Latest review: The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

By Ekta R. Garg

July 28, 2021

Genre: Women’s fiction / satire

Release date: June 1, 2021

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A Black woman finds herself befriending the only other woman of color in her workplace. Instead of becoming confidantes, she discovers that the woman was hired to carry out a specific agenda and she’s next in line as its target. Debut author Zakiya Dalila Harris uses some of her own experiences from her job in publishing to limited dramatic effect in her novel The Other Black Girl.

Nella Rogers has been with Wagner Books for two years now as an editorial assistant, and she’s waiting for her opportunity to move up. Despite the daily slights and microaggressions she endures from her colleagues and bosses, Nella believes one day she can influence publishing to showcase more work by the Black community. In fact, she came to Wagner Books because decades earlier it produced the dynamic Black writer-editor team of one of the most influential novels in recent times.

No one else understands how much that novel meant to Nella, though, because no one else understands what it’s like to be the only Black woman in the editorial department. Then Hazel-May McCall, another Black woman, gets hired, and Nella feels like she can breathe a little. Most of her coworkers are nice enough, but they don’t experience the same challenges Nella does. Now she won’t be so alone.

Hazel seems to be perfect friend material and the right person to bring more diversity to the office. She grew up in Harlem, and her grandfather died in a civil rights march. Nella has never doubted her own “Blackness,” but growing up in a middle-class home in Connecticut didn’t really challenge her sense of self that much. It wasn’t until she moved to New York that she became hyperaware of race as part of her identity.

At first Nella and Hazel hit it off. Bit by bit, Hazel becomes the office darling. She’s giving fashion advice to Nella’s boss and hobnobbing with the head of the company—things that Nella wished she could do but has never pursued. Now Hazel is getting all the attention, even swiping Nella’s ideas and presenting them as her own.

Then someone leaves an anonymous note on Nella’s desk that tells her to leave Wagner Books. One note turns into two, and Nella starts looking over her shoulder as she wonders who’s threatening her and why. Is Hazel connected to any of this?

As Nella navigates office politics, the demands of her job, and her social life, she discovers that something bigger is in play. At the end of it all, she’ll have to decide what means the most to her: her identity or her job.

Author Zakiya Dalila Harris worked for almost three years as an editorial assistant at Knopf Doubleday before leaving to write The Other Black Girl. She says in her author’s note that much of the novel is based on her real-life experiences. Despite that assertion, however, the book seems somewhat implausible. Harris tips too far into melodramatic territory to create challenges for Nella.

Nella is, at best, passive. Throughout most of the novel, she allows the story to pull her first in one direction and then another. She complains about racial inequity in the workplace, but her half-hearted attempts to fight it make it seem like she’s doing the very thing that she accuses Hazel of: pandering to the white employees in the office.

The story jumps from present day to events in the past, making for confusing reading. Secondary characters, too, get short shrift. Nella has a white boyfriend who genuinely cares about her and racial inequality, but as she obsesses about Hazel she ignores her boyfriend completely. Eventually, like several other secondary characters, he doesn’t figure into Nella’s life at all.

Harris puts datelines at the start of each chapter, but they don’t seem to hold much significance. Also, the climax comes late enough in the story that some readers may not stick around for it.

One positive aspect of the book is the tradition of Black hair care that Harris shares. Readers unaware of this heritage handed down from one generation to the next will learn a lot. It’s a shame, then, that Harris didn’t spend nearly as much time in the details of the plot. The final reveal in the last few pages, too, might turn some readers off.

Those wanting to read one of the most talked-about books of the summer season may want to check this out; otherwise, I recommend readers Borrow The Other Black Girl.

Newest review: The Other Passenger by Louise Candlish

By Ekta R. Garg

July 21, 2021

Genre: Thriller

Release date: July 20, 2021

Rated: Bordering on Bookmarking it! / 3.5 stars

A man becomes a person of interest when his friend goes missing. He tries to balance his secrets with his own suspicions of what happened but gets the sense that a bigger game is at play. Author Louise Candlish takes just a touch too long to ramp up the mystery but keeps it rolling once it gets moving in her latest book The Other Passenger.

Jamie Buckby has made an amazing discovery: he can take the ferry to work and bypass the complicated tube system that runs under London. At one time, taking the tube was just another part of his day as he traveled to his white-collar job in security. Then he had a panic attack during his commute one day, and everything changed.

Now Jamie works at a coffee shop in Central London, which is quite the distance from his posh house in the suburbs. Well, not exactly his house; the deed says his girlfriend, Clare, owns it. But he and Clare have been together for more than a decade in a committed relationship. It’s not “Clare’s house” or “the place he lives”; it’s home.

It’s also the object of envy of Kit and Melia Roper. Gorgeous twenty-something Melia gets hired at Clare’s real estate company and Kit works in insurance, a job he complains about all the time. Kit thinks he’s too vibrant and interesting for the insurance world. Still, it’s a paycheck, and no one can turn that down.

Kit and Jamie start commuting on the ferry together and over time they become friends, or so Jamie thinks. Kit tends to be moody. Sometimes he’s chatty, other times not. Jamie hasn’t quite got a bead on him yet, other than the fact that Kit fulfills the stereotype of millennials with his attitude that he shouldn’t have to work so hard for the good things in life.

