The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus (& Giveaway!)

Publisher/Date: Dutton Books for Young Readers; Sept. 2019
Genre(s): Romance, Magical Realism, Young Adult
Pages: 320
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Rating: ★★★★★ 

Reading THE STARS AND THE BLACKNESS BETWEEN THEM by Junauda Petrus feels like the spiritual balm needed in times like these when we need our ancestors more than ever. The romance between 16-year-olds Audre and Mabel is a lyrical, tender love story about the healing magic of love.

When Audre is sent from Trinidad to live with her father in America, she’s still in pain over being caught by her mother in a compromising position with the pastor’s granddaughter – and simultaneously separated from her first love. She is shipped off to Minneapolis, to a father she sees on occasional visits. While in Trinidad, she adored her grandmother, Queenie, and consumed all things of the earth – food, nature, spirits, magic. In America, she has to adjust to a new country and new customs.

What makes it easier is Mabel, the daughter of her father’s best friend, who she spent time with in recent years. They hit it off pretty well, and it’s clear a connection is forming between the girls who used to spend summers eating raspberrries from Mabel’s family garden.

Even through the growing attraction, Mabel is going through her own crisis, dealing with a mysterious pain that is far more serious than she thought. Mabel seeks answers to both living and dying, and with the help of Audre, is given the answers via her ancestors near and far. The spirit of Whitney Houston also plays a prominent role in Mabel’s life.

What I loved about The Stars and the Blackness Between Them is the pure, unyielding love between Audre and Mabel. At 16, to deal with life and death, while still being alive and in the moment is something Junauda Petrus captures with such a depth. The narration, mostly by these two young women, also includes the dreams and thoughts of people in their lives, such as Audre’s grandmother Queenie, whose visions provide courage in the face of the unknown. The inclusion of an incarcerated man who corresponds with Mabel seems even more relevant to the ongoing saga of Black people held hostage by an unjust society.

For those reasons, The Stars and the Blackness Between Them is a book that should be read and loved and celebrated.

Reviewed June 2020

GIVEAWAY!

 

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A Return to Arms by Sheree L. Greer

Publisher/Date:  Bold Strokes Books; Mar. 2016
Genre(s):  Activism, Romance
Pages:  240
Website:  http://www.shereelgreer.com

Rating: ★★★★★ 

When Toya meets Folami and joins the activist collective RiseUP!, she thinks she’s found her life’s purpose. Folami’s sensuality and her passion for social justice leave Toya feeling that, at last, she’s met someone she can share all parts of her life with. But when a controversial police shooting blurs the lines between the personal and the political, Toya is forced to examine her identity, her passions, and her allegiances.

Folami, a mature and dedicated activist, challenges Toya’s commitment to the struggle while threatening to pull her back into the closet to maintain the intense connection they share. How ever, Nina, a young, free-spirited artist, invites Toya to explore the intersections between sexual and political freedom.

With the mounting tensions and social unrest threatening to tear the community apart, can Toya find a safe place to live and love while working to uplift her people?

A RETURN TO ARMS by Sheree L. Greer is one of those books I found hard to review, because it was difficult to find words for how powerful her story and the message are. While her book is fiction, it’s grounded in the reality of what we see on the daily news, what we read on Twitter, and alas, what we see in our streets: black people fighting for their lives.

But wading through this turmoil for justice are Toya, and her lover, Folami, who share intimacy as lovers, but find themselves on opposite ends of the bed over what version of leadership one must abide by to further the cause. Both work at RiseUP!, an organization that promotes protection and empowerment against police brutality, and Toya and Folami labor to ensure that their actions and voices are heard above the fray.

Within RiseUP!, like any dedicated group working in the trenches, the politics and viewpoints are lit like fuses. Toya all too often sees the writing on the wall, as her black lesbianism is a source of contention despite her dedication. It’s tricky enough evading minefields with the enemies at large, but to deal with it from your own people, the ones side-by-side with you during protests, it’s enough to make Toya re-think her involvement.

The tone of this book is somber, indeed. Each chapter in A Return to Arms has this almost foreboding quality, while raising issues of self-sacrifice and intersectionality in a way that shows that Greer’s endless talent to tell a story and put us in the moment.  Her book also gives much food for thought: the battle between being black and gay; the effectiveness of marches and rallies vs. simply shutting shit down; and being sick and tired of never receiving justice for our loved ones.

