Poetry | Neon Soul & Counting Descent

Hey everyone! At the end of my review for salt. by Nayyirah Waheed, I listed a bunch of contemporary poets and expressed my keen interest in reading their work in the future. Alexandra Elle’s name was on that list and Clint Smith is a poet I truly admire, especially from his TED talk – How To Raise A Black Son in America.

Below are mini reviews of their respective poetry collections.

Neon Soul by Alexandra Elle

Date Read: May 13th 2017

Published: March 2017

Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing

Pages: 160

 

 

 

The Blurb

In short, powerful verses, Alexandra Elle shares a hard-won message of hope.

Alexandra Elle writes frankly about her experience as a young, single mother while she celebrates her triumph over adversity and promotes resilience and self-care in her readers. This book of all-new poems from the beloved author of Words From A Wanderer and Love In My Language is a quotable companion on the road to healing.

 

Review –★★★★ (4 stars)

It’s inspiring to see Alex Elle’s growth in Neon Soul. From this collection, it’s clear she’s content and comfortable in her skin. These poems center around the joys of being whole and comfortable with oneself. The poems are laden with gentle, uplifting affirmations and tools for living intentionally and forgiving oneself, as well as understanding and nurturing all aspects of yourself. There are also a few glimpses of her immense love for her daughter and husband in the collection, which was very cute! One of the poems speaks on the unfortunate miscarriage she had a while back – the simplicity of that poem speaks volumes on the polarizing feelings we women of color sometimes have about our bodies.

Favorite poems:

will you ever forgive yourself
for what you didn’t do?
who you didn’t love or
let love you?
will you ever be soft
enough on yourself
to be free?

(pg. 29)

________________

it feels good to feel whole. to not live in
pieces or in fear.
it feels nice to belong to myself. to be
enthralled with the
endless possibilities to find who i am. we are
often too confused
about what parts of us deserve to stay in our
loud and vibrant lives,
but why is that? when all of the mess can
make a magnificent
masterpiece.

(pg. 114)

Overall, I love this collection because Alex Elle seems to be writing from a place of fulfillment, which is refreshing from the myriad of poetry collections out there that seem to be from a place of grief and hurt. Deun Ivory’s illustrations on select pages of this collection were the icing on the cake!

★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!

Purchase Neon Soul: A Collection of Poetry & Prose on Amazon


Counting Descent by Clint Smith

Date Read: August 6th 2017

Published: February 2017

Publisher: Write Bloody Publishing

Pages: 84

 

 

 

The Blurb

Clint Smith’s debut poetry collection, Counting Descent, is a coming of age story that seeks to complicate our conception of lineage and tradition. Smith explores the cognitive dissonance that results from belonging to a community that unapologetically celebrates black humanity while living in a world that often renders blackness a caricature of fear. His poems move fluidly across personal and political histories, all the while reflecting on the social construction of our lived experiences. Smith brings the reader on a powerful journey forcing us to reflect on all that we learn growing up, and all that we seek to unlearn moving forward.

Review –★★★★ (4 stars)

In 56 poems, the realities of being a black boy in America are beautifully portrayed in this collection. Not only are the plights and queries of black boyhood portrayed, but black boy joy is an important component of these poems as well- so its pretty balanced, which I loved.

This collection is personal and honest. Smith shares his loving family with us and sheds light on how he was raised, with poems mostly set in New Orleans. The titular poem – ‘Counting Descent’ is my absolute favorite. I read it 3 times before I proceeded to finish the book. Smith’s metaphorical writing style will make you freeze momentarily as you clearly picture all the nuances and truths he paints with his words. I enjoyed how he personified New Orleans through its unique foods, as a tourist attraction, as a high-risk flood zone and ultimately as his home. Smith’s poems are tangible – while reading, you will feel the pain, you will feel the joy and you will feel less alone.

Today I Bought a Book for You

it wasn’t one I had ever heard of

but the first page had your favorite word

and that was enough for me

to unfold the dollar bills from my pockets.

