Thursday, January 10, 2019

Sinner by Sierra Simone


So good! Sinner is the second in what God willing ends up being a trilogy or maybe even a tetralogy. Priest, the first book in the series, centered on Tyler Bell, the second of the four Irish Catholic Bell brothers. They had a sister who committed suicide year earlier after being assaulted by a priest. Most of the Bell family left the church and turned away from God after that. Except Tyler. Tyler still had faith and wanted to reform the church from the inside out so he became a priest. While he loved serving God and his community, he had doubts about whether a life of celibacy was really for him.

Sinner (Priest, #2)“I’m not a good man, and I’ve never pretended to be I don’t believe in goodness or God, or any happy ending that isn’t paid for in advance. What do I believe in? Money. Sex. Macallan 18.They have words for men like me – playboy. Womanizer. Skirt chaser. My brother used to be a priest, and he only has one word. Sinner.”

Sinner focuses on the eldest Bell brother, Sean. Sean is an unapologetic manwhore and millionaire. I was never quite sure what his job was but whatever Sean did, he made a lot of money doing it. He enjoyed it and he liked to celebrate work victories with a victory lap in bed. Sean likes to describe himself as a bad man or at least not a good one, but I never quite bought it. His mother is dying of cancer and of the four brothers, Sean is the one who most involved in her day-to-day of care. Not that the other brothers are bad sons, it’s just that as the oldest, Sean took on the role of caretaker. He is the brother who takes notes when doctors and nurses talk, the one who makes sure his parents make it to doctor appointments, and the one who orders groceries or whatever else his parents need to make home their life easier as they deal with living with cancer. 

The cutest thing about Sean is his love of a romance novels and the fact that he and his mother have had a two-person book club since he was a teenager. When his mother is too tired or weak to read, he reads to her. He even has a personal collection of historical romance novels that he categorizes by subgenre. How can a guy who shelves his romance novels based on whether they are set in the Regency or Victorian eras or the American West possibly be a bad guy? It's too adorable.

Sean is about to celebrate his latest work victory when he runs in to Zenny, his best friend’s little sister. He hasn’t seen her in years. Now 21, Zenny is working on her nursing and midwifery degrees. She’s also a preparing to become a nun! Sean can't quite figure out what surprises him most - the fact that Zenny wants to be a nun or that the girl he once babysat is now a smoking hot woman.

Zenny may be committed to God and helping others through her community service and social work, but even her mentor the Reverend Mother questions whether Zenny really understands what she is about to give up by becoming a bride of Christ. So the Revered Mother advises Zenny to take some time and explore the carnal world a little more before taking vows. Zenny really believes joining the sisterhood is her calling but she also hasn't had much sexual experience. She knows Sean and trusts him and decides to ask him to be her final fling before she takes her sisterly vows.

Sean is stunned by Zenny’s request but also tempted. Contrary to his bad boy persona, at heart Sean is a good guy. He worries Zenny is too innocent and given that he is 15 years older than her, much too young for him. But as his brother points out, Zenny is an adult capable of making her own decisions. She is also persistent and Sean has a hard time saying no to her. It is supposed to be a month of sexy fun and friendship with nothing deeper than that. But anyone who has ever read a romance novel, watched a romcom, or who simply has a heart can guess how that turns out.

Sinner is a sexy, sultry interracial romance. In addition to the romance and the sex, the characters deal with issues of faith and religion. Sean really struggles to reconcile the idea of faith in God with the reality of what happened to his sister. As much as he admires Zenny for her selfless commitment to helping others, he is largely mystified by her ability to believe in a God he doesn’t thinks exists. His struggle with his faith is almost as compelling as his sexy times with Zenny.

This is the second book I've read in 2019. So far my reading in 2019 has gotten off to a great start!

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly  Picking the first book to read in a new year is a big deal for me. I tell myself that the first read of the year sets the tone for the rest of the year. That's crap of course and yet I still spend the last days of December contemplating what book I'm going to open on January 1st. This year for reasons I can't recall I chose Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. I can't remember the last time I started off the year with nonfiction.

Of course, I had heard of Anthony Bourdain but I didn't know much about him beyond that he had shows on television about traveling the world and the food he found there. I have never seen any of Bourdain's shows but his legend looms large. I didn't quite know what to expect from this book which was good because this book wasn't one thing. It is partly a memoir, partly a peek into one corner of the professional cooking world, and partly something else that I can't quite put my finger on yet.

The cooking part of the book was interesting but not surprising but that may be because his book has infiltrated the culture to such an extent that I had absorbed his stories and advice (no fish on Mondays) without realizing it. I did come to appreciate just how hard kitchen staffs work. The hours, the speed at which one must work - I sure couldn't do it. I also appreciated how much he credits the people that one doesn't usually see when dining at a restaurant.

