[REVIEW] Pumpkinheads, by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks

(Buy it HERE.)β €
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Deja and Josiah are college-bound high school seniors working their last shift ever at a seasonal pumpkin patch job somewhere in Nebraska. From September 1st to Halloween every year the two are best friends, but the good times are coming to a bittersweet end. They decide to turn their last shift into a snack-filled quest to get Josiah to finally talk to the mysterious fudge shop girl he’s been crushing on for three years–but of course, things don’t go exactly as planned. β €
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This YA graphic novel is just…so sweet. Everything about it is light and adorable and gentle and wholesome–and I loved it! Most YA reminds me of all the things I hated about being a teenager. Pumpkinheads reminds me of all the things I loved –the purity of friendships, the constant sense of adventure right around the corner, and the lingering wonder of childhood mixing with the new adult privileges of roaming free with a little spending cash. Deja and Josiah are a perfectly matched set of buddies. They have fun, relatable personalities, and so do all their pumpkin patch coworkers (half of whom seem to be Deja’s exes). Even though all of the major story twists are telegraphed pretty early on, the people involved are so cute that you want to see your predictions play through anyway.β €
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The art is also adorable–a great cross-section of different body types, sizes, and races. I love that Deja is tall and plus sized with Afro puffs. I love that Josiah is gangly, awkward, and looks like he hasn’t quite grown into his bones yet. I love how much character and diversity is drawn into each body that appears on the page. There’s something really authentic about the way this is put together that makes it special in a lowkey, surprising way. β €
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I read this whole book over one lunch break and it refreshed my mood for the whole week. 5 stars and a handful of full-size Halloween candy bars to Pumpkinheads.

(If you have a sweet teenager in your life, fellow readers, get them this book. Use a link in this post–but be aware that this blog has affiliate relationships with Bookshop and other sites, and any purchases made from link on this site result in a commission being paid. Peace! )

[REVIEW] Freedom Is A Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine and the Foundations of a Movement, Angela Y Davis

(Find it HERE.)

Back in March, my favorite radical independent publisher Haymarket Books made several titles available for free as a contribution to keeping the world mentally occupied and socially engaged during the initial COVID-19 lockdowns. I downloaded them all and immediately started reading this collection of speeches and interviews from Angela Y. Davis, famously known for her affiliation with the Black Panther Party, her work in feminist studies, and her activism regarding prison abolition, anti-racism, and Palestinian liberation among other things.β €
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I started reading this in March. I finished it last Tuesday. To say that the content is dense is an understatement. Davis’ work is often challenged, but always targeted. She draws some alarming connections between industrial arms dealers and local police, and revisits points she’s made in previous books about the US carceral system, the need to avoid celebrity individualism in group activism, and the need for unified optimism, feminist relational connections, and nuanced racial thought in any justice movement. β €
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I’m not going to get into a deep discussion of Davis’ politics here–there simply isn’t enough room, and the internet is already too full of lousy amateur political takes from people who do very little work in reality. If I I have one major criticism, it’s that this is really a collection of transcribed speeches and interviews, not essays, and thus has a tendency to be a bit repetitive and meandering. Davis is 76, so she’s earned a few birdwalks, but I did notice that a lot of these speeches are just the same points repeated with a few local references based on the audience. β €
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The statue in the background of this photo is called “Not Afraid Of the Big Bad Wolf” and features an angry pig, standing firm, blowing back at a threat. It reminds me a bit of a quote from French activist Frank Barat, who edited these speeches for print and says, in the introduction: β €
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“But there’s a message there for everyone and it is that people can unite, that democracy from below can challenge oligarchy, that imprisoned migrants can be freed, that fascism can be overcome, and that equality is emancipatory.”β €
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4 stars and an afro pick with the power fist to Freedom is A Constant Struggle.

