Book Reviews by Genre: African American

Things Fall Apart
Achebe, Chinua
4 stars = Really Good

The novel was set down in 1958 by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, who was the inventor of modern African literature. It is one of the most widely read novels in the world and also has a prestigious role in African literature.
It tells the story of a great wrestler, Okonkow, who is the best warrior among the people, and he hasn't inherited that honor, fame, and reputation from his father or ancestors, as it happens in most of the cases. He becomes a well-respected man, and the tales of his bravery and fighting spread like a bushfire in the other villages .

Things Fall Apart is a true picture of Nigerian culture, language, living style, their religion, different sorts of gods (God of Earth, Goddess of Fire, etc.), and customs, and the people are very much attached to their traditions and religion. Especially, the proverbs are also a big part of their culture. You could sense their importance from this proverb:

"Proverbs are the palm oil with which the words are eaten "

Okonkow is ostracized form the village for seven years for killing one of the clansmen. In his absence, an Englishman comes into his village, asks permission from the tribesmen to live there, and gets it. That's the point where the Nigerian culture's destruction starts. White men come one by one and build colonies to recite there.

So, their traditions, religion, and gods are all crucified ghastly by white missionaries who call Africans uncivilised, savage, and dark people and say we are the ones who came to give them light and are gonna make them civilised, but eventually they put them into the heart of darkness and are responsible for their destruction.

All the nations are known by their own traditions, culture, religion, and language . How could you make an organised nation by destroying its culture? White men came to show Africans a way to come out of their darkness, but the real darkness was inside them. It is a worthwhile novel and should be read.

Reviewer's Name: Muhammed N.
Invisible Man
Ellison, Ralph
3 stars = Pretty Good

"Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison is a powerful and thought-provoking novel that explores the complexities of African American identity in a society that refuses to see them as anything but invisible. Published in 1952, the book tells the story of an unnamed narrator who struggles to find his place in a world that constantly denies his existence.

The novel is set in the early 20th century and follows the narrator's journey from his youth in the South to his experiences in the North, where he encounters racism, violence, and exploitation. The narrator's quest for identity is complicated by the fact that he is not only a black man in a white-dominated society but also an individual struggling to define himself.

Throughout the novel, Ellison employs richly symbolic imagery to convey the narrator's experiences and emotions. The use of motifs such as blindness, invisibility, and masks emphasizes the ways in which society seeks to hide or ignore the realities of racism and prejudice. At the same time, the narrator's invisibility serves as a metaphor for the struggle of African Americans to assert their identity and agency in a society that denies them these basic human rights.

Ellison's prose is both poetic and poignant, as he explores the complexities of race, identity, and power. He also addresses issues of class and gender, as the narrator navigates the world of white power brokers, black nationalists, and women who seek to control him.

Overall, "Invisible Man" is a powerful and important work that continues to resonate with readers today. It is a testament to the enduring legacy of racism and inequality in America, and a call to action for all those who seek to create a more just and equitable society. If you have not read this book yet, I highly recommend that you do so.

Reviewer's Name: Aman G.
Leilani, Raven
4 stars = Really Good

If it weren’t so gorgeously written, it’d be too wincingly real to read. I felt deeply connected to Edie in all her messiness and compulsive curiosity. Leilani’s characters are all their own: weird, self-possessed, sort of perverse, clearly loved into being.

Reviewer's Name: Kate
Passing book jacket
Larsen, Nella
4 stars = Really Good

Passing by Nella Larsen is a classic novel following Irene Redfield and Clare Bellew. The novel follows the timeline of the Harlem Renaissance and delves into themes of 'white-passing' amongst the black community.
Irene, the narrator of the novel considers herself to be a very levelheaded, calm, thoughtful woman, who looks out for her children and is a perfectly attentive wife. Clare Bellew on the other hand is Irene's childhood friend, and her personality is much more colorful than Irene's. When Irene and Clare reunite after many years, we delve into their complicated relationship and clashing personalities.
Passing is a novel that illustrates what the standards of beauty really are and educates readers on the logistics of what passing of as white can mean for a black woman back in the 1920s.
I really enjoyed reading this novel, as 'white-passing' was something I wasn't super aware of, and barely even knew it was a phenomenon in the 1900s. Larsen also created a very interesting dynamic between Irene and Clare and crafted very realistic characters. I enjoyed reading Irene's inner monologues, as it's pretty rare to see an author build up very dynamic characters, that are also painfully human. I would recommend this book to pretty much anyone, as it contained lots of powerful messages and themes, without coming off as cliche or overdone.

