her Native American father against the wishes of both sides) and one of the Native American men on the island.  It’s an inter-racial relationship….with no white people.  I can’t remember the last time I saw that in a book, frankly, and I was happy to see it.

This is primarily a mystery/horror book though, so let’s talk about the mystery plot.  It takes many twists and turns, none of which I expected but all of which ultimately made sense.  I found it at times grotesque and at other times it kept me on the edge of my seat.  All the time I was always rooting for Aiyana, which is exactly what I generally want out of a mystery.

One negative I would say is that it’s a bit unclear if the book is the first in a series or a standalone.  Amazon mentions it being the first in a series, but neither the GoodReads record nor the page about it on the author’s website mention it being the start of a series.  If it is the start of a series, the book’s slightly abrupt ending works.  If it’s a standalone, then I would want a bit more closure at the end.  If it is the start of a series, then I’d say perhaps a quick “Look for more Sa’Fyre Island adventures coming soon!” at the end would be an excellent addition to help the reader know to expect more and to keep them coming back.

Overall, this is both a fun and a quite different entry into the mystery genre.  A Gullah woman takes the center stage of the mystery, rather than being a prop. The mystery is well crafted and told, and there’s even the bonus of a bit of romance in the book.  Recommended for readers looking for a completely different mystery from what they may be used to reading and who don’t mind a bit of the fantastical showing up in the plot.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones (Audiobook narrated by ensemble)

November 6, 2012 1 comment

Fuzzy image of little girl jumping rope on a city sidewalk.Summary:
It’s 1979 in Atlanta, Georgia, and someone is kidnapping–and killing–black children.  How this terror haunts one fifth-grade classroom is told through three different perspectives. Tasha, whose parents are “living apart” for a while.  A painfully intelligent boy named Rodney who does not actually consider himself lucky to still have his father at home. And Octavia, better known as Sweet-Pea by her family and Watusi by her classmates.  She’s the darkest-skinned child in the classroom, and is ridiculed by them all, but she has a spirit that outshines everyone.

Review:
The Atlanta child murders of 1979 to 1980 were a real thing that overshadowed the author’s own childhood.  Jones clearly remembers what it was to be in fifth grade and relates those emotions with raw detail, but she also brings along an educated adult’s understanding of race and race relations in the American south.  This all combines to create a powerful story that sweeps the reader away to another place and time while simultaneously leaving them with greater understanding.

The book is divided into three sections. Each child’s tale is told through a different narrative method.  Tasha’s uses third person.  Rodney’s second person, where the reader is told “you are” in an attempt to put the reader closer into Rodney’s shoes.  Finally, Octavia’s is told in first person.  Tasha’s story covers the first part of the school year, Rodney’s the second, and Octavia’s goes through January.  It’s an interesting narrative choice that ultimately works.  The reader sees three different reactions to the child murders and race relations at three different points in the crisis, in addition to the children’s observations of other people’s reactions.  It provides a multi-layered perspective that clearly demonstrates the complexity of all points the story touches upon: crime, race relations, broken families, class issues, and even just the process of growing up.

I appreciate the narrative complexity that Jones chose, but I do feel the story told suffers a bit.  I identified so much more strongly with Octavia than either of the other two children because her voice and personality were able to shine through so much more clearly.  Of course, it’s possible that this is the whole point. In fact, it does feel a bit like the whole book is just building up to Octavia’s story.  But although I had a similar level of attachment to Tasha, I simply didn’t feel that way for Rodney.  Part of that could have been the narrator chosen for Rodney. His voice was rather flat and dull without the nuance of the other two narrators.  But I don’t think that the second person narrative tense helped much.  Thankfully, Rodney’s portion of the book was quick, and the other two sections more than made up for it.

