Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Book Review: Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Story Collection: Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Heads of the Colored People is a powerful collection of short stories exploring concepts of identity, class, race, body-image, and love among African Americans. Sometimes funny, sometimes gut-wrenching, always provocative, Nafissa Thompson-Spires uses powerful and piercing language to look frankly at issues that most authors would hesitate to address.

 

Thompson-Spires introduces us to characters who are very different than the typical characters we meet in books and stories. All of them are black, but their “blackness” is uniquely their own. Two characters who appear in multiple stories are the only African American girls in their high school. We first meet their mothers, engaged in a very pointed exchange of letters that is equally amusing and cringe-worthy. The girls themselves wrestle with their own identities: should they be friends because they are both black in a white world? Are they rivals? Are they enemies? One of the girls is large, the other is thin, and their body image also factors into their relationship.

 

Other characters wrestle with interracial relationships, with being disabled (or with stalking the disabled), with anger and lust and religion, with participating in atypical pursuits like cosplay. Most of the stories are set in southern California, which seems to add its own unique dimension to the characters’ identities. One of the characters specifically contrasts California racial identity to that experienced by people in the south, calling out his friend for his attitude toward those from the south.

 

All of these stories are fascinating and reflect a world very different from my own. What stands out to me is how different the worlds of the characters are from each other as well. Although there are certainly commonalities that transcend various differences, to say there is one “black experience” is unfair and dismissive. Some of the characters in this book have a lot superficially in common–and they don’t relate to each other at all. Two black girls in the same majority white private school can still have very different experiences based on their own physical size, their own experiences dating, their relationships with the larger African-American community, their own personalities and their attitudes toward each other and toward others. A young man who enjoys cosplaying as Japanese anime characters can feel alienated from others of his own race and not feel fully embraced by those of other races even when they share that common passion. A young woman can objectify someone based on disability just as much as another might objectify that same person based on race.

 

All of the characters have an uneasy and tortured relationship with the world around them. They struggle with their families. They struggle with their communities. They inflict wounds on themselves and on others. Not all of them survive their own stories. Thompson-Spires gives us troubled characters who are unique and individual, struggling to find out who they are. Are they identified by their skin color? Are they identified by their physical body type? Are they identified by their social or economic class? Are they identified by their choices? Are they identified by their families? The answers are always yes and no and somewhat and I don’t know…which is probably the dilemma most of us feel trying to find our way through life.

 

I do not want to pretend that I can fully relate to any of these characters. In America, my skin color comes with privileges that Thompson-Spires’ characters do not share. But although her stories are about black people, they are profoundly and deeply about people, people with loves and hurts and desires and needs and struggles, lusts and longings and confusion and mental disorder. And in many of their hopes and dreams and fears, I could see myself as well. Heads of Colored People is a powerful collection of stories, one that challenges and delights and provokes.

Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Book Review: Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Book Review: Akata Witch, Nnedi Okorafor

Book Review: Akata WitchNnedi Okorafor

Akata Witch, Nnedi Okorafor

Fantasy: Akata WitchNnedi Okorafor

 

“My name is Sunny Nwazue and I confuse people.”

 

That may be one of the best lines I’ll ever read introducing a character. Sunny is many things. An American girl growing up in Nigeria, the daughter of two Igbo parents. An albino. And as she discovers early in the book, a Leopard Person–also known as a witch. Akata Witch is Sunny’s story, how she learned she had magical abilities, how she was embraced by a world she never knew existed, and how she found her place in that world with the help of some friends.

 

I am reminded of the Doctor Who episode “The Doctor’s Wife,” when the Doctor tries to explain that they have entered a place that is not in their universe but it is like a soap bubble on the edge of a larger bubble except it is nothing like that but if it helps you to think of it like that then it is exactly like that.

 

My fear in writing my introduction is that it may sound like Akata Witch is similar to another series of books about a young magic worker who did not know about his abilities and was embraced by a world he never knew about and how he found his place in that world with the help of some friends. I suppose if HP were an albino American-Igbo girl who continued to attend school with ordinary students then it would be exactly like that…which is to say that it is extremely unfair to compare the two and I really don’t want to do that. Nnedi Okorafor has made some magic with Akata Witch, and it stands on its own quite well. She has won the Locus, Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards for her fiction, and the sequel to this novel won this year’s award for Best Young Adult Book which was presented at the Hugo ceremony.

