Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

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undertheudalatreesPublisher/Date:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Sept. 2015
Genre(s):  Romance, Coming of Age
Pages:  336
Website:  http://www.chinelookparanta.com

Rating: ★★★★★ 

I love coming-of-age stories. The transition one makes from child to adulthood is an evolution I watch with fascination. Ijeoma’s growing up is especially captivating because the 11-year-old lives with the threat of falling bombs, food rations and army takeovers during the Nigerian Civil War in UNDER THE UDALA TREES by Chinelo Okparanta (author of Happiness Like Water).

Set in the town of Ojoto, the time is 1968, and the juxtaposition of her typical experiences of a girl her age – attending school and watching the boys play Policeman – contrasts sharply with worries of her father, a drafter obsessed with any report about Biafra’s attempt to defeat the government. Ijeoma sees him poring over newspapers that line his study or listening to his radio-gramophone, and prays for an end to the conflict so that her father, as well everyone around them, can return to normal life.

A subsequent attack leaves Ijeoma fatherless, and fearing her daughter’s safety and well-being, her mother sends her to be a housegirl to a grammar school teacher and his wife in neighboring Nnewi. An adjacent hovel with only a table and mattress – no bathroom or running water – becomes her new home, and Ijeoma has to contend with her new surroundings as well as her mother’s abandonment to prepare them a new life.

Working for the childless couple proves mindless, until she meets Amina, a girl about her age whom she discovers has no family, and luckily, convinces her caretakers they could use an extra pair of hands with chores. They share Ijeoma’s small confines, but it’s where their attraction begins to blossom. Ijeoma and Amina come from different tribes – Ijeoma is Igbo, Amina is Hausa – but they shyly explore the other under the moonlight and stars while taking nighttime baths. Both without family, both working to earn their keep, the girls begin a love affair that sustains them and blinds them to the danger of being found out – until they are found out – and then Ijeoma returns to the care of her mother.

This is where Udala finds its footing. Ijeoma becomes bombarded with the decisions of whether being gay is God’s will or an abomination as her as her mother emphasizes with daily Bible studies and incessant scripture quoting. Her questioning of God’s word leads her to believe that the world is not as black and white as the pages of her Bible, but her mother sees her daughter’s life only in terms of being married and having children. Ijeoma is reluctant to take this path, but it seems the only way out in a country where being gay can be a destructive decision to make.

Under the Udala Trees is a lot of things: a coming-of-age tale, an exploration of Nigerian folklore, an examination of religious doctrine. But quite simply, at its heart, Trees is a bittersweet love story written incredibly well by Okparanta. While the religious overtones can sometimes bog down the story, it leads to Ijeoma becoming introspective about what God sincerely wants. I found the story, despite its somber nature, to be hopeful with every page toward the novel’s end. I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something about Trees that makes me feel as if Ijeoma finds her happy ending.

Reviewed February 2016

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About Chinelo Okparanta

Chinelo Okparanta was born in Port-Harcourt, Nigeria, and was raised there as a Jehovah’s Witness. When she was ten, her family relocated to the United States. She received her BS from The Pennsylvania State University, her MA from Rutgers University, and her MFA from the University of Iowa. She has worked as a middle and high school French and English Language teacher, and an undergraduate writing teacher. She is one of Granta’s six New Voices for 2012 and has stories forthcoming from Conjunctions, Subtropics, and elsewhere.


BrookLyn’s Journey by Coffey Brown

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brooklynsjourneyncodPublisher/Date: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, June 2012
Genre(s): Young Adult, Coming of Age, Identity
Pages: 258
Website: http://www.coffeybrownbooks.com

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

There were times reading BROOKLYN’S JOURNEY by Coffey Brown I didn’t quite know what to feel.

On one hand, it’s an affecting story about 18-year-old BrookLynn Scott living an abusive home. On the other hand, the unlikely love story surrounding her and Gabriella Michaels is almost like an fanciful fairy tale, because Gabby saves her in a way BrookLyn never thought possible – with unconditional love.

Growing up with a belt-swinging father and a snitch of a mother caring only to save herself, Brooklyn is trapped in her own house. She is the baby of the family, her brother and sisters long escaped, and her goal is to excel in high school so she can attend college far away from her parents. Since she wasn’t allowed out except to go to school or church, no parties and definitely no boys, her plan seemed attainable.

It also seems like fate when she runs into Gabby, and her church mate uses this chance to finally be with dream girl BrookLyn. As Gabby confesses her affection for the quiet girl in the choir and asks for her trust, BrookLyn imagines a life free of pain. With an inheritance and her own home at 19, Gabby woos BrookLyn with promises of love, protection and most of all, normal teenage experiences. In every step of their relationship, it appears impossible that BrookLyn has found someone who will love her, scars and all, but she holds on tight to this impossibility – because if not, what else does she have left?