I remember the first time

you told me what it meant.

I wrote it down in my notebook

with the hopes of using it later

to impress you.

I have a notebook full of these.

It should come as no surprise.

I have always used words

to try and convince the world

that I am worth something.

(pg. 63)

Other poems I loved include: ‘The Protest Novel Responds to James Baldwin’ (this poem gave me chills); ‘Passed Down’ (this poem surprised me… I never knew some light-skinned folk actually (and honestly) felt ashamed of their skin color. From all the books I’ve read/friends I know who are of a lighter hue, they consider it a ‘privilege’); ‘Each Morning is a Ritual Made Just For Us’ (I loooved this! I think the poem is dedicated to his wife); ‘When Mom Braids My Sister’s Hair’ and ‘For the Hardest Days’.

I’ll definitely revisit this collection again. I’ve been following Clint Smith on Twitter, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of his work!

★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!

Purchase Counting Descent on Amazon

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Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Date Read: June 21st 2017

Published: 2016

Publisher: Random House

Pages: 380

 

 

 

 

The Blurb 

Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem, has come to the United States to provide a better life for himself, his wife, Neni, and their six-year-old son. In the fall of 2007, Jende can hardly believe his luck when he lands a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. Clark demands punctuality, discretion, and loyalty—and Jende is eager to please. Clark’s wife, Cindy, even offers Neni temporary work at the Edwardses’ summer home in the Hamptons. With these opportunities, Jende and Neni can at last gain a foothold in America and imagine a brighter future.

However, the world of great power and privilege conceals troubling secrets, and soon Jende and Neni notice cracks in their employers’ façades. When the financial world is rocked by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Jongas are desperate to keep Jende’s job—even as their marriage threatens to fall apart. As all four lives are dramatically upended, Jende and Neni are forced to make an impossible choice.

 

Review – ★★★ (3 stars)

Before Behold the Dreamers was selected for Oprah’s Book Club, there was a lot of buzz surrounding the book last year, declaring it ‘book of the year’. I tried to keep an open mind while reading, but half-way through, I started to get agitated. If I hadn’t buddy-read this book with one of my favorite book lovers – Ifeyinwa, I would have put it down without finishing. Upon finishing the book, I felt Behold the Dreamers was a 2 stars novel, but Mbue’s succinct writing style made my reading experience quite fast and easy –  which I appreciated, hence a rating of 3 stars. While this novel was frustrating for me to read, I must admit Mbue did a great job of making Behold the Dreamers a layered tale on identity, social class, marriage, immigration, patriarchy, mental illness and xenocentrism.

I didn’t expect the beginning of Behold the Dreamers to be focused on the Edwards family instead of the Jonga family. As I turned the pages waiting to experience more Jende and Neni, I realized I didn’t care about Cindy and Clark Edwards’s failing marriage and the ‘rich people problems’ they endured. In fact, reading about their stresses vicariously stressed ME out! The plot, which heavily involved the Edwards’ marital and monetary issues dragged on for too long. Since several pages were dedicated to the Edwards’ family drama, I could clearly picture what Clark, Cindy, Vincent and Mighty Edwards looked like and all their mannerisms. This may seem trivial, but I wish Mbue spent more time describing Jende, Neni and their son – Liomi’s physical features so I could at least picture them in my mind.

This novel could have been a solid 150 pages, sans the drama of the Edwards family. A part of me feels like the publishers heavily promoted this book because Jende and Neni put America on a pedestal. To me, Jende and Neni were almost portrayed as African caricatures who viewed the white man as superior, their master. This novel was initially supposed to be called ‘The Longings of Jende Jonga’ so why the change of title to ‘Behold the Dreamers’? I’m guessing the former title wouldn’t appeal to white readers. Perhaps the change in title to ‘Behold the Dreamers’ also meant more involvement of the Edwards family into the storyline, to appeal to white readers. But I must say, the title ‘Behold the Dreamers’ is quite fitting – because the Jongas were portrayed as dreamers indeed. Through the lens of Jende and especially Neni, EVERYTHING about America was good and they would do anything to become Americans,

In Limbe, Liomi and Timba would have many things they would not have had in America, but they would lose far too many things. They would lose the opportunity to grow up in a magnificent land of uninhibited dreamers… because while there existed great towns and cities all over the world, there was a certain kind of pleasure, a certain type of adventurous and audacious childhood, that only New York could offer a child. (pg. 362).