 

Akata Witch could not have been written by someone unfamiliar with Nigeria. Whether the descriptions are of the feel of the air on skin, the sound of insects, the taste of the food, the smell of dust and smoke, Okorafor engages all of the reader’s senses in her book. Sunny’s albino skin is described by her school bullies as being the color of sour milk. The book simply delights on multiple levels.

 

Okorafor is one of the leading voices of Africanfuturism, a growing genre of stories that features African voices telling African stories set in the future. This genre is long overdue. Africa gave birth to us all, and now is giving birth to some exciting literature that demands attention. Okorafor has a voice that is both African and American, born in Cincinnati and teaching in Chicago, but spending a lot of time in Nigeria as well. The blend of cultures, mixed with her intelligence and experience and scholarship, helps her create unique books which put extraordinary characters into extravagantly described worlds.

 

Akata Witch features a young woman finding herself. African and American, “black” and albino, magical but living in an ordinary home and attending an ordinary school, Sunny Nwazue is a special protagonist. I loved this book, and I am excited to read the sequel.

Akata Witch, Nnedi Okorafor

Book Review: Akata WitchNnedi Okorafor

Book Review: Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi

Book Review: Children of Blood and BoneTomi Adeyemi

Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi

Fantasy: Children of Blood and BoneTomi Adeyemi

Zelie’s mother was killed because she had magic. Many people were killed during The Raid, when magic disappeared from the world and those who once had used it were targeted by the king. Since that fateful night all those years ago, the magic was gone. Zelie had the white hair that indicated magical potential, but no magic could be found in the world. Then, a princess touches her with a mysterious scroll, and Zelie begins to find the power in herself that her mother once employed. The magic may be gone from Zelie’s world, but that is only because Tomi Adeyemi has put it into her amazing novel Children of Blood and Bone and has thus brought it into ours.

 

It’s easy sometimes to reduce stories to tropes. Hero’s journey? Check. Love story? Check. Misunderstood princess? Check. Young and untrained people discovering how to use magic? Check. And, sure, fine, those familiar themes are present in this novel. What sets a novel apart, though, is when it makes familiar ground new and exciting and different.

 

Here again, the easy and cheap thing to do is grab the obvious differences: Africa, not Europe or America. But this book is not different only because it is set in a part of the world that is underrepresented in published fantasy literature. This book is different because it is really, really good. The world building is amazing. The characters are real and flawed and heroic and common and everything you want in a character. Some of the scenes take your breath away. There is magic in this book, and it is not from the spells or the mystical powers or the artifacts. The magic is in the writing and the creativity and the depth of the story. The bookChildren of Blood and Bone may hide on the YA shelves of your local library, but it is a very mature story that should appeal to all ages. I could not put it down.

 

Two of the three main characters are female, but this is not a “girl’s” book (or a “boy’s” book–if there are such things). This is a good book. Will girls and women be thrilled to see the heroics come from a “her”? I hope so, but boys (and men) will also love to see the strength of these characters. As a reader, I also loved watching the growth and change in the characters through the course of the book. None of the three main characters is perfect, all are flawed, and all of them are different by the end than they were in the beginning. And although the next novel is perfectly set up, I have no idea what direction the characters will take in the next part of the story. I just know I am very eager to find out.

Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi

Book Review: Children of Blood and BoneTomi Adeyemi

Book Review: Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster,  Stephen L. Carter

Book Review: Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster,  Stephen L. Carter

Invisible, Stephen L. Carter

Nonfiction History/Biography: Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster,  Stephen L. Carter

Stephen L. Carter is a novelist and a law professor at Yale. That is quite impressive all by itself. But he comes from a family with multiple luminaries, perhaps none that shone brighter than his grandmother, Eunice Hunton Carter. In his biography of his grandmother, Invisible, Carter tells the story of a woman who should never be forgotten.