I applaud Brown for the message she sends with BrookLyn’s Journey, because the questioning BrookLyn has about her sexuality is authentic to what some teenagers face when they’ve been sheltered and discover their first attraction to the same sex. Her portrayal of the horrid emotions of child emotional and physical abuse, as unfortunate as it sounds, was too real. I wanted BrookLyn to leave this house or to have someone, her older siblings especially, to take her away from her awful excuse for parents. No one would save the studious girl who missed days at school so her bruises wouldn’t be noticed.

Yet when that someone comes in the form of Gabby, I was skeptical at first. With everything BrookLyn’s been through, I didn’t want to see her hurt again, and I couldn’t wrap my mind around how quickly they fell for each other, more so Gabby. She is totally in love with BrookLyn, and I think being in her situation, BrookLyn was grabbing on to any life preserve she could find.

But the one thing I love about BrookLyn is that she’s resilient; she may not know what love is, but she surely knows what love isn’t. And that’s what she sees in Gabby – someone who won’t hurt her again. That kind of love is powerful, and I wish every child, neglected or not, has someone – whether a parent, teacher, aunt or uncle, best friend or significant other – she can receive that kind of love from.

There are other things about BrookLyn’s Journey – the sometimes awkward dialogue, the plausibility of the love affair – that I question, but Brown does a decent job giving BrookLyn a voice that teenagers will undoubtedly relate to and cheer for.

Reviewed October 2013

About Coffey Brown

Stacey Pierce aka Coffey Brown was born and raised in Orange County, New York. She graduated from the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Fairleigh Dickinson University and New York University. She has been a social worker for almost twenty years. Stacey will be publishing fiction and non-fiction books in various genres hence the pen name. However, she will be using the pen name for LGBT fiction. She recently relocated to the Charlotte area with her partner of fourteen years. BrookLyn’s Journey is her first novel, followed by The Awakening of Graye Moon.


The Gerbera Series: The Preludes, Clear Sense and The Sweetness by Ninamaste MaTuri

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Publisher/Date:  Lulu.com, Mar. 2011 (The Preludes); Nov. 2011 (Clear Sense); May 2013 (The Sweetness)
Genre(s):  Young Adult, Coming of Age
Pages:   56 (The Preludes); 78 (Clear Sense); 96 (The Sweetness)
Website:  http://www.ninamastematuri.com

The Preludes:★★★½☆ 
Clear Sense:★★★★☆ 
The Sweetness:★★★★☆ 

Ninamaste MaTuri’s The Gerbera series has all the makings of childhood love, pain and laughter – and at the helm are Melanie, Adrianna and Nicole, three very unique girls diverged on the path to womanhood.

thepreludesTHE PRELUDES is just the beginning. It takes one back to your early school days: experiencing first crushes, attempting to fit in, and realizing your parents can be either a best friend or a major disappointment. It introduces tomboy Melanie, mother’s baby Adrianna and lovelorn Nicole, all wishing for something much needed in their lives. Melanie, with a white mother and black father, would like to accepted and not out of place in her class, being the only brown face with a lopsided Afro, and a cousin who teases her because of it; things begin looking up when her new teacher, with deeply brown skin and wavy black hair, comes into her classroom. Adrianna’s story starts at her mother’s funeral; after the service, the grief of missing her mother is exacerbated by father’s womanizing ways. Nicole’s father, on the other hand, is the shield against her mother’s unhappiness of Nicole’s masculine demeanor, but daydreams of Crystal help soothe her mother’s harsh words.

The Bottom Line:  Although each story is told very quickly, The Preludes sets itself up well to continue the girls’ journey. While Melanie stood out as a leader, I was enthralled most by Nicole, whose resilience to be herself and her relationship with her father shine. On the other hand, it’s evident Adrianna has a long road ahead of her, and she’s is the one I connect to the least.

clearsenseThe trip continues with CLEAR SENSE, and as the girls are now teenagers, their issues and desires become deeper. The novella reminds you of how intense we all felt about our problems at that age (or so it seems), that we would do anything to have what we want. Melanie’s secret admiration of Tiffany seems to be in vain, because Tiffany thinks the loving gestures are the work of her boyfriend, and Melanie has to concoct a plan to show her how she feels; will she finally get her dream girl? Adrianna has had it up to here with her father’s casual treatment of women since losing her mother, made even more apparent when Adrianna believes she’s found the guy she thinks could be the one. Can she really trust him? Nicole spends most of Clear Sense hiding her true feelings for Crystal, and at the same time being a good friend to her. Will her concern of Crystal lead her to something more?

