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.


I am Your Sister: Season 2 by Ericka K. F. Simpson

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iamyoursister2-2Publisher/Date:  EKS Books, Apr. 2013
Genre(s):  Romance, Religious, Family, Stud’s Point of View
Pages:  287
Website:  http://www.ekfsimpson.com

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Forgiveness. An 11-letter word whose concept is hard to give and even harder to do.

It is also Symone Holmes’ Achilles heel, and the emotional theme flowing through Ericka K. F. Simpson’s I AM YOUR SISTER: SEASON 2. The college basketball star is all grown up in the sequel to the previous I am Your Sister, but she learns life gets harder out of school and off the court.

At the novel’s start, Symone has a female b-baller’s dream: she’s the top draft pick for the WNBA,  about to graduate college, and considering forever with the love of her life, Regina. Nothing could make the point guard happier. Then she gets a phone call that her mother has had a stroke – and it brings her unhappy history with her mother front and center.

The relationship between Symone and her mother Paula became rocky the summer before her sophomore year in high school when it was “discovered” that Symone liked girls. Through flashbacks, a flood of painful memories continue to haunt Symone, reliving her mother practically disowning her. Paula refused to acknowledge her daughter’s lesbianism, and their bond disintegrated to zero contact. Moving on with her life, it took being away at school for Symone to put the past behind her but she never forgave her mother or herself.

This guilt takes its toll on her relationship with Regina in ways Symone didn’t realize. It’s the answer to why she is never able to fully open up. Why she feels she couldn’t bring Regina home to her family. Why never she allows Regina to share in her past hurts. Really, Symone could blame her generational curse for her inability to share her emotions, passed on from the male elders in her family, but she knows she can’t rely on excuses when both her mom and her future wife need her. It’s time to truly play ball, and this time, she needs this victory to heal her heart.

I’ve mentioned before that I am Your Sister is one of my favorite books, mainly because Symone is such a complex character. Simpson puts her everything into Symone, and after reading her memoir, Living With 3 Strikes (which you should definitely pick up), I understand how Simpson is inspired by her own experiences in IAYS2. This gives Symone the touch of realism that I’ve come to expect from this writer.

Symone is deeply-drawn, far from perfect, and trying on her adulthood with the help of God. She doesn’t pretend to be something she’s not and doesn’t apologize for whom she is. There’s also a down-home appeal to this Virginia-reared stud, one I found refreshing.

I am Your Sister 2 does have its minor flaws –  the ending left me flabbergasted – but between the laughter and the “wows” I had while reading convinced me that I will always have a soft spot for Symone Holmes.

Now I’m ready for another season.

Reviewed May 2013


How Can An Angel Take My Heart: The Positive Side of Temptation by Regina Knox

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howcananagelPublisher/Date:  1st Books Library, Mar. 2002
Genre(s):  Religious, Romance
Pages:  388
Website:  http://www.reginaknox.com

Rating: ★★★★½ 

God works in his own time, and lovers Angela Lord and Kennedy Brooks face this complexity as they wrestle with their loyalties to Him in HOW CAN AN ANGEL TAKE MY HEART: THE POSITIVE SIDE OF TEMPTATION. The debut novel from Regina Knox chronicles the struggle between religion and homosexuality as Angela and Kennedy fall deeper in love, but at a price that almost cost their souls.

Angela and Kennedy’s chance meeting is at a time when they both need something more. Angela, a single mother of two, found herself in a dead-end relationship with a stud she’s not in love with. Kennedy is a highly successful businesswoman with several companies under her belt who doesn’t want for anything – until she encounters Angela on a business trip. The feminine ladies have an immediate attraction, and pretty soon Kennedy’s boyfriend, Robert, and Angela’s live-in lover, Tonya, are forgotten.

Yet there’s more to their connection than simply falling in love, as Angela and Kennedy soon discover. While Angela had previously come to terms with her sexuality, being with a woman was all new for Kennedy. Not only is it a shock herself, but to her parents – her father’s a preacher – and Robert, who had planned to propose to Kennedy upon her return. Everyone weighs their opinions and reminds her of what the Bible speaks of: that homosexuality is an abomination. And armed with everyone’s beliefs, Kennedy is torn between what’s right and what’s in her heart.