Romance is in the mix, but not so much that it takes away from the bigger theme at work here. Folami’s interactions with Toya are frustrating as hell, but I can understand her reasons for it. What makes up for it is the fire they possess – both for the cause and for each other – that intertwine so well. It reads like sex.

Sunlight set profiles aglow in amber and crimson; bodies contorted with passion and protest – clenched fists and tight jaws, arched back and strained necks.

And that ending? I wasn’t prepared. This was the response I shared on goodreads when I finished.

Sheree, you did it again. I just wish this story wasn’t our reality. But alas…

Reviewed June 2016

White Nights, Black Paradise by Sikivu Hutchinson

Publisher/Date:  Infidel Books, Nov. 2015
Genre(s):  Historical Fiction
Pages:  325
Website:  http://sikivuhutchinson.com

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

In 1978, Peoples Temple, a multiracial church once at the forefront of progressive San Francisco politics, self-destructed in a Guyana jungle settlement named after its leader, the Reverend Jim Jones. Fatally bonded by fear of racist annihilation, the community’s greatest symbol of crisis was the White Night; a rehearsal of revolutionary mass suicide that eventually led to the deaths of over 900 church members of all ages, genders and sexual orientations. White Nights, Black Paradise focuses on three fictional black women characters who were part of the Peoples Temple movement but took radically different paths to Jonestown: Hy, a drifter and a spiritual seeker, her sister Taryn, an atheist with an inside line on the church s money trail and Ida Lassiter, an activist whose watchdog journalism exposes the rot of corruption, sexual abuse, racism and violence in the church, fueling its exodus to Guyana. White Nights, Black Paradise is a riveting story of complicity and resistance; loyalty and betrayal; black struggle and black sacrifice. It locates Peoples Temple and Jonestown in the shadow of the civil rights movement, Black Power, Second Wave feminism and the Great Migration. Recapturing black women’s voices, White Nights, Black Paradise explores their elusive quest for social justice, home and utopia. In so doing, the novel provides a complex window onto the epic flameout of a movement that was not only an indictment of religious faith but of American democracy.

The Jonestown Massacre of 1978 was one of the worst mass casualties of its time. A large number of Blacks, after following leader Jim Jones to Guyana searching for a better life than what America had to offer, were directed to drink a poisonous substance to participate in what was called “revolutionary suicide.” Hence where the saying, “Drinking the Kool-Aid,” gets its origins.

In reading WHITE NIGHTS, BLACK PARADISE by Sikivu Hutchinson I know that the rise and motivations of this movement were far from “revolutionary.” Hutchinson’s book paints a clearer picture of the members of Peoples Temple, but in particular focuses on three fictional women who are the anchor of this book: Taryn, a lesbian who follows her sister, Hy, into the church; and Ida Lassiter, a journalist whose connection to Jim Jones serves her ambitions to expose his warped empire.

It also exposes the beggining of Jones’s obsession with the black church and Black people in general: at first their swagger and cool, but later, their plight, their oppression and their loyalty. He’s a riveting character, in the way one would watch a tyrant come to power, in the way he thinks his actions come from a righteous place.

The novel is a bit slow in the beginning as Hutchinson relays the back story of the Peoples Temple, but picks up steam once the decision to emigrate to Georgetown, Guyana is in effect. Then, the defectors and the Jones’ brown nosers are essentially at war to either turn away from the church’s mission or devote their whole lives to it. This is when the book comes alive in terms of character development because the hard decisions the members make set them on a course that’s difficult to reverse. There’s moments in the latter part of the book that made me cringe watching our Black brothers and sisters follow behind a false prophet, who had his own demons to exorcise.

“Who will save us?” is a thought that stayed in the back of my mind while reading as it seemed his members – many impoverished and neglected black folks – blindly followed Jones because of the promises he offered them about living in world where they wouldn’t be second-class citizens. He preyed on their troubles and manipulated them to leave for what they thought would be a better life. That sad message was conveyed effectively in the novel.

Hutchinson definitely did her research with White Nights, Black Paradise, and if you’re a historical fiction fan, or enjoy reading novels based on real-life events, this novel is definitely for you.

