Think Daisy Jones but better: A review of The Last Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton

A copy of The Last Revival of Opal and Nev by Dawnie Walton, a red hardcover book with a guitar on the front, set on top of my Victrola record player.

Thanks for bearing with me, folx… I am beyond behind on reviews here. I’ve been overbooked (get it 😉 I’m all for a good pun!) with ARCs and just great backlog reads that I wanted to take time to do what I love most — read. Now that I’ve cleared up my schedule, I’m hoping to be more consistent with my blogging and catch up on writing reviews to highlight some really incredible books and authors.

As I’ve mentioned before, I love a debut! I think reading and reviewing them is an honor. And when it comes to debuts I’ve read in 2021, The Last Revival of Opal & Nev is definitely top of the list. Dawnie Walton is such a talent, and you better bet I’ll be reading whatever she decides to publish from here on out. Like, she could publish her grocery list, and I’d be all about it!

Quick synopsis: This story follows the infamous rock duo Opal and Nev, nobodies who rose to fame in NYC in the 70s. In 2016, journalist S. Sunny Shelton is curating a collection of interviews from and about them as they prepare for a reunion tour, but a new allegation threatens everything Opal, Nev, and now Sunny have worked for.

Now I’m as big of a Daisy Jones and the Six fan as about anyone else, so I was at first a bit hesitant — this book, while quite different, followed the same oral story format, which I thought may feel too similar to Daisy Jones. But I was definitely wrong — in my opinion, this book shines so much brighter than Daisy Jones. I loved that coupled with the interviews are editor’s notes from the point of view of Sunny. These notes help develop Sunny as equally a main character, next to the titular Opal and Nev, and allowed the present day to become a story of its own, parallelling and moving on from that of Opal and Nev back in the 70s.

Opal, however, was my favorite character. She was bold, imperfect, bright, and brave. I loved how she knows exactly who she is and never tries to be anything she isn’t. Most importantly, she unabashedly stands up for what she believes in.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but what made this book so incredible and truly a step above Daisy Jones is how it shows the effects that white supremacy — and taking a stand against it — has on women of color, and especially Black women. It’s a powerful testament, both sobering yet full of hope. Especially in the context of 2016, when Sunny is performing these interviews and publishing this book. This book took turns I couldn’t have anticipated, and it both sucked me into this fictional story and reminded me of the lengths we still need to go for racial equality in our real-life society.

What do you get when you mix one accidental murder with four Asian aunties? A review of Dial A for Aunties by Jesse Q. Sutanto

My phone sits on a wicker basket with the cover of Dial A for Aunties by Jesse Q. Sutanto. Next to it is my Nikon DSLR camera and lens cap.

First off, thank you to Berkley and NetGalley for a free eARC in exchange for an honest review. I really am not a romance reader by any means, but when I first heard of Dial A for Aunties, I just knew I had to pick it up! I was not only so excited for a chance to read a debut by Chinese-Indonesian author Jesse Q. Sutanto, but I was also so excited by its hilarious, outrageous description.

Quick synopsis: This story follows the misadventures of Meddy, a photographer who works with her mom and three aunts in their wedding service company. When she accidentally kills her date on a blind date gone wrong, the four aunties must figure out to help Meddy cover her tracks, all while working the biggest wedding of their careers at an upscale Californian hotel for a wildly rich family (think of the book/movie Crazy Rich Asians –that rich). Meanwhile, a run-in with Meddy’s old flame may put their chances at covering this crime at risk.

Part romance, and part contemporary fiction, this book had me quite literally laughing out loud! Meddy and her aunties had me cracking up, while also totally rooting for them despite an accidental murder. And while the story was often lighthearted and funny, it did touch on some more serious topics, such as Meddy’s mom and aunties’ immigration experience. The thing I probably connected with the most was Meddy’s identity struggles she faced growing up with her Chinese-Indonesian family who immigrated to the U.S., while she was raised there. While my family experience was definitely different than hers, I could empathize with her feelings of feeling on the outside at times when it comes to racial identity.

