Take the Lead by Alexis Daria (Dance Off #1)

35832861Gina Morales wants to win. It’s her fifth season on The Dance Off, a TV celebrity dance competition, and she’s never even made it to the finals. Her latest partner is handsome, rippling with muscles, and stars on the popular reality show Living Wild. With his sexy physique and name recognition she thinks he’s her ticket to the finals—until she realizes they’re being set up.

Stone Nielson hates Los Angeles and the fact that he had to join The Dance Off due to family obligations… but he also can’t deny his growing attraction to his bubbly Puerto Rican dance partner. Neither of them are looking for romantic entanglements, but as they heat up the dance floor it’s only a matter of time until he feels an overwhelming urge to take the lead. When the tabloids catch on to their developing romance the spotlight threatens to ruin not just their relationship, but their careers and their shot at the trophy.

Review:

I’m not a reality television fan but it doesn’t matter, Take the Lead is a fun contemporary romance that charmed me from the beginning.

The good:

  • Own voices romance with a Puerto Rican heroine, huzzah!
  • The story sucked me in, which doesn’t always happen when I read contemporaries.  I like my romances to be a bit separated from normal life and this fits the bill, with two celebrities falling in love while on a competitive tv program.
  • Both Stone and Gina know that tv people are kind of evil so neither one is caught off guard when producers push them into a “showmance”.  I appreciate that one character doesn’t have to school the other on how Hollywood works, keeping the couple on an even footing.
  • I was there for all the dance scenes, despite not being all that into dance.
  • The writing is solid, and I wouldn’t have thought this is a debut.  Well done.

The not-so-good:

  • While I was having fun the show season feels a bit long to me.
  • The story trades in secrets and miscommunication, not my favorite tropes.

I really enjoyed this book despite it not being in my romance wheelhouse.  So if you like celebrity culture, family secrets, competition, and a tiny slice of (fun!) crazy, this is the perfect book for you.

Thanks to Swerve and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Advertisements

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson

33395053As the country grapples with racist division at a level not seen since the 1960s, one man’s voice soars above the rest with conviction and compassion. In his 2016 New York Times op-ed piece “Death in Black and White,” Michael Eric Dyson moved a nation. Now he continues to speak out in Tears We Cannot Stop—a provocative and deeply personal call for change. Dyson argues that if we are to make real racial progress we must face difficult truths, including being honest about how black grievance has been ignored, dismissed, or discounted.

“The time is at hand for reckoning with the past, recognizing the truth of the present, and moving together to redeem the nation for our future. If we don’t act now, if you don’t address race immediately, there very well may be no future.”

Review:

A must-read primer to race in America, especially for people who are new to racial justice.  Aimed specifically at white people but readable by anyone, Dyson explains why history, police brutality, and white fragility matter.

Don’t be put off by the fact that the author is a minister – he’s not pushing a god on anyone, much appreciated by this agnostic.  Using the framework of a sermon Dyson goes through the stages of white guilt, the construction of whiteness, the specter of slavery, and more.  As a primer he avoids going overly deep, which is perfect for what he’s doing.  Other authors have covered the specifics elsewhere and he lists dozens of them if you’d like to read more.

What gets to me is that the people who need to read this most – whites with no grounding in racial justice – are the least likely to pick it up.  So read it yourself and put it in other people’s hands.  We need to get the message out.

Trade Me by Courtney Milan (Cyclone #1)

24600366Tina Chen just wants a degree and a job, so her parents never have to worry about making rent again. She has no time for Blake Reynolds, the sexy billionaire who stands to inherit Cyclone Systems. But when he makes an offhand comment about what it means to be poor, she loses her cool and tells him he couldn’t last a month living her life.

To her shock, Blake offers her a trade: She’ll get his income, his house, his car. In exchange, he’ll work her hours and send money home to her family. No expectations; no future obligations.

But before long, they’re trading not just lives, but secrets, kisses, and heated nights together. No expectations might break Tina’s heart…but Blake’s secrets could ruin her life.

Review:

I gotta be honest – I wasn’t exactly looking forward to reading this book.  Contemporary romance isn’t a wheelhouse for me so I’m picky about tropes, and rich buy/poor gal is pretty low down my list.

But I really want to read the second book in the series so I sucked it up and I’m glad I did.

The good:

  • The romance is both interracial and intercultural, and as someone in such a relationship myself I appreciate the representation.
  • Tina’s roommate is a trans woman and while she doesn’t play a huge role in this book she’s the heroine of the next.  Mixing LGBTQIA* couples with cis couples in a series is awesome and I cannot wait to start book two.
  • Blake is a good guy and he models good behavior in a heartwarming way.  When Tina says that she’s scared she’ll be come attached to him he respects that.  He doesn’t say “don’t be scared, baby” or “trust me,” but comes back with the ideal:

    Is there anything I can do to make you feel safe?