Reviewed May 2016

When I Was Your Girlfriend by Nikki Harmon

Publisher/Date:  Mt. Airy Girl Press; Jan. 2016
Genre:  Romance
Pages: 214
Website:  http://mtairygirlpress.weebly.com/

Rating: ★★★★½ 

How can you be sure that your first love wasn’t your true love? Dee Armstrong leads a seemingly charmed life. She has a successful midwifery practice, a supportive family, and an exciting romantic life. But when Dee mistakenly believes she will have to confront her first love and first heartbreak, Candace, it sends her tumbling back into her memories to re-live the terrifying and exhilarating joy of being a teenager in love … with another girl. Suddenly convinced that Candace was her one true love, Dee sets off on a tumultuous cross country journey to find her in hopes of renewing their relationship. Her quest leads to some serious soul searching and the realization that maybe love wasn’t the only thing that she lost all those years ago.

WHEN I WAS YOUR GIRLFRIEND by Nikki Harmon is a rich romance tinged with nostalgia, a refreshing story about a woman looking for her first love.

Dee Armstrong recognizes the good things in her life: a rewarding career as a midwife in a thriving Philadelphia practice; co-workers and clients she adores; family and friends who provide support and pull no punches when it comes to advice.

The only thing to give Dee pause is her girlfriend, Pepper. While Pepper is primed to take their relationship to the next level after six months, Dee is not sure this is where she wants to be. This hesitancy gives way to thinking about all the women she’s been with, and the only one woman that she could ever say she was in love with: her high school sweetheart, Candace.

For 31-year-old Dee, high school was a while ago. Thoughts about a woman whom you haven’t talked to since breaking up in your senior year would be just that: notions about where she is now, whether she’s married or single, or has children; if she ever thinks about you after all this time. Yet Dee takes this to a new level and tries to track down the one who got away. Interspersed with this journey to the past that includes a road trip, cross-country flights and internet detective work, Dee is reliving the rise and fall of her young love with Candace, a dimension that adds depth to the story.

I really enjoyed this jaunt Harmon took me on with Dee because she’s a likable character, even when she’s being a little selfish and a tad presumptuous in her love scavenger hunt. Ultimately, she has a great heart, and her friends, Viv especially, made this book so easy to fall into. I also loved the inside look Harmon offers in Dee’s occupation as a midwife, how passionate she is about her patients and the new lives she facilitates into the world.

The biggest part of this story – the mystery of Candace – is what I gravitated toward. I mean, there are times when I was cautious about what she would find, but I had to know, just like Dee, what happened to her former love.

Harmon’s writing is well done; her descriptions of Philadelphia (or wherever else Dee landed), made me feel as if I were there. However, I feel the pacing of the novel could be better; at times there are big jumps from days to weeks that seemed a little incongruent. There was also one plotline involving one of her clients that could have been left out because it added nothing to the story. As far as the ending, all I can say is I’m happy, but I wonder what will happen next.

When I Was Your Girlfriend is a romance I indulged myself in over a weekend because who doesn’t want to know where her first love is? Read this story, and it just might make you look her up on Facebook. Just maybe.

Reviewed April 2016

Read the Sistahs Pick Interview with Nikki Harmon

Turn Me Out: The Novel by T. Ariez

Publisher/Date:  Amazon Digital Services LLC, March 2016
Genre(s):  Stud 4 Stud, Romance
Pages:  199
Website:  https://www.facebook.com/T.Ariez3

Rating: ★★★★½ 

Angel and Ace are best friends who happen to both be studs. When Angel realizes that she has developed feelings for Ace, she devises a plan that will go against everything she’s ever known and believed in. She is tired of the traditions and rules that make her feelings taboo and decides to risk everything. When she finally decides that she can’t take it anymore and throws caution in the wind, will it all be worth the risk?

In 2013, T. Ariez’s short story, Turn Me Out, introduced studs Angel and Ace who found themselves in the precarious situation of being attracted to one another. Two studs in lust? Where they do that at? Though it’s oftentimes inconceivable in our black lesbian community, Ariez made the romance between two best friends believable through her writing and characters in such a brief tale.

Fast forward to 2016, and T. Ariez has expanded her earlier quickie into TURN ME OUT: THE NOVEL, and this version is meatier than I imagined it would be. It broke me in several places. The novel pretty much follows the same basic premise as the short story, but focuses more on the “where do we go from here” aspect and explores Angel and Ace becoming a couple. This is where shit gets real.

