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Search tags: Protagonist-of-Color
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review 2016-02-22 17:53
"The Boy in the Black Suit" by Jason Reynolds
The Boy in the Black Suit - Jason Reynolds

My wife, a middle school special education teacher, recommended this book to me. She really liked it because there is such a dearth of books about young black men who are not addicts or gang members or tragically abused or otherwise completely dysfunctional. Matt, the teenage narrator of this story, is a normal kid: he goes to school, he goes to work, he crushes on girls, he hangs out with his best friend. The conflict in his life (and in the story) is external to him. His mother has died of cancer, and his father has turned to booze for solace, leaving Matt to fend for himself in a rough neighborhood. He finds a mentor and a job with Mr. Ray, the director of the local funeral home. To his surprise, Matt finds a great deal of comfort attending funerals at work: seeing other people deal with their grief helps him to process his own.


Matt's emotional journey through grief was subtle and, at times, very beautiful, but on the whole I found this book a little slow. I think it could be a very, very meaningful story for someone going through (or who has gone through) a similar loss, but it didn't register with me on an emotional level (likely because my life experience is very, very different from Matt's), and so while I could appreciate and enjoy the story, it never fully engaged me.

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review 2016-01-02 16:27
Last Holiday Read of the Season?
Angel: an erotic short story - Victoria Dahl

I'd never read any of Victoria Dahl's historical work before, but this novella was free, so I gave it a whirl. This story, about an octoroon prostitute in New Orleans whose Irish client/lover offers her a fresh start out west, is short and tamer than the marketing might suggest, but it serves it's purpose in that I'll probably read on in the series.

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review 2015-04-21 14:33
Sex Positive and Oh So Satisfying: The Best Sarina Bowen So Far
The Shameless Hour (The Ivy Years Book 4) - Sarina Bowen

I'm kinda in love with this book. I devoured Sarina Bowen's Ivy Years series last November, and then her Gravity series in January, and I liked them all quite a bit, but I loved "The Shameless Hour." I loved the way it explores sexual politics and double standards and shame and purity and commitment and class divisions without being preachy or judgey, subtly enough that the message (while obvious) doesn't detract from the story, which is wonderful.


Rafe and Bella are both students at Connecticut's Harkness College (a fictional Ivy League institution modeled after Bowen's alma mater, Yale). They come from radically different backgrounds. Rafe is a Dominican-American who grew up in Washington Heights in NYC, working in the family restaurant. He is the only child of a teenage single mom, and he's been raised to know the consequences of getting a girl in trouble. Consequently, he's made it to his sophomore year in college without losing his virginity.


Bella is a senior at Harkness, student manager of the hockey team, and like Susan Sarandon's character in Bull Durham, Bella considers sleeping with hockey players to be one of the perks of her position. She enjoys sex and makes no apologies for it. Like Rafe, she's also from NYC, but she's never even been to his neighborhood. She's the daughter of a real estate developer, and her family thinks nothing of buying whole tables at $1,000/plate fundraisers and vacationing in the Hamptons, and they're paying Bella's school fees even though they barely speak to her.


Bowen's books are told in alternating narratives from the two main characters, and at the start of the story, Rafe is preparing for the big night with his girlfriend, Alison, where by prearrangement, and after more than a year of dating, they've agreed to turn in their V-cards. The date doesn't go as Rafe plans, though, and he finds himself drowning his sorrows in champagne with Bella instead of with Alison. He is disappointed enough, and just drunk enough (though by no means sloppily so), to accept Bella's invitation to bed, but in the morning second thoughts consume him.


It's important to note (and it's one of the best things about this book) that while Rafe feels guilt and shame about the hook-up, he never blames or judges Bella for it. Later in the book, Bella tells him:


"You're just not comfortable with my sex life. You're shaming me."


"No!" he protested immediately. The anger in his eyes startled me. "I think you're amazing, and I've said so every chance I get. Don't put words in my mouth. I never said your way was wrong. It's just wrong for me."


Rafe's shame stems from the fact that he has standards for himself about commitment and respect and sex, and he has fallen short of them in a moment of personal weakness -- but he has no problem with the fact that others don't share his same code. He doesn't judge Bella or begrudge her experience, but he knows that they can't have a relationship because they wouldn't be playing by the same rules.


Overcome by his regrets, Rafe sneaks out of Bella's room after their hookup in the wee small hours. (He is in all other respects an extremely sensitive and upstanding guy, so such a dick move is out of character for him and understandable only because of his own personal torment. Also, much as I think this move was out of character for Rafe, it saves him from being a Gary Stu. He's really a darling hero: sensitive, funny, vulnerable, romantic, feminist, the kind of guy who even does his own mending and cleaning. He'd have been too good if not for this monumental mistake to humanize him.) Then, because of his embarrassment and tongue-tied-ness, Rafe compounds this initial mistake of leaving by avoiding Bella for the next few weeks. She understandably but mistakenly interprets his distance as judgement of her, and she keeps her distance as well.


They might never have spoken again, except then something very, very bad happens to Bella. It's a major plot point, so I don't want to spoil it, but I do want to warn that, while it's not rape, it's bad enough that it might be triggering for some readers. In the aftermath, Bella is scared and depressed, humiliated and shamed, and though they are only casually acquainted, Rafe happens to be the one to help pull her out of this dark place. (As he puts it, "You're not okay. And I'm the one who noticed.")


I really enjoyed that, while Rafe takes care of Bella in the aftermath, he doesn't rescue her. He takes some of the weight off her shoulders by bringing her a few meals and keeping her company, but he knows he can't fix this for her. He makes her go running -- but she does the work. He has her back, but she speaks up with her own voice. Her vengeance, when it comes, is sweet, and it is hers: Her plan, her execution, and her reward. (Sorry if this sounds vague--I'm trying to avoid spoilers.) 