I became aggravated with how Jende and Neni often looked down on their country of origin/culture and revered America to the point where they didn’t see how desperate they were – especially Neni! Throughout most of this novel, Jende was more or less an ‘Uncle Tom’ in my eyes with how willingly subservient he acted towards the Edwards family,

‘So you think America is better than Cameroon?’ Clark asked, still looking at his laptop.

‘One million times, sir,’ Jende said. ‘One million times. Look at me today, Mr. Edwards. Driving you in this nice car. You are talking to me as if I am somebody, and I am sitting in this seat, feeling as if I am somebody.’ (pg. 44)

Neni (she got on my nerves, gosh! But my feelings softened towards her as she bears the brunt her family’s fate) would do anything just to remain in America and even started using her kids as a desperate justification to stay,

And Liomi was going to become a real American one day, she whispered in the darkness. He had taken so well to America, hardly missing anyone or anything in Limbe. He was happy to be in New York, excited to walk on overcrowded streets and be bombarded by endless noise. He spoke like an American and was so knowledgable in baseball and all the state capitals that no one who came across him would believe he was not an American but a barely legal immigrant child… They could never take him back to Limbe… He might become angry, disappointed and hostile, forever resentful towards his parents. (pg. 227)

While Behold the Dreamers was frustrating to read, I resonated and empathized with certain happenings, once the story shifted away from the Edwards family and focused more on the Jongas. Neni lecturing her son on the importance of education for us Africans/Black people struck a cord with me as it still holds true,

I’ve told you this, and I’ll keep on telling you: School is everything for people like us. We don’t do well in school, we don’t have any chance in this world. You know that, right? (pg. 68)

Jende’s lawyer warning him to steer clear of the police felt timely, especially with police brutality being a rampant occurrence nowadays. This novel was set between years 2008 – 2010 and its disheartening how 7 years later, we black folk – whether originally from Africa or Latin America, are constantly reminded of how the justice system doesn’t particularly value Black bodies,

The police is for the protection of white people, my brother. Maybe black women and black children sometimes, but not black men. Never black men. Black men and police are palm oil and water. You understand me, eh? (pg. 74)

Another aspect of the book that resonated with me was how some folks of the Diaspora (1st and 2nd generation Americans) identified. I remember having a chat with one of my cousins this summer in the States, and she confided in me about how she went through a phase where she actively distanced herself from her Ghanaian culture when she was younger. During this phase, she hated identifying with anything that had to do with Ghana or Africa. Shame plays a huge role in this novel. Mbue shows how some children of immigrants from Africa, who have no connection to their parents’ homeland (for various reasons – maybe the parents don’t have pride in their homelands themselves, like Neni and Jende) feel embarrassed and humiliated by their African roots,

When people asked where they were from, they often said, oh, we’re from right here, New York, America. They said it with pride, believing it. Only when prodded did they reluctantly admit that well, actually, our parents are Africans. But we’re Americans, they always added. Which hurt Fatou and made her wonder, was it possible her children though they were better than her because they were Americans and she was African? (pg. 358)

I read Behold the Dreamers back in June and its really been on my mind ever since. I’ve even been apprehensive about posting this book review because I feel my interpretation of this novel is quite judgmental as I’m interpreting the book’s happenings through my 1st generation privilege of never having experienced immigration ordeals. I recently discussed this novel with my parents and through our discussion, they made me aware of my Ghanaian-American privilege and encouraged me to try and accept Jende and Neni’s struggles as their (the characters’) truth and the truth of many Africans who strive to achieve the ‘American Dream’.