Now I’m not a stud. So I don’t fully understand what it’s like be a masculine woman in a man’s world.

But it’s hard not to empathize with Angel as she contemplates her feelings for Ace, who’s as hard as they come. We’re in her head as Angel as she grapples with being in love with her best friend, the person who showed her the ropes of stud life and sheltered her during their teenage years. The lengths she goes through to tell Ace how she feels are real and moving and hard to read at times, but the affection they have for each other is hard-fought and raw. Their love scenes were some of the hottest because of this masculine, loving vibe between them.

My biggest concern, though, was how Angel felt she had change herself to what Ace wanted. Ace, Ace, Ace. It was all I could take not to slam her hand in a car door, mostly because of how she dealt with loving Angel. Her hangups, based on what people would think, about loving another stud were going to be the death of her friendship; I just wanted her to wake up and see what was in front of her. Ace was also spoiled, a stud used to bedding a different femme almost every night, and being in love was something she envisioned as a last resort. Until Angel.

I was so invested in Turn Me Out: The Novel. The resolution Ace comes to, and the fight Angel goes through to prove her love, is what makes this book special. I hope this book will help our community let go of the rigid stereotypes we place on each other and ourselves.

T. Ariez, I’m ready for the next one.

Reviewed March 2016

Goslyn County by A.M. McKnight

Publisher/Date:  CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, Nov. 2015
Genre(s):  Mystery, Romance, Crime
Pages:  320
Website: https://ammcknight.wordpress.com/

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

 

A mostly black community with its roots in farming, Goslyn, Virginia lay just south of the State’s Capital. The once small, close-knit county had grown rapidly in the past two decades and boasted a population of just over fifty thousand. But the county’s crime stats had grown as well, and the latest offenses included several break-ins and rumors of a meth lab. Time had brought many changes, and many of the longtime folks of Goslyn no longer recognized their community and longed for days gone by. Goslyn PD Detective Olivia “Ollie” Winston loves her family and friends and shows it through her sense of humor. Just like her neighbors, she too worries about the recent events, and it’s her job to find out who’s behind the crime spree. While investigating three burglaries, Olivia meets IRS Special Agent Maureen Jeffries who is pursuing a tax fraud suspect. Their cases are connected, and both soon discover they have much in common, personally and professionally. 

Last year, I was really into cozy mysteries. Quick and satisfying reads, I was enamored by the kind of mysteries set in sleepy towns where everyone knows your name, and the crimes always wrapped up nicely.

That’s why I was so drawn to GOSLYN COUNTY by A.M. McKnight, a story set in a predominantly black community in Virginia. This mystery-romance featuring detective Olivia “Ollie” Winston finds her trying to unravel the recent break-in of a local tax filing office and the theft of its customers’ personal information. Ollie is good at what she does – rising from beat officer to detective within 10 years – but her small town’s department doesn’t have the technological capability to track down the offenders; that’s where Ollie depends on best friend, Pat Henley-Rice, owner of an IT service provider, to assist in the case. Down with each other like four flat tires since elementary school, Ollie and Pat have this friendship that’s more like sisters, and Pat is refreshingly funny.

Ollie also has help from the feds in this criminal matter, namely IRS special agent Maureen Jeffries, who is investigating a tax fraud case in nearby Atlanta that could be related to Ollie’s break-in. When the two begin comparing information is when *ta-da* sparks begin to fly. Shy around each other at first, the professionals slowly cultivate a relationship with lunches and long conversations. Everything about it is old-fashioned, but not stuffy, and it’s a grown-woman romance.

To tell the truth, the entirety of Goslyn County is grown-folk relating to each other. The richness of the town and the characters are what really drew me in. Every chapter is a revolving look into why people do what they do, including the criminals themselves. We get to know why Ollie and Maureen are hesitant about love, and why Ollie should really watch her back when it comes to her job. That’s one of the things what A.M. McKnight does best with this novel.

Like with any mystery revolving around detectives, the behind-the-scenes of an investigation is important. I got that message clearly in Goslyn County. McKnight places you there, right along with Ollie and Maureen as they both chases leads separately and together. While I think the ending did wrap up a little too quickly, the ride – and the exciting car chase – is what’s important.