Anyway, not only is this an entertaining and satisfying book with a strong romance, it's an important read that deals with weighty issues in a compelling, nuanced, and wonderfully sex-positive way, and I hope lots and lots of LOTS of people read it, because it's awesome.

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review 2015-03-05 20:22
DNF at 28%
Whatever You Like - Maureen Smith

I picked this up because I was intrigued by the recent review at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, because I have a weakness for the escort/courtesan/prostitute as protagonist trope, and because it was on sale. After starting it, I was briefly even more intrigued to learn the protagonists are African American (which you'd never know from the pasty pale headless couple on the book cover).


Alas, even with all that intrigue, this was not for me. On their first date, Lena lays the ground rules: she is paid for companionship, not sex. Roderick ignores this, corners her in an alcove, fondles her, and then has dubiously-consensual sex with her in the limo while bringing her home.


She says that was a mistake and she doesn't want to see him again. Two weeks later, he shows up at her day job (not the escort job that the day job supervisors obviously don't know about, and by this point the reader knows she works two jobs because she's supporting an elderly grandparent and her layabout little sister, as well as herself) having already ingratiated himself with her boss. He takes her to lunch, and basically tells her he'll give her employer (not even her personally!) a half million dollars if she agrees to be his sex slave for for three weeks. If she says no, no deal, and what is she supposed to tell her boss?


I don't know what Lena did when faced with this dilemma (though I can guess), because that was where I call foul.


Whatever You Like buys into the fallacy famously presented by Fifty Shades and its ilk that stalking and sexual coercion is okay, sexy even, if the man doing it is a handsome billionaire. There's a meme making the social media rounds:

I work with domestic and sexual violence victims, and this kind of behavior is not sexy no matter who does it, and life is too short to read this crap for "entertainment."



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review 2015-01-26 01:43
Refreshingly Authentic Twist to the Billionaire Trope
Trade Me - Courtney Milan

Like so many other people, I love love love Courtney Milan and her historical romance (even as my patience with historicals has waned in the past year), and so when I heard she was writing a contemporary New Adult with, of all things, a billionaire hero, I gave Trade Me the Skeptical Side Eye even as I added it to my preorder auto buy queue. Billionaire? Really? Why would a woman as awesome as Milan -- she clerked for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor before giving up the law to write romance, which makes her pretty much my idol -- want to jump on that tired bandwagon? 


But Trade Me isn't your typical billionaire trope story, in which the billionaire lives a fantasy life and the heroine is a tragic Cinderella figure. Courtney Milan doesn't use class as a plot device: she really gets it. Tina Chen, the heroine, knows a million ways to cook rice (because she can't afford much else), and she knows that if she goes out with pizza and beer with friends instead of sending that $30 home this week, her little sister won't get her ADHD medicine. Tina works harder than everyone else, juggling a challenging double major (chemistry and computer science), an almost full-time job, and a long commute (because she can't afford to live near school), but she's no Cinderella. She loves her family and they love her, and she toils to serve her own ambitions rather than anyone else's. 


Blake Reynolds, the hero, is the son and heir apparent of the founder and CEO of a company that looks a lot like Apple. He's a billionaire (1.4 billion, to be precise, though true precision is impossible due to moment-by-moment stock fluctuations), but not in the impress-girls-by-taking-them-to-Napa-in-my-private-jet sense. Blake has a problems. One particular "problem" -- mild spoiler

(he has an eating/exercise disorder)

(spoiler show)

-- I had not encountered in a romance hero before, and I thought that aspect of the story was both original and skillfully told (though the resolution was a little too tidy). 


When you learn in the early chapters that the story, and the title, stems from Blake's scheme to trade places with Tina to avoid some of the stress in his life, you expect that Milan will play the poor-billionaire,-you-don't-know-the-meaning-of-'stress' card for laughs, but Trade Me subverts expectations at every turn. Very little of the book is actually devoted to Blake figuring out how to adjust to Tina's financial straits, nor to Tina reveling in the luxuries of Blake's lavish lifestyle. Though each learns valuable lessons about "how the other half lives", throughout their experiment both Tina and Blake remain true to themselves, both smart, sensitive, caring people paralyzed by their own fears. 


There was much of this story that I loved, starting with Milan's unflinchingly honest handling of class issues that we so often ignore in society. I loved Blake, who is all that I love about beta heroes without being stereotypical at all. I loved Tina's and Blake's parents, who are not just stock characters here but fully drawn, complicated, messy, interesting, funny, maddening people who love their children (the feeling's mutual) even as they are partly to blame for the fears that hold Tina and Blake back. I loved Maria, Tina's best friend and roommate, who is frank, honest, funny, and strong. I loved that transgendered is only one of many facets of Maria's identity (just as the fact that Tina is Chinese is only one of many facets of her identity), and I really, really love the news that Maria will get her own book by the end of the year (where do I sign up?). 


I didn't love everything, though. Throughout the book, I was bothered that Tina and Blake didn't ring true as college students. I know their above-average intelligence and life experiences would give both maturity beyond their years, but even so, they come across as thirty-somethings who just happen to be in college. I also didn't love the ending of the book, which was chaotic and fast and full of melodrama. Everything that happened fit with the plot, so it wasn't like the end came out of nowhere, but it was a shift in tone and pacing that I found disconcerting. 


This is not the best Courtney Milan I've ever read, but it's still very, very good. And if you're worried about the Billionaire Trope, like I was, don't be: one of the very best things about Trade Me is that Milan takes that ridiculous, overdone plot device and recasts it into something that is simultaneously entirely unique and refreshingly authentic. 

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