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: 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.

Brand new review: Falling by T.J. Newman

By Ekta R. Garg

July 7, 2021

Genre: Thriller

Release date: July 6, 2021

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

When a pilot’s family is kidnapped, the kidnapper forces him to choose between the family or his passengers. As the pilot does his best to maneuver the situation, he’ll have to rely on a trio of flight attendants and the goodwill of law enforcement on the ground to keep everyone safe. Debut author T.J. Newman relies heavily on her personal experience as a flight attendant for her fantastic first novel Falling.

Bill Hoffman is a veteran of his airline. He was there in the early days when no one knew if the company would survive. Now, more than two decades later, he enjoys a fair amount of seniority…except when it comes to the boss. When Bill gets the call to fill in at the last minute for a flight from L.A. to New York, he doesn’t think twice about saying yes.

His wife, Carrie, isn’t thrilled. Bill promised to spend his days off with the family. His 10-year-old son, Scott, is playing in the Little League season opener. Between managing Scott’s baseball schedule and taking care of their surprise baby, Elise, Carrie’s hands are full. Although she’s grumbling when they say goodbye, Bill knows he’ll find a way to make it up to Carrie when he gets back.

Minutes after Bill leaves home, however, Carrie and the kids are taken hostage inside their own home. The hostage taker calls himself Sam and seems to know where Bill is headed. He waits until Bill is in the cockpit and pushing back from the gate to get in touch with his one demand. Bill will have to make a choice: his family or his passengers. If he doesn’t crash the plane into a location yet to be revealed, his family dies.

Bill’s mind begins to race. He’s bound and determined to land the plane safely, and he knows he can’t let anything happen to Carrie and the children. Despite Sam’s warning against it, at the first available opportunity Bill tells the head of his flight crew, Jo, about what’s going on.

He and Jo have flown together for almost their entire careers. They’re coworkers and friends, and he needs someone he can trust. Sam refuses to tell Bill where to crash the plane, but he does let Bill in on the fact that someone else on the flight is working with him. If the terrorist can have an accomplice, Bill can have one too.

As the flight travels the five hours between the two major cities, Bill, Jo, and a whole host of other people fight to keep everyone on the plane and the ground alive. Bill’s adrenaline is running at a permanent high, but he knows one thing for sure. No one is going to die on his watch today.

Author T.J. Newman worked for 10 years as a flight attendant and wrote Falling while she spent time in the air. Her experience shows in the lingo she uses that all real-life flight crews will surely recognize. Newman keeps a balance, though, between the authenticity of that language and making sure readers know what they’re talking about.

She also builds realistic characters. Bill’s fear and his helplessness ring true as does his resourcefulness. Like other people trained in high-risk jobs, Bill leans into his training to help him figure out the problem.

As the senior-most flight attendant, Jo is ready-made for these types of crises. Readers will hope for attendants like her on their future trips. Like Bill, she’s three-dimensional and relatable.

The made-for-the-movies climax and ending might seem a touch corny, but these types of stories almost require an ending where readers and/or viewers are cheering and teary-eyed by the end. Newman picks her terrorists’ cause with care, making it feel relevant to today’s world. She also doesn’t hesitate to give her terrorists some sympathetic qualities. What they did was wrong, as Carrie asserts at one point, but it’s easy to understand why they did it.

The book fits squarely within its genre and as a movie would be instantly rewatchable. Readers who enjoy a fun thriller with unexpected story twists will definitely enjoy this one. I recommend readers Bookmark Falling.