I’m glad McKnight is planning a sequel, because I’m raring to see what else little ole Goslyn County can cook up next.

Reviewed March 2016

2 Sides 2 the Rainbow by Unique Waterfall

Publisher/Date:  Amazon Digital Services, Inc., Feb. 2015
Genre(s):  Romance, Drama, Studs and Femmes
Pages:  356
Website:  http://www.uniquewaterfall.com

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

Say what you will about their love lives, but Ming, Nayla, Angie and Rachel know how to get down to business. The women of 2 SIDES 2 THE RAINBOW are good friends, but have professions that pair them with love interests that intersect in interesting ways. Unique Waterfall shows that the foursome is about their money, but when it comes to the studs in their lives, that’s where they mix business with more than enough pleasure.

Ming, the unofficial leader of the crew, is a lawyer trying to land a deal with the hottest stud in the modeling industry. There’s no way she can lose this account, even when a handsome samaritan stays on her mind after assisting her one night – unless that guardian angel is her new client’s agent. Even with that distraction, I loved Ming’s professionalism through it all; she seems to have her head on straight when it comes to what she wants and when her friends’ drama lands in her lap.

Especially with her friend Nayla. While her friends know her love for women, she’s apprehensive about coming out to her family. Even with her friends’ support, Nayla still can’t admit, even to herself, that she’s a lesbian. Meeting a stud who challenges her denial, Nayla is at a crossroads that one can sympathize with. Her struggle anchors the book and is the most compelling character to watch.

Angie, Ming’s assistant, is trying to find love also, but I mostly see her as comic relief to the other women. Rachel, hotel executive by day and opportunist by night, is my least favorite of the women, only because I didn’t get to know her enough throughout the novel. The stud love interests are passionate in their own special ways.

2 Sides 2 the Rainbow is a mix of fun and drama, but there are a a couple of hiccups: it needs an editor’s red pen in places, and the conversations between the women regurgitate too much what just happened in the scene before. However, Nayla’s struggles, Ming’s relationship and the bond between Ming and Nayla are the major pluses for me. Considering the book ended on the biggest cliffhanger, I’ll be happy to see how the women progress and what new they’ll get into in the upcoming sequel.

Reviewed February 2016

Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

Publisher/Date:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Sept. 2015
Genre(s):  Romance, Coming of Age
Pages:  336
Website:  http://www.chinelookparanta.com

Rating: ★★★★★ 

I love coming-of-age stories. The transition one makes from child to adulthood is an evolution I watch with fascination. Ijeoma’s growing up is especially captivating because the 11-year-old lives with the threat of falling bombs, food rations and army takeovers during the Nigerian Civil War in UNDER THE UDALA TREES by Chinelo Okparanta (author of Happiness Like Water).

Set in the town of Ojoto, the time is 1968, and the juxtaposition of her typical experiences of a girl her age – attending school and watching the boys play Policeman – contrasts sharply with worries of her father, a drafter obsessed with any report about Biafra’s attempt to defeat the government. Ijeoma sees him poring over newspapers that line his study or listening to his radio-gramophone, and prays for an end to the conflict so that her father, as well everyone around them, can return to normal life.

A subsequent attack leaves Ijeoma fatherless, and fearing her daughter’s safety and well-being, her mother sends her to be a housegirl to a grammar school teacher and his wife in neighboring Nnewi. An adjacent hovel with only a table and mattress – no bathroom or running water – becomes her new home, and Ijeoma has to contend with her new surroundings as well as her mother’s abandonment to prepare them a new life.

Working for the childless couple proves mindless, until she meets Amina, a girl about her age whom she discovers has no family, and luckily, convinces her caretakers they could use an extra pair of hands with chores. They share Ijeoma’s small confines, but it’s where their attraction begins to blossom. Ijeoma and Amina come from different tribes – Ijeoma is Igbo, Amina is Hausa – but they shyly explore the other under the moonlight and stars while taking nighttime baths. Both without family, both working to earn their keep, the girls begin a love affair that sustains them and blinds them to the danger of being found out – until they are found out – and then Ijeoma returns to the care of her mother.