The Bottom Line:  Clear Sense is a good continuation of the Gerbera series, and we are privy to Adrianna and Nicole’s aches, and Melanie’s antics with her cousins. It’s the more humorous of the series. Yet they all have more growing up to do, though, especially Melanie, who realizes something important in her pursuit of Tiffany. Watching them go through it is worth the transition you see in the next book in the series.

thesweetnessThe third book in the Gerbera series, THE SWEETNESS, is just that, but I would venture to add it’s a tad bittersweet. The girls are now young adults, living in the real world with bills, marriage and college on their minds. Melanie, now working hard at a 9-to-5, has a model for a girlfriend and enjoys the perks that come with having a beautiful woman on her arm; too bad it’s someone else she shares sparks with. Adrianna wants to move from her tragic past to a future with Thaddeus, the love she met in Clear Sense. It’s the first man in her life, her father, she has to heal her heart with in order to give her all to Thaddeus. College-bound Nicole has found the sweetness with Shelia who loves her unconditionally after Crystal’s absence. All seems to be bright in her life until her mother makes an unexpected appearance. She’s a tough cookie, though, and knows it’s something greater in store than what’s in her past.

The Bottom Line: The Sweetness is the best of the three novellas in that plots are fleshed out and we see a superb progression from the girls’ upbringing to adulthood. I see Melanie and Adrianna slowly learning how to love. Nicole, though, is the one I rooted for the most because she grew from a broken home and her mother’s abuse to a confident young lady through her father’s love. The Sweetness is also the book where characters from each girl’s story merge together. MaTuri promises more in her next book – centered around family planning – and I’m waiting to see what lessons life will teach these women next.

Reviewed September 2013

Read the Meet This Sistah Interview with Ninamaste MaTuri

About Ninamaste MaTuri

Ninamaste MaTuri was born in southern California. She lived in various cities throughout her early years. San Francisco was one of her favorites because of its diversity. Her family relocated to Minnesota when she was in middle school. She currently resides in Minnesota.

Ninamaste enjoys writing, and hopes to continue writing stories. She also enjoys hiking, visiting museums, and traveling, in her spare time.


On the Come Up: A Novel, Based on a True Story by Hannah Weyer

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onthecomeupPublisher/Date:  Nan A. Talese, July 2013
Genre(s): Young Adult, Coming of Age
Pages:  320
Website:  http://www.hannahweyer.com

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

“It came to her just before sleep, an idea crystallizing in the dark—how maybe the size of your world ain’t what matter, whether it expand or shrink up or expand again—how maybe it was about finding your place in it. Hurdles to jump. You jump. Erase the lines, draw new ones. Chart a course and follow.”

By the time AnnMarie Walker realizes how to make her way in the world, she’d already been pregnant at 13, starred in a motion picture at 15, and fallen in love with a woman at 18. Her life had been full of accomplishments and setbacks, laughter and tears, kisses and bruises – but along the way, she never stopped dreaming.

It’s the thing I love most about AnnMarie, and it’s also the reason ON THE COME UP: A NOVEL, BASED ON A TRUE STORY is one of the most compelling books I’ve read this year.

A novel based on a true story, On the Come Up by filmmaker Hannah Weyer recounts the coming-of-age of AnnMarie, a teen embedded in a Far Rockaway, Queens housing project after being shuffled around the foster system. She’s back living with her mother, Blessed, who left Trinidad to escape her abusive relationship. Brooklyn-born AnnMarie has typical teenage hopes: making money for back-to-school clothes (Diesel jeans especially), wanting to be noticed by the older guy on the block, better known as Darius Greene. A wannabe music producer, Darius begins to flirt with AnnMarie, and she’s in love. This love manifests itself into sex with no protection, eventually leading to a baby – and of course with foolish promises of being together forever.

At her school for pregnant teens, AnnMarie spies a flyer for a movie audition. Despite being 21 weeks pregnant, she lands a lead role in a film about female friendship, and the set, the cast and the director inspire her to dream beyond Darius’ disappearing act, her mother’s disability and deal with her new life as a mother. The movie encourages her to see a world beyond the Rock as she is swept into Sundance movie premieres and sees herself on the big screen.

After her dizzying turn as an actress, reality plays a bigger role as AnnMarie raises baby Star without much help from Darius, and without a high school diploma or GED. It’s her determination that lands her a job being a home nurse, while time after time taking hard-knocks.

The harshest lessons AnnMarie learns are about love. Without a father figure, AnnMarie sees how proud Darius is to make a baby, but not enough to raise their child. He could dog her, beat her, and still want to call himself a “father,” until AnnMarie recognizes his mistreatment is not worth tolerating just so Star will have the father she never had. Surprisingly, it’s a woman who shows AnnMarie what love is, someone who actually cares about the well-being of her and Star. The kind of love AnnMarie is worthy of.