Reading and interpretation of text is highly subjective. The ways readers interpret and find meaning of books they read depends on their politics, morals, level of education, socio-economic status etc. I read this novel through a middle-class, 1st generation, pro-Africa/Black lens, so it was quite difficult for me to read and understand characters express self-hate and shame towards their African origins. Since Jende and Neni were of lower social class in Cameroon, was their xenocentrism of their country of origin justified? Most immigrants I know (of both lower and middle social classes) actually start deeply appreciating their countries of origin when they move to live in the States… but I do realize that for some folks, getting to America is truly their ultimate dream.

The ending of this novel felt realistic and made me appreciate Jende’s character evolution – flaws and all. While I disliked how Mbue perpetuates our self-hate through the characterization of Jende and (mostly) Neni, Behold the Dreamers strikes up conversation around immigration, identity and the need for African countries to better cater to their citizens (instead of us relying on living in Western nations to fulfill our dreams). In my opinion, this novel is popular because it perpetuates American nationalist views with African self-hate as a bi-product of it’s success.

Other compelling immigrant tales which I highly recommend over Behold the Dreamers are: So The Path Does Not Die by Pede Hollist, Americanah by Chimamanda N. Adichie, Minaret by Leila Aboulela, Beyond the Horizon by Amma Darko.

★★★ (3 stars) – Good book. I recommend it, I guess.

Purchase Behold the Dreamers on Amazon

A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid

Date Read: May 19th 2017

Published: 2000

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Pages: 81

 

 

 

 

 

The Blurb

Lyrical, sardonic, and forthright, A Small Place magnifies our vision of one small place with Swiftian wit and precision. Jamaica Kincaid’s expansive essay candidly appraises the ten-by-twelve-mile island in the British West Indies where she grew up, and makes palpable the impact of European colonization and tourism. The book is a missive to the traveler, whether American or European, who wants to escape the banality and corruption of some large place. Kincaid, eloquent and resolute, reminds us that the Antiguan people, formerly British subjects, are unable to escape the same drawbacks of their own tiny realm—that behind the benevolent Caribbean scenery are human lives, always complex and often fraught with injustice.

 

Review –★★★★ (4 stars)

Where do I even begin with this book? A Small Place is… brutal. It’s brutal for the reader (especially if you’re a white reader), for Antiguans, the Antiguan government and it’s tourism industry. A Small Place is a short book of 81 pages, full of vitriol, which is somewhat justified. Kincaid gives harsh criticisms on her native island’s dishonest and disappointing leadership and ultimately views the poor governing of Antigua as an extension of colonialism; neo-colonialism, if you will.

In A Small Place, Kincaid takes readers to Antigua in four chapters. In the first chapter, Kincaid describes the picture-perfect beauty of her country and juxtaposes the island’s beauty to the not-so-pretty issues everyday citizens endure. In subsequent chapters, Kincaid critiques the essence of travel, tourism and even tourists – who are mostly white. At some point, I began to wonder if Kincaid condoned xenophobia, because the way she describes how fellow Antiguans and other folks from the Caribbean dislike tourists (to the point where she actually insults imaginary white tourists), it could be seen as quite hateful –

An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist, an ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that, and it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you, that behind their closed doors they laugh at your strangeness (you do not look the way they look); the physical sight of you does not please them; you have bad manners (it is their custom to eat their food with their hands; you try eating their way, you look silly; you try eating the way you always eat, you look silly); they do not like the way you speak… (pg. 17)

Halfway through reading, I also began to wonder if this book was banned at some point – it had to be! The bold quote below explains my curiosity –

Is the Antigua I see before me, self-ruled, a worse place than what it was when it was dominated by the bad-minded English and all the bad-minded things they brought with them? How did Antigua get to such a state that I would have to ask myself this? For the answer on every Antiguan’s lips to the question ‘What is going on here now?’ is ‘The government is corrupt. Them are thief, them are big thief.’ Imagine, then, the bitterness and the shame in me as I tell you this. (pg. 42)

I’d fear for my life if I ever published anything like this! I doubt A Small Place is even sold in the Caribbean because Kincaid spews sharp, controversial opinions on (former) Prime Ministers of Antigua, Grenada and Haiti. She’s really a ball of fire, this Kincaid woman!