Additionally, I loved Meddy’s journey of self-discovery. She was such a relatable leading lady, and I definitely recognized a bit of myself in her as she tries to discover herself and do what makes her happiest, not just what makes her mom/aunties happy. But I so admired how she cares so deeply for her family, and they obviously feel the same about her — enough to cover up an accidental murder!

I thought the romance element to this book was so sweet (fans of steamy romances, beware — this one is definitely sweet, not steamy). It was a big part of the book, but not overwhelmingly so, as I think the themes of family and self acceptance were much more prominent. But the romance was a wonderful addition to this zany, wildly surprising adventure. It read like a rom-com and touched on coming into your own while recognizing the importance of family. And of course, it was so wonderful to see a lead who looks like me!

This book’s pub day is April 27th. I totally recommend giving this wonderful debut a read!

My monthly wrap-up — March 2021

A stack of books that I read in March sit next to a fish tank with my betta fish Reggie.

I’m a day late on my March wrap-up post AND it just snowed for the first time in a month — so that’s the April Fools Day joke, right?? But living in the Midwest, you just have to accept that Fake Spring is a real thing and you’ll inevitably get that last snow sometime in late March or even April. Hopefully it’s the last one of the season, however!

On a reading note, this month was a great month for me. Typically, I read around eight books, but this month I got through a whopping 11 books! There were many awesome reads, some of which I’ve already reviewed, some of which are to come. I’ve probably spent just a little too much time reading and not enough keeping up with reviews on here and Instagram. But I promise — they’re coming soon!!

Here are the books, in order, that I got the chance to read this month, plus a short summary. Also, check out my new Betta fish, Reggie! Sadly, Barry passed away (may he RIP) after nearly two years. But we’re excited to welcome Reggie to the family!

Watch Her by Edwin Hill. This suspense/mystery features Hester Thursby, Harvard librarian and master finder/researcher. I loved the whodunnit aspect, the alternating POVs, but mostly, I loved Hester. Check out my full review here. You better be sure I’ll be going back to read books 1 and 2 at some point! Also, thank you to Books Forward and Kensington Books for this free ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner. This book follows two parallel storylines, that of modern day Caroline, who is on vacation alone after a shocking revelation from her husband, and that of Nella, an apothecary who sells her concoctions to women in need of help against the oppressive men in their lives and whose run-in with young Eliza will forever change their lives. My full review will be coming soon.

The Northern Reach by W. S. Winslow. This is a slow-burn collection of interrelated stories about the residents of a coastal Maine town and how throughout the 20th century, they intersect, intermarry, and intermingle. With a dash of magical realism and truly atmospheric writing, this one is great for fans of historical fiction. Thank you to Flatiron Books for the free ARC in exchange for an honest review, which you can read here.

The Push by Ashley Audrain. Living up to all the hype, this suspense novel unpacks the darkest side of motherhood and was truly a profound read. I was often disturbed and unsettled, but as a reader, I appreciated the way this book made me think hard about motherhood and womanhood. Check out my full review here.

Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan. This was a book club choice that I read with some college friend that was a thought-provoking dissection of how both media and the justice system often let those who commit heinous acts of sexual assault/rape get away and how victims are often to blame. This book is being turned into a Netflix series and I cannot wait.

My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee. So I’m not sure I’ve ever spent this long on a book! Like no joke, I was reading it for about a month. It’s a slow, arduous read, but also beautifully written, telling the story of how Tiller, a young, not-so-ambitious American, is taken under the wing of Pong, an enigmatic and charismatic businessman, and the events of their year abroad. Thank you to NetGalley and Riverhead for this free eARC in exchange for an honest review.

