Am I My Sister’s Keeper? by S. Stephens (Dec. 2005 Pick of the Month)

Publisher/Date:  iUniverse, Sept. 2005
Genre(s):  Romance, Coming Out
Pages: 164


Rating: ★★★★★ 

When your head is torn between your sexuality and the expectations your parents, where does that leave your heart? That is the struggle starkly captured in S. Stephens’ debut novel, AM I MY SISTER’S KEEPER? Stephens brings the protagonist Elise James to life, along with her grueling inner struggle to both stay true to herself while pleasing her family.

Elise has acknowledged her attraction to women since she was 15 years old. With that knowledge, she delved into the world of same sex relationships only to have it blow up in her face when her parents learn of her “lesbian episodes.” It plants a wedge between Elise and her parents, and ruins the relationship with her younger sister, Lynn. It’s then Elise realizes the world does not accept her kind of love, and after a four-year respite at a college far from home, she leaves women behind to live a “normal” life. She doesn’t want to put her family through any more pain and yearns to be the daughter her parents could be proud of.

After settling at home in Miami, Elise begins dating Grayson, a high school classmate. They become serious very quickly, and are engaged within weeks – to the pleasure of her parents, but to the chagrin of her other “family” – best friends Carmen, Iran and Donna. They know Elise is simply fooling herself being with Gray. In spite of disagreeing with her decision, the friends take Elise out to celebrate, and that’s where Elise meets Symphony.

Symphony is the type of woman Elise has always desired – smart, sexy and self-confident. Despite being engaged to Gray and, she begins seeing Symphony on the sly, carrying on a wicked tryst. Elise is torn between the perfection of Symphony and the perfect life she has mapped out for herself with Gray.

Meanwhile, baby sister Lynn is falling through the cracks. Lynn always looked to Elise, but because of Elise couldn’t be true to herself, she fails Lynn. Their parents spent so much time trying to keep Elise “straight” that Lynn acts out to receive any attention at all. When Lynn’s so far gone that the worse happens, it takes the whole family by shock, but finally brings them together.

Am I My Sister’s Keeper? is a heart-wrenching tale of a woman who sacrifices her heart and soul to please her family. It takes her a while but Elise figures out that being herself, without qualms, takes true courage. S. Stephens writes a true story with intensity and a great ring of truth. The plot is carried out smoothly, to a climax that will keep the reader hanging on for dear life. Make room on your bookshelf for Stephens as she is an author worth reading every single time.

Reviewed December 2005

Coffee Will Make You Black by April Sinclair

Publisher/Date:  Harper, Feb. 1995
Genre(s):  Young Adult, Coming Out
Pages: 256

Rating: ★★★★★ 

I can remember reading COFFEE WILL MAKE YOU BLACK as a teenager. It was the first novel that truly moved me. Rereading it years later, it still touches me.

Coffee Will Make You Black, the classic coming-of-age novel by acclaimed author April Sinclair, follows Jean “Stevie” Stevenson as a teen growing up late 1960s Chicago. Back then, times were truly a-changing: black folks were still known as colored, but were slowly beginning to embrace the mantra “Black is beautiful.” It was an era where parents wouldn’t let their children drink coffee for fear it would darken their skin color. Social unrest and the civil rights movement were in full force. Born to working poor parents—her mother a bank teller, her father a janitor—Stevie, as she’s affectionately known, is just a black girl is trying to make her way through adolescence in one piece.

At the novel’s beginning, Stevie is 11 and a half and in the sixth grade. She’s in that awkward stage, flat-chested and taller than most of her male classmates. Her skin is the color of Cracker Jacks, but “most Negroes didn’t get excited over folks who were darker than a paper bag.

Stevie’s only desire is to be popular, to hang with Carla, the girl everyone adores. She finally gets her wish when, after an altercation, the two become fast friends. Carla’s a lot faster than Stevie and teaches her a lot about life.

The novel traces Stevie’s five years of her life, from first crushes to first kisses to first love. She learns a lot about herself through her friendships and her family, all while trying to pave her way in a racially-conscious time. But Stevie does make a white friend in Nurse Horne, one of the few Caucasian faculty members at her predominately black school. Nurse Horne believes in her and tells her she can become anything she puts her mind to. She also lets Stevie know it’s ok to be “funny,” to embrace her blossoming sexuality.

Written with great heart and down-home humor, Sinclair’s debut novel sizzles and makes a bold statement about being black and being yourself. Coffee has a fresh voice and takes you back to being young and trying find your way in this world. Sinclair has crafted a novel that 10 years later, still resonates with the little black girl in all of us.

Reviewed December 2005

Memory Mambo by Achy Obejas

Publisher/Date:  Cleis Press, Sept. 1996
Genre:  Hispanic Fiction
Pages:  249

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

While Achy Obejas’ MEMORY MAMBO starts off slow, by the next few chapters, you will be hooked on Juani Casas and her colorful Hispanic familia. The Casas will weave their way into your heart, dysfunctionalities and all. And believe me, they are dysfunctional with a capital D.