This is where Udala finds its footing. Ijeoma becomes bombarded with the decisions of whether being gay is God’s will or an abomination as her as her mother emphasizes with daily Bible studies and incessant scripture quoting. Her questioning of God’s word leads her to believe that the world is not as black and white as the pages of her Bible, but her mother sees her daughter’s life only in terms of being married and having children. Ijeoma is reluctant to take this path, but it seems the only way out in a country where being gay can be a destructive decision to make.

Under the Udala Trees is a lot of things: a coming-of-age tale, an exploration of Nigerian folklore, an examination of religious doctrine. But quite simply, at its heart, Trees is a bittersweet love story written incredibly well by Okparanta. While the religious overtones can sometimes bog down the story, it leads to Ijeoma becoming introspective about what God sincerely wants. I found the story, despite its somber nature, to be hopeful with every page toward the novel’s end. I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something about Trees that makes me feel as if Ijeoma finds her happy ending.

Reviewed February 2016

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Surrender by Monique B. T. Thomas

Publisher/Date:  CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, June 2013
Genre(s):  Romance, Mature Lesbians, Workplace Romance
Pages:  328
Website:  http://authormoniquebeingtruethonas.
wordpress.com

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

SURRENDER: TWO HEARTS AND A RAINBOW SERIES (BOOK 1) reminds me of the Harlequin romance novels I used to read sneakily under the covers at night when I was nine years old: swoon-worthy and full of feels.

That’s not to say that Surrender is a saccharine love story. It has the mature relationships and wisdom expected from Monique B. T. Thomas, the author of several titles including Love Relived and In its Rawest Form. In the start of a new series, Surrender offers workplace romance, criminal mischief, and a charming family storyline. Yet as in all her previous novels, the biggest draw is the chemistry between the main love interests, in this particular case, Robyn Sterling and Kenya Martin.

Robyn and Kenya serve two different stations in Pens & Things. Robyn is the CFO in the office supply company her great-grandfather built during the 1950s, now run by her father. While she toils at keeping the family business in the black, her love life is about avoiding relationships at all costs; the only long-term commitment Robyn values is to Pens & Things. So when the discovery of financial mismanagement in one of its stores launches Robyn, at her father’s request, into a scheme to save Pen & Ink’s bottom line, she’s eager to unearth the root of the store’s issues and get back to her normal routine. That goes awry once she meets Kenya.

A petite, dark-skinned lovely, Kenya is the overnight manager at the store Robyn’s supposed take over. Her job, which she takes seriously, is to handle the early morning deliveries and ensure stock is in place before the shop opens. Untouched by love also, Kenya is a respectful, dedicated and strong-willed worker, but finds herself flustered by Robyn – first by her gruff demeanor, then by her evident attraction to the commanding woman.

This is what sets everything – Robyn’s line of attack, a company cover up, and most importantly Robyn and Kenya’s love affair – into motion, a plot that Thomas handles so swiftly that it keeps the pages flowing.

Again, the best part is the romance brewing between the Pen & Ink employees. Two women who grew up in separate worlds – Robyn with a trust fund, Kenya in a foster home – both not expecting much from love, and finding what they needed in each other. It’s just an enjoyable love story that’s believable and great to immerse yourself in.

The supporting characters, most especially Robyn’s family members, are happy additions to the story. That’s also one of Thomas’ strengths: creating characters that are flawed but endearing.

There are some faults to Surrender – the editing could use work, the ending does wrap up too quickly – but honestly, I can’t wait to see where Part Two in the Two Hearts and a Rainbow series goes. If it’s just as engrossing as this one, I’ll be back to curling up on my couch with a good book.

Reviewed November 2014

Cream by Christiana Harrell

Publisher/Date:  CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, Aug. 2013
Genre(s):  Romance, Sexuality
Pages:  230
Website:  https://www.facebook.com/girlnovel

Rating: ★★★★★ 

CREAM is my first Christiana Harrell book. *hangs head in shame*

But it definitely won’t be my last because Harrell, whose Cream was a 2014 Lambda Literary Award finalist, truly proved her talents with a book surrounding the life of a character I loved and rooted for the entire way.

Cream is her stage name, a strip club performer with an androgynous appearance and a beautiful body. Dancing for men became a means to an end after being in a foster home after her parents’ abandonment. The first few pages introduce this past and her take-no-shit personality that serves her well as a stripper.

But it also gives credence to why she moves from city to city. Why she’s never befriended hardly anyone since her group home days. And why, even with the fights she’s had (and won), there’s still there’s an innocence about her.