 

Eunice Hunton was born to remarkable parents. Her father was revered for his work with the YMCA, loved so deeply that upon his passing young men across the country lit candles and met together to mourn his loss. Her mother traveled through Klan areas in the south to organize black women. It is little wonder that Eunice grew up with a strong sense of purpose and confidence.

 

She grew up in a time, though, when opportunities for African Americans were scarce and for women were even scarcer. Still, she earned her law degree and began working for Thomas Dewey in the NYC District Attorney’s office during the 1930s. Dewey had 20 assistants working with him to take down infamous mob leader “Lucky Luciano.” Nineteen of them were white males. The other was Eunice Hunton Carter.

 

Luciano was the chief mob boss in NYC after the murder of Dutch Schultz, a murder that quite probably was ordered by Luciano himself. Almost any organized crime in the city tied back to him one way or another. Eunice Carter realized that this included prostitution. Years before, prostitution was not organized. Then, some people began “booking” the prostitutes. This helped keep the “girls” out of jail by moving them around from place to place, and because these “bookers” were responsible for more women they could spend more to buy lawyers and pay bribes to police and judges. Eunice had become aware of this growing trend during her work with the Women’s Court prior to joining the DA’s office, and she requested permission from Dewey to look further into it to determine whether the Combination (as the prostitution conspiracy ring was known) reached all the way to Luciano. Dewey was skeptical and reluctant at first, but Carter was persistent. He finally agreed, and Carter began to make the case. At first she was alone in her work. She soon found enough evidence that a second attorney joined her. Eventually, almost the entire team was working the Combination angle, and eventually Luciano was brought up on prostitution related charges. He was found guilty.

 

The most powerful mobster in America was brought to trial and convicted because of the persistence and acute legal mind of one person. An African-American woman. In the 1930s.

 

Carter continued working in the DA’s office for many more years, and also became active in Republican politics. She campaigned vigorously for her mentor, Dewey, in his rise within New York and the US political scene. She held multiple leadership positions in both US and international groups advocating for expanded rights for women and for people of color. She was friends with leaders in politics, entertainment, sports, and advocacy, especially those in the “darker” America (Stephen Carter’s term). She was also a leader of Harlem’s “sassiety,” wealthy (and according to the author, snobbish) African American women who were among the elite of New York’s black cultural and business life.

 

Carter’s biography is powerful, affectionate, but also open-eyed. He does not shy away from his grandmother’s faults. She apparently was an indifferent mother, she could be insensitive to others, her marriage suffered, she held grudges, and she was extremely driven. These very human failings, though, do not obscure the fact that she did extraordinary things during a time when blacks, and especially black women, were dismissed, demeaned, ignored, and forgotten.

 

Carter is also clear about why she was forgotten by history. There are obvious answers: she was a black woman whose heyday came in the 1930s and 1940s. Black women today still struggle to get appropriate recognition for their accomplishments, especially when those accomplishments come in areas considered the purview of white men, such as law. But there were less obvious reasons as well, which Carter gives appropriate consideration to. Eunice Hunton Carter’s brother, Alphaeus, was a known communist. It is highly possible that his communist sympathies derailed his sister’s ambitions for political advancement or a judgeship. (He was arrested and served some time in jail, and eventually fled the US and lived the rest of his life in Africa.) Eunice’s personality also led to her falling out with some other leaders, whether because of competing ambitions or simply arrogance, and those interpersonal conflicts kept her from achieving some leadership positions she had sought.

 

None of that changes what she did accomplish. She set herself against the most powerful mobster in America. And she won. Eunice Hunton Carter deserves to be remembered, and hopefully this biography by her grandson, novelist and law professor Stephen L. Carter, means that she will no longer be Invisible.

Invisible, Stephen L. Carter

Book Review: Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster,  Stephen L. Carter

Book Review: Washington Black, Esi Edugyan

Book Review: Washington BlackEsi Edugyan

Washington Black, Esi Edugyan

Historical Fiction: Washington BlackEsi Edugyan

Some characters deserve to walk out of their books and live in your heart. Washington Black transcends the pages of his own novel. Esi Edugyan made the shortlist for the Man Booker prize (and several others) with this story of a young man who was born in slavery but finally comes to own his own story. If this novel doesn’t touch your heart, you are already dead.

