Reading Discussion Questions
Either in reading groups with your neighbors or on your own, you may want to dig deep into the themes, characters, and writing of my books. Below are some suggested questions to spark discussion. I’m sure there are many others, but I throw out these for starters.
1. In the novel’s opening chapter, the protagonist, SJ Rook is alone. In what ways – geographical, cultural, spiritual, experiential -- is Rook a stranger in Harlem?
2. How does the character of Norment Ross contrast with that of Rook? In what ways does Ross display those character traits in his speech, decision-making, dress, personal style?
3. What ways does Sabrina Ross display characteristics of the femme fatale found in film noir and classic detective fiction? How does she differ from those iconic figures?
4. Is the big yellow cat an instructive motif throughout the novel… or just an annoying pest?
5. Trace the arc of development for the relationship between Rook and NYPD detective Archie Lin. Where do you think they will head in future stories?
6. A number of couples are examined in the novel. Describe how the relationships of the following pairs are similar or different: Raye/Lonnie; Norment/Mei; Austin Andrews/Robbie Unger, Sebastian Nestor/Annemarie Nestor.
7. Describe the events that impact Rook’s shifting relationships with Brina and Norment Ross.
8. In what ways is the neighborhood of Harlem itself a character in the novel?
1. How does the theme of jealousy work through the first novella in the book, “Poetic License?” Who is jealous of whom? How does the jealousy manifest itself in speech and action?
2. The primary settings for “Poetic License” are a private school, a literary agency, and a fancy fund-raising gala. How does Rook fit into these locales? How does he interact with the people who are the natural owners of these spaces?
3. In what ways do tensions between Rook and Brina play out in this novella? How, if at all, are these tensions resolved?
4. What key elements of the backstories for Norment and Brina Ross are examined or expanded upon in “Poetic License?”
5. How have Rook’s skills as an investigator changed since he was a rank amateur in his debut in Lost and Found in Harlem? Is he sharper as an observer or more assertive? Does he take more risks? What steps does he take in these two stories that he didn’t try in the past?
6. How do you feel about the poet Daro’s mission statement?: “I work hard at it, Rook. I’m a skilled craftswoman. Poetry isn’t a gift from the gods, you know. You’ve got to hone your art. That means attention, research, repetition, time, and practice. Lots of practice.”
7. In the second novella, “Watermark’d,” Rook and Brina leave the familiar vicinity of Harlem for a case set deep in an isolated rural outpost. How does this unfamiliar physical setting influence Rook’s behavior? Brina’s?
8. How do the themes of jealousy and control and freedom play out in the dynamics of the artistic family at the center of this story?
9. Do you agree with this statement from family patriarch Kelvin Nix?: “Real art, the kind you people rarely see, is jealous. It demands attention, requires absolute commitment, and wastes not a drop of care on bold emotions. To do it right, art needs work. Unrelenting work. Art is jealous. It sniffs out the cheats and the unfaithful practitioners.”
10.Did the ending of “Watermark’d” leave you unsettled or satisfied? Was the world set right by Rook’s choices or did he leave injustice unresolved?
11. What do you think is ahead for Rook and Brina?
1. Rook is not a conventional or typical private investigator. What character traits, habits, or elements of his background are most useful? Which are most problematic?
2. The key relationships in this book are those between Rook and Sabrina Ross and between Rook and his pal, Detective Archie Lin. What events and actions cause these relationships to shift as the story unfolds?
3.Concepts of fatherhood get a vigorous workout in this story. Describe the differences and similarities between father figures Norment Ross, Cedric Coyne, Dink Bartholomew, and Martin Colón.
4.Romance is up and down, blooming or busted in this story. What do you think is ahead for the romantic pairings featured in Black and Blue in Harlem?
5.Fictional religious institutions offer distinct visions of spiritual mission over the course of the story. Contrast the Quaker settlement house, Friends In Deed, with Reverend Coyne’s church. What similarities and differences do you note in their community service roles, physical settings, leadership, even art works?
6.At the boxing club, Rook muses about fate: “The truth of any boxing match… is that someone always loses. This harsh reality applies to the fight game and to life itself: for any man, his downfall is pre-ordained. Eventually, either a challenger or old age catches up with him to deliver a knockout punch. The long-term outcome is always the same: defeat. Always. No getting around it. But even that grim inevitability wasn’t an excuse to fold before the last bell was rung. Trying was everything.” Do you agree with Rook’s gritty realism? Is he too cynical or too optimistic, in your view?
7. What challenges face Rook as the story ends? Do you think he has turned a new leaf? Or will past habits re-emerge as he tackles more tough cases in forthcoming books?
8. In the book, several new characters are introduced to Rook’s neighborhood: the Quaker ladies Dr. Sondra and Keisha, gang boss Martin Colón, boxing trainer Dink Bartholomew, the feisty kid Mike N’dao, vigilant mother Liana Solis, Mr. Greene the super, and the dry cleaner next door, Mrs. Lee. Which of these colorful characters would you like to see return in the next books?