I think it’s important to read this book/memoir as a satire. If you take Kincaid’s frank critique to heart, you’ll be missing the point completely. Reading Kincaid lament over the corruption and misappropriation of Antiguan government funds felt all too familiar to me. A Small Place mimics the same issues Chinua Achebe had with Nigeria, as seen in The Trouble With Nigeria and mimics the SAME issues we face in Ghana as well. For example – for years, the Chinese have been mining gold in Ghana illegally (locally referred to as ‘Galamsey’) to the point where most of our water bodies (like River Pra & River Ankobra in the Western region, Enu River in the Ashanti Region, The Black Volta in the Upper West Region, River Densu in Accra, Birim River in the Eastern Region) within the country are contaminated with mercury and other toxic metals. While the current administration is trying to put a halt to the illegal mining, allegedly, previous administrations were benefitting from the illegal act. In A Small Place, Kincaid speaks on how ‘The government is for sale; anybody from anywhere can come to Antigua and for a sum of money can get what he wants. (pg. 47).’ Many citizens in Ghana feel the same way! Supermarkets, coffee shops/restaurants, various corporations and even land, are owned by foreigners. Government officials rarely have locals in mind and seem to be easily swayed by money-making foreigners who are slowly taking over our natural resources,

How does a food importer on a small island have enough money to lend to a government? Syrian and Lebanese nationals regularly lend the government money. Syrian and Lebanese nationals own large amounts of land in Antigua, and on the land they own in the countryside they build condominiums that they then sell (prices quoted in United States dollars) to North Americans and Europeans… (pg. 62)

A Small Place is an important book and a wake up call. It reveals a lot of truth, exposes the bad leadership of her native island (well, I don’t know if the government of Antigua has changed much today) and ties all the complex issues Antigua faces to our imperfect human nature. Kincaid’s writing style is direct yet lyrical in this brutally honest account of this small place. This book was originally published back in 1988, but sadly, it’s still relevant to several countries in Africa and the Caribbean today. When will the greed, lies, corruption and dishonesty from people in positions of power ever end? While this book reminded me of Chinua Achebe’s The Trouble With Nigeria, Kincaid’s sour wit and sarcasm are 100 times more piercing than Achebe’s. Read A Small Place and marvel at this woman’s heroism.

★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!

[My Kincaid collection thus far. Image via the Instagram page]

Purchase A Small Place on Amazon

What We Lose: A Novel by Zinzi Clemmons

Date Read: March 18th 2017

Published: July 11th 2017

Publisher: Viking Books

Pages: 224

 

The Blurb

From an author of rare, haunting power, a stunning novel about a young African-American woman coming of age—a deeply felt meditation on race, sex, family, and country.

Raised in Pennsylvania, Thandi views the world of her mother’s childhood in Johannesburg as both impossibly distant and ever present. She is an outsider wherever she goes, caught between being black and white, American and not. She tries to connect these dislocated pieces of her life, and as her mother succumbs to cancer, Thandi searches for an anchor—someone, or something, to love. 

In arresting and unsettling prose, we watch Thandi’s life unfold, from losing her mother and learning to live without the person who has most profoundly shaped her existence, to her own encounters with romance and unexpected motherhood. Through exquisite and emotional vignettes, Clemmons creates a stunning portrayal of what it means to choose to live, after loss. An elegiac distillation, at once intellectual and visceral, of a young woman’s understanding of absence and identity that spans continents and decades, What We Lose heralds the arrival of a virtuosic new voice in fiction.

