Happy Tuesday, bibliophiles!
I’m always up for diverse anthologies, and the fact that this one focused on both sci-fi/fantasy stories and geek/nerd culture from a Black lens was an instant sell for me! There were a few authors that I was familiar with and liked in here—Jordan Ifueko, Roseanne A. Brown, and Leah Johnson, to name a few—so that helped its case too. But as with any anthology, there were hits and misses, but there were still a fair amount of gems within Cool. Awkward. Black.
Enjoy this week’s review!
Cool. Awkward. Black. – edited by Karen Strong (anthology)
summary from Goodreads:
A multi-genre YA anthology of bestselling, critically acclaimed Black authors challenging the concept of the geek, featuring contributions from Amerie, Kalynn Bayron, Terry J. Benton-Walker, Roseanne A. Brown, Elise Bryant, Tracy Deonn, Desiree S. Evans, Isaac Fitzsimons, Lamar Giles, Jordan Ifueko, Leah Johnson, Amanda Joy, Kwame Mbalia, Tochi Onyebuchi, Shari B. Pennant, K. Arsenault Rivera, Julian Winters, and Ibi Zoboi.
A girl who believes in UFOs; a boy who might have finally found his Prince Charming; a hopeful performer who dreams of being cast in her school’s production of The Sound of Music; a misunderstood magician of sorts with a power she doesn’t quite understand.
These plotlines and many more compose the eclectic stories found within the pages of this dynamic, exciting, and expansive collection featuring exclusively Black characters. From contemporary to historical, fantasy to sci-fi, magical to realistic, and with contributions from a powerhouse list of self-proclaimed geeks and bestselling, award-winning authors, this life-affirming anthology celebrates and redefines the many facets of Blackness and geekiness–both in the real world and those imagined.
TW/CW: racism, misogyny, religion-based bigotry
Cool. Awkward. Black. was hit or miss as a whole, but above all, there were a few fantastic stories in the bunch, and I loved the spotlight on Black sci/fi fantasy, as well as geek culture. With all Black protagonists, many of which are queer and/or disabled, it’s a breath of fresh air, even if not every story was a hit for me.
Since this is an anthology, I’ll do shorter reviews of each story in chronological order.
“Our Joy, Our Power” – Julian Winters (⭐️⭐️⭐️.5)
I was expecting to not be a fan of this one after not being a fan of Running With Lions, but this was a surprisingly sweet story! With a tender, queer romance at a comic con and some great commentary on the racism within cosplay culture, this was a great start to the anthology. I’m not sure if it’s enough for me to give Winters’ novels another chance, but I certainly enjoyed it.
“The Book Club” – Shari B. Pennant (⭐️⭐️.5)
I felt obligated to like this one as a former book club president, but this one was a letdown. The concept of this one was interesting enough—a girl finds a book that seems to speak to her when she picks it up, and is then invited to a secret society of magic wielders in the guise of a book club—but the prose veered onto the cheesy side more often than not. I wish we’d gotten a little bit more context around the Society (and…okay, maybe the name was vague on purpose, but I would’ve liked a name more interesting than just “The Society”) and more of what their magic entailed other than the Evil Magician™️ that Must Be Defeated.
“Nina Evans, In the Round” – Kalynn Bayron (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
This one was an unexpected highlight of the anthology! Again, my expectations were rather low after how much of a sore disappointment Cinderella is Dead was for me, but I loved this story of a Black girl determined to get the role of Maria in her high school’s production of The Sound of Music. Her story of determination was a powerful and timely one, and I loved the poignant themes of Nina breaking the mold and never surrendering.
“Earth is Ghetto” – Ibi Zoboi (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
Even without the fantastic title, “Earth is Ghetto” is undoubtedly one of the best stories in this anthology! It follows Ingrid, a Haitian immigrant, who witnesses First Contact, and upon speaking to the aliens and wishing to go to their planet, realizes that they harbor many of the same prejudices as humans back on Earth. It’s witty, it’s timely, and it’s unflinchingly questioning of the norms upon which both we and the aliens built our societies. I loved the hopeful ending as well; it’s hard to get this kind of ultimatum that Ingrid has to make across in such a short story, but Zoboi managed to do all that and subvert the usual tropes and endings that go along with it. Great stuff.
“Initiative Check” – K. Arsenault Rivera (⭐️⭐️⭐️)
This was the first time I’d ever heard of K. Arsenault Rivera, and this was a decent story, I’d say. The whole story comprises a group of friends and their Dungeons and Dragons campaign, and although I wasn’t as big of a fan of the campaign aspect of it, I loved the subtle, tender chemistry that Rivera created between her larger cast of characters. A nice, sweet story, but nothing that changed my life.
“Corner Booth” – Leah Johnson (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
Following in the footsteps of Johnson’s solid rom-coms, “Corner Booth” was the story of two teens meeting after competing with each other for years over a competitive, Scrabble-like spelling app. I loved the definitions scattered throughout, showing Rose’s knack for strategy and etymology, and I loved the buildup of the enemies/rivals-to-lovers romance blossoming between her and Wes. It’s an adorable addition to the anthology, and a standout without a doubt.