Usually by the end of a memoir I have a sense of who the author is. I can't say that after reading Kitchen Confidential. Bourdain's love of food comes through, especially in the beginning but beyond that he is a mystery. Although he walks the reader through how he got into cooking, he doesn't reveal too much about the rest of his life. I kept wondering how his admitted drug and alcohol abuse affected his cooking, or how he met his wife, or how he shifted into television and writing. Maybe another one of his books has those stories.

As a first book of the year, this was a solid choice.

Friday, December 21, 2018

A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wikerson Sexton

A Kind of Freedom  A Kind of Freedom tells the story of three generations of an African-American family in New Orleans at three different points in time.

Evelyn is the daughter of a well-to-do, well respected family. Her father is a doctor and Evelyn is studying to be a nurse when she meets Renard, a young man from the poorer side of town. Renard has dreams of becoming a doctor. Evelyn and Renard’s courtship is sweet but Evelyn’s father can’t help but worry what kind of life Renard can provide for his daughter.

Jackie, Evelyn and Renard’s daughter, is a struggling single mother in the eighties. Actually, that isn’t completely accurate. Jackie isn’t single – she’s married but her husband has been out of the picture, preferring crack to his family. Then one day he comes back clean, sober, and ready to resume the life he and Jackie once had. Jackie wants to believe that such a thing is possible.

T.C., is an expert at growing marijuana. He probably would make a great scientist. Instead, post Katrina and post jail, he struggles to figure out what kind of man he is going to be going forward. 

We only see this family at particular times in their lives – in 1944, 1986, and 2010 but Sexton's writing says so much in the gaps between generations. A Kind of Freedom is a story about race in America without ever actually saying so directly. There is hope and disappointment, but unfortunately more of the latter and less of the former. I'm glad I read this, even if it left me a little depressed.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Pride by Ibi Zoboi

PridePride is a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice set in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick with a Haitian Dominican family at its center. I love Jane Austen as much as I love a good retelling, especially one that sets the story in a different culture and a different time. Really, give me The Wiz over The Wizard of Oz any day. So I was eagerly looking forward to reading Pride. It seemed like something that would have hit my sweet spot but unfortunately it didn’t quite land.

The story begins with the Benitez family eagerly waiting for the eldest Benitez daughter Janae to return home from college for the summer. Zuri, the second eldest daughter and our modern day Jane is especially excited. The sisters have plans – college, a jobs, and then returning to their beloved neighborhood. Janae is the first one to start putting that plan to action by completing her first year at Syracuse University.

Zuri is less excited about her new neighbors across the street. Bushwick, we are told again and again, is the hood. Zuri wants her hood to stay the way it’s always been. Block parties, sitting on the stoop, sirens to lull her to sleep – Zuri loves it all. Then Mr. and Mrs. Darcy and their sons, Ainsley and Darius, move in across the street. They are Black and rich, transforming the building across the Benitez family into a mini mansion.

Zuri takes an immediate disliking to Darius. He is polite but not outgoing. Zuri assumes that Darius’s quiet reserve means he is looking down on her, her family, and her neighborhood. Perhaps sometimes he is but most of the time he's just minding his own business. Take their first meeting. Darius makes a comment about how he’s still adjusting to his new neighborhood and Zuri makes a snide remark in response. She who despairs at how her neighborhood is changing can’t quite forgive Darius for needing a moment to adjust to moving to a new house in a new neighborhood with new people.

If you have read Austen’s Pride and Prejudice then the plot of Pride will be no surprise. What is missing here is the funny banter and observations. Zuri is super judgmental which I know is the point but still. Maybe I’m more willing to give Pride and Prejudice a pass because it’s old and British and that distance makes it easier to laugh at and enjoy Jane’s judgment. Here Zuri is a modern girl in a modern time and her constant judgment and criticism felt mean, mostly undeserved, and hypocritical.

Almost as frustrating as Zuri is the "romance" that eventually follows. Just as quickly as she judges him, Zuri starts to like Darius. But it was too quick. The characters, especially Zuri, didn’t grow and change enough and the romance didn’t feel earned or real.

On the upside, this was a quick read. Also Zuri is a poet and there are poems throughout that were a pleasure to read.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Batman: Nightwalker by Marie Lu

Batman: Nightwalker (DC Icons, #2) Batman: Nightwalker is the second book in young adult DC Icons series. As of this writing there are four titles in the series focusing on Wonder Woman, Batman, Catwoman, and Superman respectively. The series isn't exactly a retelling of superheros' origin stories, but rather each story imagines them as teenagers on their way to becoming heroes. In a way then, this book is misnamed because there is no Batman in the book, just an 18-year-old Bruce Wayne about to graduate from high school.