Speaking of the other two narrators, I feel bad that I was unable to find any of the ensemble’s names.  The women who narrated Tasha and Octavia did a phenomenal job. They captured both the age and the dialect of the children without once slipping into a tone that could be perceived of as false or mocking.  They truly embodied the little girls, and I felt I got something extra from listening to the audiobook, which is precisely how it should feel.  It’s unfortunate that the narrator for Rodney failed to do the same thing, providing a rather lackluster, mediocre performance.

The social justice commentary enmeshed in the book is brilliant.  One cannot possibly read this book and not see how racism and entrenched classism negatively impacts children and families.  Even at ten, these children get it that the media and police care less about them getting kidnapped that they would if they were white.  Even at ten the children have already learned racism so well that they ostracize the darkest child in their class.  (This book made me very interested in reading more about racism within the black community).  Most powerful to me, though, particularly after reading the books in The Real Help Reading Project, is how subtly Jones demonstrates the difficult choices parents and other adults must make to provide what is best for their children and how that is exacerbated by inequality.  I’d be more clear, but that would give away the ending of the book.  Suffice to say it’s a powerful message presented in a subtle manner through a little girl with whom it is impossible not to establish a connection.

Overall this is an engaging, thought-provoking piece of historical fiction.  It brings the reader directly into a classroom of fifth graders to see how not just a kidnapping and killing spree but also enmeshed racism and sexism impact the present and future of children.  Recommended to fans of historical and literary fiction.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Giveaway: Like One of the Family by Alice Childress

November 12, 2011 3 comments

Black woman in kitchen.I’m pleased to be offering up my first ever giveaway!  Out of appreciation to Beacon Press for their generosity in giving both myself and Amy copies of Like One of the Family (review) in support of our The Real Help Reading Project, I’d like to spread the love by passing on the copy to another lucky person!

What You’ll Win: One previously read print copy of Like One of the Family by Alice Childress.  (It did ride around in my purse on the T, so we are not talking pristine, here).

How to Enter: Leave a comment with your email address so I can contact the winner for his/her mailing address!

Rules: US ONLY.  Sorry, I can’t afford to mail anywhere else.  If you have a friend in the States willing to let you use their address, that will work too, though.  The mailing address must be in one of the 50 US states or Puerto Rico, however.  (If you’re an international address, sign up for the same book being given away on Amy’s blog internationally).

Contest Ends: November 26th!  The date of our next The Real Help post 😉

Enter away!  Spread the word!  Show your love for black women writers and the real experiences of domestic black workers in the 1950s and 1960s!  Thanks!

Book Review: Like One of the Family by Alice Childress (The Real Help Reading Project)

November 12, 2011 5 comments

Black woman in a kitchen.Summary:
Originally published as a serial in African-American papers in the 1950s this series of monologue-style short stories are all in the voice of Mildred–a daytime maid for white families in New York City.  The monologues are all addressed to her best friend and downstairs neighbor, Marge, who is also a maid.  The stories range from encounters with southern relatives of moderately minded employers to picnics threatened by the Ku Klux Klan to more everyday occurrences such as a dance that went bad and missing your boyfriend.  Mildred’s spitfire personality comes through clearly throughout each entry.

Review:
With completion of this book, Amy and I are officially halfway through our The Real Help Reading Project!  This book is our first piece of fiction to directly foray into the time era and relationships depicted in The Help, whereas the rest have shown the slave culture and racial issues leading up to that time period.  I’m glad we got the historical context from our previous reads before tackling this one written during the Civil Rights era by an author who periodically worked as a maid herself.

The introduction by Trudier Harris is not to be missed.  She provides excellent biographical details of Alice Childress, who was not only a black writer of fiction, but also wrote and performed in plays.  I am very glad I took the time to read the introduction and get some context to the author.  Harris points out that in real life some of the things the character Mildred says to her employers would at the very least have gotten her fired, so to a certain extent the situations are a bit of fantasy relief for black domestic workers.  Mildred says what they wish they could say.  Since we know Childress was a domestic worker herself, this certainly makes sense.  I would hazard a guess that at least a few of the stories were real life situations that happened to her reworked so she got to actually say her mind without risking her livelihood.  I love the concept of this for the basis of a series of short stories.

