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Red at the Bone

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Goodreads Choice Award
Nominee for Best Fiction (2019)
Moving forward and backward in time, Jacqueline Woodson's taut and powerful new novel uncovers the role that history and community have played in the experiences, decisions, and relationships of these families, and in the life of the new child.

As the book opens in 2001, it is the evening of sixteen-year-old Melody's coming of age ceremony in her grandparents' Brooklyn brownstone. Watched lovingly by her relatives and friends, making her entrance to the music of Prince, she wears a special custom-made dress. But the event is not without poignancy. Sixteen years earlier, that very dress was measured and sewn for a different wearer: Melody's mother, for her own ceremony-- a celebration that ultimately never took place.

Unfurling the history of Melody's parents and grandparents to show how they all arrived at this moment, Woodson considers not just their ambitions and successes but also the costs, the tolls they've paid for striving to overcome expectations and escape the pull of history. As it explores sexual desire and identity, ambition, gentrification, education, class and status, and the life-altering facts of parenthood, Red at the Bone most strikingly looks at the ways in which young people must so often make long-lasting decisions about their lives--even before they have begun to figure out who they are and what they want to be.

196 pages, Hardcover

First published September 17, 2019

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About the author

Jacqueline Woodson

83 books8,219 followers
I used to say I’d be a teacher or a lawyer or a hairdresser when I grew up but even as I said these things, I knew what made me happiest was writing.

I wrote on everything and everywhere. I remember my uncle catching me writing my name in graffiti on the side of a building. (It was not pretty for me when my mother found out.) I wrote on paper bags and my shoes and denim binders. I chalked stories across sidewalks and penciled tiny tales in notebook margins. I loved and still love watching words flower into sentences and sentences blossom into stories.

I also told a lot of stories as a child. Not “Once upon a time” stories but basically, outright lies. I loved lying and getting away with it! There was something about telling the lie-story and seeing your friends’ eyes grow wide with wonder. Of course I got in trouble for lying but I didn’t stop until fifth grade.

That year, I wrote a story and my teacher said “This is really good.” Before that I had written a poem about Martin Luther King that was, I guess, so good no one believed I wrote it. After lots of brouhaha, it was believed finally that I had indeed penned the poem which went on to win me a Scrabble game and local acclaim. So by the time the story rolled around and the words “This is really good” came out of the otherwise down-turned lips of my fifth grade teacher, I was well on my way to understanding that a lie on the page was a whole different animal — one that won you prizes and got surly teachers to smile. A lie on the page meant lots of independent time to create your stories and the freedom to sit hunched over the pages of your notebook without people thinking you were strange.

Lots and lots of books later, I am still surprised when I walk into a bookstore and see my name on a book’s binder. Sometimes, when I’m sitting at my desk for long hours and nothing’s coming to me, I remember my fifth grade teacher, the way her eyes lit up when she said “This is really good.” The way, I — the skinny girl in the back of the classroom who was always getting into trouble for talking or missed homework assignments — sat up a little straighter, folded my hands on the desks, smiled and began to believe in me.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 8,555 reviews
Profile Image for Nilufer Ozmekik.
2,067 reviews38.1k followers
December 10, 2021
Finally my soul landed on a poignant, beautifully written, emotional, heart-warming story. When this year’s fiction books suffer from lack of creativity and mostly published by commercial success, it is normal to fall everything under your expectations. I loved “Nickel Boys”, “Woman is no Man”, “Ask Again Yes” so much, but lately I haven’t found any gem as marvelous as them till I read this book and now I’m happy to announce this is one of the best fictions of this year (Probably it will compete for best fiction books at Goodread Choices) So I gave my shiny, beautiful, family bounds, full of unforgettable characters stars.

Well, I didn’t request this book from NetGalley, I couldn’t risk get rejection or see my request at the pending purgatory till it moves to archive cemetery! This is the best decision to buy it, have it and love it!

This time none of the characters earned my slap show but me because I pissed off myself for not reading any of the other books of this author. Yes, boo and shout at me “shame” as I perform my walk of atonement like Cersei Lannister!

Coming of age ceremony is an important traditional celebration and sixteen year old Melody climbs down the stair and takes part in this memorable tradition, as their parents and grandparents watch her, eyes filled in tears, flashing moments before their eyes belonged to their past lives.

Melody wears her mother’s dress that she never had a chance to wear because of her pregnancy, adjusted and sewn for her size. The story starts her big step for jumping into the adulthood.

We move back and forth with different timelines to catch other main characters’ stories including Melody’s grandfather Sammy Po’boy and grandmother Sabe (they were my favorite couple and I really got jealous about their perfect love story), and the heartbreaking story of her father Aubrey and Her mother Iris about two people met so young, brought a baby to the world, wanted so many different things from life and couldn’t have a healthy, lifelong relationship. Aubrey created his secluded and happy place with a job gave him enough to make ends meet, his beautiful daughter’s smile and his unconditional, vivid love for Iris. But Iris wanted to discover the outer world. She was also a child when she became mother. Aubrey’s mother changed her life view. She made her demand and asking for more. She went to college, had a secret girlfriend, mentioned her daughter as her sister. But when the truth came out she went back to Brooklyn when her parents, daughter and father of her child lived and face her consequences about her choices.

This book is about self-discovery, racism, family bound, hunger, poorness, life choices, facing your real emotions. It starts with the first step of Melody and ends with her next biggest step in her life.
Poignant, unique, extraordinary…Truly loved it…Celebrating it with my happy dance and a good bottle of Merlot ( Yes my husband forgot his glasses and brought this as a white wine, AGAIN! I’m so lazy to go to liquor store, so that’s fine! -Spitting sound- Oh no! This is cherry juice! Yikes! Husband dearest already jumped from the window to save himself from my punishment! Should I call 911? Nope, he’ll be fine, he’s like a cat, he has seven lives!)
I had bad luck with drinks but totally best luck with the book and I enjoyed it so much.