Reviewer Grade: 11

Reviewer's Name: Michelle
Hell of a Book book jacket
Mott, Jason
5 stars = Bohemian Rhapsody Awesome!

The premise of the book Hell of a Book by Jason Mott is as follows: an African American author has written a book and is touring the country to promote it. On his tour, he keeps encountering the same small child everywhere he goes. I can't say much beyond that without giving too much away.

This book recently won the 2021 National Book Award for fiction and I just don't think my review of it will do it justice. Not only that, but I hate writing overly exuberant reviews of books that are this unusual, because not everybody is going to love this book. Or understand it. But, that's the whole point, I think.

It's unusual. It's transcendent. It's elusive. It's ironic. It's deep. It's moving. It gives you tons to think about but very little to grasp onto.

I absolutely loved it. And I already want to read it again.

Reviewer's Name: Marika G.
The Stone Sky
Jemisin, N. K.
3 stars = Pretty Good

I have to say I’m a bit disappointed with The Stone Sky. It took me some time to get used to the way the author wrote the Broken Earth trilogy, but by the end of the second book, The Obelisk Gate , I had bought into the premise. The fact that this book had a lot to live up to with the foreshadowing presented in the second book might be why I’m disappointed with the result. After all, I was looking forward to some epic moments involving the moon, which didn’t seem to materialize for me. Now that I’ve finished this trilogy, I’m starting to wonder if the reason it didn’t quite fully click for me was because I was reading it via audiobook. There seemed to be a lot that I missed that would leave me confused about who the characters were, what they were doing, and why they were doing it. Perhaps if I had dedicated time to focusing on these audiobooks instead of listening while I was doing other things, I would have liked the series more. As it stands though, I probably couldn’t tell you what the point of this book was without going back and rereading it.

Ultimately, the Broken Earth trilogy is well written. The language might be a little too poetic at times and the fantasy setting introduces a lot of terminology that was difficult to keep track of, but I can see the appeal of it. The magic system is truly unique, even if the explanation for its origins made less sense than if it was just an unexplainable magic force. I do appreciate that most of the loose ends were wrapped up and either explained or made into moot points by the series’ conclusion. And while the resolution of this trilogy felt a little cliché, at least it provided an ending that most would come to expect from this type of sub-genre.

A pretty good trilogy wrap-up that might need a second read-through, I give The Stone Sky 3.5 stars out of 5.

Reviewer's Name: Benjamin W.
Transcendent Kingdom
Gyasi, Yaa
5 stars = Bohemian Rhapsody Awesome!

There was no sophomore slump for author Yaa Gyasi, who lit the literary world ablaze with her searing debut novel, Homegoing (2016). That work of historical fiction was deeply personal and her exceptional contemporary follow-up Transcendent Kingdom (2020) draws upon her experiences growing up with Ghanaian parents in in northern Alabama. This powerful and emotionally raw novel centers on Giffy, a fifth-year candidate in neuroscience at Stanford studying reward-seeking behavior in mice and the connections between depression and addiction. Her brother was a gifted high school athlete who died of a heroin overdose after a knee injury left him hooked on OxyContin. Her suicidal, deeply religious mother is bedridden. Dad left long ago. Giffy hopes science will find the why behind the suffering. But she still hungers for her childhood faith and struggles to find a balance between religion and science, hope and despair, living and inertia. It’s a personal journey with a conclusion that will leave you with hope, if not a clear answer.

Reviewer's Name: Joe P.
Book Review: The Color Purple
Walker, Alice
5 stars = Bohemian Rhapsody Awesome!