    People need to hear this to know it’s the right thing to say. So glad it’s here.

  • The rich/poor thing doesn’t get overly crazy or annoying.
  • I also liked the small flipped trope that I’m not going to go into because spoilers.
  • Tina’s mom is hilarious.

    Good thing he’s not your boyfriend, though, Tina.  He’s so skinny, I think a condom would pop right off.

The not-so-good:

  • There’s a part near the end where I could see exactly what was coming and the dread nearly did me in.
  • I started to lose interest when rich people problems came up, especially near the end.

A solid romance that overcomes some of the limitations of its tropes.  I may just have to start book two about… now.

The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz

Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette

30186905In a surreal, but familiar, vision of modern day Egypt, a centralized authority known as ‘the Gate’ has risen to power in the aftermath of the ‘Disgraceful Events,’ a failed popular uprising. Citizens are required to obtain permission from the Gate in order to take care of even the most basic of their daily affairs, yet the Gate never opens, and the queue in front of it grows longer.

Citizens from all walks of life mix and wait in the sun. Among them is Yehia, a man who was shot during the Events and is waiting for permission from the Gate to remove a bullet that remains lodged in his pelvis. Yehia’s health steadily declines, yet at every turn, officials refuse to assist him, actively denying the very existence of the bullet.

Ultimately it is Tarek, the principled doctor tending to Yehia’s case, who must decide whether to follow protocol as he has always done, or to disobey the law and risk his career to operate on Yehia and save his life.

Review:

Authoritarianism has been on my mind lately and The Queue is a fascinating way to approach it in fiction.  What struck me the most is how people can and do adapt to almost anything.  Need an eye exam?  Wait in this line so you can get a document allowing it.  No, the line is not moving – it will when the Gate opens.  Please wait.

So they do.

It’s a reminder that human resilience is a double edged sword – while it allows us to get through horrific things, we can also put up with far more than we should.

I will admit that I had a hard time getting into the story, probably because I was reading in short bursts.  With longer reading sessions I became more interested, wondering what the heck is going on and how it all will end.

While the setting and circumstances are a far cry from the current situation in the US every now and then a passage startled me, hitting too close to home.

He wrote a hard-hitting and well-researched article about the [boycott] campaign – its grounds and implications, and how many people joined each week – but the newspaper didn’t print it.  Instead, they gave him a stern warning about “fabricating the news.”

I would recommend The Queue if you like literature in translation, dystopia, and don’t mind a healthy dose of uncertainty.  It’s not a breezy read but it has given me a lot to think about.

The Red by Tiffany Reisz

30755704Mona Lisa St. James made a deathbed promise that she would do anything to save her mother’s art gallery. Unfortunately, not only is The Red painted red, but it’s in the red. She soon realizes she has no choice but to sell it.

Just as she realizes she has no choice but to sell it, a mysterious man comes in after closing time and makes her an offer: He will save The Red if she agrees to submit to him for the period of one year.

The man is handsome, English, and terribly tempting…but surely her mother didn’t mean for Mona to sell herself to a stranger. Then again, she did promise to do anything to save The Red…

Review:

Reisz has been in mainstream mode lately (The Night Mark, Her Halloween Treat) so I’m thrilled to see she’s come back to hot, kinky erotica.  Huzzah!

The good:

  • This is porn with a plot.  Mona agrees to have sex with a mysterious man over the course of a year in order to save her art gallery.  Each encounter is based on a painting and could easily become episodic but the thread of the story carries through wonderfully.
  • Ooo boy, the sex is hot.  The kink is thick and there’s guaranteed to be something that challenges you… which is just way I like it.
  • There’s a twist at the end that I didn’t see that brings everything full circle.  Well done.

The not-so-good:

  • The ending is a bit rushed, and while it didn’t bother me too much it could have used a little more development.
  • The characters are rounded but lack some depth.

All in all I’m sooo happy to see Reisz stretch her kinky wings again.  On Twitter she teased an upcoming title, calling it a “sexy sex cult”… so it looks like I have more to look forward to!

Thanks to 8th Circle Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

37781Things Fall Apart tells two overlapping, intertwining stories, both of which center around Okonkwo, a “strong man” of an Ibo village in Nigeria. The first of these stories traces Okonkwo’s fall from grace with the tribal world in which he lives, and in its classical purity of line and economical beauty it provides us with a powerful fable about the immemorial conflict between the individual and society.

The second story, which is as modern as the first is ancient, and which elevates the book to a tragic plane, concerns the clash of cultures and the destruction of Okonkwo’s world through the arrival of aggressive, proselytizing European missionaries. These twin dramas are perfectly harmonized, and they are modulated by an awareness capable of encompassing at once the life of nature, human history, and the mysterious compulsions of the soul. Things Fall Apart is the most illuminating and permanent monument we have to the modern African experience as seen from within.

