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.

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.

Everneath by Brodi Ashton (Everneath #1)

9413044Last spring, Nikki Beckett vanished, sucked into an underworld known as the Everneath. Now she’s returned—to her old life, her family, her boyfriend—before she’s banished back to the underworld . . . this time forever. She has six months before the Everneath comes to claim her, six months for good-byes she can’t find the words for, six months to find redemption, if it exists.

Nikki longs to spend these precious months forgetting the Everneath and trying to reconnect with her boyfriend, Jack, the person most devastated by her disappearance—and the one person she loves more than anything. But there’s just one problem: Cole, the smoldering immortal who enticed her to the Everneath in the first place, has followed Nikki home. Cole wants to take over the throne in the underworld and is convinced Nikki is the key to making it happen. And he’ll do whatever it takes to bring her back, this time as his queen.

Review:

Complicated feelings about this one.

The good:

  • A mythology-based story that I don’t want to throw against the wall! This is super rare.
  • The plot was pretty interesting, and the world has been thought out. Things stay pretty consistent… but are not sufficient. More on that below.
  • I like love triangles in general (don’t hate!) and this one is particularly well balanced. The good guy/bad guy roles are stereotypical (high school football star vs rock musician dressed in black) but the affection each has for Nikki shines through.

The not-so-good:

  • While the world is thought out I had a bunch of niggles and questions that aren’t addressed. If Feeding fuels an Everliving for 100 years, why does Cole feel so drained within a year of topping up? It seems like everyone Feeds at the same time so all kinds of Everlivings on the Surface, as well as the people they Feed on, disappear from Earth at once. Wouldn’t that sudden spate of missing persons cases get noticed? What is the point of letting Forfeits return for an arbitrary six months? And so on.
  • On a similar note, the characters’ motivations are muddled or unclear.
  • The book could have done with a better edit. It felt like people jumped around in their actions – like someone sitting is somehow lying in bed half a page later. I didn’t spend time dissecting but it was still there.
  • The writing didn’t get in the way but it didn’t add anything to the story, either. The prose is simple, even for YA.
  • Each section starts off mentioning not only a time reference (good as the plot bounces around) but also a wholly unnecessary place reference. From chapter nine:

NOW
My bedroom. Four months left.

“Time’s flying for you, Nik.” Cole was sitting in the darkest corner of my bedroom….

  • I don’t remember a single person of color or minority character of any sort. It’s set in Utah so my hopes weren’t high, but still.

I don’t see myself continuing the series as the jacket copy for the next two books tells me pretty much everything I want to know plot-wise. I would like to read Ashton in another context, and am excited to see she’s one of the authors of My Lady Jane. It’s currently on hold at my library, so hopefully it’ll arrive before too long….

Filthy Beautiful Love by Kendall Ryan (Filthy Beautiful Lies #2)

22673915I never expected to watch Sophie walk away. She was mine. I would own her. She just didn’t know it yet. New goal: Seal the deal and rock her world so thoroughly she never wanted to leave again.

Highly sexual and emotionally charged, Filthy Beautiful Love is the provocative conclusion to Filthy Beautiful Lies.

Review:

So, all the stuff that I was afraid would go wrong in book one? It all went wrong here in book two.

Every female character is a threat to Sophie – she’s wearing a lot of make up to our casual party, she must want to steal away my man! That other woman made a weird comment… she must have been intimate with him in the past! Sophie is possessive in the worst, paranoid way.

The way protection is handled is plain awful. To be clear – I don’t mind it when the couple decides not to use a condom when there’s trust and birth control on board. I don’t even mind the ‘crap, I didn’t use a condom’ if it’s recognized and addressed. But this, this I cannot stand:

“No, no condom. I want to feel you. Please, Colton.”
His gaze snaps to mine and I can read the indecision in his eyes. “Are you sure?”
I nod. “Yes, just take me.”
I’m sure he knows I’m not on any birth control, but I can see the exact moment he decides it doesn’t matter.

I could even forgive that if the chance of pregnancy is owned later, but it’s blithely ignored. GRAH. Other rage-inducing lines:

“I want your virginity, sweetness. I want total claim over you. It’s the only way to show me that you’re really here for me.”

And because English:

I see the vein throb at the base of his throat. “Good girl,” he admonishes.