I loved this book. Celie, Shug, Nettie, and Sofia were such strong women, facing a hard life and rising above it. Celie in particular has cemented herself in my mind as one of the great female protagonists in all of literature. I love how she didn't let her circumstances squash her spirit. I learned so much about a wide variety of things in this book. I learned a lot about Africa in the 30s leading up to WWII and the desecration of the tribal land by the English. I learned about the treatment of African American women by African American men and about their resilience and bravery. I loved the ending. Perfect.

Reviewer's Name: vfranklyn
The Book of Lost Friends
Wingate, Lisa
5 stars = Bohemian Rhapsody Awesome!

This book was not necessarily easy to read but it was so well done:it juxtaposes the two time lines and the main characters with aplomb and great sustained suspense. 1888 vs 1988 racism and the differences and the shameful similarities. Fascinating characters, great plotting and page turning suspense. Thought provoking and a really good read. Really glad I read this.

Reviewer's Name: Susan I.
Book Review: Invisible Man
Ellison, Ralph
4 stars = Really Good

Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is an essential American classic. Written in the late 1940s, it tells the story of a young African American man who moves north during the Harlem Renaissance and faces many trials as he attempts to find his place in society. This novel is a candid portrayal of life for Black Americans in the pre-Civil Rights era, exposing the hardships and prejudices that are often overlooked in retrospect but were all too real for Blacks during this time. It is honest, reflective, and blunt; often unsettling and disturbing. A central theme of Ellison's novel is the idea of blindness and how it affects identity. The protagonist is left confused and misguided as a result of the blindness of those he encounters, trying to fit into the expectations of others, until at last he realizes that he is, and has always been, "invisible" to society. With this revelation, the invisible man at last finds his own identity.

The novel recounts all of the events leading to the protagonist's discovery of his invisibility, beginning at his colored college in the south and taking the audience north to Harlem. The protagonist faces many different circumstances which reveal just how marginalized Blacks were in the United States in the 30s; each episode is a testament to the challenges faced by African Americans (even a reflection of the challenges faced by African Americans today) due to the blind discrimination of white people. Each incident faced by the invisible man is largely a reiteration of previous ones, merely taking place in different circumstances, which emphasizes his lack of identity--even his own blindness. Eventually, due to an unfortunate incident, the protagonist loses all sense of who he used to be, and this is what allows him to begin to make change--for better or worse. There are numerous violent and suggestive scenes in this novel, so I would recommend it to older, more mature teenagers.

Ellison takes his readers on a powerful, enlightening journey with Invisible Man. His compelling writing is intertwined with tragic humor and soulful undertones of blues and jazz, the backdrop for an incredibly raw and moving novel. The invisible man's story is very relevant to society today, and Ellison's messages should serve as reminders to us all. I believe every American would benefit from reading this novel at some point in their life; it illustrates such an important part of our nation's history, and that of African Americans. Ellison portrays the protagonist's emotions with such introspective depth, every conflict and thought explored in all its complexities. Invisible Man may not be a particularly fun read, but it is important and it is worthwhile.

Reviewer's Name: Alexa
Morrison, Toni
5 stars = Bohemian Rhapsody Awesome!

Sula, by Toni Morrison, was published in 1973. The book focuses on a black neighborhood and a friendship that develops between proper and traditionally raised Nelly and free spirited Sula. The two become very close; going on adventures and making huge mistakes throughout their adolescence, until they eventually grow apart. The novel, written by a Nobel Prize winner, is a star example of enriching African-American literature. Beautifully written, shocking, and yet also endearing, it takes readers on an insightful trip to Medallion, Ohio - one full of excitement and symbolism for modern themes.

Reviewer's Name: Malachi
Cover of The Bluest Eye
Morrison, Toni
4 stars = Really Good

The Bluest Eye is about a young African-American girl named Pecola living in 1940's Ohio. Pecola lives with her brother and abusive parents who constantly tell her she is ugly because of her dark skin and kinky hair. On top of that, the children at her school bully her for the fact that her father is an alcoholic. All her life, Pecola has wanted blue eyes to feel pretty. Her only friends, Freida and Claudia try to defend her against the colorism in their community, but Pecola is unable to embrace her features and becomes obsessive over her desire for blue eyes.