Profile Image for Angela M (On a little break).
1,270 reviews2,217 followers
July 22, 2019
To say that Jacqueline Woodson is gifted story teller who writes beautifully almost feels like faint praise. The story begins with Melody, celebrating her sixteenth birthday, walking down the stairs in her grandparents brownstone, reaching a milestone in this present moment moving toward her future. In alternating narratives, moving back and forth in time, Woodson reflects on the pasts of Melody’s mother Iris, her father Aubrey, her grandmother Sabe and grandfather Sammy Po’Boy and the things that happened to get us to Melody’s birthday celebration. A past reflecting how sixteen years ago, Iris, pregnant with Melody didn’t walk down those steps but could walk away from her little girl, a heartbreaking past of Aubrey’s childhood as he remembers it he remembers hunger, or the first time he realizes he’s poor. A horrific past of racism , an attack on Sabe’s mother’s hair dressing shop, which will forever shape her attitude on money and keeping it safe from fire. A past (and present) beautiful love story of Sabe and Po’Boy. While this book is short in length, it is full of heart, hurt, history, realistic emotions, and a depth of love that is visible from Melody’s first step down that staircase and love that resonates when Melody takes another step into the future at the end of the book. This is the third book I have read by Woodson and another reason why she is on my list of favorite authors.

I read this with Esil and Diane and as always a pleasure to discuss our thoughts.

I received an advanced copy of this book from Riverhead Books through Edelweiss.
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,284 reviews119k followers
January 9, 2020
…now I knew there were so many ways to get hung from a cross—a mother’s love for you morphing into something incomprehensible. A dress ghosted in another generation’s dreams. A history of fire and ash and loss. Legacy.
Melody is sixteen, having her coming out party in her home, her grandparents home, in Brooklyn’s Park Slope. We are introduced to her father, her grandparents, her bff, her world. She has chosen for her entrance music something that draws a line between her generation and those that came before, Prince’s Darling Nikki. The guests are thankful that the lyrics have been omitted. [you can see them at the end of EXTRA STUFF]. But it is the connections across generational lines that are at the core of Jacqueline Woodson’s latest novel. How the past persists through time, molding, if not totally defining us, informing our options, our choices, our possibilities, the impact of legacy.

Jacqueline Woodson - image from the New York Times

Red at the Bone is a short book with a long view. (I have had people say, "I've read that in a day" and I'm like, "Yo, it took me four years to write that. Go back and read it again." - from the Shondaland interview) It is not just about race and legacy, but about class, about parenting, about coming of age, about the making and unmaking of families.
Look closely. It’s the spring of 2001 and I am finally sixteen. How many hundreds of ancestors knew a moment like this? Before the narrative of their lives changed once again forever, there was Bach and Ellington, Monk and Ma Rainey, Hooker and Holiday. Before the world as they knew it ended, they stepped out in heels with straightening-comb burns on their ears, gartered stockings, and lipstick for the first time.
Iris found motherhood too soon, was fifteen when she became pregnant with Melody. Buh-bye Catholic school. Buh-bye coming out party. And when her parents were unwilling to endure their neighbors’ scorn, buh-bye neighborhood. It’s tough to be a proper, upstanding family, respected by all, when the sin is so public, and the forgiveness element of their Catholic community is so overwhelmed by the urge to finger-point and shame.

Class informs who we choose and the roads we take through our lives. Although paths may cross, as we head in diverging directions we can wave to each other for a while, but eventually, mostly, we lose sight of those who have traveled too far on that other bye-way. The baby-daddy, Aubrey, steps up, but, really, Iris does not think he is a long-term commitment she wants to make. She has been raised middle-class, and Aubrey’s background, ambitions, and interests do not measure up.
When she looked into her future, she saw college and some fancy job somewhere where she dressed cute and drank good wine at a restaurant after work. There were always candles in her future—candlelit tables and bathtubs and bedrooms. She didn’t see Aubrey there.
Her decision impacts her daughter, who grows up largely motherless, a mirror to her father, who had grown up fatherless, although without the resources his daughter has from her mother’s parents.

One impact of history is how the Tulsa Massacre, specifically, cascades down through the generations, driving family members to achieve, and to zealously protect what they have gained, ever knowledgeable that everything might be taken from them at any time. (Melody is named for her great-grandmother, who suffered in the Tulsa Massacre.)
Every day since she was a baby, I’ve told Iris the story. How they came with intention. How the only thing they wanted was to see us gone. Our money gone. Our shops and schools and libraries—everything—just good and gone. And even though it happened twenty years before I was even a thought, I carry it. I carry the goneness. Iris carries the goneness. And watching her walk down those stairs, I know now that my grandbaby carries the goneness too.
The goneness finds a contemporary echo when a family member is killed in the 9/11 attack, a space that cannot be filled. Goneness appears in other forms, when Iris leaves her Catholic school, and, later, heads off to college.

Music permeates the novel, from Melody’s name (and the person who had inspired it) to the atmosphere of various locales, from Po’Boy’s recollections to Aubrey’s parentage, from Melody’s coming out song to Iris’s college playlist. Who among us does not have music associated with the events of our life?

Most good novels offer a bit of reflection on the narrative process. The person-as-a-story here reminded me of Ocean Vuong writing about our life experience as language in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
…as we dance, I am not Melody who is sixteen. I am not my parents’ once illegitimate daughter—I am a narrative, someone’s almost forgotten story. Remembered.
There are many moments in this book that reach deep. In a favorite of these, Aubrey remembers the pedestrian things he liked in his peripatetic single-parent childhood, a Whitman-esque litany of physical experience, capped with an image of fleeting, unsurpassed beauty, and desperate longing that well mirrors his love for Iris, and is absolutely heart-wrenching.

The stories within the novel are told from several alternating perspectives, Melody, Aubrey and Iris getting the most time, and Iris’s parents, Sabe and Po’Boy, getting some screen time as well. We see Iris and Aubrey as teens and adults, and are given a look at Aubrey’s childhood as well. Sabe and Po’Boy provide a contemporary perspective, but a connection back to their young adulthood too.

Woodson’s caution to the fast-reader to go back and try again is advice well worth heeding. Red at the Bone is a tapestry, with larger images, created with threads that are woven in and out, and drawn together to form a glorious whole. You will see on second, third, or further readings flickers here that reflect events from there, see the threads that had gone unnoticed on prior readings. It is a magnificent book, remarkably compact, but so, so rich. Surely one of the best books of 2019.