AnnMarie Walker…engaging, smart, and endearing. Those are the best words I can use to describe her. On the Come Up, I must admit, is not a book for everyone – the omission of quotation marks to indicate who’s speaking makes it hard to follow at times; the vernacular and grittiness of the characters aren’t certain folks cup of tea; and the secondary characters could be stronger. However, On the Come Up is authentic. It’s a credit to Weyer, a screenwriter whose credits include the HBO movie Life Support featuring Queen Latifah, who won a Golden Globe for her role. She’s worked with teens in the media arts for 15 years, and it’s evident. AnnMarie could have been any girl growing up in her neighborhood, but her insightfulness and fortitude is shown even from the first pages, as she’s selling her kool-aid pops and Polaroid pics near the beach, when she takes the A train to an against-odds audition, as she’s falling in love…

She thought, What the fuck you got to be afraid of. You is you. Fuck everybody and they opinion. If you love her, then you love her.
You is you.
Be happy.

Amen, AnnMarie.

Reviewed August 2013

four-stars

About Hannah Weyer

Hannah Weyer is a filmmaker whose narrative and documentary films have been screened at the Human Rights Watch and the New York film festivals and have won awards at the Sundance, Locarno, Melbourne, Doubletake, and South by Southwest film festivals. Her screenwriting credits include Life Support (2007), directed by Nelson George, which earned a Golden Globe Award for its lead actress, Queen Latifah. Weyer has worked with teens in the media arts for the past fifteen years and, along with her husband, the filmmaker Jim McKay, started an after-school film club at a public high school in Brooklyn. On the Come Up is her first novel.


Lion’s Den by Azure

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lionsdenPublisher/Date:  CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, May 2012
Genre(s): Romance, Young Adult
Pages:  304
Website:  http://lionsdenbyazure.wordpress.com

Rating: ★★½☆☆ 

Chaz is 22, a recent college graduate transplanted to Chicago to start her career as an IT engineer and a life away from her family. What she finds in the Windy City is drama LION’S DEN by Azure. It follows her, though some of it is by her own doing.

At the novel’s onset, a night out leads to meeting and falling for an older woman named Samantha. It’s good for a while, yet Chaz recognizes her options – younger, sexy ones – and settling into a committed relationship becomes a chore.

Not when she has Jazmine. And Lori. And white girl Kelly. Plus a few others.

All Chaz’s bed hopping does a have a root, though. Coming out at 19, she wrestled with living in a Christian values home where her sexuality was a sore spot for her parents, her dad especially, as well self-esteem issues stemming from being treated as the ugly duckling. Therefore, Chaz only felt attractive when around the lesbian community. It’s a high-speed carousel from woman to woman, and you can feel dizzy just reading.

That’s my issue with Lion’s Den. From all the partying, sex and drugs, has Chaz really learned anything? Lord knows she’s smart and aware of her shortcomings, which is great; she’s also young and allowed to make mistakes, but her life choices pained me at times.

Azure is a good storyteller, and Lion’s Den has plenty of action. However, the writing was choppy, there were excessive grammatical errors, and not enough dialogue. However, young adults could relate to Chaz, and hopefully for them, it will be a cautionary tale.

Reviewed December 2012


I Ain’t Yo Bitch by Jabulile Bongiwe Ngwenya

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iaintyobitchPublisher/Date:  Paper Bag Publishing, Aug. 2009
Genre(s): Coming of Age, Young Adult
Pages:  163

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

If I AIN’T YO BITCH was defined by a current song, it would sound like Drake’s “Crew Love.”

Mainly because Tebogo’s world revolves around being the lone female in her crew, honing her music craft, partying, and appeasing her groupies. Nothing else matters.

Set in Johannesburg, South Africa, Tebogo’s almost bipolar tale is deep, rooted in the loss of her mother and surviving a family betrayal. Living with her father, Tebogo relied on her grandmother’s gentle counsel, friendship and discipline. It is she, unlike her father, who accepted her granddaughter’s sexuality with love and understanding.

“Will it get easier? Sometimes I think there is something wrong with me,” said Tebogo, tears welling.

“Where have you ever heard of such a ridiculous idea?’ laughed her grandmother, opening her arms to embrace Tebogo. She held the child, gently rubbing her back with soft, gnarled hands. “You’re different. You like different things. I don’t understand how that’s wrong? God created a variety of flowers in his garden. Not everyone will like roses, not everyone will smell the daffodils, but someone will fall in love with a daisy or lily.”

Now after her grandmother’s recent passing, Tebogo is a 19-year-old local hip-hop star trying to make it to the big leagues with her boys: Welile, Siphiwe, and cousin Andile. In the group, SWAT, her image is wrapped up in being “Tube,” which means being one the guys.

She thinks she’s one of them, proud that she can do anything the boys can…except she’s a girl…a fact she doesn’t fully realize until it’s too late.