Juani, a Cuban immigrant whose family sought refuge in America, is surrounded by a cast of characters: dad, Alberto, mom Xiomara, and siblings Nena and Pucho. They settle in Chicago after Fidel Castro’s regime takes over the island and her mother decides it’s best to leave.

In America, a new life awaits them. It’s filled with new customs and better opportunities. The Casas family opens a Laundromat where the management is split between Juani and Nena.

Despite their great hardships to arrive in this country and their success here, the Casas and their extended family have serious issues. Papa Alberto drives the family crazy with his conspiracy theories about the U. S. government. Cousin Caridad weathers an abusive husband. Aunt Celia can’t sober her husband or stop him from cheating. And our poor protagonist, Juani, is a lesbian trying to work through her still-fresh break up.

Sounds like your typical all-American Cuban family, right?

In first person, Juani tells the sordid history of her family through flashbacks and with great detail. She gives the reader every idiosyncrasy of every one of her kinfolk. Juani’s vivid details of her life is not chronicled in exact order, but through the memories triggered by everyday events. For instance, a day in her life as a laundromat manager can make her think about the first time the family laid eyes on Jimmy, Caridad’s abusive husband-and how they lived to regret it.

In Memory Mambo, Obejas presents a family with history and, most of all, love. They are fiercely attached to each other, almost to the point of suffocation. Obejas writing is mesmerizing, and proves that no matter what the race, all families are simply the same.

Reviewed December 2005

Soul Kiss by Shay Youngblood

Publisher/Date:  Riverhead Books, Feb. 2000
Genre:  Coming of Age
Pages:  207

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Shay Youngblood’s SOUL KISS is one of those books that has a mysterious air about it. You can lose yourself in its beauty, its lyricism and its poetry. Soul Kiss is also a journey through loneliness, pain and ultimately, love.

Mariah Santos grew up as the love of her mother’s life. She gave Mariah everything she needed – plenty of hugs, kisses and words. She would tell her daughter about travels taken, her dreams, and about her father, a man Mariah’s never met.

When Mariah’s mother becomes depressed, she decides to leave her seven-year-old daughter with two aunts in Georgia, promising to return soon. Mariah yearns for her mother, her best friend, to reappear. She doesn’t, and the girl is left in the care of Aunt Merleen and Aunt Faith, two elderly spinsters set in their ways.

With these two women, Mariah lives a quiet life, full of gardening, cooking, and looking after the health of her aunts. Mariah also falls in love with the cello given to her by Faith. It becomes her new best friend, its sound soothing the wounds of losing her mother.

After several years of waiting for her mother, Mariah gives up hope and begins rebelling against her aunts. They send her to Los Angeles live with her father, a virtual stranger. Mariah is sublimely happy being with Matisse, a painter. She’s only known about him through her mother’s vivid tales of how the couple met, but that good feeling soon leaves. Matisse is never home and even more distant when he is. When one of her aunts passes away, Mariah returns home to Georgia – and it finally feels like home.

Youngblood’s Soul Kiss is a story of pain is a masterpiece. It boasts lesbian undertones, as Mariah has strong bonds with female peers and shares her first kiss with a girl. Mariah’s touching journey through her childhood, losing her mother and discovering her father, is drawn perfectly through Youngblood’s words, and you really connect to Mariah’s ache. It grabs hold of your heart, and never lets go till its very end.

Reviewed December 2005

Where the Apple Falls by Samiya Bashir

Publisher/Date:  RedBone Press, June 2005
Genre:  Poetry
Pages: 77

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

WHERE THE APPLE FALLS is a lovely book full of poetry and prose. The book is written in a cyclical journey through seasons, femaleness and its relationship to nature. Through this style of writing, Bashir is able to impart to her readers the importance of all that she is writing about. The poems deal with elements such as sexuality, sexual perversion, love, lust, female genital cutting, and domesticity.

The book takes the reader on a journey through birth and death and back again through lyrical poetry. In the book, she writes about what it means to be female and how it relates to the environment. Using imagery of the environment and relating it to the seasons, the reader is able to see how Bashir related femaleness to nature. This is seen in the beginning poem “Moon Cycling” which sets the mood for the rest of the book.

Where the Apple Falls is broken down into three sections. With each progression of the sections, the book shows more and more raw emotion on the part of Bashir. Starting with the calm “Of Saints and Suppers” and climaxing at the titled work “Where the Apple Falls.”

Bashir’s book of poetry is a memorable read. Each of the poems in this book is poignant and powerful and fit for goddess readers.

If you enjoy reading the works of brilliant poets, this book definitely for you.

Reviewed December 2005 by Nina J. Davidson