 Review – ★★★★ (4 stars)

Laden with meditative, intimate and at times unsettling vignettes, What We Lose will leave you in a pensive state. Thandi – the heroine of this novel, is the only child of her mother (a coloured South African) and father (a light skinned African American) who is very aware of her privileges & multicultural background. Readers follow Thandi on her journey from childhood to adulthood as she navigates what it means to be a black woman in America and South Africa, dealing with the loss of a loved one, motherhood and love.

What We Lose is based on Zinzi Clemmons’s life, BUT it isn’t her life. If you’ve been following Clemmons’s work online, especially her 2013 piece –  A Geography of Hurt, you’d find the subject matter in this novel familiar. While there isn’t a clear-cut plot to this novel, Clemmons successfully portrays Thandi’s life through short vignettes. The vignettes reflect Thandi’s complex thoughts – private, absorbing and heartfelt thoughts, that one probably wouldn’t even share with their closest partner. Some bits of the text feel philosophical which was confusing at times, but appreciated. I love how pictures and graphs and random news articles are scattered throughout the book, as it gave the storytelling an unconventional feel.

Johannesburg, South Africa plays a vital role in this novel. The world is so absorbed in American politics (aka: Trump) that we forget about the intense and ever present racism in post-apartheid South Africa. Thandi and her family are coloureds and wealthy, so readers experience a different account of racial dynamics in South Africa through their lens, which is refreshing. It was intriguing to see how American racial relations and South African racial relations were juxtaposed and how they impacted Thandi’s life and even play a role in her grieving process and the important decisions she makes in her life.

Anyone whose lost a parent will deeply resonate with this novel. I initially thought this novel would be morbid and sorrowful, but I was glad to find that it reads more as a visceral novel – deep feelings and black psyche are articulated so aptly!

Quotes that made me think about blackness and grief:

To my cousins and me, American blacks were the epitome of American cool. Blacks were the stars of rap videos, big-name comedians, and actors with their own television shows and world tours. Notorious B.I.G, Puff Daddy, Janet Jackson. Martin Lawrence… We worshipped them, and my cousins, especially, looked to the freedom that these stars represented as aspirational… But when I called myself black, my cousins looked at me askance… I looked just like my relatives, but calling myself black was wrong to them. Though American blacks were cool, South African blacks were ordinary, yet dangerous. It was something they didn’t want to be(pg. 26)

I’ve often thought that being a light-skinned black woman is like being a well-dressed person who is also homeless. You may be able to pass in mainstream society, appearing acceptable to others, even desired. But in reality you have nowhere to rest, nowhere to feel safe. (pg. 31)

Her disease only reinforced how the world saw us: not black or white, not American or African, not poor or rich. We were confined to the middle, and would always be. As hard as she tried to separate herself from the binds of apartheid, we were still within its grip. It had become the indelible truth of our lives, and nothing – not sickness, not suffering, not death – could change that. (pg. 82)

This is the paradox: How would I ever heal from losing the person who healed me? The question was so enormous that I could see only my entire life, everything I know, filling it. (pg. 95)

I’m not sure how this book is being marketed to the public; but for me, What We Lose tackles so much more than the issue of race. This coming-of-age novel reminds you that we are all human. We are all dealing with our personal struggles. We are all trying to thrive and heal and survive. Illness, love, race, mental health, motherhood, sisterhood and social class dynamics are wonderfully weaved into the overall themes of grief and the quest to belong.

Read the book chat I had with Zinzi Clemmons on What We Lose, her favorite black writers, her relationship to South Africa, self-care tips, who’d play Thandi if the novel ever made it to the big screen and more.

Special thanks again to Zinzi Clemmons and the team at Viking Books for the ARC!

 ★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!

Purchase What We Lose on Amazon

A Bitter Pill To Swallow by Tiffany Gholar

Date Read: February 15th 2017

Published: 2016

PublisherBlurb Books

Pages: 315

 

 

 

 

The Blurb 

Winner of the 2016 Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award for Fiction, Non-Traditionally Published.