Angela has her own crosses to bear, namely a sinister ex-husband attempting to take her kids because of her lesbian status. Though not very religious, Angela is fighting her own demons about whether their relationship would please the Lord. It leads her to church, finding solace in singing the Lord’s praises and doing what believes will make Him happy.

Eventually, it doesn’t sit well with Angela or Kennedy that they may be compromising their spirituality, and the lovers have to figure out whether being with the one you love and giving in to temptation is what God truly intended.

In Angel, Knox writes an extremely sensitive portrayal of what a lesbian endures when confronting both her sexuality and religion. Black lesbians especially receive more grief when it comes to being gay, and hear more religious rhetoric that only confounds the issue. It’s great that Knox has put that struggle in a book that is honest and heart-wrenching.

With the sequel to Angel to be published this fall, I would love to see where she takes Angela and Kennedy next.

Reviewed October 2008


I Am Your Sister by Ericka K. F. Simpson

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iamyoursisterPublisher/Date:  Xlibris Corporation, May 2003
Genre(s):  College Life, Religious, Romance
Pages:  276
Website:  http://www.publishedauthors.net/e_factor

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Symone shook her head and stated, “Black lesbian love has just has no place anywhere.”

“Yes, it does,” corrected Regina. “With one another.”

And it also has an excellent place in I AM YOUR SISTER, the first novel by Ericka K. F. Simpson. The author has created a brave and genuine protagonist in Symone Holmes, the 18-year-old student athlete and entrepreneur.

A basketball phenom, Symone is graduating high school at the novel’s onset and has the world at her fingertips. The top b-ball player in the country, her accomplishments allow the star to have her pick of colleges to choose from. Symone ultimately chooses an athletic scholarship Marian University, not exactly the most notable school in the country, but a small school that will allow her to shine and leave her hometown in Virginia, where she has had more than of her share of trials.

Not one to hide her sexuality, Symone came out to her parents to disastrous results. Her mother practically disowned her, and she moved out on her own at 16. During her crisis, she turned to the Lord, hoping He would guide her through the pain and could help her understand her sexuality. He, along with girlfriend Kidera, has been her rock, whom she turned to in times of need. Through him, she truly believes that “being in love, regardless of who it was, was not wrong.” And she has no problem explaining that to the world.

Especially at Marian. When Symone arrives at the school, she quickly makes friends a few of her teammates, including fellow sistahs Jasmine, Christina and Deborah. Their color forms a kinship of sorts — until Symone’s teammates find out she’s a lesbian. Some of the once-friendly women shun her. Others pick fights. Her car is vandalized. Through these actions, Symone realizes she only has herself and shuts anyone down who gets too close. Except for Regina.

Regina finds a way to befriend Symone, despite what others have done. She allows Regina into her family life and love life, especially after her romance with Kidera goes sour. The attraction is there between them, but Symone doesn’t want to let Regina have the one thing that has been broken time and time again: her heart.

Marian University is a new start for Symone, but can she handle the pressure of everything that comes with growing up?

Simpson’s I Am Your Sister is outstanding, a great piece of work that combines love and basketball, sexuality and religion. The author really knows her stuff on and off the court, as the b-ball scenes kept my attention (and I am not the sports type at all). What made it so superb was that you really connected with Symone on a more personal level, and got to know her triumphs and struggles with every page. Her connection with the Lord was one every lesbian questioning her sexuality has had, and it allowed you to endear Symone as a great character. I couldn’t put it down.

I now have a new favorite book–and new favorite author, as well.

Reviewed June 2006


Fire & Brimstone by Laurinda D. Brown

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firebrimstonePublisher/Date:  Strebor Books, March 2004
Genre(s):  Contemporary Romance, Religious
Pages:  240
Website:  http://www.ldbrownbooks.com

Rating: ★★★★½ 

FIRE & BRIMSTONE is the tragic story of Chris and Gayle, two “bag ladies” carrying heavy sacks of unresolved issues.