Dial A for Aunties by Jesse Q. Sutanto. Definitely the stand-out novel of the month, this story — part contemporary fiction and part romance — follows Chinese-Indonesian Meddy, whose aunties must come to the rescue after a blind date gone horribly wrong. What follows is a hilarious, heartwarming tale of of five women trying to cover up an accidental murder, work the biggest wedding of their careers, and Meddy’s run-in with an old flame. What could possibly go wrong? Thank you to Berkley and NetGalley for the free eARC in exchange for an honest review.

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas. This was a buddy read and a total “bookstagram made me do it.” The first book of the series, this story follows Feyre, a young girl cursed to live among faeries as punishment for a crime. A mix of Beauty and the Beast, Hunger Games, Spinning Silver, and a whole bunch of other fun fantasy tropes, this book was a fun, sexy read. I’m excited for the next ones to come!

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton. This Book of the Month selection and debut novel is an oral history of the famous (yet fictional) rock n’ roll duo, Opal and Nev, who rise to fame in the 70’s. While it is a thrilling biography of sorts, it is also an indictment of consequences of protesting injustices has on women of color, especially Black women, versus men. Another stand out of the month.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo. This book follows 17-year-old Lily Hu, growing up in San Francisco Chinatown in the 1950’s. She is struggling with her budding feelings for a female classmate, but throughout the story, must find the courage to be true to herself while falling in love for the first time. It’s a touching, heartbreaking, yet hopeful read.

Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert. This fun, super steamy romance follows Chloe Brown, who after a near-death experience, makes a list of things to do that will help her “get a life” and step out of her comfort zone. Enter her superintendent, Red, who is the perfect person to help her cross off this list and perhaps fall in love with along the way.

What was your favorite read of the month? Let me know below or send me a message on Instagram!

My Friday Five — book club picks for any group

Happy Friday, friends! I wanted to think of a weekly list that would be fun and easy to pull together, while also being a great starting point for conversations and potentially add some great new recs to my readers’ TBRs! So this is the first installment of my “Friday Five” — this week will focus on books I’d choose for a book club. My friend, Maggie, recently started this challenge on her bookstagram, and I thought it was such a fun idea. The biggest struggle was narrowing it down to only five! But here are my top choices that I think would satisfy any group and why.

Photo by Ellie Turns the Page.

The Night Swim by Megan Goldin. I would choose this book for the thriller-obsessed group that not only wants an awesome whodunnit with a fearless lead, but also a deep dive into the portrayal of sexual assault victims in this Me Too era. Full review is here.

Here For It; Or, How to Save Your Soul in America by R. Eric Thomas. This nonfiction essay collection would be my choice for the book club that wants to drink wine and laugh out loud while also talking about politics, social ideals, love, race, and hope in modern America.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. This short, critically acclaimed novel would be a great pick for a group looking for a historical fiction that centers on race, class, gender issues, and more in a cross continental setting. Full review here.

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson. This debut sci-fi would be the perfect fit for any sci-fi or fantasy book club. It’s a fresh take on the popular multiverse concept, features a diverse cast, and explores topics including race, women’s rights, religion, and social/economic status in an unforgiving landscape.

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano. This choice would be for a group who is ready to feel ALL the feels by exploring loss, life, and hope through the eyes of a child who experiences an unbelievable tragedy and must figure out how to not only survive but truly live.

What book would you choose for your book club? Would any of my picks catch your attention? Let me know in the comments below or reach out on Instagram!

A how-to guide for tough talks: A review of Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man by Emmanuel Acho

Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man sits in front of a vase of purple and pink flowers and a green plant.

Let me first start off by saying this: Every. One. Needs. To. Read. This. Book. ASAP! While I have been trying to read more diverse writers from all backgrounds more in the past year of reading, I really didn’t start reading nonfiction again for fun until last summer. Last summer’s acts of police brutality and the strength of the Black Lives Matter movement that followed really showed me how much I personally had to learn, so I worked much harder to read Black voices, both in fiction and nonfiction. Out of the many books I’ve been fortunate to pick up in the past year by Black writers, this one has got to be one of the best.