One of the reasons I read this book is because of Morrison's writing style and her thematic elements. The book is very intellectually stimulating and gave me better insight into colorism and how it is still largely prevalent today in the African-American community. I really liked how Morrison used a young girl as a main character to show how these feelings of low-esteem and poor body image are started at a young age, and how the people around us influence our thoughts and feelings.

There are a lot of complex characters and you get to hear each of their stories about why they're the way they are. Claudia is my favorite character because she represents women and girls who challenge our ideas of beauty. The ending was sad, but it really brought light to how damaging our obsession with beauty is.

Reviewer's Name: Nneoma
Book Cover
Zoboi, Ibi & Salaam, Yusef
5 stars = Bohemian Rhapsody Awesome!

Yusef Salaam is one of the "Central Park Five", young men of color who were incorrectly accused of raping and beating a woman jogging in Central Park in the late 80s. After the five had served their sentences of 5-15 years, they were exonerated when the real culprit came forward. This book is clearly heavily inspired by Yusef's story as it tells the story of Amal, a teen in prison for a similar crime that he did not commit. It starts with the conviction and then moves into Amal's experiences in a juvenile detention center.

Every year, there's a book that I promote really heavily in classrooms. This will definitely be that book. It's so good. So sad. So spare in that way that only books in verse can be. It takes a while to read, because sometimes you just kind of have to sit with it for a while to process it. It does such a great job of illustrating just how deeply flawed and racist our "justice" systems are. I dare you not to empathize with Amal. I can't wait to share this important book with everyone I know! Also, like, that cover y'all. So pretty. And it's relevant to the story! Anyway, consider this required reading, especially for all the folks trying to "read woke". 5 stars.

Thanks to Edelweiss and Balzer + Bray for the eARC which I received in exchange for an unbiased review. Punching the Air is out 01 September - put your copy on hold today!

Reviewer's Name: Britt
Guillory, Jasmine
4 stars = Really Good

Olivia Munroe has just moved to LA, and finds herself frequenting her hotel's bar as she navigates the rental process in LA. On her last night in the hotel, she meets a sexy stranger at the bar. They have a cute interaction, but go their separate ways. Olivia is stunned when she realizes the sexy stranger was in fact Max Powell, a hotshot junior senator from CA. The two have another chance encounter, and this time continue to see each other. But is Olivia ready for life in the public eye?

This is my second Jasime Guillory book (The Wedding Party was my first), and I obviously liked the first enough to read this one, but I liked this one so much more! Olivia and Max were just such great characters, I fell in love with both of them pretty quickly. There's also some topical information about relations between the Black community and the police and politics at large, so that was super timely to read and adds an extra dimension to what would otherwise be a fluffy book. Really, aside from a couple of plot aspects that annoyed me personally, the only thing that bothered me was the lack of sex! Where is the sex?!?! There was soooooooo much sex in The Wedding Party that I expected a bunch here as well and was disappointed by it's absence, especially as I connected with these characters a little more.

I would generally recommend this to women's fiction readers, especially those who are looking for a slightly lighter way to read woke. 3.5 stars - it's somewhere in-between "I liked it" and "I really liked it" for me.

Thanks to Netgalley and Berkley Books for the eARC that I received in exchange for an honest review. Party of Two is available on 23 June.

