“Black Girl Unlimited” is the ‘based on a true story’ life of the author herself, with a fantasy-magical realism overlay to everything, especially the traumatic parts. This book is devastating, but not in a bad way, but more in the way of a gifted girl, hating how she looks because she is a dark skinned black girl, believing she is an ugly beast because she isn’t lighter and doesn’t have ‘good hair’, kind of way. It’s heartbreaking to see how she views herself, not to mention watching her family’s struggle with racism, and Echo’s parents being drunks and addicted to cocaine. That’s not to say the book isn’t laced with hope, because it is! But the story is primarily focused on the young Echo and her struggle to survive in a world that has been stacked against her. There are some very heavy topics here alongside the systematic racism Echo faces, such as: drug abuse, sexual assault, and the rape of minors. All of these topics fit with the world Echo lives in, so they aren’t there just for shock value, but if those are sensitive topics for you, be forewarned. This book also happens to be my first foray into magical realism, so it’s very possible that I just don’t “get” certain things, but to me, the magic was more a metaphor then actually, well, magical.
“Riot Baby” isn’t really about Ella and her magical “Thing”, nor is it about, as the synopsis suggests, the revolution for racial equality in this barely alternate and vaguely more futuristic version of America. I say that because the events that define Kev—the actual Riot Baby—like the LA riot of 1992, and the police brutality aimed primarily at Black communities is all very real, and in Ella and Kev’s world, only taken to a slightly bigger level by the futuristic technology and weaponry the police use to terrorize these communities. This book is really about the anger felt with structural racism and brutality shown through the lens of an intimate family view of those who suffer under such conditions. Ella, her mom, and brother Kev are all just trying to live, but that becomes almost impossible with how America treats its Black citizens. This book is written in such a beautiful, raw, and angry tone which demands readers to confront systematic racial injustice head on. This novella evokes so many emotions and is crafted in really a magnificent way—Onyebuchi is a masterful writer! But story wise? I had a really hard time connecting.
The Black Flamingo follows Michael, a young half-Jamaican half-Greek Cyprian from boyhood to his coming of age in university. Michael struggles with never feeling Black enough, Greek enough, and that being gay is at odds with all these other parts of himself, all while wrestling with a father who never seems to want to see him, and a mother who doesn’t understand that Michael would rather play with Barbie’s then Ninja Turtles. Even with the story seeped in deep questions of identity, there were light moments of family love between Michael and his sister, the power of friendships, and even the sweetness of falling for a guy you never thought would see you in that way, and to have him like you back. Not to mention discovering your tribe—in the university Drag Society for Michael! This was my first verse novel ever, and I admit I was a bit worried going into it—I’ve shied away from verse before as I am not great at connecting with poetry and I had a hard time imagining I could really lose myself in an entire novel written in this format. Oh. My. Goodness. I’m ashamed it took me so long to give this format a try!
“The Tribulations of August Barton” is a sweet, kind of coming-of-age novella. Except it aims to show how the college experience has helped Augie find his voice, and with the help of his ex-prostitute grandma, Gertie, get a hold of his anxiety during a period of change. Augie may not have ventured very far to go to college (hey I didn’t, either) but it’s not about the distance. It’s about putting yourself in new situations and meeting new people, broadening your horizons in every sense of the word, and Augie definitely does that! Everything from his first time getting drunk, to falling in love, to even streaking in freezing temperatures, August finds his footing more than most in college. But throughout all of Augie’s adventures, there is this undercurrent of appreciating your elders, and spending time and enjoying the elderly while we have access to them that I found to be quite beautiful.
I don’t know where to begin with “Picture Us in the Light”. The simple fact is that, at first, I thought the book was kind of slow and the odd section every now and again written in second person threw me through an uncomfortable loop, but then… well, then magic happened and I fell in love. This is such a great book with so many tender messages and depictions of what it’s like to be a modern day teenager who struggles to be perfect on paper for college admissions, constantly pushed to the brink by helicopter parents, and the deadly consequences of what being told “you aren’t good enough” can do to a young person. There were so many tender moments depicting parent/child relationships, and Danny’s love for Harry. The synopsis makes you think Danny is confused by his feelings for his friend Harry, but he never was. He knew, always knew, that he loved Harry, that he wanted to be with him, that the idea of being far away from Harry in college was devastating. And, interwoven with the slow burn mystery that gets unraveled through the course of the book, is an honest commentary on some current stances when it comes to race in America and immigrants. So, even with the slow start, this book had me as enamored as Danny was with Harry come the end.
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