Quick synopsis: “Emmanuel Acho believes the only way to cure our nation’s oldest disease–racism–starts with a profound, revolutionary idea: actually talking to one another. No, seriously. Until it gets uncomfortable…and then some.”

What I loved most about this book was Acho’s deeply conversational tone, full of heart, compassion, and empathy. Truly, no topic was off the table, ranging as far and as wide as allyship, interracial families, the n-word, implicit bias, and much, much more. As a reader, it brought a deep sense of comfort in feeling as if I was simply sitting with this guy, talking about race over a cup of coffee or something of the sort. While it was full of historical and cultural research along with Acho’s personal experiences, it never felt dry or academic, but truly felt like a conversation with a friend.

That feeling of comfort and friendship perfectly balanced out the other side of the book — namely, feeling “uncomfortable.” And yeah, there were loads of moments where I was incredibly, wildly uncomfortable. I mean, talking about the n-word, for example, isn’t easy! I’ve grown up knowing it’s a word I shouldn’t say, but I never really understood why Black people could call each other that. Acho answers that question and so many more in a way that educated and enlightened me, but didn’t make me feel bad or upset or hurt as a non-Black person. Rather, I felt like I better understood the experiences of my fellow human beings and how conversations like this could help me become a better ally, friend, and antiracist willing to fight the good fight.

Race isn’t a dirty word and it isn’t something that should be shied away from. Racism, however, stems deeply in the systems that make up our society, and I loved Acho’s perspective that on an individual basis, having these tough conversations — really getting comfortable with being uncomfortable — is a step in the right direction toward true allyship and fighting against racism.

I still have loads to learn and much room to grow when it comes to my own personal journey in becoming a better ally, but this book gave me some much-needed, actionable tools in my arsenal to help get me there. I would without a doubt recommend this book to anyone looking to start or continue their journey to learn more about race and what to do to help end systemic racism in our communities. This would make a great individual read or be perfect for a book club to discuss with friends, family members, or others in your community also seeking to learn, grow, and ultimately get comfortable being uncomfortable.

The burden and blessing of memory: A review of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

My dog Addie sleeping on a copy of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.

Last year, I read Transcendent Kingdom, and it instantly became a favorite of 2020 due to its incredible character development and exploration of tough topics such as religion, racism, addiction, and mental health. So of course I went into Homegoing with HIGH expectations. Through powerful storytelling that discusses the collective power of memory and the meaning of home, I fell in love with this book even more than Transcendent Kingdom and think this one needs to be read by everyone ASAP! It was just that incredible, thought-provoking, heartbreaking, and so much more.

Quick synopsis: Two half sisters in 18th century Ghana — unknown to each other — find themselves on two very different paths: one, the wife of a wealthy Englishman who lives in the Cape Coast Castle, the other imprisoned in the castle’s basement and destined for slavery in the U.S. The book proceeds to tell the parallel storylines of these two half sisters through multiple generations, across continents.

This book’s format is unlike any other I have read before. The first two chapters tell the stories of half sisters Effia and Esi, while chapter three focuses on Effia’s son Quey, and chapter four discusses Esi’s daughter Ness, chapter five is Quey’s son James, chapter six is Ness’s son Kojo, etc., etc. While each chapter reads like a standalone story, it is clear that they both build off of the previous generation’s experience, while paralleling with that of their generational counterpart over the course of eight total generations. This may be a tad confusing to explain and is a bit complicated to read at first, but Gyasi provides readers with a family tree at the start of the book — I had this page dog-eared and flipped back pretty much every chapter to make sure I had my characters straight! It was a huge help. But this complicated, multigenerational story was so worth every word.