Cream’s sexual naivety is the meat of this book. It’s shown in the way she was drawn to her friend Kitty – until she suddenly left Cream’s life. In the way she latched onto Payton, the daddy’s girl who shows her being a stud is her real meal ticket – both professionally and romantically. And when finally she finds unconditional love, she almost runs in the opposite direction.

And this realness is what I loved about Cream, both the book and the character. This gullibility Cream owns is not a Mary Sue plot device, it’s a journey Harrell writes so we can take this journey with her main character. You feel as if you’re a newbie right along with her, from Kansas City to Atlanta, and everywhere else in between.

Just the way Cream drops her boxers on the stage, Harrell’s writing leaves it all on the page. There’s very realistic dialogue, the sex is on fire, and Harrell’s voice is loud and clear through Cream without muddying the two voices. Her supporting characters also play a big role in the book, to the point where I thought Cream molded herself to any woman who offered her a hand.

That leads me to my next point that one of the most interesting aspect of Cream hinges on the sexuality of the characters. Though Cream dressed and performed as a stud based on Payton’s advice, it should be noted that Cream sometimes questions defining herself as a stud. Until meeting Payton she wasn’t aware of what a stud was, which at times I did find a skeptical. I could say it was because of her upbringing and her singular focus on survival, but never thinking about who you are sexually was a small part of the book that nagged at me. But her exploration of who she is was genuine.

Cream definitely fulfilled my expectations. The love she found and the book’s conclusion were so fulfilling, and worth the learning curve Cream took to find what I think she was always looking for – whether she could admit it to herself or not.

There’s a reason why Harrell has more than 10 books to her name. I plan to read every one of them.

Reviewed June 2014


8 Quick Questions for Christiana Harrell about Cream

Tell us about your book, Cream.
Well, in as few words as possible, Cream is simply a story about a woman who learns some hard lessons about love and money, while discovering her identity and sexuality along her journey.

Who is Cream?
I want to say that Cream could be any of us, but she’s just too unique to be categorized. She’s carefree, she makes her own rules, she has tunnel vision, she just is.

One of the things I enjoyed about your novel was it felt as if you put yourself in the head of Cream: being on the stage, discovering her sexuality. How did you create her as a character? Any research involved?
Oh, there was plenty of research (lol). If you noticed, in the novel I mentioned real stud strippers like Face and Juicebox. I watched every video that I could find, but this time for “research,” rather than enjoyment. I watched their moves carefully and their facial expressions. I had to pay attention to costumes and audience reaction. Basically, none of the things I would normally pay attention to. We tend to forget that during the fantasy they create, they are people and they have lives outside of those neon lights. I try to be my characters in my real life when I write them. The people around me get some great entertainment.

Is Cream based on a true person or situations?
Cream is part fiction and part non-fiction. I don’t remember how this person came up, but my ex-partner and I were talking/gossiping like most couples do and she was telling me about a “stud” that lived the same lifestyle as Cream. The little bit that I learned made me want to give her a story. I didn’t know this person myself so I had to fill in the blanks. Literally, all I had to go on was a dancer who danced for both men and women because she was “about her money.

The gist I took away from Cream is that sexuality can’t be defined by roles or labels. Was that your message?
That was definitely one, the biggest one. Roles seem to be a big deal in our community when they really shouldn’t be. If people can read about Cream and accept her the way that she was, then they can accept anyone.

Will you continue Cream’s story?
I thought about it, but if I did that, I’d have to continue so many others. I couldn’t stand the pressure

What’s next for Christiana Harrell?
At the moment, I’m working on the second stud in the “Stud Life Series.” Her name is Magic. There are three others that have to come after her. That should keep me busy for the next two years or so. Hopefully, one of them will get an award. I won’t complain.

Cream was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award in the Lesbian General Fiction category. Congratulations! How did it feel to be finalist?
Aw man. I literally almost fell out of my chair. The day that I submitted the novel, I honestly did not expect to hear anything back. You’d be surprised how much I doubt myself. Being a finalist definitely gave me confidence, but now I have to top Cream and I’m not sure that’s possible. Either way, I’m happy and humbled for the experience.

Want to know more about Christiana Harrell? Read her Sistahs on the Shelf interview A Sistahs Favorite Things interview.