More than any other work we’ve read, Like One of the Family demonstrates the complexities of living in a forcibly segregated society.  Mildred on the one hand works in close contact with white people and subway signs encourage everyone in New York City to respect everyone else, and yet her personal life is segregated.  Mildred frequently points out how she can come into someone else’s home to work, but it wouldn’t be acceptable in society for that person to visit her as a friend or vice versa.

Another issue that Childress demonstrates with skill is how a segregated, racist society causes both black and white people to regard each other with undue suspicion.  In one story Mildred’s employer asks her if it’s too hot for a dress Mildred already ironed for her and ponders another one.  Mildred assumes that if she agrees with her employer that it’s too hot for the first dress, she’ll have to stay late to iron.  Her employer instead of getting angry realizes that Mildred has been mistreated this way before and takes it upon herself to reassure Mildred that she herself is perfectly capable of ironing her own dresses and will not keep Mildred longer than their agreed upon quitting time.  Of course, Mildred sometimes is the one who must hold her temper and calm irrational fears.  In one particularly moving section she encounters a white maid in their respective employers’ shared washroom.  The woman is afraid to touch Mildred, and it takes Mildred holding her temper and carefully explaining that they are more similar than different before the woman realizes how much more she has in common with Mildred than with her white employer.  These types of scenes show that the Civil Rights movement required bravery in close, one-on-one settings in addition to the more obvious street demonstrations and sit-ins.

Of course the stories also highlight the active attempts at exploitation domestics often encountered.  Mildred herself won’t put up for it, but Childress manages to also make it evident that some people might have to simply to get by.  An example of this sort of exploitation is the woman who upon interviewing Mildred informs her that she will pay her the second and fourth week of every month for two weeks, regardless of whether that month had five weeks in it or not.  What hits home reading these serials all at once that perhaps wouldn’t otherwise is how frequent such a slight was in a domestic’s life during this time period.  Mildred does not just have one story like this.  She has many.

Of course sometimes reading Mildred’s life all at once instead of periodically as it was intended was a bit desensitizing.  Although Mildred had every right to be upset in each situation related, I found myself noticing more and more that Mildred was simply a character for Childress to espouse her views upon the world with.  I quickly checked myself from getting bugged by that, though.  Of course Childress had every right to be upset and did not originally intend this to be a book of Mildred’s life.  Mildred was a vehicle through which to discuss current issues highly relevant to the readers of the paper.  It is important in reading historic work to always keep context in mind.

Taking the stories as a whole, I believe they show what must have been one of the prime frustrations for those who cared about Civil Rights during that era, whether black or white.  Mildred puts it perfectly:

I’m not upset about what anybody said or did but I’m hoppin’ mad about what they didn’t say or do either! (page 167)

Passivity in changing the system is nearly as bad as actively working to keep the system, and Mildred sees that.  Of course what Mildred highlights is a key conundrum for the black domestic worker of the time–speak up and risk your job or stay silent at a cost to the overall condition of those stuck in the system?  A very tough situation, and I, for one, am glad that many strong men and women of all races took the risk to stand up and change it.

Source:  Copies graciously provided to both Amy and myself by the publisher in support of the project (Be sure to sign up for the giveaway. US only and International).

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Discussion Questions:

  • How do you think domestics decided where to draw the line in what they would and would not put up with in employment in white people’s homes?
  • Some of Mildred’s employers seem to be sensitive to the racial and inequality issues and are very kind to Mildred.  Be that as it may, do you think it is/was possible to hire a maid for your home and not have a racist mind-set?
  • Do you think the employers Childress depicts attempting to exploit Mildred were doing so out of racism, a power-trip, or greediness or some combination or all three?
  • Mildred points out multiple times that she feels that the public ads encouraging people to accept each other “in spite of” their differences are still racist.  Do you think this is true?