What was most incredible about each chapter was how invested I became in the individual character. Each chapter was perhaps 20 or 25 pages in length, yet by the end of each one, it felt like I had known these characters as deeply as if I had read a full-length novel about them. Each chapter often takes place over a number of years and dives deeply into not only the character’s experiences but also their emotions, livelihoods, and innermost thoughts. Each character was so well-developed in such a short amount of space, that I wished I could have had an entire book on each of them! And over the course of these eight generations, I got to the end of this novel feeling as if I had read an entire epic — yet over the course of only 300 pages. The character development and generational storylines felt as expansive as if had a bird’s eye view of this family tree, yet as intimate as if I knew each family member personally.

Most importantly, I loved how the book addresses the role of shared, generational memory. As each half sister’s family line parallels the other’s, it is clear the role of generational memory. Each character carries the weight of the love, trauma, pain, hope, livelihood, and much more of the generation(s) before them. It is a heavy weight, sometimes a burden, other times a blessing. But it is a powerful idea, nonetheless, and an important one.

Additionally, I loved the exploration of what home means. As each generation either builds upon the parents’ or grandparents’ choices or decides to forge a new path for him or herself, home took on many meanings. It made me ponder — is home a place? An idea? The people we call family? Or something greater or far more intangible?

As we begin this wonderful month of celebrating Black History Month, this book reminded me of the importance of reading own voices stories. I am so thankful for own voices writers like Gyasi who are willing to share stories like this one that can help us as readers continue to learn from and empathize with characters whose experiences are different then our own. Just another of the countless reasons I love fiction!

If you haven’t checked Homegoing out, I highly recommend it, as it is short, sure to get you thinking, and full of incredible character development and writing quality from Gyasi. If you have, I’d love to hear your thoughts! Comment below or reach out to me via Instagram.

Incredible stories to celebrate Black History Month

A stack of books, nonfiction and fiction, by Black writers, sitting against a white brick wall.

Happy Black History Month! While I think we as readers have a real responsibility to read stories by diverse voices all year long, I do think cultural celebratory months such as this are a wonderful opportunity to take a step back, reflect, educate ourselves, amplify diverse voices, and most importantly celebrate! To start off this incredible month of recognizing and celebrating Black history, I wanted to share a stack of some of my favorite books by Black writers that I have read or have on my TBR.

For me, I hope that this month is one where I not only reflect on all I’ve learned and where I have room to grow when it comes to being a voice for racial inequality, but also to use my love of reading to joyfully celebrate and highlight Black voices, especially this month!

Photo by Ellie Turns the Page.

So here are some mini synopses of the books featured here that I have read, ranging from romance to fantasy, and memoir to coming of age.

The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin — What if cities really did have a soul? This fantasy explores the individuals who make up New York City in a creative, fantastical ode to NYC.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett — This story follows twin sisters whose lives diverge when one embraces her Blackness and one chooses to pass as White.

The Beauty in Breaking by Michele Harper — Dr. Harper, an ER doc, discusses brokenness, in her own experiences, in the patients she encounters, and within a medical system that isn’t always fair.

Here For It; Or How to Save Your Soul in America: Essays by R. Eric Thomas — A hilarious, laugh-out-loud collection of essays that explores how to move forward and keep going in modern America. Hint: the answer involves hope.

The Boyfriend Project by Farrah Rochon — After Samiah and two other girls go viral when it is discovered they have all been cat-fished by the same guy, the three new best friends make a pact to put themselves first. But that promise is put to the test when Samiah meets sexy, thoughtful Daniel Collins at work.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi — A stunning, expansive story that spans several generations beginning with two Ghanian half-sisters unknown to each other, one who marries into the comfortable life of a White man and the other who is sold into slavery.

The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans — This collection of short stories explores race and history in the U.S. You can check out my full review of the novella here.

Memorial by Bryan Washington — Benson and Mike’s relationship is at a crossroads when Mike’s mom finds herself staying with Benson while Mike flies to Japan to reconnect with his dying father. This story explores both their relationship with each other and their families.

This Close to Okay by Leesa Cross-Smith — Tallie comes across Emmett, who is about to jump off a bridge. After convincing him to come back with her, they discover the power of healing and truth over the course of one short weekend.

Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour — A laugh-out-loud funny satire about ambition, race, and identity in the American workforce. You can read my full review here.

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi — This story opens with Vivek’s death. What follows is an exploration of the events that lead up to its crisis and the people involved.

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi — Gyasi’s newest novel explores themes of loss, faith, science, and addiction through the voice of Gifty, a PhD student studying the role of addiction on the brain, whose depressed mother has come to stay with her. Both continue to reel from Gifty’s brother’s death, the result of addiction.

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Tatum — Highly researched and informative, this nonfiction book discusses the role psychology plays when it comes to racial, ethnic, and cultural identities.

The Girl With the Louding Voice by Abi Daré — Told from the perspective of 14-year-old Adunni, this story explores Adunni’s journey to finding her voice on the path to her dream of gaining an education, escaping poverty, and one day helping other girls do so as well. You can check out my full review of the book here.

Books on my to be read list include The Mothers (Brit Bennett), Queenie (Candice Carty-Williams), and Stamped from the Beginning (Ibram X. Kendi).

What books by Black authors do you love? Which ones do you want to check out? Comment below or message me on Instagram!

There’s power in a name: A review of The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans

A copy of The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans being held up against a chalkboard wall.

You know that feeling when a book comes into your life at just the right time? That’s how I felt about this incredible collection of short stories and a novella. Overall, the collection was full of amazing stories that I think are all worthy to be checked out. But for the sake of this review, I’m going to focus on the novella, “The Office of Historical Corrections,” because in my opinion, if you have only time to read one story from this collection, it should be that one.

Quick synopsis: “[I]n the eye-opening title novella, a black scholar from Washington, DC, is drawn into a complex historical mystery that spans generations and puts her job, her love life, and her oldest friendship at risk.”

I read finished this story the day that the Capitol building was stormed by Trump supporters on January 6th. I’m only 25 years old, and I can honestly say this is the first time in my short life I felt truly scared. Scared for our sacred democracy, scared of white supremacy, scared of the consequences of selfish political leaders, and so much more.

The novella’s narrator is Cassie, a worker for the fictional Institute of Public History, more facetiously referred to as “the Office of Historical Corrections.” The job of its employees is to “address a different sort of public health crisis,” says Cassie. “We were the solution for decades of bad information and bad faith use of it. Our work was to protect the historical record, not to pick fights (guideline 1) or correct people’s reading of current news (guideline 2)” (pg. 165).

Warning: the following contains some spoilers. Keep reading at your own risk!

As a reader, I was first struck by how interesting this concept could be if followed perfectly — potentially a solution to people’s distrust of facts by providing an office that is designed to let the public know the truth. But like most things political and governmental, political correctness ends up taking the front seat, which often forces Cassie, who is Black, to choose to either ignore or accept corrections regarding race that don’t really serve to help anyone who it actually matters to, much to the malaise of those close to her, such as her boyfriend, who is also Black.

The plot really picks up when Cassie’s former coworker Genie creates a PR nightmare that requires Cassie — the Office’s token Black employee — to troubleshoot. Genie, also called Genevieve, is following a historical mystery of sorts involving a black man who supposedly was killed in the 1930’s near Milwaukee, but new information suggests he may not have actually been murdered. Genie is there to solve it, and Cassie is there to fix whatever Genie does that reflects poorly on the Office.

Without going into too many details that would severely ruin this story, what I will say is that the ending is truly devastating and unforgettable. But as a reader, I was left with this important message: there is power in naming something and calling a thing what it is. That is the grand lesson that Cassie must learn — whether she actually does so is another question. But the story’s ending in particular reveals not only the incredible freedom and power in revealing the truth and calling something by its proper name, but also the devastating effect it can have when some people choose to ignore it.

So as I read this book and simultaneously watched people storm the Capitol, I was reminded of the importance of putting a name to something and not sugarcoating it. I looked on Facebook and saw “friends” referring to those people as protesters, participating in their constitutional right to peacefully protest what they considered an unfair election. Some people suggested it was fully within the rights of Trump as President to encourage his supporters to simply protest.