On the edge of the Chicago medical district, the Harrison School for Exceptional Youth looks like a castle in a snow globe. Janina has been there since she was ten years old, and now she’s fourteen. She feels so safe inside its walls that she’s afraid to leave.
Devante’s parents bring him there after a tragedy leaves him depressed and suicidal. Even though he’s in a different place, he can’t escape the memories that come flooding back when he least expects them.
Dr. Gail Thomas comes to work there after quitting her medical residency. Frustrated and on the verge of giving up on her dreams, she sees becoming a counselor as her last chance to put her skills to the test.
When he founded the school, Dr. Lutkin designed its unique environment to be a place that would change the students’ lives. He works hard as the keeper of other people’s secrets, though he never shares any of his own.
But everything changes late in the winter of 1994 when these four characters’ lives intersect in unexpected ways. None of them will ever be the same.

 Review – ★★★★ (4 stars)

A Bitter Pill To Swallow is a young adult novel set in 1994 Chicago that closely follows three characters as they battle with various stresses life brought them. Devante is a young black high school student, suffering from intense PTSD; Janina is a quirky young black high school student, who has been diagnosed with some features of schizotypal personality disorder; Dr. Gail Thomas is a determined young black women who is finally a medical resident after taking a break from her residency program, due to family issues. All three characters have their own bitter pills to swallow and eventually meet at a therapeutic boarding school- The Harrison School, run by a kind and gentle psychiatrist, Dr. Lutkin.

Each chapter alternates between the three characters’ or Dr. Lutkin’s point of view; no, it’s not confusing – Gholar does a great job at allowing the story to flow quite nicely. The characters have their own storylines, which eventually merge towards the end, making this an absorbing, suspenseful read. Dr. Gail’s chapters were bold and readers see black girl magic at work in her character. In my opinion, she’s the heroine of this novel – you’ll have to get your copy to find out why!

The Harrison School is not your average therapeutic boarding school. It is an ideal environment for anyone – not just students who battle with mental illness. Tiffany Gholar’s palpable descriptions of various rooms decorated in tones like amethyst purples, sapphire blues and emerald greens as well as descriptions of students having their own comfy bedrooms with medical staff always on call, made me wish this sanctuary actually existed. Since Tiffany Gholar is an artist (she designed the four different book covers for this novel), writer and interior designer, trust and believe that her descriptions are impressively vivid and vibrant. Vivid descriptions + great storytelling sprinkled with suspense made this an enjoyable read.

Tiffany Gholar’s A Bitter Pill to Swallow is a reminder of why we need to support more Indie writers. I would give this novel 5 stars, but the words ‘crazy’ and ‘normal’ were over-used for a story of this nature. Maybe the use of these words were intentional, but it made me a bit uncomfortable. One theme that’s constant in this novel is the theme of mental health awareness. Each character is dealing which his/her own stresses that have an effect on their mental and emotional health. From reading the blurb, one may think this novel is super heavy and dark, but it’s not at all. Readers will encounter a blossoming romance, crazy pharmaceutical politics, issues surrounding race, funny commentary on various students and events. Be prepared to enter a time-capsule as you travel back to 1994 when singer Tevin Campbell, Digable Planets (hip hop group) and the film ET were still popular. The novel isn’t bogged down with excessive depressing happenings – trust me on this one!

Lately, there is more and more talk in the Black community around mental health and ‘self-care’ to the point where it’s even (unfortunately) commercialized. Black/African communities rarely used to speak on the issue of mental health because they/we think everything can be prayed away. But I strongly believe seeking help through psychotherapy or finding a counsellor can be the first step towards healing – Devante, Janina, Dr. Gail and Dr. Lutkin are proof of this! I hope this novel gets the attention of various middle and high schools because Gholar’s sensitive writing is a great tool for discussing various personal issues, with young adults of color.

Special thanks to Tiffany Gholar for sending me the Dr. Gail Thomas edition of the book!

 ★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!

Purchase A Bitter Pill To Swallow on Amazon