Though the male posturing is a bit much, I Ain’t Yo Bitch is true to its portrayal of a girl’s coming of age in the hip-hop era. The success she and her boys aspire to have is based on American rap culture, which causes you think about the types of messages, often negative, we express to the world in our music.

What’s also interesting is that being surrounded by men, Tebogo can’t discern that what will gain them the success they crave is her femininity, not in a Nicki Minaj way, but adding her experiences will help them stand out and combat the misogyny pervading hip hop. Because truthfully, the real Tebogo is the sweetness she demonstrates with her grandmother. That’s what I wished there was more of.

But then, it wouldn’t be the same story now, would it?

Reviewed June 2012


Be the Sun Again by Teryn

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bethesun-194x300Publisher/Date:  LM Inc., Nov. 2009
Genre(s):  Coming of Age, Self-Love
Pages:  324
Website(s):  http://www.bethesunagain.com, http://www.lmwrites.com

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

Where there is love, there is pain, says a Spanish proverb, and that’s the best way to sum up BE THE SUN AGAIN.

It is the story of Cicely, a girl who begins her life damaged by neglect from an unfeeling mother and absent father. She also bears the weight of her attraction to girls and an attachment to self-inflicted pain. Cicely’s only salve is praying, hoping God would remove her from the horrible situation.

In the meanwhile, Cecily finds Brenda, a girl who saves her by simply appearing on her doorstep. Their love of God unites them, and Cecily believes she’s found someone to live for. She and Brenda begin a young love affair, but soon addictions end their first pangs of love.

From there, Cecily flows from woman to woman, using love as a way to nurse her wounds. From the one-night stand with Alicia to Dawn, who showed what love could accomplish, and to the countless women who in some way, commiserated with Cecily’s afflictions. Through these relationships, the cutting becomes a deeper injury than medicine could cure, but she still manages to hold onto God.

After every breakup, God reveals to her what she should take from them. That, I believe, is the message of Be the Sun Again – relying on Him to help show you the way. It took Cecily loving many to finally love herself, and women who read Sun should learn from her. Being a victim is no way to live; finding your purpose is really what God intended.

Reviewed February 2011


M+O 4EVR by Tonya Hegamin (Aug. 2010 Pick of the Month)

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m+o4everPublisher/Date:  Houghton Mifflin, Apr. 2008
Genre(s):  Romance, Coming Of Age, Young Adult
Pages:  176
Website:  http://www.tonyacheriehegamin.com

Rating: ★★★★★ 

The dreams we have as children are very powerful, involving fearless feats and aspirations we carry to adulthood, cradled in the hope that the dreams will become reality.

That’s what Opal anticipated when she made the decision to take her best friend, Marianne, away from their small-town life in M+O 4 EVR. The novel from Tonya Marie Hegamin relates an emotional excursion of what happens when wishes are deferred by life’s disappointments.

Best friends, Marianne and Opal’s bond was an unspoken one, full of longing and hurt and not-so-unrequited love. The girls lived in their Pennsylvania town as outcasts, the only few Black faces in the mountainous county. They only had each other, as little girls who held hands on their first day of school, a shield from the world that couldn’t possibly understand them.

Home is where their hearts are. Opal is raised by sassy Gran while her parents travel to provide for her; Marianne lived with her white mother and grandfather, and never knew her black father. Their families were intertwined and nurtured the girls’ closeness. They were privy to the love Opal had for Marianne, though it was never said – even to Marianne herself.

While Marianne has some idea of Opal’s feelings for her, she can’t see past her own pain to reciprocate. Marianne felt lost in her own skin and never wanted to accept her “loser” status assigned based on her light complexion. She strived to be popular, one of the cool kids. And eventually she did attain the crown – becoming the first black homecoming queen – at the expense of leaving her best friend behind. The victory was short-lived when only hours later, a tragedy strikes Marianne, and all the dreams Opal had for them dissipate.

All Opal wanted was have Marianne to herself, in the way she did when they danced through the milkweeds, carved their names into their favorite tree, or pressed lips together under the blackberry bushes. Now all she’s left with is painful memories and theories on how things got to this point. For Opal, her ache came from knowing what they could have been. But with her future in her hands, she soon discovered things happen for a reason.

The sentiments M+O 4 EVR are sweet, raw and heartfelt. Who can’t relate to the story of innocent love and the slings and arrows of growing up? Hegamin writes about loss and love, while also tying in the spirit of a runaway slave to anchor the tale to how much we sacrifice for the love of one person.

However in the end, we and Opal learn taking care of ourselves is what’s most important.