(Viva la revolution, fellow readers. Just a quick notice–this blog has affiliate relationships with entities like Bookshop and any clicks and purchases made from this site will result in a commission being paid. Peace! )

[REVIEW] Battle Ground, Jim Butcher

(Buy it HERE.)

transcript of actual footage of me reading this bookβ €
sips wineβ €
“Oh…this is a *fighting* book.”β €
longer sipβ €
“Wait…is that gonna…are they gonna…OH SHIT!!”β €
gulps wineβ €
“Is that (character we haven’t seen for several books)? That’s (character)! And they have big powers now? Go off, (character)! Get it! Hit the…OMG WHAT? Did that just happen?”β €
downs wine, pours new glassβ €
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So here we are, 17 books deep into the best-selling urban fantasy series about Chicagoland wizard-for-hire Harry Dresden. An entire universe of magical characters has been set up at this point, and a new villain–the titan Ethniu, backed by the weird Lovecraftian Fomor– has come to tear it all apart, and the mortal world along with it. The previous book, Peace Talks, was a bit disappointing but it turns out it did a very good job of setting up this book, which is essentially one long scary battle for the fate of Chicago’s human population. Everyone and everything that Harry’s ever met in his magical adventures shows up to do their part to save the city–regardless of what side they’ve been on in the past.β €
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Butcher could write a scuffle between two third-graders in a playground and make it compelling, so once the battle get underway about 5 chapters in, the book is riveting. There’s something supremely satisfying about seeing the heavy-hitters of the supernatural world (and a few badass normals) really let loose fighting an evil that makes all their previous battles look like playground tussles. Despite Harry’s wisecracking facade, you suddenly realize he’s slowly leveled up to pal-ling around with demigods–and the time has come for a reckoning. With the increase in power comes an increase in stakes. This book is filled with surprise deaths and reveals, one of which surprised me so much I couldn’t even cry at how sad it was. Much like in the 12th book, Changes, you get the sense that everything in the Dresdenverse has irreversibly shifted and Harry will never be the same…but this time the entire world is changing with him. β €
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Battle Ground is a sad, funny, entertaining and enormously enjoyable popcorn movie of a book. 5 stars and I’m looking forward to the next one already.

(This book is the most fun I’ve had reading in a while. If you want to give it a try, be aware that if you click and purchase it from a link here on this website a commission will be earned. I can’t do magic like Harry, but I worry just as much about bills. πŸ˜€ Peace!)

[REVIEW] Godhead Sentiment, Juan Ibarbol

(Find it HERE.)

In high school French class I often sat across from a tall, quiet Mexican kid with a name our teacher loved to yowl across the classroom at random times. “IBARROL!” she’d yelp, and he’d dutifully respond with a verb conjugation. “IBARROL!” she’d howl, and he’d move seats to join a study group. “IBARROL!!!” she trumpeted–until one day, he looked back at her and replied, “There’s a “B” in my name.” She nodded– “Yes, at the beginning, right?” β €
With the patience of a saint, he answered, “Yeah, but there’s another one. My name is IbarBOL.”β €
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And thus, the universe ensured that I would never forget that name or that moment.
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I didn’t know my old classmate was a fellow writer until he self-published this novella a couple of years ago. The name was familiar, so I snagged a copy and then later saw on Facebook that the same tall quiet kid from French class long ago was now indeed a self-published sci-fi writer. If you happen to come across this, Juan–congrats! I’m proud of you! Write more!πŸ˜β €
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I won’t give this an intense review (it always feels weird to do that when you sort of know the author) but I will say that Godhead Sentiment has an old school adventure feel to it. It reminds me of the pulp novels and Phillip K. Dick anthologies that first got me into the genre, mostly in all of the best ways. It has suspicious A.I.’s, corporate plots, 3D printed human beings operating off of transferred consciousness(think Altered Carbon, only less emotional) and a strange idea called Godhead lurking in the background. The action starts quickly and keeps its momentum until the end, where there are some genuinely affecting emotional moments. β €
The story has a lot of potential, and I kind of wonder what it would be like polished and stretched into a full novel, where some of the themes would have more room to breathe and characters could be expanded. Either way, I enjoyed the read for its nostalgia factor and the hints it drops leading to a road to rethinking the alpha male in sci-fi(jury’s still out on women, though.)β €
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You can find Godhead Sentiment as an ebook on Amazon, and because I happen to like how the evil corporate conglomerate provides very empowering opportunities for self-published authors from all sorts of communities to share their work with the world and get paid for it–this is one of the few times you’ll see an Amazon link on this blog. Any clicks and purchases put a few pennies in the author’s pocket so if this book sounds interesting to you, I encourage you to purchase it.

