Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy

24399756On a warm spring evening in South Los Angeles, a young man is shot and killed on a sidewalk minutes away from his home, one of the thousands of black Americans murdered that year. His assailant runs down the street, jumps into an SUV, and vanishes, hoping to join the scores of killers in American cities who are never arrested for their crimes.

But as soon as the case is assigned to Detective John Skaggs, the odds shift.

Here is the kaleidoscopic story of the quintessential, but mostly ignored, American murder—a “ghettoside” killing, one young black man slaying another—and a brilliant and driven cadre of detectives whose creed is to pursue justice for forgotten victims at all costs. Ghettoside is a fast-paced narrative of a devastating crime, an intimate portrait of detectives and a community bonded in tragedy, and a surprising new lens into the great subject of why murder happens in our cities—and how the epidemic of killings might yet be stopped.

Review:

I’ve made the mistake of not writing this review right away so particulars have flown out of my brain, gah. Check out Doing Dewey’s review for a more proper look but let me give you my overall impression – wow.

Leovy’s writing is outstanding and is just as amazing on audiobook as I imagine it is on the page. She weaves background and context into the story of a single murder so that we understand not just what happened in one case, but in South Central LA over the course of decades.

The only thing that gives me pause is there is a whiff of white savior narrative going on, though Leovy does her best to squash the impression. And looking at Goodreads there isn’t a single person of color (as gleaned from avatars) in the top page of reviews, which makes me wonder what I’m missing. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption is going on my TBR to make sure I get another perspective.

Even so, this book – part police procedural, part court drama, part whodunit – is narrative nonfiction at its best.

Haven by Rebekah Weatherspoon (Beards and Bondage #1)

34745311City girl Claudia Cade’s carefree life is plunged into chaos when a camping trip with her brother in the national forests of Northern California turns into a deadly dash for her survival. Nature photographer Shepard Olsen has resigned himself to a quiet existence, with only his dog by his side, until a woman in need of his protection shows up on his doorstep and throws his universe into disarray.

Claudia is desperate to heal from her traumatic loss, but can’t stop thinking about her run-in with evil….or the grizzled mountain man whose quick thinking and good aim saved her life. When she shows up on Shep’s doorstep again, she finds she isn’t the only one who can’t move on.

The two begin an intense, passionate relationship of Dominance and submission, pleasure and pain, but with dark memories haunting them and decisions about the future rapidly approaching, Claudia can’t help but wonder…how long can they be each other’s haven?

Review:

There is so much to love here.

  • Representation and diversity done well, written by a woman of color. I am and will forever be here for this.
  • Also – interracial romance! Huzzah!
  • While having a dominant man employing blindfolds and floggers may be a fantasy the characters are wholly based in reality. Check out our hero:

My dick isn’t a magic wand. I wasn’t going to save her. I wasn’t going to heal her with my kisses… and I sure as fuck wasn’t going to fix myself.

And some girl talk:

“I know you probably had a carrot and some champagne today and I know there’s an image [to maintain], but we are both thick women and we are beautiful that way.”

“Amen,” I say. “Extra pepperoni, please.”

  • The hero and heroine have their head on their shoulders and know what they want, even if they’re not sure how to go about getting it. Misunderstandings are one of my biggest romance pet peeves and there’s not even a whiff of a Big Mis here.
  • People have problems – you could probably say they’re “damaged” – but there’s no wallowing. It’s refreshing.
  • The story itself moves along nicely and kept my interest.

This was my first book by Weatherspoon and I’m thoroughly impressed. A recommend for erotic romance fans, even if a side of bondage isn’t usually your thing.

How to Marry a Millionaire Vampire by Kerrelyn Sparks (Love at Stake #1)

Synopsis:

263179Roman Draganesti is charming, handsome, rich…he’s also a vampire. But this vampire just lost one of his fangs sinking his teeth into something he shouldn’t have. Now he has one night to find a dentist before his natural healing abilities close the wound, leaving him a lop-sided eater for all eternity.