 

Washington Black is a young man born into the brutal slavery of a Caribbean sugar plantation. Raised by a slave woman, Big Kit, he is owned by a violent master who kills slaves often. One night he is summoned to help serve dinner by the master, who is accompanied by a guest. We discover that the guest, known as “Titch,” is the master’s brother. Titch decides that Washington is the right size for his scientific experiments, and “borrows” him to help. Titch is building a lighter-than-air craft, and he needs an assistant. So, because he is the right size, Washington is chosen.

 

Soon, though, Titch learns that Washington is not just the right size physically. He may have been born into slavery, but Washington has a keen mind and an amazing artistic talent. Titch quickly begins to rely more and more upon him, looking on him more as an apprentice than as just a laborer. When calamity strikes the family and Washington’s life is in danger, Titch does not hesitate to take him and set off in his aircraft to escape.

 

What follows is a perilous trip, first to Virginia and then to Canada, fearing that bounty hunters were barely a step behind. As the years pass (and the two men separate), Washington lives on his own in Canada, then moves on to England. Yet questions abound in Washington’s mind. Why did Titch choose him? Why did Titch leave him behind? Why was he freed when Big Kit and the other slaves were not? Fundamentally, Washington wants to know who he really is, why he really is here–and also wants to deal with a large helping of survivor’s guilt. And to do this, he chases the shadows left by Titch in England and Amsterdam until finally confronting his rescuer in Morocco. And we, as readers, follow Titch in this quest, caught up with him in the maelstrom of life and emotions that make this book so compelling.

 

Edugyan reminds us that slavery in the Caribbean was brutal and violent. Slaves are routinely beaten and killed. Washington is branded, along with the other slaves on the plantation. His first crush, Emilie, becomes pregnant at age 11, most likely from being raped by their master. When she disappears, he doesn’t bother asking about her. When people leave the plantation, they are just gone. They are never seen again, and there is no point asking. Washington does not know who his mother or father are; Big Kit raises him, but never tells him who his parents are (we learn a little more later in the book, but I won’t spoil it for you). Her love is a tough love–at one point she hits him so hard that she breaks his ribs. But her fear is that he will cross a line that will get him killed–or worse–by the master or his thugs. If he attracts the wrong sort of attention, broken ribs would be the least of his problems.

 

Washington Black deserves a place in your heart and on your shelf. It is a beautiful, compelling story with one of the most powerful characters you will encounter on the page. I am glad I read it.

Washington Black, Esi Edugyan

Book Review: Washington BlackEsi Edugyan

Book Review: Kingdom of Needle and Bone, Mira Grant

Book Review: Kingdom of Needle and Bone, Mira Grant

Kingdom of Needle and Bone

Science Fiction: Kingdom of Needle and Bone, Mira Grant

Morris Disease was named after the first victim, little Lisa Morris, age 8. A variant of measles, Morris Disease is highly contagious, often fatal, and has the additional terrible feature of resetting the body’s immune system. Anyone who catches Morris Disease, even if they survive the initial infection, no longer has immunity against any previous disease they have caught or been immunized against. Humanity faces perhaps its worst pandemic: a disease that either kills you or opens the door for something else to do the job.

 

Dr. Isabella Gauley, pediatrician and aunt to Lisa Morris, is devastated by her loss. She wants to change the world, provide a place where children will never again be cursed by virulent diseases. In the novella, Kingdom of Needle and Bone, we read of her efforts to create an island sanctuary, one where children can grow up safely, without fear of Morris Disease, or measles or whooping cough or any of the other illnesses that have been humanity’s constant companions throughout history.

 

Sometimes the greatest monsters are the smallest. Viruses and bacteria may not hide behind doors and jump out at the unwary, but when people intentionally fail to vaccinate their children these monsters are far more deadly than those with fangs and claws. Mira Grant (a pseudonym for author Seanan McGuire) often writes of a post-pandemic earth. Notably in her Newsflesh series, Grant examines the potential effects on the world of an illness that crashes the population and continues to wreak havoc for years after. (That illness resulted in zombies, so this is not quite the same scenario as we saw there.)