Reviewer's Name: Britt
The Obelisk Gate
Jemisin, N. K.
4 stars = Really Good

I’ll admit that reading The Fifth Season had a bit of a learning curve for
the Broken Earth series. Not only did I have to learn about the vastly
powerful magic system based on rocks (and other rock forms), but I had to get
used to a second-person point of view (POV). Jumping between timelines with
similar characters who had different names was a bit confusing, but I was
able to figure it out by the end. Fast forward to the sequel, The Obelisk
Gate, and most of my qualms with the first book were smoothed over or solved

One of the things I enjoyed about The Obelisk Gate was the increase in the
scale of the magic system. Including the moon in these calculations makes
perfect sense considering the nature of the orogeny magic. I also appreciated
how the story seemed to focus on a single POV, which made for a more intimate
experience as we followed only one or two individuals instead of four. Now
that I was used to the second-person writing style and the character it
described, it didn’t bother me as much as when I read The Fifth Season.

While The Fifth Season set up the world-building for this trilogy, The
Obelisk Gate’s only weakness is that it finally set up the climactic plot
for the third book. Sure, there was plenty of character development and
intriguing twists in the plot in The Obelisk Gate, but they all seemed to be
hinting at something much more significant that wouldn’t take place in this
book. I do appreciate an excellent three-act structure, so this slight
weakness can be seen as merely an artifact of the second book in a trilogy.
In fact, because it was more focused, I liked this book more than its
predecessor. After all, it’s a strong concept with solid execution.

A focusing and foreshadowing of the Broken Earth series, I give The Obelisk
Gate 4.5 stars out of 5.

Reviewer's Name: Benjamin W.
The Wedding Party Cover
Guillory, Jasmine
3 stars = Pretty Good

Maddie and Theo have known and disliked each other for a long time - as long as they've had the same best friend, the newly engaged Alexa Munroe. When they end up hooking up after Alexa's engagement party, it was unexpected for both of them to say the least. They both end up in the wedding party, and they know they will be thrown together more often. When they find themselves unable to resist a second hook-up, they put some rules into place, the chief one being that they'd only hook up until the wedding and then they'd go their separate ways forever.

If you read that synopsis and thought that you knew exactly where this book is headed, then you are correct! This is a very straightforward romance. What you see is what you get. I was expecting a little more. I thought it would be a comedy or maybe there would be some political commentary since our leads are both people of color but neither of those things were present. That said, I actually found the straight-up nature of this read to be surprisingly refreshing. I knew exactly what I was going to get and I got it. I didn’t learn anything new, and some aspects of the story were frustrating (for example, they don’t hate each other so much as tolerate each other with mild annoyance) , but all was resolved by the end. It was a good palate cleanser, and next time I don’t know what I’m in the mood for, I may pick up a Guillory book.

To be completely honest, I don’t read a ton of romance (which is how I would classify this book, perhaps mistakenly). If you like contemporary romance, I see no reason that you wouldn’t like this one – its a sexy read with believable characters and scenarios. 3 stars. Despite myself, I ended up kind of liking it.

Thanks to Netgalley and Berkley publishing for the advance copy which I got in exchange for an unbiased review. The Wedding Party will be available on 16 July, but you can put your copy on hold today!

Reviewer's Name: Britt
The Paragon Hotel
Faye, Lyndsay
5 stars = Bohemian Rhapsody Awesome!

1922. Alice James finds herself on a westbound train with two bullets in her stomach and $50,000 worth of counterfeit cash. On the run from the mob, she befriends a black porter who saves her life by taking her to his doctor friend in the only black hotel in Portland, Oregon. When a mixed race child goes missing from the hotel, the residents panic as KKK activity in Portland has been escalating. This excellent novel switches back and forth from the events leading up to Alice’s shooting and then her experiences at the hotel after arriving.

Alice James is one of my favorite characters in recent memory – she’s flawed, but self-aware, whip-smart and most importantly compassionate. Her empathy gets her into the trouble and she knows it, but she’s the sort who is willing to sacrifice herself for the greater cause. The supporting characters, especially Blossom, are equally flawed but lovable, especially as their truths slowly come to light. I’m a sucker for a 20s setting, and we get a lot of the good stuff here, especially linguistically. Our Alice has quite the endearing way of explaining herself in 20s style aphorisms.