“Betty’s Best Craft” – Elise Bryant (⭐️⭐️⭐️.5)
Elise Bryant perfectly captures the chaos of a high school group project, but I find myself wishing that mine had the romance of this story. Another sweet enemies-to-friends/lovers, Bryant wonderfully weaves in the grudge that Betty’s had against Jhamir for years, and takes that buildup into a blossoming friendship—or maybe something more—on a final project for an African American History class. I’ve only read Bryant’s Happily Ever Afters, but “Betty’s Best Craft” felt the same way—a light, sweet, and artsy romance of second chances.
“The Panel Shows the Girl” – Amanda Joy (⭐️⭐️.5)
I really wanted to like this one, and there was one aspect that I really did like—the discussion around disability and accommodations. Amaya’s struggles with trying to get accommodations for her ADHD was one that I knew all too well, and I’m glad to see that perspective represented. That being said, the rest of the story felt clunky to me; the twist about the drawings coming to life felt shoehorned in and poorly executed, and most of the dialogue felt stilted and corny as well. Shame…
“Spirit-Filled” – Jordan Ifueko (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
I expected nothing less from the author of Raybearer, and “Spirit-Filled” delivered! I loved the discussions around Romilly questioning her faith and the role of women, as well as the suspense built by Romilly’s secret library book locked in the supply closet of her church. Like many of the other short stories in this story, I love how unapologetic it is about questioning authority and systems, and Romilly was a great vehicle for exploring misogyny in some parts of organized religion. Plus, the youth pastor character was appropriately cringey, so that was pretty funny.
“Cole’s Cruise Blues” – Isaac Fitzsimmons (⭐️⭐️⭐️.5)
Although I wasn’t as much of a fan of the writing in this one, it had a wonderful emotional core, and I loved that it featured a trans protagonist! Also, I definitely felt for poor Hailey…man, I feel that 10 year old feel of botching something in front of an audience 😭 I JUST WANNA GIVE THE POOR KID A HUG
“High Strangeness” – Desiree S. Evans (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
More than ever, this story made me yearn for the experience of stargazing in the middle of nowhere with a goth girlfriend…is that too much to ask?
“Catalyst Rising” – Tracy Deonn (⭐️⭐️.5)
Unlike some of the other stories, I went into this story with low expectations, and the low expectations were…met. I wasn’t as blown away by Legendborn as everybody else seemed to be, and this story was more of the same. It felt like a very cliched setup for a fantasy chosen one in the real world, and although I liked the inclusion of Petra’s anxiety, the story as a whole just felt so overdone and exaggerated.
“Requiem of Souls” – Terry J. Benton-Walker (⭐️⭐️⭐️.5)
I LOVED the concept of this one, especially the trio of unique ghosts that follow Rocko around, and Rocko using them to get back at those who have wronged him. The musical aspect was a lot of fun as well, and it added some very Tim Burton-like, campy fun to this story. Plus, although being Gen Z has given me a permanent Minecraft association to the word “creeper,” I loved this story’s monstrous Creeper as well.
“Honor Code” – Kwame Mbalia (⭐️⭐️)
The dialogue felt very stilted for me on this one, and beyond that, it felt more like a comprehensive guide to LARPing and not an actual story. If “Honor Code” leaned more on the present day and not so heavily on the multiple flashbacks, it would’ve held so much more water. This one might be my least favorite story in the collection.
“Drive Time” – Lamar Giles (⭐️⭐️⭐️)
Although it wasn’t the most well-written of the collection, I loved the multiple POVs and the nonstop action of “Drive Time.” The writing was more than a little cheesy, but unlike some of the other stories, it felt cheesy for the right reasons—this story is essentially if a botched driver’s test turned into something like Fast & Furious, after all. I appreciate the art of well-placed cheese.
“Wolf Tracks” – Roseanne A. Brown (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
Nothing beats werewolves tearing a racist troll to shreds (literally, in this sense), does it? I was super excited to read Brown’s addition to the story, and she delivers every bit of it with humor, heart, and grounding emotion that balances levity with more grounded themes.
“The Hero’s Journey” – Tochi Onyebuchi (⭐️⭐️⭐️.5)
I wasn’t expecting to like this one as much after how disappointing Beasts Made of Night was, but “The Hero’s Journey” perfectly captured writer’s block in a way that I’ve never seen in a short story—or any novel that I can think of. I didn’t expect to be called out with the [INSERT CHARACTER NAME IN BRACKETS], but here we are. Happens to the best of us.
“Abyss” – Amerie (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
I was super impressed by Amerie’s short story in A Phoenix Must First Burn, and her story here was a perfect sendoff for Cool. Awkward. Black. Her character work and descriptions are once again fantastic, and for once, she can make a lack of quotation marks in dialogue an understandable stylistic choice that still makes the story flow. The latter is something that usually gets on my nerves, but Amerie used it greatly to her advantage in “Abyss.”
I averaged out my ratings for each story, and they came out to about a 3.5! I’d say that’s accurate—it was a mixed bag, but there were unexpected gems from both authors that I love and authors that I didn’t like as much previously. Not every one shone, but there were enough fantastic ones in there to make this a wonderful experience. And my ratings aside, I loved the diversity of both the characters and the genres of each story—it’s a very unique collection. 3.5 stars!
Cool. Awkward. Black. is an anthology, and if you click this Goodreads link, you can see all of the previous works of the many authors featured in this collection.
That’s it for this week’s Book Review Tuesday! Have a wonderful rest of your day, and take care of yourselves!