Review posted – December 27, 2019

Publication date – September 17, 2019

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, and Tumblr pages

My review of Woodson’s prior novel, Another Brooklyn

Interviews - Video/audio
-----The Daily Show - Trevor Noah
-----Longreads - “We’re All Still Cooking…Still Raw at the Core”: An Interview with Jacqueline Woodson - by Adam Morgan
-----NPR – Weekend Edition - History And Race In America In 'Red At The Bone' - by Scott Simon
-----Shondaland - Jacqueline Woodson Will Not Be Put in a Box - by Britni Danielle

Items of Interest
-----NPR - Jacqueline Woodson: What Is The Hidden Power Of Slow Reading?
-----Wiki - The Tulsa Race Massacre
-----Rollingstone - The Tulsa Massacre Warns Us Not to Trust History to Judge Trump on Impeachment - by Jamil Smith
-----The Party - by Paul Lawrence Dunbar – read by Karen Wilson
-----Sojourner Truth’s seminal speech - Ain’t I a Woman?

Songs - both from the book and her stated playlist from the Longreads interview
-----Prince - Darling Nikki
-----Eva Cassidy - Songbird
-----EmmyLou Harris - Don’t Leave Nobody But the Baby
-----J. Cole - Young, Dumb, and Broke
-----Etta James - I’d Rather Go Blind
-----Erroll Garner - Fly Me to the Moon
-----Erroll Garner - Jeannine, I Dream of Lilac Time
-----The Chi Lites - Have You Seen Her?
-----Boy George - That’s the Way
-----5th Dimenion - Stoned Soul Picnic
-----Phoebe Snow - Poetry Man

Darling Nikki
I knew a girl named Nikki I guess you could say she was a sex fiend,
I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine,
She said how'd you like to waste some time and I could not resist when I saw little Nikki grind.
She took me to her castle and I just couldn't believe my eyes,
She had so many devices everything that money could buy,
She said "sign your name on the dotted line." The lights went out and Nikki started to grind.
The castle started spinning or maybe it wa my brain.
I can't tell you what she did to me but my body will never be the same.
Awe, her lovin will kick your behind, she'll show you no mercy
But she'll sure 'nough, sure 'nough show you how to grind
Come on Nikki
I woke up the next morning, Nikki wasn't there.
I looked all…
Sometimes the world's a storm.
One day soon the storm will pass
And all will be bright and peaceful.
Fearlessly bathe in the,
Purple rain
Source: LyricFind
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,686 reviews14k followers
July 22, 2019
I loved it. Loved everything about this book. The gorgeous prose. The way in just a relatively few pages, Woodsen managed to flesh out her characters, making them autentic people. The themes explored. Themes of mother, daughter relationships, teenage pregnant, ambition, fatherhood and sexual identity. The many different emotions she manages to provoke, emotions that changed as the story progressed. How young people make decisions about their lives, things that will affect them in the future, not realizing what that entails. So many issues are covered, yet done so well that it never felt crowded. Life and death, lives lived. Some give up more for love, some are not able to give enough.
I loved it because it felt authentic, real.

"Something about memory. It takes you back to where you were, and just lets you be there for a while."

A much better read for my reading buddies, Angela, Lise and myself.

ARC from Netgalley and Riverhead books.
Profile Image for emma.
1,783 reviews42.8k followers
July 14, 2020
I am a sucker for a short book.

This is not because I am lazy - okay, yes, it's because I'm lazy. I enjoy finishing a book per day and I also enjoy spending large portions of my day playing Animal Crossing and listening to podcasts. Sue me.

But I also find it so much more impressive when a small story can pack the punch of a long one. If I can care about the characters, feel invested in the story, really connect with the book, then I feel connected to it all the more for how quickly it managed to do that.

This is a prime example of that.

Bottom line: Short books forever!!! (Also, short reviews forever!!!)



what a goodie to round out on.

review to come / 4 stars

currently-reading updates

there are many reasons i am excited to read this book. yes, the fact that it's under 200 pages is one of them


i am spending this month reading books by Black authors. please join me!

book 1: The Stars and the Blackness Between Them
book 2: Homegoing
book 3: Let's Talk about Love
book 4: Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People about Race
book 5: The Sellout
book 6: Queenie
book 7: Red at the Bone
Profile Image for JanB .
1,113 reviews2,151 followers
June 23, 2020
This is a look at the effects of teenage pregnancy on two families, one well-off, the other poor. Told through shifting time periods and multiple perspectives of the parents, grandparents, and the child, the writing itself is worthy of 5 stars.

I appreciated the themes as well as the push against stereotypes. The author set out to do what she intended with this book but, for me, the story itself was good, but not memorable. It will be quickly forgotten.

I'm in the minority as many readers love this one so be sure to check out other reviews.

* I received a copy of the book via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review
Profile Image for Paromjit.
2,502 reviews24.5k followers
February 9, 2020
Jacqueline Woodson's writes a profoundly lyrical inter-generational black family drama, its history, of race, class, the trials and tribulations of being alive, of identity, sexuality, love, loss, grief and ambition. It begins with the coming of age of Melody, her 16th birthday, wearing a dress that her mother, Iris, never got to wear, at the tender age of 15, Iris was pregnant with Melody. Woodson uses this family event to weave a moving web of family history and interconnections in a narrative that deftly illustrates how the past is writ large in the present, continuing to shape the future. The repercussions of a teen pregnancy, an Iris for whom motherhood is not enough and abandons Melody to be lovingly brought up by her steadfast, contented and committed father, Aubrey, and her grandparents Sabe and Sammy. It takes in the impact of the 1921 Tulsa race massacres, driving the family to relocate and triggering its focus on ambition.