Reviewed August 2010


The Other Side of Paradise by Staceyann Chin

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othersideofparadiselesbianrealife

 

 

 

 

Publisher/Date:  Scribner, Feb. 2010
Genre(s):  Coming of Age, Lesbian Real Life
Pages:  261
Website:  http://www.staceyannchin.com

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Staceyann Chin – writer, prolific poet, political activist and purveyor of knowing your pussy – never had life easy. Growing up in Jamaica without a father and being abandoned by her mother almost promised her future would end up a tragic story. Yet, out the rubble of her childhood grew the unwavering spirit that turned her into the courageous woman you see on stage belting out her poems with such fervor.

In THE OTHER SIDE OF PARADISE, the reader gets to see the upbringing that birthed an artist. After being brought into the world Christmas Day, she is left behind with her brother, Delano, in the care of her grandmother. There, in the town of Lottery, Staceyann’s inquisitive and highly imaginative mind got her into adventures in school and at home, and allowed her to fill in the gaps of her mother’s whereabouts and her father’s identity. There, she also blossomed thanks to her grandmother’s nurturing, despite longing for her mother’s return.

When her mother does come back for them, it was clear to the nine-year-old that her mother is unfit to raise two young children. The siblings were quickly separated when their mother sent Delano to his father and left Staceyann with her auntie in an area called Paradise. What she experienced is anything but. The crowded, run down house of horrors was Staceyann’s nightmare. Abusive hands, harsh rules and unbearable conditions plagued her, but also helped her to protect and save herself.

From there, Staceyann’s quest for stability led to the discovery of her sexuality. After finally freeing from her auntie, she can be without the fear of punishment. She flourished at school, and later college, where she fell in love with a girl. Unafraid, Staceyann made this pronouncement to her classmates in her usual vociferous fashion. In Jamaica. Where violent homophobia runs rampant. But that’s of no matter to Staceyann Chin. She’s who she is, and makes no apologies.

That’s the heart of This Side of Paradise. While the seeds of neglect were planted with her mother’s disappearance, Staceyann cultivated this angst into the fruit of hope and fortitude. It helped that she had a wicked sense of humor and quick wits to match. Paradise is hard to swallow at times. Knowing she’s survived is the all the happy ending you need.

Reviewed August 2010


Truth Disguised by Quandi

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truthdisguisedPublisher/Date:  Lulu.com, Dec. 2008
Genre(s):  Coming of Age, Romance, Contemporary Fiction
Pages:  245
Website:  http://www.truthdisguised.ning.com

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

A woman’s appearance doesn’t define her sexuality, so dressing like a boy shouldn’t make you a lesbian, at least that’s what Francis “Frankie” Livingston believes as she struggles with her imposed identity in TRUTH DISGUISED by first-time author Quandi.

Tell that to her family and friends. They think her tomboy attire, the fact that she’s never really had a boyfriend, and masculine demeanor are signs that she loves the ladies. Frankie hears it from her mother, who boisterously disapproves of her daughter being gay because of her own demons, and from her all-boy circle of friends that accept her but wonder out loud if she likes boys or girls. Only her father and girly twin sister, Arianna, support her no matter what or whom she chooses.

That’s the thing, though. Frankie doesn’t know what she wants. She’s always felt like a man trapped in a woman’s body, but can’t say for sure that means she’s a lesbian. When her dormmate, Tasha, becomes an admirer, Frankie pursues this flirtation with reservations. She’s intrigued at being with a woman, and gives Tasha the relationship she wants, but secretly, Frankie has always held an attraction to her best friend, Maurice.

This confusion has been a life-long burden for Frankie, haunted by whom she should be and whom she should love. Society tells her one thing, but her head tells her another. It’s when serious issues arise with her family that she realizes her heart is the only thing she should listen to.

In Truth Disguised, Quandi has created an appealing heroine in conflicted Frankie. Her protagonist’s journey is enhanced by fully-fleshed supporting characters, like her parents, sister and four homeboys. Also, the “don’t judge a book by its cover” message isn’t forced on the reader. It’s only the grammatical errors that take away from the plot. I was a little sad at the ending, but it’s an eye opener for sure. A book for teens and questioning women alike, Truth Disguised proves appearances aren’t everything.

Reviewed November 2009


Manjani by Freedom Speaks Diaspora

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manjaniPublisher/Date:  Sun Cycle Publishing, Aug. 2008
Genre(s):  Coming of Age, Young Adult
Pages:  320
Website:  http://www.manjani.com

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Never will you read a novel with a more outspoken, unwavering young lady than MANJANI, a tale that narrates a girl’s coming of age and chronicles her ultimate self-fulfillment written by Freedom Speaks Diaspora.

The title character, Manjani, is one to be reckoned with. When she speaks, she speaks the truth. The problem is that it’s her version of the truth. Manjani wants to be a revolutionary, bless her heart. Although she means well, she uses her most powerful weapon – her voice – to annihilate anyone who impedes her growth and doesn’t ascribe to her way of thinking – including her teachers and even her own friends.  Determined to lead the charge to cure her “deaf, dumb and blind” peers, she sets out to prove how gullible “African-Americans” are, ignorant of the full history of their Afrikan people. It’s not that her message is flawed, it’s that the way it comes across leaves people turned off.