But if we are to agree with the premise of “The Office of Historical Corrections,” then it is vital that we call a thing by its name. I am immensely thankful for the hosts of people who voiced what the events of January 6th actually were: insurrection caused by sedition, anarchy, domestic terrorism, white supremacy, an attack on democracy and free elections, and so much more.

I obviously wrote this review in retrospect of the Capitol storming, but it truly took me this much time to both process the events of that day and Evans’ stunning novella. If you’ve made it this far, I hope you found something thought-provoking in this review and are encouraged to read her novella (or hopefully the entire collection) if you haven’t already. I can see this whole short story collection being taught one day in a literature or critical race theory course. It’s just that good. This story is definitely the reason I will always love stories — for the way fiction can express truth and reveal knowledge in a way that transcends the pages and intertwines with reality.

Resiliency and womanhood: A review of The Girl With the Louding Voice by Abi Daré

A Book of the Month copy of The Girl With the Louding Voice by Abi Dare sitting on my lap.

When Book of the Month released their top five reader-voted Book of the Year finalists, I was in a bit of a sweat. I’m one of those subscribers that has two boxes, so I realized there was a good shot that I would have read them all! But luckily, there was one novel that I hadn’t picked up: The Girl With the Louding Voice. It’s one of those stories I have heard nothing but praise for, and it was certainly one of those “wish-I-had-chosen-that” books. I was fortunate to be able to use my free add-on to get this novel and read it along with one of my closest friends, Maggie!

Quick synopsis: This story follows Adunni, a bright 14-year-old Nigerian girl who dreams of completing her education. Despite the many obstacles she faces, she never loses sight of her dream to go to school, escape her poverty, and help other girls do the same, ultimately seeking the strength to find her own “louding” voice along the way.

This story was simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking. Told in broken English from Adunni’s perspective, it was a slower read as I digested each word of Adunni’s story. More than anything, I was so touched by her spirit and resiliency. And reading her story in first-person made it feel so much more personal and real. It felt like she was sitting next to me, just having a conversation about her life and experiences.

I think one of the most original things that this book included were fun facts about Nigeria that started each chapter toward the second half of the novel. As Adunni begins to work her way through a book full of facts on Nigeria, the author weaves them into each chapter, in ways that are either subtly or obviously related to that particular chapter.

I think we as readers need to really put emphasis on Own Voices storytelling — that is, diverse stories written by authors who have lived or are living the experiences of the characters they are writing about. Reading these facts was a way to show that Nigeria is a thriving, beautiful, powerhouse country, not the stereotype that many Western readers (myself included!) may view or have viewed Africa as. While Adunni’s story certainly illustrated some of the backward ways that Nigeria works when it comes to girls’ and women’s roles and values in society, these facts along with many multi-faceted female characters truly painted a view of Nigeria that was new to me and helped me recognize and shake the backward stereotypes I had in my head. This is why Own Voices stories are so vital!

Warning: the following contains some spoilers. Keep reading at your own risk!

I think my favorite part of this story were all of the strong, multifaceted female characters. Adunni, as the narrator and protagonist, was an obvious favorite, as the whole story hinges on her story. From the start, you want to root for her. She is sharp-tongued, opinionated, and brave, even in a man’s world that keeps beating her down (metaphorically and literally), from her father to her husband to her employer’s husband.

First, I loved Khadija, the second wife of Morufu, who really becomes a mother/older sister figure to Adunni. Even in that horrific time for Adunni, away from home and the third wife to a man she doesn’t love, Khadija shows Adunni such tender love and grace.

I also adored Tia, who becomes her mentor and teacher. She was just so easy to like — she definitely contrasted with the other neighborhood women who still followed the much stricter cultural values for women, such as marriage and children. I think her introduction just really aided Adunni in showing her what a life as a modern Nigerian woman can look like, but I was also deeply touched by Adunni’s role in helping Tia grow as a person and learn more about herself, even as a grown woman.