Secondary characters are just as thin as before, including the presumptive hero for the next book. The plot starts off okay – a couple getting back together by overcoming trust issues – but at the end we’re pinballed from one happening to another. It’s not conflict, it’s a sad thing and a cute thing and a grief thing with sex scenes liberally interspersed.

All in all the book is spare and petty and made me mad. I had much hope after the unconventional opening of Filthy Beautiful Lies but Ryan didn’t follow through. At least it reads quickly. ~sigh~

The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent

Translated by Ros Schwartz

29501558Working at a job he hates, Guylain Vignolles has but one pleasure in life. Sitting on the 6.27 train each day, Guylain reads aloud. It’s this release of words into the world that starts our hero on a journey that will finally bring meaning into his life. For one morning, Guylain discovers the diary of a lonely young woman: Julie, who feels as lost in the world as he does.

This is a tale bursting with larger-than-life characters, each of whom touches Guylain’s life for the better. This captivating novel is a warm, funny fable about literature’s power to uplift even the most downtrodden of lives.

Review:

A friend lent me a hard copy of this book saying, “It’s a fun read, I think you’ll like it!  You could probably blow through it in an afternoon.”

And I totally could have but no, I had to be cute about it.  I read it on the train home after we parted.  I put random moments at home towards it, as it’s hard to fit a paper book in my work bag.  A huge chunk of my reading time is on my commute so my progress suffered, and this ‘afternoon read’ took over a month to complete.

First things first – it’s not the book’s fault.  Didierlaurent weaves a charming story that reminded me in some ways of The Red Notebook.  I like the way details are unspooled over time and the characters kept me interested.  The pages of text Guylain reads on the train may have been the best parts.  In a way that was frustrating – why wasn’t the whole book written like that? – but the contrast sets off differences nicely so I can’t complain too much.

The whole thing feels a little thin when stretched out over weeks but it would have been perfect on a lazy weekend.  So if you’re in the mood for charming with a side of ‘book on books’ give this a go – and set some quality time aside for it so you don’t end up like me.

Filthy Beautiful Lies by Kendall Ryan (Filthy Beautiful Lies #1)

The jacket copy is misleading (the hero is not that cold or calculating), but here goes:

29412025I have no idea why she auctioned off her virginity for a cool mill. Regardless, I’m now the proud new owner of a perfectly intact hymen. A lot of good that will do me. I have certain tastes, certain sexual proclivities. My cock is a bit more discriminatory than most. And training a virgin takes finesse and patience – both of which I lack.

Sophie Evans has been backed into a corner. With her sister’s life hanging in the balance, the only choice is to claw her way out, even if that means selling her virginity to the highest bidder at an exclusive erotic club. When Colton Drake takes her home, she quickly learns nothing is as it seems with this beautifully troubled man. Being with him poses challenges she never expected, and pushes her to want things she never anticipated.

First things first – this is not a 300 page book. Sure, the print copy has that many pages, but the margins are generous to say the least.  On my ereader it felt like 150 pages. And to top it off, this is only half a story, ending in a cliffhanger. Not a ‘oo, one problem solved, another arises’ cliffhanger, but a ‘oo, things are finally getting interesting… whad’ya mean I’m at 100%?!?’ cliffhanger. Gah.

I originally picked it up because I like romance that pushes the envelope, and I wanted to see how a hero and heroine who “meet” at an auction can fall in love. I thought it would be heavy with BDSM but there are only overtones of power exchange. Sophie has good reasons to sell her virginity (to pay for sister’s cancer treatment), and Drake has reasons of his own for hiring her for six months. While the setup is a recipe for non-con or dubious consent sex the couple takes things slow, and Drake is loathe to take something that is not freely given. In that way the avant garde-ness of the plot fades out rather quickly.

The emotional arc is realistic, especially with Sophie. She’s understandably timid to start and takes time to get used to the situation, and when she does she’s good about asking for things she wants and communicating with Drake. He’s a bit more cagey, especially where past relationships are concerned, but there is no Big Misunderstanding.

Most of the action takes places in LA, with the secondary characters being shallow people in designer clothes whose only worries involve who is dating whom. The only way I can tell Drake’s brothers apart is that one is more explicit about the tail he chases, and the other women with speaking lines are his former or wannabe paramours. I didn’t notice a single person of color or other minority character.

So, is the book enjoyable? Hard to say, seeing that this volume only covers half of the story. ~fume~ I will be reading on, if only to see what happens to the main couple, so we’ll see.

Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater (Wolves of Mercy Falls #1)

24538654For years, Grace has watched the wolves in the woods behind her house. One yellow-eyed wolf–her wolf–is a chilling presence she can’t seem to live without. Meanwhile, Sam has lived two lives: In winter, the frozen woods, the protection of the pack, and the silent company of a fearless girl. In summer, a few precious months of being human . . . until the cold makes him shift back again.

Now, Grace meets a yellow-eyed boy whose familiarity takes her breath away. It’s her wolf. It has to be. But as winter nears, Sam must fight to stay human–or risk losing himself, and Grace, forever.

Review:

I’ve gotten out of the habit of reading urban fantasy which is a shame because I love it.  I found this ranking of Best Urban Fantasy and was surprised to see that I’ve read 23 of the top 100, go me!  Shiver wasn’t far from the top and I recognized the author so I’d thought it would be a good place to start.

I like that werewolves are tied to the seasons instead of the moon, and Stiefvater’s writing is solid.  But it turns out that, at that moment, I wasn’t in the mood for reading YA.  My mind drifted off, thinking about the different ways parents are disposed of so high schoolers can do what needs doing, how sleeping in the same bed kind of non-romantically is a thing, and how you can see the collateral damage from a mile away.

The world building is good and the story is fine, but I didn’t fall in love with it.  I won’t be continuing the series but I will take a look at Stiefvater’s other work.  I guess The Raven Boys would be the best place to start?

Noteworthy by Riley Redgate

31447601It’s the start of Jordan Sun’s junior year at the Kensington-Blaine Boarding School for the Performing Arts. Unfortunately, she’s an Alto 2, which—in the musical theatre world—is sort of like being a vulture in the wild: She has a spot in the ecosystem, but nobody’s falling over themselves to express their appreciation. So it’s no surprise when she gets shut out of the fall musical for the third year straight.

Then the school gets a mass email: A spot has opened up in the Sharpshooters, Kensington’s elite a cappella octet. Worshiped … revered … all male. Desperate to prove herself, Jordan auditions in her most convincing drag, and it turns out that Jordan Sun, Tenor 1, is exactly what the Sharps are looking for.

Review:

Holy cow, I love this book.

The good:

  • First and foremost, everything rings true, from the overarching issues (race, gender, class, identity) to small details (what it’s like to be part of a music group, theatre department politics).  Some of it is from the author’s own experience, some of it is from careful research and consideration, and all of it is appreciated.
  • The intersectionality is real.  In the first chapter Jordan doesn’t get cast in the school musical and asks the director why.  All the options run through her head – is it because I’m not white?  Or because I’m taller than the prospective leading men?  This feeling, this ‘what’s the strike against me this time’, is real for many and I’m so happy to see it addressed on the page.
  • Likewise all the gender issues are thoughtfully and thoroughly considered.  I won’t go into detail for fear of spoiling things, so here’s a quote after Jordan starts dressing as a guy:

    I’d set down the burdens of being a girl, unstrapped them one by one and left them on the roadside, but my shoulders didn’t feel any lighter.  They were carrying different, unfamiliar weights now.  As I stood there in that derelict husk of a theater, I felt like I’d gotten lost in between my lives, and the road ahead looked long and strange and poorly lit.

  • There are subtle pokes at the reader to check in with themselves and see how they’re doing regarding these issues.

    With so many queer kids at Kensington, people sometimes got weirdly comfortable, like they had a free pass to say anything they wanted about sexuality.  I guess it was tempting to stick a rainbow-colored “Ally” pin on your backpack and call it a day, as if that were the endpoint, not the starting line.

    Word.

  • Redgate name drops songs – this is a book about a cappella, after all – but none of them are real.  It’s genius.  The story will never date itself by the cultural references within, ensuring that people reading it even twenty years from now will feel a minimal amount of generational whiplash.
  • The plot never stops moving, the banter is fun, you can feel the found family that forms within the Sharps, and you watch Jordan discover who they are.  It’s a delightful journey that I look forward to revisiting.

The only not-so-good thing I can think of is that I was shipping a different couple.  That’s it.  So minor.

In sum, Noteworthy is a diverse, inclusive YA novel that’s compulsively readable and a whole lot of fun.  And it’s full of a cappella!  What more could you want?

Thanks to Amulet Books and NetGalley for providing a review copy.