In addition to being a charming read, the book covers some really important issues around race, gender and sexuality. The author has a deft enough hand at covering these issues that she manages to make the commentary work for the 20s as well as present day. If you decide to read this book, you’ll laught, cry and rage along with the characters at the injustices handed to them based on their gender, race or sexuality. My one complaint is that the middle sagged a bit – this is book that’s largely focused on character development and the mystery really just served to get Alice to learn things about her new friends.

I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but the promise of mob-excitement, mystery and racial commentary brought me to this book, and I’m so glad it did. Richly drawn characters and a fascinating setting pretty much guarantee that most fiction (historical or otherwise) readers will enjoy this one, and I’ll be pre-ordering a copy for my mother. 5 stars – I adored it.

Thanks to Netgalley and G.P. Putnam’s Sons for the advance copy, which I received in exchange for an unbiased review. The Paragon Hotel goes on sale on 08 January, but you can put your copy on hold today!

Reviewer's Name: Britt
Sing, Unburied, Sing
Ward, Jesmyn
3 stars = Pretty Good

Jo Jo and his mother Leonie have been living on a farm in rural Missisippi for their entire lives. Jo Jo's father, Michael, has been in jail for drug related crimes, and thus most of Jo Jo and his sister Kayla's upbringing has been done by their grandparents: the gruff but ultimately loving Pop and the cancer-ridden matriarch, Mam. Everyone's world is about to be upended, though, as time grows near for Michael to get out of prison.

Writing any sort of synopsis for this book was particularly challenging, as there's not much in the way of plot. I don't mean that in a bad way. I sometimes love books that focus solely character development, and that is absolutely what this is. The writing is insanely gorgeous and it's obvious from the gruesome beginning scene as to why this won the National Book Award.

Ward manages to make almost all of the characters relatable or lovable even as they do and say and think terrible things. She absolutely captures some of the wonderfully horrible aspects of the human condition, and here is a lot to love in this book.

That being said, I did not much care for certain aspects of the audiobook. First, by the time I got the book, I had forgotten what it was actually about. I did not remember that ghosts were a part of the story and was really confused for the first part of the book (are these flashbacks? how is that character here? I thought he was dead?), but I eventually figured it out. For me, the ghosts detracted from the story and I could have done without that element, even though magical realism is often my jam. The biggest problem for me, however, was Rutina Wesley's performance (which, hilariously enough, is why I went for this in audiobook format - I liked her in the few seasons I watched of True Blood). It was over enunciated especially given that Leonie is from Mississippi, and I found her parts to be melodramatic as there were a lot of weird pauses and words said breathlessly. It just didn't work for me, and I wanted to skip all of Leonie's parts.

If you would like to read a gorgeously written character study/family drama with a compelling setting, then this is a great bet. Just read it, don't listen to it. 3 stars.

Reviewer's Name: Britt
Octavia E. Butler's Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation
Duffy, Damian
5 stars = Bohemian Rhapsody Awesome!

Octavia Butler's Kindred broke so much ground both as a flawless time travel novel and visceral retelling of the slave experience. As an African-American author writing science fiction, her body of work changed the field while winning its top honors -- the Nebula and Hugo awards -- and the author herself was awarded a MacArthur genius grant. This graphic novel is an excellent introduction to her work, and is highly recommended for YA and adult readers alike.

Reviewer's Name: Rebecca
A Lesson Before Dying
Gaines, Ernest J.
5 stars = Bohemian Rhapsody Awesome!

Two characters. Grant and Jefferson. Playing the roles of God in Jesus in society, as saviors. Jefferson is on death row for killing a man. Grant is a man who would rather have nothing to do with the sinner, Jefferson. However, Grant is persuaded to help Jefferson. The two men develop a crazy relationship. Grant’s job is to help Jefferson find his humanity again, after Jefferson’s astonishing defense in trial that compared him to a swine who wouldn’t know better than to kill a man, for he is just that dumb. This book teaches so many lessons, but most important how to be a hero for others. Read this book for nothing else than to get to Jefferson’s tragic journal in the end, where you should be prepared with tears and tissues, for your heart will break for these characters.

Reviewer Grade: 12

Reviewer's Name: Madison H.