Peace, fellow readers!

[REVIEW] Emergency Skin, N.K. Jemisin

By now we’ve all heard the incredible news that the Grande Dame Nouvelle of Black speculative fiction, and spec-fic in general, N.K. Jemisin herself, is one of the 2020 recipients of the MacArthur Genius Grant. (If you hadn’t heard–well, now you have!)

I’m a huge Jemisin fan, considering her the heir apparent to the throne left vacant when Octavia Butler left us all too soon. I’ve enjoyed all of her work, along with most of the rest of the book-buying world–is there anyone left who doesn’t see the genius of The Broken Earth Trilogy?

However, my favorite of her works (so far) is also her most unexpected, in my opinion–the short novelette Emergency Skin, one of the half-dozen titles in the Forward Collection made available exclusively as Kindle e-books last fall. I’ve read enough N.K. Jemisin to expect myself to have a very strong emotional response to her work. I still didn’t expect to whoop, cackle and cheer at this short the way that I did. (Internally, of course. Except for the cackling–some of that was out loud.)

I was thoroughly surprised by the speculative premise and the sneaky optimism written into this quick, spare story of a rather unusual space colonizer. Spec-fic and fantasy are my favorite reading campgrounds but I can’t deny that these days they’re pretty grim, pessimistic places to be–everything seems to be a dystopia, a gritty reboot or a crapsack world made of pain in need of an antihero. It’s not the most emotionally rejuvenating literary space, to put it mildly.

Jemisin is no stranger to grim, gritty, and mean but she neatly reverse-engineers all of that into something wryly funny and hopeful without losing any of her usual creative edge. It’s short and very densely plotted so I won’t spoil it for you in this review but let me just say this; when I first realized where it was going I literally howled with laughter, Even now, every time I think of the story’s conclusion I have to smile a little. It’s a feel good bit of incisive, socially aware speculative fiction and I can’t recommend it enough. If you only read one of Amazon’s exclusive Forward short story collection, I recommend this one (although it’s a very close tie with Blake Crouch’s Summer Frost). If you’ve never read any of Jemisin’s work before and are curious now that she’s an actual MacArthur Genius–give it a whirl. Finally, if you love sci-fi but need a little bit of hope with your interplanetary/biological/environmentally dystopic shenanigans–you definitely could do with a big dose of Emergency Skin.

(This blog has affiliate relationships with online booksellers like Bookshop, so any clicks and purchases made from here may result in a commission being paid. While I usually don’t link to Amazon (for reasons I’ve explained), creative initiatives like the Forward Collection are one of the saving graces of the platform and one of the reasons I can’t just chuck the whole site away just yet(that and the number of marginalized and BIPOC authors who find their self-publishing platform empowering). So, you’ve been warned. There’s Amazon links in here. It won’t happen again any time soon.)

[REVIEW] Clap When You Land, Elizabeth Acevedo

(Buy it HERE.)