 

Mira Grant books tend to walk on the horror side of the sci-fi/fantasy genre. I will confess, I spent much of the time during my reading of this novella waiting for the other shoe to drop. I do not want to give away any spoilers, but I will say that this is not just a nice little story about survivors of a pandemic creating a new world for themselves. Kingdom of Needle and Bone is a Mira Grant book, and monsters are waiting for the unwary reader.

 

This is a short book and an easy read, but be forewarned: the effects of the illness on a child are described in detail. This may not be the best choice for a bedtime story for your little ones, unless they are hoping to grow up and become virologists. It is a well crafted story, though, in both plot and characters. It is also one that provokes thought. Kingdom of Needle and Bone may only have a little over 100 pages, but it probes deeply into questions of medical ethics, wealth and privilege, and how decisions about the future of the species should be made.

Kingdom of Needle and Bone

Book Review: Kingdom of Needle and Bone, Mira Grant

Book Review: The Fated Sky, A Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal

Book Review: The Fated SkyA Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal

The Fated Sky

Science Fiction: The Fated SkyA Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal

In this sequel to The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal continues the story of Elma York, the “Lady Astronaut.” The Fated Sky tells how York came to be assigned to the first mission to Mars. As she did in the first book, Kowal gives us a moving and beautiful story that is full of humanity, grace, and rock solid science. It’s a geekfest with a heart. Anyone who reads these stories and is not blown away by the scientific detail or is not moved by the heart and soul of the characters really needs to check their pulse to make sure it’s still there.

 

Elma York has become the face of the space program. Perhaps the time is right, though, for her and Nathaniel to start a family. It is the 1960s, though, Having a baby would mean the loss of her job, would mean she would be confined to Earth and no longer able to live on the moon for several months every year. She would have to give up space.

 

When her flight home from the moon misses its landing site and instead lands several states away, the passengers are held hostage by a group of “Earth Firsters,” people who deny that the climate is changing and want the money spent on colonizing space to instead be used to help those still affected by the meteorite impact. Elma uses her fame and name recognition to help save her fellow passengers. This in turn prompts the space agency to name her to the first Mars mission.

 

The Mars mission will take three years. That timetable likely means she will never be a mother. Also, the Mars team has already been preparing for over a year. Putting her on the team means bumping someone else off the team, in this case, her friend Helen. Helen was one of the few non-white members of the team, and the only Asian member. The political realities of the early 1960s, though, meant that for funding to continue the program needed its most famous participant as the face of the team–and Asians were specifically NOT needed to be the face of the team. In fact, another one of the team members was specifically selected in part for reasons of funding–a South African supporter of the apartheid regime. This becomes problematic several times during the mission, as his distaste for the other non-white members of the team creates tension among the crew.

 

Apart from the racial tensions that challenge the crew, other interpersonal tensions arise. Kowal nicely weaves those tensions into the story, showing how they would be an expected and even natural part of a multi-year mission when the only other people you encountered were those on board your ship. Multiple external challenges also confront the mission. Two of the fourteen crew members died during the trip. Illness sweeps through one of the ships. One of the two ships was damaged, forcing the entire team to spend two weeks crammed onto the same ship while the other was repaired. Nathaniel York is hospitalized on earth, and another crewman’s wife dies while they are in transit. A terrorist attack hits far too close to home. These conflicts and perils, both in space and on Earth, make the journey feel real.

 

Space travel is the stuff of adventures and romance. It is also deadly serious and is done by people who love and fight and screw up and somehow keep on going in the face of every danger and crisis. We are fools to think putting flesh into tin cans strapped to the top of bombs is going to magically work without a cost in lives and loves. Kowal brings these human costs front and center, showing us both how hard and how important the journey will be.

 

Again, Kowal treats all of her characters with love and sensitivity. Elma York is not perfect. But she is good. In these days of fallen heroes, finding a heroine who is good in the midst of an excellent story is a treasure.

The Fated Sky

Book Review: The Fated SkyA Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal