Saturday, February 18, 2012

Mini Reviews: Harlem Redux, The Emperor of Ocean Park & Black Orchid Blues

Black Orchid Blues by Persia Walker 2011
Akashic Books

IQ "'You'll thank me later,' Jack-a-Lee said.
'Well, I'll certainly have something to say about it. That's for sure." Lanie pg. 207

Lanie Price is a 1920s Harlem society columnist for The Harlem Chronicle but previously she was a crime reporter. One night she is at the Cinnamon Club, the nightclub where the famous "Black Orchid" singer Queenie Lovetree performs but that particular night, Queenie is kidnapped. As hours pass after the kidnapping and no ransom note appears, more questions arise. Little is known about Queenie's past and Lanie is determined to dig into Queenie's history not just for a sensational story but to find a clue that can help Queenie.

I did not like that the author provided very little background on the characters, it's all about the mystery. It's a fine mystery to be sure, but I wanted to know more about Lanie Price's family; was she Harlem born-and-bred? Or did she move from the South? The North? How did she get the job she did? I had too many questions about the main character which is probably apt for a mystery novel but I didn't like it. To be fair, I just realized (while I was researching some info for this review) that this is the 2nd book in the Lanie Price Mystery series so perhaps if I had read the first book, Darkness and the Devil Behind Me I would not be so clueless about all the characters mentioned. The beginning held my attention and the ending was spectacular but the middle lagged and was the only thing that prevented me from finishing the book within a few days.

Black Orchid Blues is an excellent homage to the Harlem Renaissance and detective noir (not that I read a lot of them but I've seen a few of the films) with its historical detail and intriguing plot twists and turns. While I was not able to connect to any of the characters, I was thoroughly engaged in the mystery. It is clear that the author loves this time period and I absolutely ADORE this time period as well so I really appreciated that. I was pleasantly surprised by how deep the author delved into Harlem society, especially GLBT Harlem society. People were out and proud during this time and Harlem accepted them, in fact one of the biggest events in the book is the Fa**ts Ball. A party where the GLBT and straight community mingle in outrageous costumes. Lanie Price has an attitude but she (and the author) really understand people."I'd worked as a crime reporter, interviewing victims and thugs, cops and dirty judges. Then I'd moved to society reporting, where I wrote about cotillions and teas, parties and premieres. It seemed like a different crowd, but the one constant was the mendacity. People lied. Sometimes for no apparent reason, they obfuscated ,omitted or outright obliterated the truth. And often the first sign of an intention to lie was an unsolicited promise to tell the truth" (pg.11). Lanie is able to probe enough to discover what makes people tick and she does this in the case of the kidnapper whose identity and story were so unexpected that I automatically loved the ending, although the background of the kidnapper was horrifically heartbreaking. This book was also surprisingly gruesome, simple warning to those who don't like much detail about violent deaths. I very much enjoyed this book with its fast-pace, wonderful attention to historical detail and lesser-known facts cleverly interwoven into the text. I am eager to read the first book in the series and even more eager for the next book.

Disclosure: Bought from Better World Books (buy your books from them!)

The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen L. Carter 2002
Vintage Contemporaries/Random House

IQ "you think the world is made up of simple moral rules. You think there are just two kinds of people in the world, people who obey the rules and people who break them. You think you're so different from Uncle Oliver, but you're just like him. in some good ways, sure, but in some of the wars ways, too. You look down your nose at people you think are your moral inferiors. People like your brother. People like me." pg.270

I chose that quote because when I read it, I felt a pang because "you look down your nose at people you think are your moral inferiors" could have referred to me. This quote is very personal, it's to remind me not to be so hard on people.

Talcott (nickname Misha) Garland is a successful law professor at a prestigious Ivy League law school, he is married to a woman he loves and he adores his son above all else. The suspicious death of his father, Judge Oliver Garland, a former Supreme Court nominee who went down in flames, leads him to start digging through his close-lipped father's past. Talcott's sister thinks their father was murdered, Talcott's brother wants nothing to do with the family in general and Talcott's wife, Kimmer, does not want Talcott's meddling to hurt her chances of a federal judgeship. His investigation is causing him to be perilously close to losing one or all of the things he holds dear.

I think the author wanted to write a nonfiction book about the Black upper class and upper middle class. relationship I think the author also wanted to write a mystery novel. These two topics could have worked well together, unfortunately the author throws in way too many issues and touchy subjects and tries to stir them all together which only creates a befuddling mess. Racism, classism, politics, chess, Ivy League elitism, problems with the legal system, family secrets. These are just SOME of the things that are covered in The Emperor of Ocean Park and it made my head spin. I am willing to concede that I may not be smart enough for this book. I like a good mystery with elaborate twists but honestly you need a chart to keep track of all the clues and secrets being discovered. Props to the author for managing to keep it all straight, I certainly couldn't. At 654 pages of the main character attempting to solve a mystery AND ask big questions about life and deep issues, this book moves to slowly and is to long. I also was not a fan of the narrator. He is very introspective, I would dare say he reflects TOO MUCH. And I was so annoyed by how mysterious he was. A chapter would end with realization dawning on him but the next chapter would begin with nary a mention of what that grand realization was. He would mention it in passing many pages later and often I would have already forgotten about the discovery. I did not mind the slow beginning, at first I enjoyed reading Talcott's musings on life and watching the mystery develop. But his pondering grew old fast and there were too many false-endings. By the time I got to the actual ending, I rolled my eyes in disbelief because it seemed so random, as if the author realized that he needed to end the book so he picked a character that hadn't already been accused.

I like that everyone in this book has a secret and almost-everyone has broken in the law in some way which is amusing in its irony since most of the people in the book are connected to the legal profession. I am always fascinated by stories about upper middle class Blacks because they are so rarely portrayed in fiction, we have more than a few millionaires in real life and plenty of Black people are living comfortably so I would like to see that reflected on TV and in books. The author attempts to reveal this mysterious class; "the Gold coast party circuit, a circuit my parents traveled often, because it was, in those days, what one did: glittering dinner at one house on the Friday, champagne brunch at another on the Sunday, caterers, cooks, even temporary butlers at the ready as the best of black Washington charged about in mad imitation of white people's foolishness. Yet it was not, really, so mad. In the old days, my mother used to say, there was only a hundred black people who mattered in America, and they all knew each other. A bit of snobbery, but also an intriguing proposition. The social scene, so inexplicably wasteful and pretentious to its critics, refreshed and reinforced those who whirled through it, strengthening them to face another day, another week, another month, another year of expending their prodigious talents in a nation unprepared to reward them for their abilities" (pgs. 284-285). Sentences such as that kept my interest but this book took me a long time to read and truthfully it might be best to just give up on the mystery. This book is more about human failings, and ruminations on the problems with the late 20th-early 21st century.

Disclosure: A gift from my mother. We owned another, older copy, but she gave it away to one of my aunts. I was bummed because I wanted to read it so my mother kindly bought me my own copy.

Harlem Redux by Persia Walker

IQ “Ev’rybody gets tested. And sooner or later ev’rybody fails. Discovers somethin’ ‘bout themselves they don’t wanna know. Ev’rybody’s got secrets, young man.” Annie pg. 261

David McKay left Harlem four years ago and except for the occasional letter to his sister Lillian, he never looked back. The McKays are a well-known, wealthy family living on Strivers Row in 1920s Harlem but it is a mystery as to why David gave all that up. He returns however after the suicide of his beloved sister. Much has changed since David left but some things remain the same, Lillian's twin sister Gem is typically, a no-show for anything family-related such as the funeral. But as Annie, the McKays long-time maid and Rachel, David's working class childhood sweetheart, fill David in on all that Lillian did not tell him in her letters over the years he realizes that Lillian could not have committed suicide. He also realizes to truly uncover all the family secrets, he must vanquish his own demons that drove him to stay away from home.

I didn’t like the omnipresent narrator and then the abrupt switch to third person. Sentences such as these “David felt Rachel tense.[….]He could tell that she wanted to speak up. She was biting her lip to keep silent. He took hold of Rachel’s hand and gave it a squeeze. Like most of the doctors, lawyers and educators who composed the bulk of Strivers’ Row residents, the Canfields were committed to doing everything they could to make sure that their street would not be sucked into the slum beyond. They had convinced themselves that they could provide a shining example to other blacks of how a winsome neighborhood could be maintained. [….] David, perhaps because he lived for so long among Philadelphia’s poor, understood what Emma could not.” (pg. 225) but then all of the sudden, it would switch back to omnipresent. The author clearly loves history and at times gets so caught up in expressing a variety of ideas that the characters tend to wax philosophically out loud or in their thoughts. But it presents a clearer, more entertaining portrait of Harlem in the 1920s. “They both dreamed of a day when Harlem artists would receive the same recognition, prizes, and contracts that white writers did. Lillian wanted to read books about well-bred, refined colored people. There was, she said, enough being written about the downside of Negro life, about the crime and the poverty. Someone had to tell the story of the educated colored people, too. Someone had to speak up for the Negroes who were doctors, lawyers, philosophers, professors” (pg. 42), the sad thing is these sentiments still ring true today, we still need those books about the Black people who are moving on up.

Harlem Redux is a most appropriate title for this book as it will introduce a new genration of readers to 1920s Harlem and greatly please those who already love studying the Harlem Renaissance. The book allows readers to rediscover Harlem and it is also about rediscovering old habits, old flames, buried secrets. The author has crafted an appealing group of characters that present a portrait of the diversity of 1920s Black Harlem Americans as well as Black Americans overall. David is a civil rights attorney in Philly but he also fought in World War I. I do wish more time had been spent on David's time overseas but the mystery grew to be satisfying. No book about wealthy Blacks would be complete without touching on our color issues and the author deftly handles the topic and shows once again, that she can dig deep and discover people's motivations and their breaking points. I was not expecting the ending but in retrospect it made sense and I had suspected one half of the surprise so I was pleased with my meager detective skills :)

Disclosure: From the library