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Yano Rios is on a flight from NYC to Santo Domingo when a mechanical error causes the plane to crash. There are no survivors, and his teenaged daughter Camino is devastated when the anticipation of her father’s yearly visit turns into unspeakable grief and sudden financial insecurity for her and her aunt. His other teenaged daughter, Yahaira, is equally devastated back in New York, after finding that her father’s yearly business trip has ended in tragedy. β €
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Neither daughter has any idea that the other even exists, but while grieving they find each other and learn a few of the secrets their father carried between countries for 17 years.β €
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I feel as though this novel-in-verse tells a story I’ve heard variations of my whole life but have rarely seen so thoroughly told. It’s not unusual for women’s lives to be wrapped around men’s lies. What makes this book unique and refreshing is how remarkably non-judgmental it is. There’s not a lot of moralizing or villainizing going on (with one notable exception). Everyone and every choice is written through a lens of love. Even though I expected to be upset by some characters, I never was–the sense of community empathy Acevedo creates in these pages is far too great. She packs a lot of humanity into these verses; two lifetimes of grief, two families worth of betrayal, and foundations for a great future. I have no doubt that Yahaira and Camino are in a good place somewhere, many years after the end of the story–it ends on a sweet, hopeful note after beginning with tragedy. β €
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Novels in verse seem to be a literary *thing* these days–I’m just not sure they’re mine. While I definitely appreciate the craftsmanship it takes to write a whole novel this way and I’m impressed by how much depth the format gave to the characters and their surroundings, I’m very picky about poetry and this took me a while to get into. I’m not in a hurry to read any more verse novels, honestly. I will check out Acevedo’s other work though–she has such a beautiful way with characters and I want to meet more of her people.

There’s a lot more that could be said about this novel–about its portraits of Dominican and Dominican diasporan life and how they converge and diverge, about the things it has to say about daughterhood and how important fathers can be, and about how deeply but non-performatively culturally Dominican the text is–I don’t know a lot of Dominicans and had to look a lot of things up as I read. But I’ll leave that to more literary heads than mine and simply say that while this isn’t the best thing I’ve read this month, it’s a worthwhile read with a lot of emotional depth and heart. I enjoyed it and think you might, too.
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4 and half stars and some poetry night snaps to Clap When You Land.

This blog has affiliate relationships and any clicks/purchases may result in a commission being paid. Peace!

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[REVIEW] Half-Resurrection Blues, Daniel JosΓ© Older

(Buy it HERE.)

First things first–I read this on the MyMustReads app for Android and absolutely hated it. It’s poorly designed and made my reading experience far less enjoyable. 0/10, will not use again unless they overhaul it entirely. Delete, block, ban. UGH.
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Fortunately the book in question was more enjoyable than the app I used to read it, although it still wasn’t perfect. It was initially described to me as “Puerto Rican zombie detective in Brooklyn” and I was instantly sold. I was all too ready to put MalagueΓ±a-smoking, sword-cane wielding, santeria-observing half-dead investigator Carlos Delacruz in my urban fantasy clique along with Harry Dresden, Damali Richards, Jilly Coppercorn and Elena Michaels but…

man does this book start slow. Painfully slow. It took about ten chapters for the momentum to pick up and even then–there are a lot of dips and lulls in the action. I’m not sure how–the premise is very interesting. One day, Carlos woke up dead–well, half-dead, anyway. Since then he’s been hunting and dispatching Brooklyn’s errant ghosts on behalf of a mysterious afterlife bureaucracy, convinced that he’s the only one of his kind. Until one day–he’s not…β €
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It’s hard to review this book since it’s such a mixed bag. Sometimes it lurches clumsily and aimlessly along much like its half-dead protagonist. Other times it’s evocative and gripping. Ultimately it’s uneven and a little flat, even though the premise is fire. Nothing is explained enough and Carlos is a pretty dull hero who does what he’s told and rarely has ideas of his own. The best bits are an action packed trip to the underworld and the obligatory action-driving urban fantasy love story. In the latter, the love interest is unfortunately more of a prop than a person but it’s one of the few times Carlos rouses from his sleepy half-dead expository drone and really becomes an interesting narrator with an inner life and motivation. There are a few beautifully written love scenes that made me bump this up a star.
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What saves the book, time and again, are the side characters–sniffy dead bureaucrats, the local santeria’s resident Baba, his angrily white-passing indigenous lawyer boyfriend, a very unlucky Hasidic realtor, and Esther, a motherly spirit literally attached to an library for the spirit world. Because of them, and the fact that I’ve read and enjoyed some of Older’s other work (namely Shadowshaper), I’d probably pick up the next in the series if I see it somewhere by chance–but I won’t go out of my way to find it.β €
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3 stars and a defibrillation to Half-Resurrection Blues.