But never mind that. Manjani has a mission: to be revolutionary. With her father a member of an Afrocentric band and her sister, Aniba, a student at a healer’s school, Manjani has a few examples of role models to follow. However, her family is torn apart when a fire destroys their home, and Manjani is left with her father and younger brother while Aniba is missing. Living in a new home, her father decides to enroll her in Catholic school, where she is one of the few black faces there.

In short, life is a nightmare for Manjani. It doesn’t get any better when she realizes the school supports racist traditions – one that Manjani can’t stand for. Soon she’s kicked out of school, and joins an academy for future revolutionaries like herself. The Black Nationalist Academy is where she envisions achieving her life’s purpose with students and teachers who have the same goal in mind. Except the more she learns, the more Manjani realizes the world isn’t black and white, but several shades of gray. It’s even more complicated when she falls in love with a woman, who is both her teacher and mentor. But revolutionaries can’t fall in love, can they?

As the story progresses, Manjani finds out being true to yourself is the best cause she could fight for.

Manjani is a clever, energetic novel from an author who creates an honest character. Diaspora has a method to her writing that is introspective, but doesn’t come off as too preachy. I enjoyed the rise of a true woman warrior who knows her value and endeavors to make a difference with it.

Reviewed June 2009


What Goes Around Comes Back Around by C. D. Kirven (Feb. 2009 Pick of the Month)

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Publisher/Date:  Outskirts Press, Nov. 2008
Genre(s):  Coming of Age, Coming Out, Identity, Self-Love
Pages:  224
Website:  http://www.cdkirven.com

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Karmic retribution allows the universe to make things happen the way the world intended. Yet we still have some control over our destiny, to shape the future based on our experiences and goals. C. D. Kirven’s debut novel, WHAT GOES AROUND COMES BACK AROUND, builds on this premise as we follow the coming of age of Kingsley Ross.

As the novel begins, Kingsley can be best described as passive, a 14-year-old girl who believes her grandmother’s words of what goes around comes around. She and her best friend, Tanya, spend their days doing typical teenage mischief, which returns to bite her in the ass. When it comes to getting what she wants, Kingsley doesn’t aggressively pursue her desires, and by adulthood, she’s living with glimmers of regrets.

One decision she laments is not allowing herself to fall in love. Uncomfortable with her blossoming lesbian tendencies, Kingsley fails to pursue a relationship with a woman she meets through a set-up, the drop-dead gorgeous Emery, who has the swagger to make Kingsley swoon despite her trepidation of being with a woman. They spend a glorious night together, leaving Kingsley more confused than ever. When Kingsley sees her months later – with another woman – it devastates her that she never told Emery how she felt. She let her fears prevent her from the love she could have had.

Seeing Emery moving on with her life, Kinsley vows to take charge of her own, experiencing everything the world has to offer. It helps her to see things clearly, to see that she was living by other’s standards – her family, society – instead of her own.

“I realized that all this time I had been thinking that I was no one on my own but everything with someone else. This was a lie that became my way of life. I am everything now…”

Nominated for a Lambda Literary Award, What Goes Around Comes Back Around captures a woman’s passage to herself. Through Kirven’s writing, it’s refreshing to see Kingsley grow from her antics as a teenager to a woman of her own. The transformation, described in colorful detail, is engrossing on many levels: Kingsley becoming an adult, accepting her sexuality, and discovering herself. Kirven allows you to take the ride with her character, and while a little bumpy, it leads to a place of self-fulfillment and love.

Reviewed February 2009


Ain’t Gonna Be the Same Fool Twice by April Sinclair

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aintgonnaPublisher/Date:  Harper, Feb. 1997
Genre(s):  Coming of Age, College Life
Pages:  324
Website:  http://www.aprilsinclair.net

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Everything feels fresh and exciting much like Stevie in AIN’T GONNA BE THE SAME FOOL TWICE, this colorful sequel to Coffee Will Make You Black.

By the novel’s start, Stevie has graduated high school and is leaving and is leaving to attend college in a small Illinois town not too far from her native Chicago. Although the school is predominately white, Stevie manages to hang with Black folk, making fast friends with Sharlinda and Today. But it’s her relationship with French girl Celeste that proves to be her life-changing moment: that’s when Stevie discovers the delicious taste of a woman.

It’s also confirmed when she, Today and Sharlinda travel to San Francisco for a getaway after graduating college. After her buddies ditch her dates, Stevie decides to explore the city on her own by going to a women-only dance. There she meets Traci, one of the few sistahs in the place. The two hit it off, and pretty soon Stevie decides to stay in San Francisco to carve out a life of her own.

