alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions


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Orange Mint and Honey, by Carleen Brice

Ack, almost out of time on the August Color Me Brown challenge and Carleen’s book deserves to be included.

briceShay (not LaShay, never LaShay, never ever ever!) is having trouble in graduate school. An unspecified trouble, but a trouble serious enough that her adviser firmly suggests she take a year off. She agrees to take a semester, and because she has nowhere else to go, moves in with her mother in Denver. Her AA-attending, new-baby having, flower-gardening mother who, when Shay was a baby, left her home alone at night while she went out and partied down with random men. Shay, not too surprisingly, has therefore learned to take care of herself, and to hate her mother. She has also learned to pull her hair out by the roots whenever she feels anxious.

This is a funny book. The cover makes it seem nice and inspirational, and Shay will get her groove back and make up with her mother and they will drink a lot of herbal tea and learn to bond. Okay, maybe they do, but it doesn’t start out that way. Shay has some seriously reasonable hatred festering in her and she brings it with her in a big old sack of grievance, starting on page one.

I really, really sympathized with Shay. If that were my mom, NOTHING, would make me more insanely furious than her getting her act together and becoming “the chocolate Martha Stewart.” Despite the many “serious” themes, this book was a fun, quick read.

Recommended reading:

Postcards from the Edge — Carrie Fisher

The Untelling — Tayari Jones

Amy’s Answering Machine: Messages from Mom — Amy Borkowski

(Color Me Brown is an August challenge by Color Online)

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Cane River, by Lalita Tademy

CC_coverCane River tells the story of 100 years of Lalita Tademy’s (mostly) female ancestors in Louisiana, from roughly 1830-1930 . It’s a novel, but all of the people really lived when and where she says they did.

Before choosing it, I read a lot of reviews that said this was a page-turner, and up-all-night-until-you-finish kind of book, and they were right. All of these women, from slave-born Elisabeth to independent Emily, confront their situations differently according to both their in-born personalities and the changing social environments in which they operate. Some have affectionate relationships with their white French lovers, and some are in it for what they can get (actually, for what they can keep), and some have no choice about whose children they bear. In a situation where they cannot call their bodies or lives their own, they struggle to keep family together, to hold on to this one tangible thing.

As I read, I did find myself wondering which bits of the stories were real events in the lives of the people who lived, and which were emotions and attitudes made-up by the author, which just made it more intriguing. Even in the case of the double murder (!!) for which newspaper articles and coroner reports are reproduced, you still don’t know what really happened.

I found myself utterly fascinated by the photos. Except for the very earliest, there are good photos of every one of the main characters. There is the basic pleasure of scrutinizing their faces for the personalities they show in the novel. Then I kept looking at this family, in their suits and dresses and carefully pinned hair, and wondering how the society of rural Louisiana could justify denying them basic rights –like marrying their white lovers, inheriting the property of their white fathers, and riding in the front of the bus –because they were black, when they were so obviously white. The impossibility of looking at these pale faces and chestnut hair and seeing an obvious ‘other’, reveals the history of racist rationalization as so completely batshit crazy.

Recommended reading:

Kindred — Octavia E. Butler

Passing — Nella Larsen

The Cazalet Chronicles – Elizabeth Jane Howard

Wench –Dolen Perkins-Valdez (coming Jan 2010)

(Color Me Brown is an August challenge by Color Online)


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Joplin’s Ghost, by Tananarive Due

dueI’ve been meaning to read this for a long time, and the first chapters didn’t let me down; they were like deliciously trashy candy. Phoenix Smalls was nearly killed by a piano in her parent’s club when she was ten. Now she is in her twenties, signed to rap impresario G-Ronn’s Three Strikes record label, and poised to become the next hot R&B star. Except for that little problem where she keeps channeling Scott Joplin during live interviews and performances.

Chapters switch back and forth between Phoenix in the now, and Scott Joplin in the then. I guess it was interesting that Joplin’s dreams of the great African-American opera were tragically disappointed, and the poor man died of syphilis, and all that, but I kept waiting for the historical bits to be over so I could get back to the present day.  I was much more interested in Phoenix – her music career, her parents, her boyfriends, etc than I was in old Joplin.

There was also a lot here I didn’t buy. Because even though Phoenix is definitely haunted by Joplin, sees his ghost, dreams she’s his wife, etc., it’s really the piano that is the bad news, and that had blighted Joplin’s life before it tried going after hers. It’s a real stretch for me to believe in a ‘piano of evil’, and I can’t help but wonder if the author ended up blaming everything on an inanimate object as a workaround because she wanted Joplin to be the ghost, but didn’t want him to be actually bad.

The scary ending didn’t work for me, because the majority of the book was more entertaining than scary, so when it came down to it, I really couldn’t feel the threat. This all sounds like criticism, but I gobbled the book right up, and am all set to rush right out and check out one of Due’s vampire stories.

(Don’t know who Scott Joplin is? You know his music, 100% for sure. I have a recording of some of his rags, but even I didn’t realize that the ubiquitous tune ‘The Entertainer‘ was his.)

Recommended readings:

Voodoo Dreams — Jewell Parker Rhodes

Baby Brother’s Blues — Pearl Cleage

Blood Colony — Tananarive Due

(Color Me Brown is an August challenge by Color Online)


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Wife of the Gods, by Kwei Quartey (Color Me Brown challenge)

map-ghanaWife of the Gods is set in Ghana. For those of you who don’t know, Ghana is a coastal country in West Africa. The President visited there recently.

Detective Darko Dawson lives in the capital city, Accra, but is assigned to the murder of a young health worker in the small town of Ketanu because someone there doesn’t trust the local police force. Dawson speaks the local language, and his Aunt Osewa lives in a nearby village. Twenty-five years ago, Darko’s own mother journeyed to the same village to visit her sister, and  never returned.

Various suspects–the faith healer, the AIDS activist, the local priest–represent a conflict between traditional and modern ideas. Darko himself is disgusted with the priest who keeps young girls in concubinage as ‘wives of the gods’ but cannot help but feel that he himself may be have been cursed.

The mystery is competent, but Quartey shines at showing-off modern-day Ghana, vivid and alive. It is classic country-as-character and it is well done. Quartey, who was born and schooled in Accra, and has since lived in the US for many years has both an insider’s and an outsider’s perspective, which is wonderful for making a reader feel like the aforesaid insider.

He contrasts the speeding  capital with the more traditional village life, but remarks on how Ketanu has sprawled and the forest has shrunk in the years since his last visit. He shows the tension between supernatural/religious belief and medical/technical knowledge without denying the value of the superstition. He describes the people, the public and private lives, and the culture of the country, for which he clearly has great affection and understanding.

For more contrasts, check out Quartey’s blog that reports on his research trip to Ghana. He has lots of great pix, like the pair below.

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Recommended readings:

Aya of Yop City – Marguerite Abouet

The Silence of the Rain – Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

The next Inspector Dawson mystery – Kwei Quartey

(Color Me Brown is an August challenge by Color Online)