(You know what time it is, beautiful people. This blog has an affiliate relationship with other sites like Bookshop, which means if you click and purchase, a commission will be earned. Peace!)

[REVIEW] Children of Virtue and Vengeance, Tomi Adeyemi

(Buy it HERE.)

Let me begin this review by putting on my flame retardant suit and face mask.

sighOkay, I get that people love this book, and the series it forms the center of. I even get why they love it. I want to love it, too. It’s fantasy, it’s epic, it’s romantic (sorta), it’s written by a black woman, and it’s super-duper, Afro-pick with a fist, fufu and plantain, cocoa butter and respect your elders BLACK. Not just Black, Black and feminine. Lord knows we need more books and authors like this out here in these spec-fic streets and based on that alone, this got a pre-order and preliminary 3 star rating from me.

However none of that erases the fact that this is a bone dry, 90 chapter, by-the-numbers monstrosity that messily changes point of view every 5 pages or so and is full of whiny teenage angst that leads to murder, death and mutilation for no real reason except that all the adults who show up are crazy and our main characters generally have the relationship skills of pounded yam. They’re also so boring that I don’t remember their names and can’t be bothered to look them up. Sure, there’s magic, there’s love triangles, there’s all the ingredients of a successful YA fantasy book but man. This is really the cold grits of fantasy fiction–unenjoyable to take in and hard to digest, but you eat it up anyway for the culture. The book really doesn’t become genuinely enjoyable to read until the last 15 chapters or so. Up until then I was just struggling through the bad prose and dull personalities thinking DEAR GOD THERE’S GOING TO BE ANOTHER BOOK WHY AND YO, TOMI PLEASE STOP ADDING -AIRE TO ALL THE ANIMAL NAMES LIKE THAT’S SPECIAL IT’S JUST ANNOYING AHHHHH…

sighSorry.

That said, read this anyway. Game of Thrones has even worse writing, and the land of Orisha will make a much better TV show whenever it happens. Read this, because we need to increase the presence of Africa and black people in our speculative collective consciousness and they don’t all have to be genius, they just have to *be*. (I’ve talked about that a bunch here.) Then go read N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, Octavia Butler and Nalo Hopkinson, because all Black women who are speculative fiction writers need love (and the preceding four happen to be geniuses.)

3 out of 5 stars to Children of Virtue and Vengeance.

(Beautiful people, this was one of my more disappointing reads, but if you think you might like it, feel free to click and buy. The cover is gorgeous and looks pretty on your bookshelf, even if you don’t like it. If you do click and buy, be aware that this blog has an affiliate relationship with Bookshop and any purchases will result in a commission being paid. Peace! )

[REVIEW] The Dirty Girls Social Club, Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez

(Buy it HERE.)