Woodson's stellar novel imprints itself indelibly on my memory with its insightful and acute observations that go into highlighting the complexities and complications of family. She has a real gift in characterisation with so few words, bringing a humanity and authenticity to the people who inhabit the book. This may well be a short novel, but it is epic in scale, containing such beautiful imagery, with an underlying sense of universality when it comes to family, of what it takes to survive and endure, the importance of remembering, the tragedies, the heartbreak and the joy and hope too. A poignantly stitched together multilayered reconstruction of a specific family and its past amidst which lies the history of a nation. Highly recommended. Many thanks to Orion for an ARC.
Profile Image for Zoeytron.
1,016 reviews652 followers
January 2, 2020
I was not able to grab the golden ring with this novel that so many of my fellow reviewers did.  The format in which it was written came across as choppy to me and did not allow me to become fully immersed in the story.  And thus, I flounder against the tide this time.  I do respect the story's message of the appreciation of life and love, and the acceptance of what just is.
Profile Image for Jen CAN.
465 reviews1,276 followers
October 14, 2019
This story is raw with emotion.
A child who is turning 16 and having a coming of age party evokes the memories of her from her mom, when she had her at 16, her dad - just a kid himself, grandma who raised her as her own daughter, and grandpa who loved her to death.
They all do but it’s their stories around this child growing up and how she changed their lives forever.
The themes of racism, education, teenage pregnancy. The costs each of them endured during the course of their lives.
All these memories arrive at this single moment in time.
Beautifully written and emotionally captivating.
This one is sure to tug at the heart strings.
Profile Image for Andy Marr.
Author 2 books642 followers
December 28, 2022
Family, race, sexuality, gender, history: it's incredible how much Woodson has managed to fit into this short novel. A delight from start to finish.
Profile Image for Karen.
552 reviews1,081 followers
November 5, 2019
I just loved this!
This story is about two urban black families and shifts around in time and is told by the points of view of each of the five characters.
An unplanned teenage pregnancy and how their lives go forward for a young couple, the daughter they bring forth, and the maternal grandparents.
It is poetic and dramatic and I just couldn’t stop reading!

This is the third book I’ve read by this author... I need to read her others.
Profile Image for Debbie.
423 reviews2,682 followers
September 16, 2019
This pogo-sticker is hoppin’ and she’s not stoppin’!

This book, oh this book! A jazzy story with heart and smarts, it’s got me hoppin’ to the tune of 5+ stars! Where has this phenomenal writer been all my life? Oh what she can do with words!

This wasn’t a book that took a while to draw me in. I started reading, and POW, I was immediately in love. The language! It grabbed me fast and it held me tight. It’s poetic without being flowery. It’s jazzy, with an intense pulse and a cadence that makes my head dance. And it’s dreamy—with its plaintive tone (there is a pervasive sadness) and its speedy yet graceful change in time periods and voice. The crooked storyline, going here and there and back again, with different people telling their truths, makes it feel like I’m not standing still, but instead, like I’m flowing in and out of decades and feelings. Woodson is a master; her transitions are seamless. And I never had trouble figuring out whose picture was being painted.

And POW, I was instantly in love with the characters, too. The story centers around a pair of teens who make a baby. The book opens with the baby, Melody, who is now 16, having a birthday party. The mom and dad are there, along with a set of grandparents, and all have a story to tell. Melody calls her mom “Iris” instead of “mom,” and there’s a reason for this, as you learn as the story unfolds. We see everyone’s struggles. Their regrets, passion, ambition, grief. We see how history makes you who you are today, how expectations can get you in trouble, how love sometimes is trumped by ambition and what that can cost a family. Each character’s life is intense and vivid, and I felt for every one of them. I didn’t love Iris’s decision (in fact, it bothered me a lot), but I still felt her pain.

This is just a little taste . . . (and you’ll see why I’m going nutso over this book):

“Maybe this was the moment when I knew I was a part of a long line of almost erased stories. A child of denial. Of magical thinking. Of a time when Iris and my father wanted each other in…that way. The something they were so hungry for in each other becoming me.”

“If this moment was a sentence, I’d be the period.”

“And as we dance, I am not Melody who is sixteen, I am not my parents’ once illegitimate daughter—I am a narrative, someone’s almost forgotten story. Remembered.”

“I see you and Aubrey wrote that check that your body’s gotta cash now,” she said, pointing her chin toward Iris’s belly.”

I was in a frenzy while reading. Right in the middle of my glued-to-the-page reading bliss, my pushy book-crazed self shoved me off my pogo stick for a sec so I could go get the scoop on the author and her other books. I just had to know more about her, had to. So I read her bio on Goodreads, which was actually an auto-bio, and I was wowed. So wowed, in fact, that I made a friend listen to me read it over the phone. It’s a passionate couple of paragraphs about how she came to be a writer.

Yep, I must read everything this storyteller (i.e., magician) has written. It’s all I can do not to push aside my carefully arranged queue and devour all of her books instead. I haven’t been this excited about an author since I discovered Maggie O’Farrell last year. So much fun to have it happen again! Finding a new favorite author is close to nirvana.

Okay, you know as well as I do that this chatty cathy could go on, but she’d just be saying the same thing over and over again. (I have no idea why I started talking about myself in third person. Geez.) Let me just leave it at this: Read this perfect little book! It’s a short, fast read, so go ahead and slip it into your queue. You might end up joining me on my pogo-stick trip!

Thanks to Edelweiss for the advance copy.
Profile Image for Jenna ❤ ❀  ❤.
742 reviews1,106 followers
September 30, 2019
First off, let me say that Jacqueline Woodson writes exquisitely! Reading her words is like being enveloped in a song. I wanted to love this book, oh how I wanted to love it! Instead, I had a hard time connecting, even whilst I loved reading the words. I think the reason for this is that there are so many narrators and at times I got confused as to who was speaking. I really didn't connect with any of the characters except for Iris. Had the book been written in her voice alone, I think this would have been a 5 star read for me. Even had it been written in two voices, I think I would have loved it. Having several of them just didn't work for me. I will definitely be reading more of this author in the future, and hopefully will find others that work better for me.
Profile Image for Libby.
569 reviews160 followers
January 12, 2020
How beautifully poetic is Jacqueline Woodson’s prose in “Red at the Bone.” It is a generational story that Woodson begins with Melody’s sixteen-year-old cotillion in the spring of 2001. Her mother, Iris, remembers becoming pregnant with Melody when she was only fifteen. Aubrey, Melody’s father, and Melody’s grandparents, Po’Boy and Sabe, have been the stabilizing forces in Melody’s life. Even though Iris breastfed Melody for three years, since then, she’s become the mother who’s always gone.

I watched a TED talk by Jacqueline Woodson in which she talks about reading slowly and running her finger beneath the words while reading. In her talk, she says that reading or writing slowly invites the reader/writer to enter the circle of the story. She says that by reading slowly she honors her ancestors. ‘Red at the Bone’ is a story that is meant to be savored, meant to be read slowly, meant to honor Woodson’s ancestors and the beauty of who they have become. At Melody’s cotillion, Melody realizes, perhaps for the first time, that she’s part of a story that came before her, but even more importantly that she is story, that her life is story, and it’s up to her the shape it takes. The book is written in such a way that it invites the reader to take stock of their own story and the backstory that got them to where they are.