In the beginning, there is Chris, an intelligent woman with two degrees – in English literature and French – from Howard University. Just as she was set to take the world by storm, she becomes pregnant. While waiting for boyfriend Trey to grow up and become a man, she moves home to Memphis to raise her daughter. Chris thinks it’s only a matter of time before he proposes and she has the perfect life: a doting husband and father (unlike her own deadbeat dad) and a beautiful baby. It doesn’t quite work out that way, and Chris begins to explore an attraction for women she’s harbored for years.

Chris first begins seeing Carol, a white-trash woman with a penchant for dark meat on the side. While that ends sourly, Chris meets Gayle.

Gayle is a story and a half. She’s got some deep-seated issues from her childhood. Totally opposite from Chris, Gayle is impressed because Chris is unlike anyone she’s ever dated. Never has she been with a college graduate or a woman so confident. It boosts Gayle’s morale, especially since she’s been in and out of trouble with the law and acts as if the world owes her something.

They begin dating seriously, and everything is cool at first. Gayle moves in quickly with Chris and her daughter, getting to know each other but not knowing the real story behind their facades.

Then things turn ugly. Really ugly. So much drama transpires in the novel from this point. Gayle began stealing from her job in order to get the things she thinks Chris deserves. When both ladies get caught up in unwise schemes, Chris finally realizes who Gayle really is, and the women twist in and out of each other’s lives like a tornado, leaving one another destroyed in the wreckage.

As the title Fire & Brimstone suggests, religion plays a part in the women’s relationship. Gayle, the minister of music at her church, spends a lot of time in the Lord’s house and moving the masses with her heavenly voice. What bothers Chris is that Gayle can run up and down the aisles on Sunday, then raise hell throughout the week. Not one for attending church, Chris doesn’t understand what religion is about. It’s only when the unexpected happens that she figures out what God’s been trying to tell her – Gayle’s not the one.

The message of the dramatic story is one of redemption. Both women had to be freed from the shackles of their pasts in order to claim their future. Whether homosexuality is acceptable is not the crux of the novel, but about accepting oneself.

Brown’s Fire and Brimstone reveals heart and soul, and the wayward routes we take to salvation.

Reviewed September 2005


Say Jesus and Come to Me by Ann Allen Shockley

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sayjesusPublisher/Date:  Naiad Press, April 1987
Genre(s):  Romance, Religious, Mature Lesbians
Pages:  283

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

Lawd, have mercy! What a book!

Ann Allen Shockley’s SAY JESUS AND COME TO ME is mind boggling, to say the least.

Rev. Myrtle Black, a vivacious fiery pastor, is the star of this tempestuous tale. A traveling minister, she sets congregations ablaze with her holy word, then finds a sweet young thing to bed, and disappears almost as soon as she arrives, leaving behind no ties.

When confronted with the stodgy minister at a conservative Nashville church she was invited to, Myrtle finally lays her roots down with an idea brewing: initiate a women’s march against sexism and racism. Spurred by the assault of two local prostitutes, Myrtle quickly gets to action and calls out the male powers-that-be.

In town at the same time is Travis Lee, a famed R&B songstress taking the world by storm. After a rough night with her doggish boyfriend, Travis has her own spiritual revelation–she’s missing the Lord from her life. This leads her to the Rev. Myrtle Black. Seeking the minister’s guidance, the two women become friends and fight a growing attraction.

The novel then becomes a play-by-play of the march’s development. Myrtle finds intelligent allies for her mission, including leaders of feminist and women organizations. After a laborious planning meeting one night, Myrtle and Travis finally act on their lust for one another.

This causes chaos for both women. Myrtle, having been an emotional and physical nomad for the last several years, has to deal with finally falling in love and risking her ministry by coming out as lesbian. Travis has to face her budding spirituality, sexual identity and her adoring public.

A lot of other events ensue in Say Jesus, but the heart of this novel is Myrtle and Travis. All the rest was filler–the march, Travis’ ex, and death threats–added to the story as a backdrop to their love. Shockley’s writing was poetic at times, too wordy at others. Occasionally, you have to plow through her flowery writing, and the love scenes could have been more intense. Yet, Shockley definitely took religion to task and brings the story together, enough to make you praise and shout.

Reviewed August 2005