The story is pretty simple: Bruce Wayne does something brave but also a little stupid and illegal. As punishment he is sentenced to community service mopping floors at Arkham Asylum, because of course an appropriate punishment for a teenager who commits a misdemeanor is to send them to work in a prison that houses dangerous criminals. At Arkham Bruce meets Madeline, a girl not much older than him who is suspected of murdering three people.

I always liked Batman for probably the same reason most people do - he's a guy who doesn't have superpowers but fights anyway using his wits and homemade gadgets. Then I heard someone say how Batman is the worse because he's basically a wealthy white guy who decided that he was better at bringing "justice" to Gotham than anyone else, that he knew better than the police, politicians, and ordinary citizens, that he could take the law into his own hands. Reading this book reminded me of that criticism.

The Bruce Wayne in Batman: Nightwalker is an 18-year-old boy who always thinks he knows better than everyone else. Sure he's smart, but not as smart as he thinks he is. Of course, he saves the day at the end but he also helped create the problems that necessitated the day needing to be saved. He has no respect for authority and not that authority is always right, but if you're going to hold yourself out as being a symbol of justice then you have to abide by the rules some of the time too. Bruce Wayne ignores all the rules all the time. I'm not saying I didn't enjoy reading this book, but it did make me like Bruce Wayne a little bit less.

Next up in the series, Catwoman: Soulstealer. I'm really looking forward to that one.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage: A Novel (Oprah's Book Club 2018 Selection) Every so often there are stories on the news about a person who is freed after spending years behind bars, the evidence finally proving that the convicted man or woman was innocent all along. There are plenty of smiles as the person walks out of prison but then I wonder what happens the next day? The person's old life is gone, there is no going back. While the innocent person was sitting in a prison cell, the world moved on and the newly freed person is left to flounder in a new, unfamiliar world. Such is the case with Roy Hamilton in An American Marriage.

Roy and Celestial are a young couple, just starting their married life together when police break into their hotel room and wrestle Roy to the ground. He is arrested and convicted for a crime he didn't commit. The fact that he is innocent is just that, a fact. Roy has an alibi but the jury simply doesn't believe it. As one character puts it, it was a case of "wrong race, wrong time." Now the story we perhaps want to hear is how Roy and Celestial stuck together like glue through thick and thin, but Roy and Celestial's marriage is just a year-and-a-half old. Their union hasn't had enough time to set yet and neither of them is quite sure how to be married when they are not together.

This is a story with no possible winners. Celestial tries to be a wife but she's working hard in Atlanta, Georgia, driving a few hundred miles to Louisiana to visit her husband in prison, and then he complains that she isn't cheerful enough. Meanwhile Roy sits in prison hearing stories about the business his wife is building, a business they had dreamed of starting together. They are out of sync and neither is to blame.

Tayari Jones's writing is beautiful and devastating. The pain the characters feels bleeds through the page. I finished the book around one in the morning because I couldn't put it down.

One other thing I have to mention is a passage I loved in which Celeste's father, Franklin, explains to Roy why when Roy asked for Celeste's hand in marriage Franklin didn't say yes. Franklin explains that Celestial was his daughter, not his property and her hand was not his to give. How very feminist and modern of Franklin Delano Davenport!

Friday, August 10, 2018

The Fever by Megan Abbott

The Fever  

Megan Abbott is one of my favorite authors writing today. My introduction to her writing was with the book Dare Me. I picked it up expecting a quick, funny read about mean girls and instead got a psychological thriller about female friendship and competition. The Fever is another book that touches on female friendship and competition, though in a wholly different way.

Deenie is going about her regular teenage life – going to school, hanging out with her girlfriends, and experimenting with boys – when her friend Lise has a seizure in class. Otherwise healthy and happy, the sudden seizure shocks everyone. Then Gabby, another of Deenie’s friends starts developing tics and faints during a school performance. It isn’t long before other girls start displaying unusual symptoms, all of which are unexplained.

Parents of course want an explanation. There are plenty of ideas, all of which are stupid. Some blame the HPV vaccine. This is of course is a red herring, not least because the vaccine is known to be safe. But also, as one health official points out, because the same batch of vaccine was distributed to several different towns so if the vaccine were the cause one would expect to see sick girls in multiple towns not just in this one town. Another theory is the dead lake in town with the fluorescent algae blooms. This sounds plausible until you remember that only teenage girls are getting sick and not anyone else. 

Aside from the mystery illness, The Fever is about female desire, change, and friendships. Parents of sick girls comment how much their daughters have changed, seemingly overnight. They want to blame a vaccine or an environmental poison but the onset of adolescence seems the far more likely culprit. Deenie is confronted with the realization that she may not know her friends as well as she thought.

I enjoyed The Fever. It is slow to start but picks up steam towards the end. A Megan Abbott book is always a treat.