Stevie moves in with Traci, taking over the room and rent for one of the roommates who’s traveling abroad. Although the romantic relationship is great with Traci, it’s hard for Stevie to adjust to the city a first; trying to find a job is pure hell and San Francisco has its share of far-out folk. But you can never keep a Black woman down, and Stevie’s willing to explore new experiences. It’s 1975, and the world is changing; Stevie wants to change along with it.

In time Stevie finds out the more things change, the more things stay the same. Racism might to be as blatant in the City by the Bay as it is in the Windy City, but people are still hung up on color. And after her affair with Traci goes sour, she discovers love is a bitch, too. But she takes everything in stride, and learns that you can be a fool, but you won’t ever be the same fool twice.

Sinclair’s Ain’t Gonna Be is dynamite. Stevie’s spunky character is a hoot, complete with the 70’s lingo and all. The story is fulfilling and leaves you wanting more. Although not as sweet as its predecessor, it’s still a funky good time.

Reviewed January 2006


Black Girl in Paris by Shay Youngblood

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blackgirlparisPublisher/Date:  Riverhead Books, Jan. 2001
Genre:  Coming of Age
Pages:  238
Website:  http://www.shayyoungblood.com

Rating: ★★★★½ 

When reading Shay Youngblood’s BLACK GIRL IN PARIS, you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped in to France’s capital city yourself. You’ll rendezvous with Eden, the protagonist in Youngblood’s adventurous tale, as she travels the city in search of literary greatness and her mentor, James Baldwin.

Eden grew up a poor Southern girl in Birmingham, when in the late 1960s, the racial climate was violent at its worst. The four girls killed in the infamous church bombing was a significant event in Eden’s young life, and she vows to one day live in a city where life is free. In Paris, Eden believes, black people are just people and not a color.

So at age 26, recently graduated and looking for something more, Eden takes off to Paris. She arrives with only $200 but hopes to gain immeasurable riches from life experiences.

During her stay in the City of Lights, Eden befriends many eccentric personalities, including her flamboyant tour guide, Indego, who shows her the real Paris that tourists never see. She also involves herself in romantic tête-à-tête with Ving, a white jazz musician. It is with him that despite how liberated Paris seems, she’s reminded with disdain that she’s still a black woman. Eden also engages in an erotic friendship with a woman, Luce, which teaches her the true meaning of love.

Every adventure, every moment is vividly captured in Eden’s expedition in Paris that you feel as if you’re there, traveling with her through the French boulevards and savoring the foods. Although her outing was the poor man’s experience of Paris–many days she didn’t know where she would lay her head that night– she emerged a much stronger person.

Youngblood’s lyrical prose was superb, and her characters rang true. I wouldn’t take nothing her
Eden’s journey now — except to one day go myself.

Reviewed January 2006


Soul Kiss by Shay Youngblood

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soulkissPublisher/Date:  Riverhead Books, Feb. 2000
Genre:  Coming of Age
Pages:  207
Website:  http://www.shayyoungblood.com

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Shay Youngblood’s SOUL KISS is one of those books that has a mysterious air about it. You can lose yourself in its beauty, its lyricism and its poetry. Soul Kiss is also a journey through loneliness, pain and ultimately, love.

Mariah Santos grew up as the love of her mother’s life. She gave Mariah everything she needed – plenty of hugs, kisses and words. She would tell her daughter about travels taken, her dreams, and about her father, a man Mariah’s never met.

When Mariah’s mother becomes depressed, she decides to leave her seven-year-old daughter with two aunts in Georgia, promising to return soon. Mariah yearns for her mother, her best friend, to reappear. She doesn’t, and the girl is left in the care of Aunt Merleen and Aunt Faith, two elderly spinsters set in their ways.

With these two women, Mariah lives a quiet life, full of gardening, cooking, and looking after the health of her aunts. Mariah also falls in love with the cello given to her by Faith. It becomes her new best friend, its sound soothing the wounds of losing her mother.

After several years of waiting for her mother, Mariah gives up hope and begins rebelling against her aunts. They send her to Los Angeles live with her father, a virtual stranger. Mariah is sublimely happy being with Matisse, a painter. She’s only known about him through her mother’s vivid tales of how the couple met, but that good feeling soon leaves. Matisse is never home and even more distant when he is. When one of her aunts passes away, Mariah returns home to Georgia – and it finally feels like home.

Youngblood’s Soul Kiss is a story of pain is a masterpiece. It boasts lesbian undertones, as Mariah has strong bonds with female peers and shares her first kiss with a girl. Mariah’s touching journey through her childhood, losing her mother and discovering her father, is drawn perfectly through Youngblood’s words, and you really connect to Mariah’s ache. It grabs hold of your heart, and never lets go till its very end.

Reviewed December 2005