Even though Iris has forfeited the role of parenting to Aubrey, it’s a dress that was made for Iris that Melody will wear to the cotillion. A dress that Iris ended up not wearing to her own cotillion due to her pregnancy. This speaks to me of the roles that are placed before us as young people, the roles that so many of us step into unquestioningly. We put on our parent’s clothes, go to the places our parents took us, live up or down to their expectations, as they did before us. These expectations go back a long way. As Woodson digs at the roots of the family in this story, I remembered my own roots, the beginnings of my own family. ‘Red at the Bone’ has a universal appeal although it’s about specific people in a specific time and place. Woodson writes, “A dress ghosted in another generation’s dreams,” as the dress in this story also represents the path that Iris didn’t take, the dreams her parents had for her becoming ghost dreams as Iris takes another path.

“Love changes and changes. Then it changes again.”

Woodson’s prose is so beautiful, that I could almost weep just for the beauty of her words alone. But of course, it’s the meaning of those words as they pierce my heart like arrows, like targeted explosions of heartbreak, loneliness, and the sweetness of connection. Sometimes they made me bleed a little, down close to the bone. In a few paragraphs, Woodson will start and complete a circle of thought and show it’s absolute preeminence. You may consider her words to be drawing a conclusion but it is often so open-ended and glittering in the star-like quality of its night sky poetics that it reaches far beyond the possibilities of mere words. Highly recommended!

Link to Jacqueline Woodson's TED talk:
Profile Image for Esil.
1,118 reviews1,323 followers
July 31, 2019
What a beautiful little jewel of a book! Red at the Bone is told from the perspectives of five members of a somewhat unconventional family. At the centre of the story is Iris, who was 16 when she had her daughter Melodie. The three other family members are Iris' parents and Melodie's father. There is no linearity to the story. Slowly, through different layers, we get a bit more information about what happened to the characters and mostly a strong sense of their very distinct personalities. The end is terribly sad and beautiful at the same time. I'm feeling a bit tongue tied by this one. Read it. It's short. I definitely have to read more books by this author. This was another buddy read with Diane and Angela. It more than made up for the mediocre book we just read together. Thanks also to Edelweiss and the publisher for an opportunity to read an advance copy.
Profile Image for Toni.
515 reviews
September 16, 2019
Lyrical, poignant, powerful, Red at the bone by Jacqueline Woodson will mesmerize you with its spellbinding tale how people from different origins and backgrounds come together, love, create a new life, stay or go their different ways and continue living.
The book begins with a special kind of celebration- it is Melody's sixteenth birthday and her coming of age party. She is wearing a custom made vintage dress, a corset and silk stockings. The dress was sewn and paid for by her maternal grandparents for her mother Iris who never got her chance to wear it, because by the time she would have, she was already pregnant with Melody. As Melody is dancing in abandon with her friends, she is watched by her family. Her mother is wondering how things got so wrong between them. She is remembering how her own mother reacted to the news of the pregnancy, crying and cursing her daughter's foolishness that destroyed the bright future her parents had been hoping for.
Aubrey, Melody's father, was just a teenager himself. He remembers falling in love with Iris and discovering 'what love felt like- a constant ache, an endless need'. He remembers his own mother who was so light-skinned, she could be mistaken for a white woman. People even asked her if Aubrey was her foster child. They were very poor, but it took years for Aubrey even realize that, let alone feel any kind shame for their poverty. Above all, Aubrey remembers his mother's words:-'I believe in you, Aubrey. My love. My life. My light.'
Melody's grandparents have their own story. Her grandmother Sabe has been passing the story of the Tulsa riot/ massacre and the fire that burned her grandparents' businesses and left a scar on her mother's cheek. She grew up with a special kind of philosophy geared towards survival. Her grandfather's lifestory is perhaps much simple, but it is all about love and family.
As we follow the protagonists' stories, we learn more and more about Melody's family, the love they all give her, their sincerity, and their own search for identity. Starting from Aubrey's mother explanation for their very different looks- 'The black ancestors beat the crap out of the white ones and said, Let this baby on through- through Aubrey's mother helping pregnant Iris re-kindle her ambition and passion for learning in order to finish her high school and go on to college to Sabe's inner voice 'Rise. Rise. Rise' refusing to let gossips dictate how she and her family should live.
Jacqueline Woodson's writing is exquisitely beautiful and I can see myself reding and re-reading this book again and again. Each character has a unique voice and a unique story to tell. Red at the Bone is a little gem of a book that you will keep thinking about long after you have turned the last page.
Thank you to Edelweiss and Riverhead Books for the ARC provided in exchange for an honest opinion.
Profile Image for *TUDOR^QUEEN* .
408 reviews428 followers
October 4, 2019
I was intrigued by the concept of this story involving a black family. It begins with a sixteen year old girl named Melody majestically descending her staircase accompanied by an orchestra, wearing a beautiful white "coming out" dress that once belonged to her mother Iris...but she never got to wear...because she got pregnant with Melody at the age of 15. Melody's father Aubrey is so overcome with pride that the tears pour helplessly down his face, and he's flummoxed as to what to do with his hands. He's my favorite character in the book. Aubrey came from meager financial beginnings, but has all the right values. He did well in school and got a job in the mailroom of a law firm, and moved in with Iris and her parents during the pregnancy. He was content with simplicity while Iris always wanted more. Ironically enough, it was Aubrey's mother that pushed Iris to continue her education, and she eventually moved away to board at college. Iris felt exhilarated to be so far away and experience the freedom of life at college. Aubrey was left behind with Melody, who (on the few occasions she saw her) called her mother Iris instead of Mom. Aubrey clearly yearned for Iris, but she had other designs on life.

The chapters are each narrated by different characters in the book, but their names aren't posted under the chapter numbers, so it was always disorienting to try to get a handle on who was talking. Other than this downfall, the writing was of high quality. On the positive side, I was encouraged to read a story about a child that was mistakenly conceived but got to be born, and was loved fiercely by the father and Iris's parents. The irony was that although Iris insisted on having and keeping the child, she later became very detached from her.