Review:

Things Fall Apart has been on my gotta-someday list, and recently someone pushed me to read it.  I’m glad he did –  this book a classic for a reason and makes for great discussion.

The story isn’t happy but it’s beautifully told.  In short: Okonkwo is a strong man with a nasty streak fueled by fear.  He’s become a powerful figure in his own village but a series of events, both of his own doing and not, lead to…. things falling apart.  (I couldn’t resist.)

There are all kinds of themes that can be examined endlessly but here are some that resonated with me:

  • the friction between African and Western cultures meeting, not only in the story but in the form of the novel.  For example, the title is taken from a Yeats poem, and Igbo proverbs and storytelling feature throughout.
  • sons who are determined not to become their father and take it too far
  • how women are treated and viewed in society
  • justice – how it is meted out and by whom

Just as good as I hoped it would be, with lots to think about.

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.

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.

Prisoner of Love by Beverly Jenkins

18898429Kansas, 1884
Abandoned by her husband, Elizabeth Franklin is struggling to keep up with the chores on her 60-acre farm. Desperate to stay in the only home she ever loved, the resourceful Elizabeth agrees to marry a prisoner, Jordan Yancey – an arrangement that will set him free while affording her the farm help that she so urgently needs. But what Elizabeth never expects is that this former prisoner will arouse the kind of passion and desire she’s only heard about and capture her instead…

Jordan Yancey would do anything to get out of prison, and the arrangement with the pretty, but prim Elizabeth seems like a good bet – his freedom for a little farm work, and a wife on paper. He never imagines that his pretend bride will become the most magnificent woman he’s ever met…and that his sensuous little ‘jailer’ will be the one to free his heart…

Review:

I needed a quick hit of romance and stumbled upon this Jenkins novella at the library. A marriage of convenience historical set in the American West? Yes, please!

Jenkins usually writes novels in the 385-page range and it shows – there’s a lot of story considering the two digit page count. The conflicts are resolved quickly and easily with a single conversation. Elizabeth warms up to Jordan quickly, which is a bit hard to swallow because he was a convict when she married him.

In fact, the plot is so minimal that the story ventures into porn-without-plot territory. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind – the love scenes are great! – it’s just not what I expected.

Her writing and historical chops are on fine display, so fans of Jenkins’ other historicals will enjoy this quick hit of romance. If you’re looking for an un-rushed story, though, you may want to try one of her longer titles like Breathless or Night Hawk.

A Simple Story: The Last Malambo by Leila Guerriero

Translated by Frances Riddle

30347690Every year, at the height of summer, the remote Argentine village of Laborde holds the national malambo contest. Centuries-old, this shatteringly demanding traditional gaucho dance is governed by the most rigid rules. And this festival has one stipulation that makes it unique: the malambo is danced for up to five minutes. That may seem like nothing, but consider the world record for the hundred-meter dash is 9.58 seconds. The dance contest is an obsession for countless young men, who sacrifice their bodies and money as they strive to become the champion, knowing that if they win—in order to safeguard the title’s prestige—they can never compete again.

When Leila Guerriero traveled to Laborde, one dancer’s performance took her breath away, and she spent a year following him as he prepared for the next festival. The result is this superlative piece of journalism, told with tremendous economy and power.

Review:

The malambo is my favorite dance that I never knew about. It’s athletic, takes massive skill and commitment, and is just fun to watch.  I mean, look:

As Guerriero writes:

At three minutes, the malambo is a wall of sound, a jumble of boots, drum, and guitar that picks up speed at an asphyxiating rate.  At four minutes, his feet pound the stage with savage fury, the guitar, drum, and boots are a solid mass of blows, and at four minutes fifty seconds, the man lowers his head, raises one leg, and with colossal force, bashes it into the wood, his heart monstrously swollen, with the lucid yet frenzied expression of someone who’s just experienced a revelation.  After a few seconds of unnatural stillness, in which the public claps and shouts, the man, like someone emptying a gun into a dead body, dances off the stage with a short, furious storm of tapping, and every cell in his body seems to scream: This is what I’m made of.  I am capable of absolutely anything.

If that doesn’t make you want to watch through to the end I don’t know what will.

The yearly festival at Laborde is only known to other dancers and the title comes with a price – you can never dance the malambo in competition again.  Why do these dancers work so hard to end their career?

Guerriero examines Laborde from all sides – the dancers and their families, the practice and sacrifice required to be a contender, the place of the malambo in Argentinian society, and so much more.  The prose is powerful and comes through full force thanks to Riddle’s translation.  I purposefully limited myself to small doses so I could spread my enjoyment out as long as possible.

This book is a perfect case for non-fiction in translation: it opens our eyes to something we never knew existed that, like all things, relates back to us.  Check it out for the story, for the prose, for the dance, and for the experience.  My second five star read of the year – I heap my love upon it.