Old and New Voices | African American Fiction (and More)

This month’s selections are dominated by well-known African American authors—Kalisha Buckhanon, Eric Jerome Dickey, Zane—who benefit from instant name recognition. Yet don’t miss out on debuter Joe Okonkwo’s novel about a man’s journey to accept his sexuality in the wild times of the Prohibition era.

81yrKPtXmLL[1]Buckhanon, Kalisha. Solemn. St. Martin’s. May 2016. 304p. ISBN 9781250091598. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250091581. F
Bledsoe, MS, is a place somewhat lost in time; where “an outhouse is a staple and not a shame.” It’s in this rural setting that Buckhanon (Upstate; Conception) pulls back the curtain on the plight of impoverished African American families. When 13-year-old Solemn Redvine witnesses a man throw a baby down a community well, she senses that the infant’s mother, a married woman who lives in their trailer park, is connected to the Redvine family, but she is unable to piece together the secret. In tracing’s Solemn’s troubled coming of age, Buckhanon mixes in the despair of addiction, disenfranchised African American children, and the indifference of police to solve a crime in the black community. Citizens of Bledsoe know the score, “We always got a white judge, all-white juries, a still-Jim Crow town, white prosecutor, white public defender, black accused, black victim.” VERDICT  Buckhanon’s outstanding writing fills this work with wonderfully evocative phrasing that will linger with readers. The numerous alternating viewpoints, however, muddies the clarity of her plot. Still, this work earns a place alongside James Hannaham’s Delicious Foods as top-notch literary fiction sending a message about African American struggles in the 21st century. [See Prepub Alert, 11/23/15; library marketing.]

51keReaLVgL[1]Dickey, Eric Jerome. The Blackbirds. Dutton. Apr. 2016. 508p. ISBN 9781101984109. $27; ebk. ISBN 9781101984116. F
Destiny, Indigo, Kwanzaa, and Erica are L.A. besties, celebrating birthdays by crossing off bucket-list items and searching for a nickname for their tight support group. They shudder at the b-word, c-word and “bimbos,” but a chance hearing of Nina Simone’s song “Blackbirds” gives them their identity. The four women—all sizzling hot—alternate trash talk with firm emotional support as they deal with relationships gone bad, cancer, and the question if dinner has to be included to qualify as a date in Los Angeles. At times their repartee is reminiscent of an adolescent truth-or-dare game (e.g., when quizzed about the oldest guy they hooked up with or if they have ever had a lesbian encounter). It takes some time, but the novel’s focus eventually comes back to men who cheat. The mother of one of the Blackbirds offers sage advice: “There are two kinds of men. Those who cheat and get caught, and those who don’t get caught.”  Little do the Blackbirds realize, but unfaithful acts are happening way too close to home. VERDICT Dickey (One Night; Naughtier Than Nice) once again stirs a juicy mix of steamy sexuality with soap-opera drama. Despite witty insults tending to get lost in lengthy passages of dialog, this story will please fans who will recognize characters from the author’s previous novels. Anticipate strong demand. [See Prepub Alert, 10/19/15.]

51DGypdIUCL[1]Okonkwo, Joe. Jazz Moon. Kensington. Jun. 2016. 352p. ISBN 9781496701169. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9781496701176. F
By day Ben Charles is a waiter at the swanky Pavilion Hotel in 1925 Manhattan. When night falls he writes poetry and cruises the jazz clubs of Harlem with his wife, Angeline.  At Teddy’s, a club thick with reefer smoke, Ben is mesmerized by jazz trumpeter Baby Back Johnston. As a teenager, he was attracted to the local bad boy in his Georgia community, but the secret romance ended badly and forced him to flee to New York City. This time Ben decides to listen to his heart. He leaves Angeline and follows Baby Back to Paris, where Negroes are more readily accepted but are viewed as exotic, sensual, and primitive. Amid racial and sexual prejudice, Ben struggles to allow his true self to develop. VERDICT Okonkwo’s sweeping debut novel combines the rich history of jazz’s golden age with the emotional turmoil of an African American male coming to terms with his sexuality. In depicting the colorful Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance, the work stays true to the era’s prevailing negative attitudes toward homosexuals; indeed, when Ben and his acquaintances aren’t certain which words to use to describe their orientation, they finally settle on “queer.” This agreeable blend of historical fiction and social commentary is a solid choice for LGBTQ and African American readers, as well as aficionados of the period.

9110BTj-ZrL[1]Zane. Vengeance. Atria. May 2016. 270p. ISBN 9781501108044. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781501108068. F
The opening scene in an Atlanta male strip club sets the tone of this tale of affluence, a dark past, and a burning desire for revenge. Enjoying the dancing talents of the Minister of Seduction at the Black Screw are Ladonna Sterling and her best friend/mentor/savior Hannah. Ladonna, on her way to becoming a recording superstar known as Wicket, has returned to Atlanta intent on inflicting payback on those who almost destroyed her when she was a teenager named Caprice Tatum. Having suffered emotional and psychological abuse from her psychopathic mother, among other traumas, including rape, Caprice has relied on Hannah, a transgender female with a sketchy past of her own. How does present-day multimillionaire Wicket/Ladonna/Caprice cope with her painful history? She gets off by playing the role of the domineering figure in several BDSM settings. VERDICT In this story of dealing with emotional pain and letting go of the past, Zane concocts her successful formula of outlandish wealth, diva attitudes, and jaw-dropping sex acts. To face her problems, our leading lady enlists the skills of psychiatrist Marcella Spencer who appeared in Zane’s earlier Addicted and Nervous. Expect requests based on the author’s reputation.

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