For me the redeeming force in the book was Aubrey, who rose from living with his single mother in a roach infested apartment to be a fine man. He did everything right; he worked hard at school, got a decent job and absolutely adored his daughter. The teenage pregnancy was a shock, but Aubrey was present for his family. His love for Iris was unrequited, and I mourned for this good man. I found the character of Iris to be selfish and determined, and in sharp relief to Aubrey who valued the precious gift of Melody.

Thank you to Riverhead Books / Penguin Publishing Group who provided an advance reader copy via Edelweiss.
Profile Image for Cheri.
1,685 reviews2,240 followers
September 23, 2019
“Iris pressed the cold envelopes and magazine against her lips.I was fifteen, she whispered into them. Fifteen. I wasn’t even anybody yet.”

There’s so much love that flows through the pages of Woodson’s latest story, weaving back and forth through time to tell the story of a family through the ages. From Sabe’s story we know the time and place where she grew up, the things she’s seen, the history she’s lived through. All these provide insight into her daughter Iris’s coming future. A future that will include a daughter, a daughter that she will choose to leave behind as she heads off to college, leaving Melody with the father, Aubrey.

”Maybe this was the moment when I knew I was part of a long line of almost erased stories. A child of denial. Of magical thinking. Of a time when Iris and my father wanted each other in . . . that way. The something they were so hungry for in each other becoming me.”

This story is shared through the views of three generations, including Melody’s parents, and grandparents, sharing each generation’s regrets, fears, and the events that shaped their lives.

”You sing the songs you remember from your own childhood. Mama may have. Papa may have . . .You remember your parents living, wrap the ancient photos of Lucille’s Hair Heaven and Papa Joe’s Supper Club pulled from the flames . . . and you rise. You rise. You rise.”

”So I rose.”

Woodson excels in her ability to pull you into the story, between her spare prose, and the unfolding details of the lives of this family, there are many issues she also brings to light. The mother-daughter relationship, identity – as a black woman, as well as in terms of sexuality and orientation, and ambition as well as how economics creates a division of people into categories. Labels that are often difficult to break free from.
Profile Image for Jennifer ~ TarHeelReader.
2,053 reviews30k followers
September 28, 2019
Thank you to Penguin Random House Audio Group and Libro.fm for the free audio copy.

I’ve been waiting to read this book since I knew of its existence. Jacqueline Woodson is becoming a go-to author for me, and Red at the Bone is just as emotionally smart as her other books I’ve read. It was also thought-provoking and powerful, and I highly recommend it. The audio has multiple narrators, including some cameos from Woodson herself, and it’s also worthy of five stars.
Profile Image for Thomas.
1,400 reviews8,124 followers
March 28, 2021
Such a poignant novel about family and how the decisions we make define us over time. The story opens with sixteen-year-old Melody’s coming of age ceremony in her grandparents’ Brooklyn brownstone, where we overhear a tense conversation between her and her mother, Iris. The novel then shifts with each chapter into a different character’s perspective, moving backward and forward in time as we see the choices Melody’s parents and grandparents made that got them to Melody’s present-day ceremony. Though she does not write in a linear fashion here, Jacqueline Woodson pushes Red at the Bone through the powerful way she captures her character’s emotions and their love for one another.

Red at the Bone feels very vignette-y. Because of this vignette-y style, the concise chapters and the brevity of the book overall (e.g., 196 pages), I could see how in another author’s hands the novel would have felt gimmicky or underdeveloped. However, because of Woodson’s talented writing – she’s so good at writing scenes with descriptions and dialogue where you feel like you’re literally there too – the novel feels more like several beautiful snapshots of a family’s life pulled together, spanning three generations. There were quite a few moments where I felt my heart in my throat: the scenes where Aubrey shows his deep love for his daughter Melody, the moment when Aubrey realizes that he’s losing Iris or that he’s already lost her, the support CathyMarie, Aubrey’s mother, extends to Iris during her isolating pregnancy. By grounding this novel in such well-written, structurally concise yet emotionally lush scenes, Woodson shows us instead of tells us about how both societal forces and how we react to them shape our lives and the lives of those who come after us.

I probably would’ve given this book five stars if it had been a bit longer and we had gotten to know some of the characters with more depth. However, I still so appreciated it, and I found Iris’s pull toward independence and Aubrey’s pull toward fatherhood particularly moving. Totally recommended for those who are interested in a short and satisfying read about a Black multigenerational family unit.
Profile Image for Brina.
873 reviews4 followers
November 29, 2019
My nonfiction reading year is coming to a close. It has been rewarding in more ways than one but also tedious and redundant as I find myself looking forward to a coming year where I will read both nonfiction and novels. Having not read a work of fiction other than a middle grade kids book in eight months, I have decided to ease back into my fiction reading. I have been wowed by Jacqueline Woodson’s writing before so when I saw my library had a new book of hers, I decided to read it over this holiday weekend.

As in Woodson’s other novels, Red at the Bone takes place in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, a neighborhood that Woodson has called home for years. It is 2000 and Melody is about to be introduced to society at her sweet sixteen party, which her grandparents host in a throwback to days gone by. Melody wears a dress that was meant to be worn by her mother Iris sixteen years earlier, but at the time, Iris was pregnant with Melody, temporarily breaking her parents’ hearts. At this party, five family members in three generations are overcome in a wave of emotions, bringing back all the poignant moments in their family history over the last eighty years. After the opening chapter, Woodson takes readers on a trip down memory lane to bring them back to the here and now.

In a novel of under two hundred pages, many of them containing as much white space as words, it is a wonder to me that Woodson is able to create many well drawn out characters and address a myriad of historical events in such a short amount of time. Readers are introduced to Sabe and Po’ Boy, Aubrey and Iris, and Melody, who all bring layers upon layers to the same story. Their family history begins with the 1921 Tulsa race riots, an event that is often overlooked in American history. From Tulsa, Sabe’s grandparents moved to Chicago that had recovered from 1919 race riots of her own. Yet, the African American community in Chicago had persevered and established a talented tenth, to which the Franklins immediately entered into. After the rioting, in which businesses were destroyed, Sabe noted that her family did not trust outsiders and started to hide their wealth in clothing and within the vowels of their homes, a practice that would be passed down from generation to generation until the present time.