Melia, on the other hand, is a refreshing change for Jamie. So refreshing, in fact, that when they have an affair, he doesn’t fight it. Yes, he has Clare and a nice home to live in, but the house doesn’t even belong to him and Clare is constantly nagging him to improve his career prospects. Melia just wants him, nothing more.

Then Kit goes missing. The police don’t have enough information to arrest Jamie or even to file a formal report yet. Yet they keep hinting that another passenger on the ferry saw something to put Jamie on their radar.

Clare doesn’t know about Jamie and Melia, of course, and Jamie would prefer to keep it that way. But the entire situation with Kit sounds fishy. Then his problems get much bigger than trying to hide his mistress from his long-time girlfriend.

Author Louise Candlish takes her time building the story, which might leave some readers a little antsy. With the entire book told in first person, readers will spend a lot of time inside Jamie’s head with his own opinions and observations. The point-of-view choice slows down the narrative, and it keeps readers at arm’s length for the first half.

Once Candlish reveals one major plot point, however, the rest start lining up like bowling pins. Candlish knocks them out at a steady, even pace, and readers will have a lot of fun watching Jamie try to squirm out of the mess he’s created. Even with some events out of his control, he’s definitely responsible for his own actions. How those actions connect to the larger story at hand comprises the second half of the book, and Candlish uses a practiced hand to strike when readers least expect.

Jamie’s mid-forty-something self rings true to readers who fall into that age range. It’s easy to sympathize with his desire for more while also his hesitation to work for it. The greatest irony comes in how often Jamie blames Kit for self-aggrandizement when he does exactly the same, only with a few more gray hairs.

Readers who don’t mind being a little patient for the main part of the story to start moving forward will enjoy this one. I recommend that The Other Passenger Borders on Bookmarking it!

Newest review: Where It All Lands by Jennie Wexler

By Ekta R. Garg

July 14, 2021

Genre: YA fiction

Release date: July 6, 2021

Rated: Binge it! / 5 stars

A trio of teens navigate young love and personal challenges while trying to figure out how to balance their friendships with one another. Just as the culmination of their story is revealed, a coin toss changes the entire scenario. Author Jennie Wexler makes the subject of first love sweet and refreshing while navigating her plot in the most subtle yet dynamic of ways in her excellent debut novel Where It All Lands.

High school sophomore Stevie Rosenstein arrives in New Jersey knowing one thing for sure: being the new girl sucks. She’s lived in so many places and had so many friends that it doesn’t even seem possible anymore to become good friends with anyone. And she’s never sure whether the kids who do want to be her friends are sincere or trying to score tickets to football games, all because her father is a coach for the NFL. It doesn’t matter how good she is on the saxophone or that she loves music and is basically a normal teenager.

As she walks into her new school, her guard is up. Then Stevie meets best buds Drew and Shane, and all of a sudden she discovers that both of them know how she feels. Drew’s dad is a famous music producer, leaving Drew to struggle with the same questions about friendships. Shane is a talented musician, a beast of a drummer, and he knows how music is the one thing that can make the world seem all right for a little while.

The boys spot Stevie at band practice at the start of the year, and they’re both drawn to her. They know, though, that fighting about who’s going to ask her out is dumb. Their friendship has survived more than a crush—Drew’s dad had an affair with an assistant and is on the verge of moving out. Shane’s dad died, leaving Shane with a huge hole in his life. The friends have supported each other through the worst; they’re not going to let a girl come between them.

There’s no denying that they both like her, though, and they both want to ask her out. In a moment of inspiration, Drew suggests flipping a coin for it. Shane is reluctant at first, but even he can’t argue with the logic that it’s basically the way they decide everything. They know it might seem a little skeevy, but Stevie never has to know.

As they call heads and tails, the boys have no idea just how their lives are going to change. Life is about to challenge each of them and the strength of their friendship. Both of them want to get to know Stevie better. Both of them have a fair reason to ask her out. But none of them will ever be the same again.

Debut author Jennie Wexler manages to navigate the tropes of YA romance without falling into a stereotypical plot. Telling the story first from when the coin lands on heads and then when it lands on tails, Wexler gives each of the boys an opportunity to explore a relationship with Stevie. In the hands of a less confident writer, the result might have felt caricaturish or melodramatic. Instead, Wexler provides depth and heft to the storyline both times she tells it.

Moreover, she’s able to find new details to share about all three of her main characters in both storylines, no easy job at all. As readers progress through Stevie’s budding relationship with one, they might think they’ll find out everything there is to know about Drew, Shane, and Stevie. Yet Wexler manages to hold back several surprises, both in terms of character development as well as the plot.

The biggest surprise may come in the fact that the stories with each of the boys ends in the same climactic moment, yet here too Wexler wields a deft hand that allows her to navigate possible story traps with ease. There’s no doubt readers will be reading as fast as possible to find out what actually happened.

Those who enjoy YA novels about first love and solid friendships that don’t follow the stereotypes will definitely want to check this out. I recommend readers Binge Where It All Lands.