Things aren’t going well for Shanna Whelan, either. After witnessing a gruesome murder, she’s next on the mob’s hit list. And her career as a dentist appears to be on a downward spiral, because she’s afraid of blood. When Roman rescues her from an assassination attempt, she wonders if she’s found the one man who can keep her alive. Though the attraction between them is immediate and hot, can Shanna conquer her fear of blood to fix Roman’s fang? And if she does, what will prevent Roman from using his fangs on her?

Review:

I picked up this book on the recommendation of a friend who said it was better than the synopsis. Said synopsis: vampire loses a fang and rings up an all night dentist to have it fixed asap. When he arrives at the office the lady dentist is being shot at. He saves her, of course, and vows to protect her as the Russian vampire mafia closes in.

It was just as bad as it sounds. Continue reading “How to Marry a Millionaire Vampire by Kerrelyn Sparks (Love at Stake #1)”

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Synopsis:

14891The beloved American classic about a young girl’s coming-of-age at the turn of the century, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a poignant and moving tale filled with compassion and cruelty, laughter and heartache, crowded with life and people and incident. The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than sixty years. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the daily experiences of the unforgettable Nolans are raw with honesty and tenderly threaded with family connectedness — in a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as incredibly rich moments of universal experience.

Review:

Oh man, I loved this book. It is quiet and wonderful, following the life of Francie, a poor girl in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Her story is both individual and universal, as all good stories should be.

Continue reading “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith”

The Night Mark by Tiffany Reisz

30698729Faye Barlow is drowning. After the death of her beloved husband, Will, she cannot escape her grief and most days can barely get out of bed. But when she’s offered a job photographing South Carolina’s storied coast, she accepts. Photography, after all, is the only passion she has left.

In the quaint beach town, Faye falls in love again when she sees the crumbling yet beautiful Bride Island lighthouse and becomes obsessed with the legend surrounding The Lady of the Light—the keeper’s daughter who died in a mysterious drowning in 1921. Like a moth to a flame, Faye is drawn to the lighthouse for reasons she can’t explain. While visiting it one night, she is struck by a rogue wave and a force impossible to resist drags Faye into the past—and into a love story that is not her own.

Review:

If you like time slip romances The Night Mark is a good entry point into Reisz’s work.  The historical elements are well researched and, barring a couple of short info dumps, well presented.  The writing is good and the characters are fully developed, from top to bottom.  Props for all kinds of presentation (POC, deaf, gay) with nods to what that means in different points in time.  Reisz doesn’t ignore inconvenient parts of history, and I wish more authors did the same.

That being said this standalone lacks the extra oomph I love in the rest of her books.  While the characters feel real the relationships between them are a bit lacking.  Some are distant, some are short, and some are with people who died long (or not so long) ago.  Many characters feel like islands – well connected to neighbors with bridges and tunnels and waterways, but islands all the same.

I’m glad Reisz is expanding the genres she writes in and hope this book will get her more mainstream attention, but it didn’t quite hit the spot with me.

Kitty and the Midnight Hour by Carrie Vaughn (Kitty Norville #1)

14461Kitty Norville is a midnight-shift DJ for a Denver radio station – and a werewolf in the closet. Her new late-night advice show for the supernaturally disadvantaged is a raging success, but it’s Kitty who can use some help. With one sexy werewolf-hunter and a few homicidal undead on her tail, Kitty may have bitten off more than she can chew?

Review:

When I read the first book of a long series I’m not looking for perfection – I’m looking to be drawn in. Kitty and the Midnight Hour does just that.

Kick-ass heroines are a time-honored trope in urban fantasy and Kitty is not one of them. She’s at the bottom of the supernatural pecking order and it’s refreshing. I’m used to seeing pack politics from the top down, but here we get a look from the bottom up. What is life like for the weakest members of a pack? What is it like to be the protected instead of doing the protector? Some reviewers see it as a weakness – how dare the heroine not be strong from day one! – but it allows her to develop as a person and hopefully avoid the power-up trap many series fall into.

Speaking of development, the characterization is on point and deep for everyone from Kitty down to the guests on her radio show. While some parts of the plot don’t strike me as believable – weres are outed and accepted in society too quickly for my taste – the characters always ring true. I can’t wait to meet them again in book two.

Give this a go if you’re in the mood for fun urban fantasy that colors outside the lines.

Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life by Alice Childress

28186071First published in Paul Robeson’s newspaper, Freedom, and composed of a series of conversations between Mildred, a black domestic, and her friend Marge, Like One of the Family is a wry, incisive portrait of working women in Harlem in the 1950’s. Rippling with satire and humor, Mildred’s outspoken accounts vividly capture her white employers’ complacency and condescension—and their startled reactions to a maid who speaks her mind and refuses to exchange dignity for pay.

Upon publication the book sparked a critique of working conditions, laying the groundwork for the contemporary domestic worker movement. Although she was critically praised, Childress’s uncompromising politics and unflinching depictions of racism, classism, and sexism relegated her to the fringe of American literature. Like One of the Family has been long overlooked, but this new edition, featuring a foreword by best-selling author Roxane Gay, will introduce Childress to a new generation.

Review:

This collection of vignettes is a joy.

Marge, I sure am glad that you are my friend… No, I do  not want to borrow anything or ask any favors and I wish you’d stop bein’ suspicious everytime somebody pays you a compliment.  It’s a sure sign of a distrustful nature.

Even more than the joy, though, I love the look at what it’s like to be a black domestic worker in 1950’s New York.  While the way of life is different there are other parts that are eerily familiar.  When Mildred riffs one Christmas about what peace would look like she dispenses with “no war” quickly – peace would be not being turned away from an apartment because of her race.  Peace would be not seeing signs on the subway asking for “tolerance” “regardless” of what other people are.  And,

…if nobody wanted to kill nobody else and I could pick up a newspaper and not read ’bout my folks gettin’ the short end of every stick… that would mean more peace.

How little has changed.

As Roxanne Gay says in the foreword, it’s “political without trying to manipulate the readers’ sensibilites, without ever forgetting that a novel, political or not, must first and foremost entertain.”  The short chapters go down easy and are perfect for reading on the train or at the doctor’s office.  I’m thankful that Childress wrote down the experience of this overlooked slice of society.  I’m so glad I read it.

Jacked Up by Samantha Kane (Birmingham Rebels #3)

32506423Linebacker Sam Taylor feels like a ticking time bomb. He left the army with emotional wounds as fresh as the scars on his back. Sam’s been living like a monk, but his best friend, defensive lineman King Ulupoka, wants to get him laid. Easy for him to say. The larger-than-life Samoan is a hard-bodied, tribal-tattooed fantasy. Sam agrees, under one condition: King stays to watch.

ER nurse Jane Foster is done being a good girl, and nothing says wild like picking up two of football’s sexiest players and bringing them back to your hotel room. Trouble is, she can’t decide which one she wants more. Sam is hot, sweet, and vulnerable. Jane’s more than willing to ride him into oblivion. But King’s intense gaze from across the room promises that the best is yet to come.

Sure, King has had his choice of girls and guys in the past. That doesn’t mean he’ll jeopardize his relationship with Sam over a case of locker-room lust—until a naughty nurse pushes them both out of their comfort zones. Seeing Jane and Sam together turns King on more than he ever imagined. If they’re game, he’s ready to tackle a three-way play.

This book has a lot going for it but man, its flaw is a fatal one. First,

The good:

  • The series revolves around a football team where all of the guys seem to end up in poly relationships. I am so here for this.
  • Representation is everywhere. One of the heroes is a person of color, the other is a veteran who has been scarred, literally and figuratively, by a recent deployment. In the background there’s a neurodiverse character, a female veteran in the process of recovering the ability to speak, and a couple more people of color. Excellent.
  • The sex is hot and two of the main characters are explicitly bi. It makes for a nice threesome.
  • Secondary characters are fleshed out and human, making it fun to guess who will be featured in the next book. (Nigel, please!) In fact I’d say characterization is the best thing Kane has going.

The not-good-for-me:

  • The story is much more psychological than I was expecting, especially over the first half. This isn’t a problem per ce, but part of my day job is interpreting psych counseling, so I don’t look forward to reading two full sessions in my romance. Your mileage likely varies.
  • I don’t buy all the football stuff. The wife and girlfriend dynamics don’t ring true, and some logistical things don’t quite work for me.