You know what the weirdest thing about being an adult is? It’s that nobody ever really tells the whole truth. We’re told not to lie for our entire childhoods, then we grow up and realize almost no-one is ever entirely honest about what’s really going on with them.
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Take, for example, the protagonists of The Dirty Girls Social Club–six very grown, very successful Latinas in Boston. Some are family women, some are professionals, some are lovestruck…and all are liars. Every one of them is keeping secrets, and the plot of the book predictably follows their lives as the truth comes out, bit by bit. β €
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I enjoyed this. I don’t like drawing comparisons, but it’s a bit like a Latina Waiting To Exhale. There’s the same sense of camaraderie, a similar tone as the book nods to life as a modern, professional woman who also wants love and family and a decent place to live, preferably without racism kicking your ass as you do it. As a nice touch, the Dirty Girls have not only diverse personalities but cultures and backgrounds–Amber is a goth Mexica rocker with working class roots, Liz a gorgeous Black Colombian, Sara a rich white Cuban Jew, Becca a New Mexican Hispanic princess, Usnavys a Puerto Rican plus-size diva, and finally Lauren is half Cuban-exile, half-American trailer park, all disaster. They interact like oil and vinegar–the book has a slow start but once it smooths out it’s quite entertaining. It’s a sloppy, girly story of friendships, relationships and all the drama they contain, and I had fun visiting with these ladies for a bit.β €
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There’s a few things that kept this from being perfect for me. All six main characters are very strongly written, but many of their storylines get left out in the cold. Also, the author quite candidly writes the anti-Blackness and homophobia endemic in some Latin communities into the characters’ lives–so candidly that at some points, I forgot these were just characters in a book and got legitimately angry. It’s strange and uncomfortable to see the rumors of what other cultures think of your community confirmed and laid out boldly on a page, even when it’s called out as wrong.

(It bears mentioning here that I first heard of this book, and its author, via her supremely written, incisive takedown of Oprah’s Book Club darling American Dirt. That link directs you to the takedown, not to the book. It’s one of the best things I’ve read in a long while.)
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In the end, though, this was a fun, relatable bit of chick-lit, broadly inclusive of Latinx/Latine groups, and full of juicy drama that kept me turning pages. 4 stars and some therapy to The Dirty Girls Social Club.

(Beautiful people! I thought about doing this usual announcement in Spanish and then I realized I knew better and decided to let you know that this blog has affiliate relationships with great sites like Bookshop and any click/purchases result in a commission being paid in English, like I usually do. Peace!)

[REVIEW] The Black Traveler’s Guide To Incheon, by The Blerd Explorer


(Buy it on Amazon or Apple)

The city of Incheon sits right in the shadow of Western Seoul, South Korea. It holds two international airports, several beaches, and one of the world’s more interesting Chinatowns, but most people skim past it and head straight to Seoul’s more popular attractions.
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That’s where this handy travel guide by The Blerd Explorer comes in. Full of photos, practical descriptions and personal anecdotes, it gives novice travelers a great foundation from which to plan their travels in Incheon and to Korea in general. The guide mentions everything from restaurants to hiking trails to anime exhibits and gives a pretty good idea of what it’s like to get around, socialize and sightsee in Incheon. There are quite a few notes on Korean culture and the way Korean locals treat Black people–those sections are quite general but mostly accurate, and you can tell the author put in an effort to be fair and culturally positive. The photos are lovely and there’s a helpful directory in the back giving addresses for many of the places named in the text.(Phone numbers or social media handles would be helpful too, though.)β €
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I’ll be the first to admit–I don’t think I’m really the target demographic for this book. Although I am Black, I’ve been living abroad for nearly 14 years, 7 and and half of those in Korea. I’m a seasoned traveler who started globetrotting before social media and online travel guides were much of a thing, and I don’t have much of a complex about traveling while Black anymore, if I ever even did. However, I could see this guide being very helpful for new travelers and young Black Americans with a lot of fears and reservations about leaving the country for the first time. We all have to start somewhere, and I could see this book being a launchpad for the right person. This is a book for the very inexperienced, but that’s a good thing. β €
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Many thanks to The Blerd Explorer for sending me a copy of this ebook to review. It’s currently available on Amazon and Apple Books. If Korea is on your post-Corona bucket list, give it a look.

(This blog has affiliate relationships and a commission may be earned from any clicks and purchases. Peace!)