Woodson presents a stark contrast in Melody’s parents Iris and Aubrey. Aubrey is his mama’s golden boy. They moved from city to city following the water until they ended up in Brooklyn. By the time Aubrey was in high school, his mother CathyMarie grew ill from years of chemical dependence. Had he taken the SATs, he could have gone to any school of his choice, maybe played basketball as well; yet, as Sabe would have said, G-D had other plans for him. After knowing Iris for just a few months, she takes his virginity and he gets her pregnant. Iris is painted as selfish with no maternal instincts yet her parents would do anything for both her and her unborn child even if it pained them to do so. Aubrey moved into to the family’s brownstone, and Iris leaves for college. By age four it is apparent that Melody is a prodigy and loves Aubrey with all her being and views her grandmother Sabe as her mother. Iris is apart, is there is all but name only, and has little capacity to love anyone besides herself and perhaps her parents.

It is obvious that Jacqueline Woodson can write. Her words flow like poetry and readers gain empathy for her characters in such a short time. Melody is loved by her family. Her grandparents and father sacrificed so much to raise her, and then Woodson introduces cancer and September 11. The characters that we grew to love die one by one. Melody was not given much of a chance but because she appears to be golden and untouchable, we are lead to believe that in the end she will conquer the world, even if she will have to do it alone. Introducing the themes of teen pregnancy, classism, sexuality, and key historical events in such a short time frame and make it work shows Woodson’s depth as an author; yet, even though this novel is marketed as adult, with themes moving quickly conducted as teaching moments, it is apparent that Woodson has a younger, teen audience in mind for this book.

Red at the Bone reminded me why I enjoy historical and realistic fiction- fleshed out characters living in the context of key historic moments. The novel also showed why I still enjoy nonfiction more than even the best fiction. A novel touched on historic events for a few sentences, and, if I had not already knew about the race rioting of 1919 in Chicago and 1921 in Tulsa, I would be left wanting more information. I will most likely still be moved to read all of Jacqueline Woodson’s novels with their in depth characters even if I do not belong to her target age range. Her work is just too good to pass up. She is an author that all middle and high school teachers should recommend to their students, as I have a feeling that they would enjoy this even more than I did.

3.75 stars

Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,651 reviews1,486 followers
October 11, 2020
My friends love this book. I hate it. It is not pleasant to write a review in such a situation, but it Is wrong to say you hate a book and then give no explanation.

This book revels in suffering. It is a common phenomenon to observe people aggravating a wound to increase their pain. This may be a way of venting one’s spleen on life’s injustices. We can in this way feel sorry for ourselves! Some people are drawn to stare at an accident. I am not. Life throws difficulties at many , no, in fact all of us. My attitude is straightforward--figure out what your alternatives are, choose one and follow it through. Bemoaning the situation gets you nowhere.

This is a story about an unplanned teenage pregnancy and birth. It is also about the difficulties thrown at people of color. I adamantly oppose racial discrimination. I would be the last to deny that adolescents have strong sexual urges and that people do make mistakes, but we must then live with the consequences.

The author heaps one problem on top of another. Even 9/11 is added to the sad and depressing piling up of calamities. Four people die in the short span of this novel! Love relationships, one between a father and daughter and another between a son and a mother are sentimentally drawn—in both cases with a dismal (i.e. ) outcome.

My point is that in this book the dismal and the sad are pushed to an extreme. The positive is barely expressed. Maybe some readers enjoy being made to feel sad and depressed, but not me! Empathy can be felt for another’s happiness too.

Even the prose style is designed to make you feel miserable. Repetition of words over and over and over and over again is used to further emphasize grief.

A child, the one born out of wedlock, reaches in this tale the age of sixteen. She says she remembers a caul being pulled off her face at birth. She also remembers being an infant, sucking at her mother’s breast. Really?! Do you believe that? Is this feasible?

What else do I dislike? I dislike how the tale flips back and forth in time. I dislike that characters are not properly introduced. Readers are to be kept guessing. Yeah, eventually a hint is given so you can make sense of what you are being told. Some people may like such guessing games, but I don’t.

The audiobook has a full cast narration. Through dramatization the sad and depressing are further emphasized.

I do not like this book, neither the lines nor the narration. Both I have given one star. Please, do keep in mind that I usually have nothing against a sad story. It is the technique by which this is done that I dislike here.


Please see message eight below. It concerns additional aspects of the book, aspects that prospective readers should be told.
Profile Image for Katie B.
1,228 reviews2,933 followers
July 22, 2020
4.5 stars

How does a writer manage to convey so much in just 207 pages? Well, she doesn’t waste a single word. Beautifully written.

The year is 2001 and 16 year old Melody is having a coming of age ceremony at her grandparents' home in Brooklyn. The dress Melody is wearing for the occasion is one that her mother, Iris, never got the chance to wear. Iris was supposed to have a similar ceremony back when she was sixteen but didn't because she was pregnant with Melody. The story will follow Melody, her parents, and her grandparents on the night of the party as well as going back in time to reveal pivotal moments in their lives.

I don't want to give away too much about the plot as I feel like you just need to witness for yourself each character's journey in life. I will say though, much like the other book I have read by this author, she manages to incorporate so many subjects into the story. But it doesn't feel forced, everything has a purpose. The writing has this almost lyrical quality to it and the words just flow effortlessly on the page. This book can be classified as a family drama but it is so much more and definitely a thought-provoking novel.

I really can't do this book justice so just go out and read it if you haven't already done so. Trust me.
Profile Image for Olivia (Stories For Coffee).
578 reviews5,583 followers
April 11, 2021
Red at the Bone is a gorgeous multi-generational story moving both forwards and backwards in time as the family expands, changes, and grows with time. Narrated with a full cast, the audiobook was absolutely stunning.

There was so much passion that was delivered with each word. The untold history that is carried with each character whose perspective allows you to glimpse into each of their pasts to understand their motivations, their fears, their desires is so raw and beautifully delivered. And the narrators are all so talented. The rawness in their voices brought this story to life and brought tears to my eyes when they spoke about Tulsa and the fear that was carried in their bones for generations because of it.

Red at the Bone reminds me of my love for stories exploring the complexities of familial units. It allows the author to explore each members’ lives and secrets while also reminding readers that no family is perfect and what happens behind closed doors is a world of its own.

