LJ Best Books 2017

It's time again for LJ’s annual Top Ten Best Books of the year, selected by our editors, as well as Top Five lists for genre fiction, nonfiction, poetry and literature, graphic novels, and SELF-e titles.   SEE WHO MADE THE LIST

Fan Favorites and Promising Newcomers | African American Fiction (and More)

While this month’s column features urban fiction fan favorites Ni-Ni Simone and De’Nesa Diamond, librarians will also want to keep their eye on debut authors Ginger McKnight-Chavers and Stephen Mack Jones, who place African American protagonists in established thriller and romance genres. But it’s the best-selling Carl Weber who shines by mixing upper-middle-class African American lifestyles with hard-core street cred. Man on the Run is my pick of the month.

 

 pick of the month

41vgplxlhgl1OrangeReviewStar Defending Your Castle | African American Fiction (And More!)Weber, Carl. Man on the Run. Grand Central. Jan. 2017. 304p. ISBN 9781455505272. $24; ebk. ISBN 9781455505289. F
In this sequel to Married Men, four tight friends resurface and serious problems quickly pop up. Jay Crawford, who is serving ten years for rape but asserts that he was framed, has escaped from the Danbury (CT) Federal Correctional Facility. He’s the man on the run back to Queens, where his buddies Kyle, Allen, and Wil try to help him out when federal marshals begin nosing around. The women in their lives are another story, insisting Jay is not worth the trouble when their marriages face other issues, including compulsive shoplifting, the death of a family member, and the loss of a job. So what’s harboring an escaped criminal felony between friends? Problems are resolved a bit too easily when the Duncan crime family (from earlier Weber series) repeatedly steps in to rescue the fellas. VERDICT The hugely successful Weber (The Family Business; The Choir Director) keeps his story moving while hinting at such social problems as spousal abuse and the criminal justice system’s targeting of black men. Yet his writing doesn’t dwell on these themes, which may disappoint readers wanting a bit more depth and insight, but those who desire pure escapism will find plenty to enjoy. [Five-city author tour.]

51qxibadkhl1Blades, Nicole. The Thunder Beneath Us. Dafina: Kensington. Nov. 2016. 316p. ISBN 9781496704597. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9781496704603. F
Bathsheba (Best) Lightburn has settled in New York City working for a women’s magazine, but she has been demoted to writing a sex advice column. Carrying around survivor guilt, the 27-year-old woman doesn’t believe she deserves good things and wants to “call in sick for everything.” Ten years ago, while taking a shortcut across a Canadian frozen lake, Best and her brothers, Benjamin and Bryant, fell through the ice. The boys died, and now Best uses sarcasm as self-protection. But her defensive shields begin to crumble when a management reshuffle brings in a new editor whom Best describes as someone with “her smiles penciled in.” Adding to her depression is her actor boyfriend’s own mental issues and an awkward office romance. VERDICT Debut author Blades, who was raised in Canada by Caribbean parents, has written a jumbled tale with three different story lines, not all of them clearly defined or connected. Her protagonist comes across at times as a snarky clone of Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw; despite some breezy dialog, the prose mostly thuds, as in this description of Best’s lover as “this enigmatic stone of a man with a tepid disposition and ferocious authority.”

Diamond, DeNesha. Conspiracy: A Parker Crime Chronicles Novel. Dafina: Kensington. 51x25pmzz4l1Jan. 2017. 320p. ISBN 9781496705822. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9781496705846. F
Several different quandaries weave through Diamond’s (Hustlin’ Divas; Queen Divas) latest novel, including teenage abduction, impeachment of a Democratic president, computer hacking, and even psychokinesis. Abrianna, or Bree, Parker, runs away from her abusive family to the streets of Washington, DC, and is snatched by crazed torturer Craig Avery. Bree wakes up shackled in a basement with other kidnapped girls as Avery injects experimental drugs into his victims. Although she is rescued by the police, Bree is soon on the lam after escaping from the hospital. Several years later, hacker Kadir Kahlifa uncovers a government conspiracy, which leads to a murder that’s connected to Bree. Remember those drugs pumped into Bree by serial killer Avery? Thanks to them, Bree now has the power of psychokinesis, and as she becomes a crime stopper, she can move objects in a Carrie-esque way. VERDICT A suspension of disbelief is required here as psychokinesis seems to be a too-convenient plot device when characters get in trouble. Eventually the disparate parts do come together, but it takes some time, and readers may find Diamond’s lengthy descriptions tiresome. Still, she has plenty of fans who will want this.