The no-good-at-all:

The word slut comes up over two dozen times, almost always by Jane in reference to herself. In an early scene she has a one night stand with the two heroes and, while having sex, totally enjoys it. But afterwards she cries and moans, ‘I’m a good girl, but look at what a slut I’ve become!’

It’s an understandable thought after her first experience, and another character talks her down, but Jane doesn’t let it go. Like, ever. Check out this quote from 82% in, when a friend yet again tries to talk sense into her:

“As long as everyone involved is an adult and no ones gets hurt who isn’t asking to be hurt, no harm, no foul.”

“That’s what everyone keeps saying,” Jane said miserably, turning away from Margo. “But it doesn’t feel normal. It feels like everyone is staring and pointing fingers because I’m a freakish slut who’s with two guys at the same time.”

“No one is doing that,” Margo said softly.

“I know,” Jane admitted.

She created a ton of problems by not opening her eyes to reality and continuing to believe in crazy notions without a shred of proof. ‘My job put that guy who got arrested for DUI on night shift, so heaven knows what they’re going to do to me for sleeping with two men at once!’ Seriously? Do you hear yourself?

The way this slut/bad girl language carries over into the sex also bothers me. I mean, it obviously is a triggering thought for Jane. But then there are scenes like:

He leaned over and pinned Jane’s hands above her head. “Dirty girl, you are so bad. You want to watch me get fucked? Is that what you want?”

She bit her lip and nodded with hooded eyes and flushed cheeks, looking like a sex kitten with her pretty hair spread all over the bed around her.

I just… no. No.

Despite all that I still think I’ll go back and read the previous books in the series. They’re well written, the (non-Jane) characters are interesting, and I like the direction Kane is headed in. Here’s hoping the other books are better.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

25489134At the edge of the Russian wilderness Vasilisa spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

Review:

I haven’t read much straight up adult fantasy lately and this books reminds me – why the hell not?! Reading like a grown-up fairy tale, The Bear and the Nightingale wove its spell around me just when I wanted to get away from the world.

So much is satisfying – the prose is weighty in the right places and beautiful throughout. The story could feel segmented but holds together well, having a cohesive instead of episodic feel. And perhaps above all, Arden trusts the reader. There is no semantic break down of character nicknames; we figure them out for ourselves. Plot threads are put aside until they are needed instead of being needled to death. If there is a romance it’s a super slow burn… I love slow burns! And while there’s a solid ending it leaves the door open for more books. Once I finished I learned it’s going to be a trilogy – callooh! Callay!

A strong recommendation for anyone who loves fantasy, especially for those who are looking for more than YA can offer. I’m excitedly looking forward to the next installment.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

25189315Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty—a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre—took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life’s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Caitlin learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased.

Her eye-opening, candid, and often hilarious story is like going on a journey with your bravest friend to the cemetery at midnight. She demystifies death, leading us behind the black curtain of her unique profession.

Honest and heartfelt, self-deprecating and ironic, Caitlin’s engaging style makes this otherwise taboo topic both approachable and engrossing. Now a licensed mortician with an alternative funeral practice, Caitlin argues that our fear of dying warps our culture and society, and she calls for better ways of dealing with death (and our dead).

Review:

This isn’t the book for everyone, but at the same time, the more you resist the more you should probably read it. (Passes given for the truly squeemish and triggered, of course.)

In this memoir-of-sorts Doughty explores her life-long fascination with death and what it means to have a “good” one. She relates what it’s actually like to work at a crematory, how bodies of all descriptions get to their final resting place, Western culture’s relationship with death and how it’s changed over the centuries, and more.

Doughty speaks honestly about things we’d never admit to being curious about (why don’t we see dead bodies at the hospital?) and things many of us never think about (what happens when a homeless person dies?). Working in medicine I’ve already given thought to my own “good death” but she pushed me a step farther – what would I like to happen <i>after</i> I die? What would donating my body to science entail? What kind of rituals or ceremonies would help my family cope?

I won’t lie, parts of the book made my eyes leak, a ‘wow that’s so beautiful/touching/wrenching’ that hits you (lovingly) in the solar plexus. This is stuff we should all be thinking about it and as the author argues, turning a blind eye to death makes for an unhealthy relationship with it.

A hearty recommend for anyone interested by the title, and even those who aren’t.