I highly recommend listening to this story on audiobook. I most definitely need to add a copy of this book to my personal library. It was beautiful.
Profile Image for Bookishrealm.
1,778 reviews4,483 followers
July 9, 2020
4.5 Stars

Content Warnings: Racism, drug use, teen pregnancy, death

Jacqueline Woodson can do no wrong and I mean that will every fiber in my body. I haven't read a book in a while that reminds me of the experiences of my own family and the current dynamic between myself, my mother, and my daughter. Red at the Bone is an inter-generational story that illustrates how 1) the decisions of those that come before and after us can and do impact us in unexpected ways 2) every family at its core has had its set of issues. I honestly had no idea where Woodson was going to go with the story especially since the conversation began around a dress, but it was so well done. The concept of memory plays such a huge role in every aspect of this book from beginning to end. Not only does Woodson tackle the conversations around familial expectations and molding, but also issues that are faced in particular by brown and black people i.e. racism and gentrification. Decisions AND experiences of those that came before Melody have drastically defined her expectations and views of the world even if she doesn't recognize it in the moment. Woodson does the reader a favor by omitting the perspectives and narratives of those outside of the family. It forces the reader to engage with the stories of the specific family members (Iris, Melody, Po' Boy, Aubrey, and Sabe). From Iris' inability to commit to motherhood and a relationship with Aubrey to Sabe's need to hide and protect money after learning of the experiences faced by her mother in Tulsa.

This is a novel that you read more than once. I know for a fact that I did not get everything that I needed to get out of this novel. There is more that I need to learn. More things that I need to recognize. However, I will say that in this first read I did appreciate the way in which Woodson handled so many different topics and issues without allowing this short novel to feel overwhelming. I have seen much longer novels handle smaller amounts of topics with difficulty. This book never felt over saturated with societal or familial issues. The novel will prove difficult for many people in the beginning because Woodson writes with this fluidity in reference to time; however, this book is more so about understanding the impact of time and experience than pin-pointing specific dates in each characters life. The writing is poetic and flowery and just all around beautiful. The audio has a full cast production so I would definitely recommend listening to it and absorbing the story in that unique format.

Overall, such a powerful book and one that I definitely will be reading again before the year is over.

Profile Image for Kelly (and the Book Boar).
2,394 reviews7,259 followers
December 6, 2019
Find all of my reviews at: http://52bookminimum.blogspot.com/

What can I say? Sometimes composite novels work for me, sometimes they don’t. This one????

Me no likey. I’ll gladly take the wrongreader title here, because everyone else looooooved the writing and I felt it was flat. They loooooooved how fresh the story was, but I thought it was stale. They looooooooved all of the social commentary while I thought it was nothing but the usual dose of tragiporn (with an extra helping of 9/11 in case you weren’t aware just how miserable you were supposed to feel). This is the problem with having booknerd social media accounts along with a terminal case of FOMO – you end up reading books that you should have never even added to your TBR.
Profile Image for Betsy Robinson.
Author 9 books994 followers
October 10, 2019
About halfway through this multigenerational story about a black family, Iris, the daughter, remembers when she was twelve, yelling at her mother: That’s your history, not mine! Her mother goes silent, stunned, then confused, then in tears, responds, You’re right, Iris. . . It’s not yours. (105) And then later in life when Iris is thinking about her baby’s grandmother, CathyMarie (the father’s mother) who once told her to do something with her life, that she had no excuse not to because Nothing’s haunting you., Iris regrets that she hadn’t asked CathyMarie, What haunts you?. However, “By the time she was out of her own head [not thinking of only herself] and old enough to know this is what she wanted to know, CathyMarie had been dead for years.” (114-115)

These moments stopped me cold because they illustrated the story of my white life: me and multiple generations willfully rejecting and disowning our own history when we were young, not understanding that it was part of our own DNA—the very redness in our bones. I’ve spent the last decade or so trying to reconstruct my own story, and I found myself jealous that Iris had hers all around her, with people who were more than willing to share it with her. And I felt such admiration for Jacqueline Woodson’s understanding of the importance of the red at our bones and I’m grateful for her ability to tell it, share it, and make it live in all of its complexity and contradictions.

My mother was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921, the year of an attempted genocide of wealthy black people there—a central event of this novel. And I know nothing about my extended family’s place in this history. Did it have anything to do with my mother’s almost visceral rejection of Oklahoma? Oh how I wish I could ask all the questions this novel stirred up. But I can’t. So like a literary leech, I latched onto Woodson’s beautifully written book to learn and feel whatever she was willing to share about people I have never known and wish I had and I let them undo me.
Profile Image for Bianca.
1,010 reviews868 followers
November 24, 2019
This was the first Jacqueline Woodson novel that I read.
Red at the Bone is a small novel that covers three generations of African-Americans. The story moves back and forward in time, between several characters, showing snippets of their lives, conversations, memories, recollections.
The writing style gave this novel a dream-like quality.
Occasionally I struggled with this novel as it took a couple of phrases or more to find out whose pov we were reading, so I think that jerked me awake and pulled me out of the story.
While there were issues of class and race, it wasn't an overtly militant or political novel, even though it mentions the Tusla massacre and a few other incidents.

I'll be reading more by Jacqueline Woodson.
Profile Image for Hannah.
585 reviews1,042 followers
April 13, 2020
While I can see that this is objectively a well-written book and I did really enjoy the structure, I also had trouble remembering what happened even in the chapter before and I cannot imagine this sticking with me. This review is taking me forever to write because I just do not know what to say.

Told in vignettes (something I love!), going forward and backwards in time telling the story of one particular family, this book mostly was a joy to read. Woodson's prose is wonderful and the way in which she constructs her characters really worked for me. What I especially appreciated was the warmth with which she writes about these characters while still allowing them to be flawed. On a longlist including very many books that have a very cynical worldview and that are populated by horrible people doing horrible things for no reason, this really worked for me.

But the characters did not stick with me at all and I never got emotionally invested in their trajectory. While this does not take away from how good this book is, it did mean that it took me a lot longer than it should have to finish this very short book. I also thought the first half was a lot more successful than the second half and I could have done without the "remembering my own birth"-scene, which is just something I am very rarely on board with.

You can find this review and other thoughts on books on my blog.
Profile Image for Lisa.
1,379 reviews518 followers
December 28, 2019
Elegaic and searing, this novel grabbed hold of me and didn't let go until the last word. Woodson writes in concentrated strokes that capture the essence of Iris, Aubrey, Melody, Sabe, Po'Boy and CathyMarie. I feel that I've known them and cared about them all for years. Just 196 pages and I didn't need a single word more. Perfect.
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