81nn7hporvl1Jackson, K.M. Insert Groom Here. Dafina: Kensington. (Unconventional Brides)Jan. 2017. 322p. ISBN 9781496705686. pap. $7.99; ebk. ISBN 9781496705693. F
New York PR executive Eva Ward, who has won a lavish wedding on a morning television show, is dumped by her fiancé of six years when on a live broadcast he says he’s “not ready to get married.” A stunned Eva blurts out, “Who’s next?” She’s determined to find a replacement groom off camera, but unfortunately her breakdown is caught by Aidan Walker. Of course he’s more than just a T-shirt-wearing, scruffy-bearded camera dude; he’s also due to inherit his father’s entertainment corporation. As the studio suits seek to promote Eva’s dating forays into a bachelorette show, the growing sexual attraction between the two leads them to have other ideas. But is their saucy canoodling a one-time thing, or should they continue seeing each other as Eva works through her on-screen dating? VERDICT Jackson’s (Holiday Temptation; Bounce) latest offering follows the girl-gets-dumped-but-doesn’t-realize-true-love-under-her-nose script that shows up in many romance novels. Eva is a likable, sympathetic character caught in an awkward situation, but Aidan repeatedly calling her “princess” and “kitten” grows stale. Jackson’s resolution to the couple’s dilemma wraps up too neatly, and the writing is a bit long-winded, but these quibbles can be put aside for this pleasurable read.

Jones, Stephen Mack. August Snow. Soho Crime. Feb. 2017. 312p. ISBN 9781616957186. 51qqoqphx6l1pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781616957193. M
Jones uses the harsh streets of Detroit—or as his protagonist says “Chernobyl American style”—as a backdrop of his first novel. Disgraced cop August Snow has returned home after a year abroad spending his lawsuit settlement after blowing the whistle on police corruption. He is intent on resurrecting his old neighborhood where he grew up as the child of a Mexican mother and an African American father. August still has a few buddies in Detroit and needs their insight when bank executive Eleanor Paget, who had hired him to investigate suspicious activity at her company, is found dead from a supposed suicide. August moves through the city gathering information that reveals banking industry corruption on a computerized global scale. The FBI hovers around August’s probe, hoping he connects all the dots for them, but the bad guys aren’t shy about murdering folks to cover their tracks. VERDICT Drawing on the hard-boiled detective template established by Raymond Chandler and refined by Robert B. Parker, Jones introduces a sleuth who is noble, steadfast in a fight with his fists or guns, and manages to charm the ladies. Some slow passages is forgiven with crackerjack shootout action and plenty of wisecracks. Of course the good guys win, but not without lots of touch and go moments. Readers will definitely want to see more of August Snow.

51rkysklnsl1McKnight-Chavers, Ginger. In the Heart of Texas. She Writes. Oct. 2016. 318p. ISBN 9781631521591. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781631521607. F
A 41-year-old Hollywood B-list celebrity with a passing resemblance to Halle Berry, Jo Randolph finds her real life is not unlike her soap opera roles. She’s sexually involved with her show’s producer, but when his wife attacks her on set, Jo morphs into wronged lover mode. So what’s a girl to do after burning down her lover’s beach house? Jo heads home to Midland, TX, where she puts her Dartmouth English degree to work and begins teaching high school summer school. Bonding with fellow teacher Davis, who is carrying relationship baggage of his own, Jo settles into a friendship with benefits. But when Jo brings Davis to a home barbeque, her eccentric family is shocked by having a white guy in the house. Jo’s uncle Harvey leans in and tells her that the white man is the “real weapon of mass destruction.” Jo struggles to come to grips with her “un-blackness” while deciding if down-home values top Hollywood glamour. VERDICT There’s quite a bit to like about McKnight-Chavers’ debut novel as readers will bond with Jo’s problems of straddling multiple environments while trying to determine an uncertain future. The bold move of writing about the challenges of a interracial relationship offers a fresh take on romantic comedy themes. Yet, McKnight feels the need to re-set every scene with an overload of description that slows the book’s pace. Still, this is a solid romance for fans of the genre

