The Long and Short of It | African American Fiction (and More)

This month’s selections run the gamut from epic inspirational tales with dozens of characters and plot twists (Vanessa Davis Griggs’s The Other Side of Divine) to clipped novellas that tell an explosive story in less than 130 pages (Most Wanted by Kiki Swinson and Nikki Turner).

I’m a sucker for crime novels that remind me of my personal guilty reading pleasure, 1950s pulp novels. Out this month is a gritty, fast-paced tale of revenge that launches indie publisher Akashic Book’s urban-crime fiction imprint. Infamous Books will be run by Albert “Prodigy” Johnson of the hip-hop duo Mobb Deep and his partner Marvis Johnson, and future releases will include fiction from such popular street lit authors as JaQuavis Coleman, K’wan, and Miasha.

PICK OF THE MONTH

OrangeReviewStar The Long and Short of It | African American Fiction (and More)Johnson, Albert “Prodigy” with Steven Savile. H.N.I.C.: An Infamous Novella. Infamous Bks: Akashic. Jul. 2013. 128p. ISBN 9781617752360. $19.95; ebk. ISBN 9781617752377. F H.N.I.C The Long and Short of It | African American Fiction (and More)
A bank robbery gone terribly wrong bursts opens this slim novella, and the tension builds from there. Pappy Carter is weary of the game and wants to take his white-collar-crime computer skills to Detroit. Partner Maurice Black wants one more shot at a big payoff and tells Pappy it’s for “you and me.” Pappy only sees the dark side of the game when a heist is planned in a safe house where the couch has “seen its best days with Reagan.” Tight, terse prose harkens back to pulp fiction of the 1950s, but there is an added harrowing twist when Black’s insane desire for brutal violence explodes. Pappy may or may not have an ally in Black’s girl, Tonya Deal, who seems to be playing femme fatale with both men. VERDICT After reading this can’t-take-my-eyes-from-the-pages hardened street novella, I’m thinking less is much more. The authors’ writing rarely misses a beat with characters caught in a violent criminal world with no escape. The work is a breath of fresh air from lengthy, trying-too-hard-to-shock street lit and is an excellent choice for all metropolitan collections. Co-author Saville is an award-winning British fantasy, horror, and thriller writer. [Listen to the first chapter of the audiobook edition read by Prodigy here—Ed.]

Green, Paige. Family Over Everything. Strebor: S. & S. 2013. (Strebor on the Streetz).  ISBN 9781593095017. pap. $14. F
It seems odd that a 16-year-old author can paint such a realistically grim picture of Pittsburgh’s Northview mean streets, but that’s exactly what Paige Green offers. What happened to that innocence of youth? Twin brothers Deion and Day’onne were birthed by Relisha Jenkins, a street prostitute addicted to crack. Under foster-care-mother Melissa, the twins grow in opposite directions. Deion sharpens his writing skills but Day’onne runs the streets slinging cocaine. The inner-city cycle of poverty, drug abuse, and crime are shown in ghastly scenes mixed in with incest and rape. Yet the family bond is strong, and aspiring writer Deion needs more cash, so he hooks up with Day’onne’s business, pushing product. Bad move. There’s always someone willing to take over your hustle by any means necessary. VERDICT Stunning scenes of revenge and murder keep pages turning, but situations of nasty rape may alienate some readers. At times the writing is awkward and stiff but still, Paige Green is only 16. Keep your eye on her as her debut is primed for a sequel.

Griggs, Vanessa Davis. The Other Side of Divine:  A Blessed Trinity Novel. Dafina: Kensington. Aug. 2013. 9780758273604. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780758289278. F
In Griggs’s ninth series entry (after The Other Side of Dare), her huge Birmingham, AL cast seeks redemption. And they should! Swirling around Gabrielle Mercedes’s upcoming nuptials with Zachary Wayne Morgan are plenty of people who will have to answer to God. Darius Connors leaves his wife and kids to hook up with Dee Vine, a vixen with a Coke-bottle shape and meth connections. Paris Simmons-Holyfield closes in on her baby’s birth date, but it’s too bad she isn’t sure of the father’s identity, which may be either her husband or that player Darius. Overseeing all these shenanigans is wise old Aunt Esther who knows Satan has built a perch on these folks’ shoulders. VERDICT Griggs tends to get a bit long-winded and when things go wrong, her characters rely on quoting scripture passages. Still, there’s plenty of juicy creepin’ going on and this is one of the top inspirational series with African American characters finding their way to forgiveness.

Swinson, Kiki & Nikki Turner. Most Wanted. Dafina: Kensington. Oct. 2013. ISBN 9780758280251. pap. $15. F
Two top female urban-fiction authors offer novellas featuring tough-as-nails city women on the lam after spitting into the wind and tugging on Superman’s, um, gangsters’ capes. In Swinson’s “Most Wanted Diamonds,” Virginia Beach resident Gigi Baker learns that lying doesn’t pay when ex-lover Warren, just released from prison, gives her an ultimatum. Warren wants the uncut diamonds Gigi stole or $4 million or her life. He doesn’t care which. But Gigi calls on her D.C. street smarts to turn the tables on Warren, hoping to walk away free and easy. Good luck with that. In Nikki Turner’s “On Da Run,” Peaches Brown has two skills: applying makeup and playing high stakes poker. After a early morning game goes horribly wrong, Peaches skates away from her job at Richmond’s Beauty Boutique and takes her talents to Miami. In the Sunshine State she reinvents herself as Lolah Escarda and begins bootlegging pricy automobiles. Things are fine and dandy until Peaches’s violent past catches up to her and she has to choose to run, hide, or fight. VERDICT Both novellas move fast, are tension-packed, and will thrill street-lit readers. If I’m forced to grade them, Swinson’s effort is an “A” and a “A-” goes to Turner, but that doesn’t matter since the stories are together in one volume. Don’t hesitate. Buy it.

Williams, Bria & Reginae Carter. Paparazzi Princesses. Cash Money Content, dist. by Atria: S. & S.  2013. ISBN 9781936399352. $17.99; ebk. ISBN 9781936399369. F cvr9781936399369 9781936399369 lg The Long and Short of It | African American Fiction (and More)
Kayla Jones and Promise Walker are both a few months shy of  their 13th birthday and not exactly related, but their famous families are so tight they might as well be sisters. Kayla’s dad, a music producer, pushes her into becoming a nationally recognized performer. Too bad she’d rather focus on designing her own fashion line. Promise has singing talent but comes loaded with attitude and is never on time for rehearsals. Although familiar with the red-carpet lifestyle, these two preteens deal with the growing pains of overbearing parents, snotty friends, and boyfriends versus boys-who-are-friends. The authors crowd in many story lines, but what comes clear is that when things get weird and nasty, Kayla and Promise can only count on each other. Girl power rules! VERDICT I continue to be alarmed by the dearth of teen fiction featuring African American characters, and finally a solid story has emerged. This debut novel by the daughters of two popular rappers (Bryan “Birdman” Williams and Lil’ Wayne) will be snatched up by the middle school crowd that’s totally tuned in to pop culture. Sure the pace is slowed down by tedious, long descriptive sections, but the mean-girls vibe twists into a thrilling action tale. A great summer read that’s steers away from preaching social issues.

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