Big Madam was easily the most complex of all of the female characters — and 99% of the time, she was deeply unlikable. I hated the way she treated Adunni, from the physical and emotional abuse to the downright hatred and bullying. But Big Madam also was the perfect mirror of how the values placed on women in Nigeria can create this toxic attitude. While she does some downright horrific things, she also is subject to a culture that forces her to believe that marriage and children are more important than anything else, forcing her to settle for a husband that cheats on her, hurts and sexually abuses young women, and abuses her. Even while I strongly disliked her, there were moments between Adunni and her that really showed Big Madam’s human, vulnerable side.

But most importantly, perhaps, I most adored Adunni’s mother. While she was never present in the novel, having passed before Adunni’s story begins, she was such a fully present character. It is clear that she deeply shapes Adunni’s hopes, dreams, and veracity for life, and Adunni never forgets her mother’s dream that Adunni continue her education and forge a better life for herself.

Ambition, identity, and otherness: A review of Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour

A cup of black coffee next to a Book of the Month copy of Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour on top of a wooden table.

So disclaimer: this was my first FIVE STAR read of 2020. Now, I used to throw 5 stars around like they were candy. But the more I read, the more I realized I needed to reserve that rating for the far and few — the ones that touched my heart, made me think differently about a topic, or stuck with me for whatever reason. Black Buck is certainly one of those stories.

The first thing that caught my eye (beyond the colorful, striking cover) was Mateo Askaripour’s very personal dedication — “To all of those who have ever been made to feel less than / I see you.” I love to see who authors dedicate their stories, something so personal to them, to, and I found it very powerful that Askaripour aimed it at basically everyone. After all, who hasn’t been made to feel less than before? And after reading this witty, pointed, and sharp critique of race, ambition, and otherness in America’s workforce, I couldn’t help but think back to his dedication.

Quick synopsis: Darren, a young and unambitious Black man living in NYC, is suddenly swooped up from his job at Starbucks into a sales role at a hot, new startup after a chance encounter with the company’s enigmatic leader. There, he finds himself the token POC in an office that is very, very white. As the story progresses and Darren learns to master the art of sales, he remakes himself into the titular Buck and makes it his mission to help other BIPOC infiltrate the workforce by teaching them to be masterful salespeople.

While Askaripour may not have intended for his debut to be read as a satire, I found it to be one of the freshest, sharpest satires I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. The story was laugh-out-loud funny as it tackled startup culture, racism in the workforce, the intensity of sales, and more. But it was also incredibly cringe-inducing, as I watched Darren face a variety of of microaggressions in the workplace, from being told he looks like basically every Black celebrity, and even more outright and stomach-churning acts of racism.

At times, I remember thinking, there’s no way stuff like this could actually happen — but then again, doesn’t it? As an BIPOC person, I could relate to the feelings of inadequacy or otherness that Darren felt, along with this intense desire to live up to and even succeed the expectations laid out in front of him, both his own and of those around him. While the story certainly felt over the top, the feelings those scenes inspired were real, whether that was relatability, discomfort, even fear or sadness. And that’s exactly what makes a good satire — using these extreme, almost cartoonish scenarios to evoke feelings in the readers that are real and tangible.

Overall, this story was a profound examination of how race plays a role in business and beyond, but I think what it did best was address otherness and create a sense of community and belonging, especially for BIPOC and perhaps other marginalized groups. While I’m no skilled salesman in a NYC high rise, I certainly understand many of Darren’s feelings of needing to fit in and prove himself worthy. And while everyone has arguably experienced feeling like a “less than,” I think any BIPOC can attest that that feeling is sometimes deeply ingrained in us as a result of the system. And while I think many BIPOC readers especially be able to relate to, laugh with, and ache alongside, I definitely think this is a story that anyone can read and gain a whole new perspective.