515uesuzrnl1Mello, Deborah Fletcher. Perfect Pleasures. Dafina: Kensington. Nov. 2016. 322p. ISBN 9781496704320. pap. $7.99; ebk. ISBN 9781496704337. F
Sports journalist Kenzie Monroe, who is mixed Asian and African American, is off to tropical Thailand, where she hopes to interview Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) star Zachary Barrett, who has distanced himself from the media. Falling rain on her sleeping quarters’ thatched roof awakens Kenzie after a bout with jet lag, and she begins nosing around Zachary’s training facility. She knows Zachary has a twin brother, Alexander, and that the twins’ love life is a bit jumbled. What Kenzie doesn’t count on is Zachary smelling “like the aftermath of a fresh spring rain, new car leather, and sin on Sunday.” It takes some time, but Kenzie and Zachary get physical, first as sparring partners in the ring, then as jogging buddies, and ultimately square off in the bedroom, where the action is fast and furious. VERDICT Fortunately Mello (Playing for Keeps) avoids the tired romance story line of girl-meets-identical-twins-and-falls-in-love-with-the-other-one; her series follow-up (after Guilty Pleasures) is more about Zachary and Kenzie finding true love under difficult circumstances. Kenzie’s search for her long-missing father is a nice added touch, rounding out this enjoyable romance with a Rocky-like ending.

51lkr9arehl1OrangeReviewStar Defending Your Castle | African American Fiction (And More!)Simone, Ni-Ni. Dear Yvette. Dafina: Kensington. (Throwback Diaries). Dec. 2016. 256p. ISBN 9780758287762. pap. $9.95; ebk. ISBN 9780758287779. F
In Simone’s second entry in her gritty “Throwback Diary” series (after Down by Law), 16-year-old Yvette Simmons is a product of the streets of Newark, NJ, and an indifferent foster care system. All Yvette has is her own two-year-old child, Kamari. But when she slices a friend’s face for calling her a snitch, Yvette’s crime of assault with a deadly weapon lands her in jail. A last-chance option sends her to a group home in Norfolk, VA, where she meets Ms. Glo and slowly begins the long trek to rebuilding trust in the adult world. Still, there are plenty of distractions, especially from Brooklyn, a hot guy who pitches his game to Yvette. VERDICT This is one of those special novels written for teens but with adult themes and situations that also make it suitable for reluctant adult readers. Inner city teenagers will love Yvette’s sass and her priceless trash talk (as when she tells Brooklyn, “Boy, you are so fine, your name should be Mine”). She does throw a few cuss words, but they are not deal breakers for a YA audience.

E-Original

51tre43u0l1Marshall, Ty. Luxury and Larceny: Part 1. Griffin: St. Martin’s. Oct. 2016. 76p. ebk. ISBN 9781250098795. $2.99. F
This novella is a spin-off of Ashley Antoinette’s Luxe, which featured UCLA student Bleu Monclair as she gets caught up in trafficking drugs across the Mexican border. Now the narrative shifts to China, Bleu’s former roommate, who is on the run from the cartel that she and boyfriend Bree had ripped off. China also had something to do with the murder of Cinco, the cartel’s main man, and his former soldiers are hell-bent on revenge. Desperate to escape Los Angeles, the duo botch a robbery trying to get cash. With the cartel hot on their trail, China and Bree launch a cross-country spree of Bonnie and Clyde–esque robberies marked by brutally violent murder. But on the road to Arizona and Las Vegas, trust is an issue when China becomes more interested in saving her own skin than sticking with Bree. Of course the frantic lovers still find time for some steamy sex, including a romp on a pile of stolen cash. VERDICT Readers who haven’t read Luxe may be confused about who are the true villains in Marshall’s (Kingdom Come) short novella. Yet there’s plenty of betrayal, violence, and rough sex to entertain hard-core urban fiction fans. However, the digital-only format may limit access for those readers.

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