How Not To Write A Book About Race: A Book Review of A Mentor and Her Muse

How Not To Write A Book About Race: A Book Review of A Mentor and Her Muse

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A Book Review of A Mentor and Her Muse by Susan Sage

When offered a free copy for review by both the publisher and independently from the author, A Mentor and Her Muse had a deceptively enticing story. Marketed as a psychological thriller with racial and sexual tensions juxtaposed with the art of writing, I wanted to know more.

Unfortunately, not only did the title fall short in interest, but I also found myself sick to my stomach with the poor discussion and depictions of race. Over and over again, I questioned the stereotypes and information provided.  I had not seen many other reviewers bring up issues with the portrayal of black characters in the book—although I saw plenty of less than stellar reviews–so I kept giving A Mentor and Her Muse a chance. Towards the end, a paragraph reinforced that this book has made fatal, tragic flaws.

Why I continued to write a book review of A Mentor and Her Muse and my concerns:

Laden with racial stereotypes and a lack of understanding and sensitivity for racism in this book, the elements of “racial tension” add nothing to the story except a moral in how not to write a book about race. Unconscious and unintentional racism is still racism. Furthermore, the poor editing and writing made this a painful read.  Nevertheless, writers, readers, and publishers can learn from books like this and how to improve our discussions of race in literature.

Typically, I would a put down a book like this and refuse a review. I rarely write such a negative report on my site. My goal as a reviewer is to bring attention to titles that are well written, open-minded, properly researched, and accurately represent communities.  Books are meant to educate, create dialogue, and give us new perspectives.  A book should hurt no one.  I do not have to love a book or agree with it to review.

Unfortunately, A Mentor and Her Muse crossed lines that morally made me cringe. I am reviewing this title as a mere teachable moment.  I will fairly apply links for my readers to purchase the title, but I by no means personally endorse this book.  This review is written with passion, education, and no ill will or intentions.  A Mentor and Her Muse and the race portrayal truly broke my heart, and I had to share why.

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A Plot With Potential—The Good

The story begins on a high note, furthering the intrigue, with a sinful hook suggesting that the protagonist commits a possible crime. Maggie, a middle aged woman suffering from menopause, debates if she has indeed kidnapped a 13-year-old black girl, Tae. An unstable and unreliable narrator, Maggie is either a sexual predator or a simply misguided and lonely failed writer. She is certainly not a true mentor as she can barely get her own life in order after her parents’ recent suicides.

Told through old journal entries, narration, and different points of view, we learn of a budding friendship between Maggie, the school media specialist, and Tae. Tae comes from a single parent household full of drama and drugs. Desiring to give her student a better life, Maggie begins showing Tae the world, against the advice of her family and colleagues. The relationship starts out with small outings and gifts but crosses lines when Maggie takes Tae on a summer road trip to see her uncle.  We see Maggie washing Tae’s back in the bathtub.  The trip is guised as an inspirational writing retreat but is actually Maggie’s selfish escape from her failures.

Tae’s mom has not given full consent for this adventure, and as Maggie becomes more demanding on Tae, a minor, all parties involved begin questioning intentions.  Is this now a kidnapping? Tae becomes uncomfortable and angry. Maggie’s sexual attraction to her becomes unnatural. Yet, Maggie fights and denies her carnal desire under the premise that she is also like Tae’s second mother. Apparently childless women need to prey on teenagers since they do not have their own kids to raise.  I’m not in love with this train of thought.

Poorly Written—The Bad

Although I enjoyed some of the writing, the initial suspense, and the character development, the book quickly began to fall apart. There is little dialogue, an overuse of parentheses and ellipses, and blatant mistakes such as using the word “her” instead of “I.” The storyline becomes repetitive and the details excessive. The readers understand that Tae is young; we don’t need an overkill of details telling us about how her tampon almost overflowed with blood. We know that Maggie is not handling her aging well. How many times do we need to read about losing breasts in nightmares and checking underwear for period blood?

Nothing is left for readers to assume. There are family secrets that are implied and instantly uncovered at the start. Although the building sexual tension in Maggie starts off well written–I enjoyed the suggestions and creepiness–the lust is repetitively spelled out throughout the book just in case readers haven’t caught wind after hundreds of words telling us so.

I should have stop reading by page 50. I lost interest fast, and let me tell you, nothing happens in the end. There is no big reveal; no climatic ending. What was the point of this book?  200+ pages of character non-development?

A Disaster In Representing Race And Racism—The Ugly

What is the point of adding race into this storyline? That’s my biggest question. I really don’t think people are looking at Tae and Maggie because of Tae’s beautiful lighter black skin as a biracial child with a white woman. The problem is Maggie’s age—that is why they are staring. The problem is the lustful, crazy way that Maggie looks at Tae. Maggie’s sister and the oddly added in character, Sulie, see it. So does everyone else. What does race really have to do with anything here besides perpetuate misguided stereotypes?  Did I just put down a racist book?

Stereotypical And Disappointing Portrayals Of Black Characters

Small Spoiler Alert: Tae is the only black character who Sage sheds some good light upon—but of course, Tae is biracial.  We come to find out that she has a black mother, who was murdered, and a white father. Tae’s adopted “mother” is a black woman who does drugs, can’t pay the bills, and dates bad men.  These bad black men molest Tae. Tae lives in a dangerous neighborhood and Tae’s sisters dress provocatively.  School is meaningless to them, and they have asthma.

Lets move on: Although there is little dialogue, Sage attempts to write grammatically poor English and maybe what she thinks is Ebonics when the family speaks to each other. Then, add in phrases such as “African fertility goddess,” among other black stereotypes. The language is contrived with formulaic racism. Period. It’s prejudice. My stomach rolled.

At first, I questioned the initial family scenario and hoped that we’d see other black characters in a better light. I debated some of the casting since Maggie, as a white woman, has an equally poor representation.  Maggie is mentally unstable, hardly attractive, and cannot function in the real world.  She is however, white, inherited money, and still has it all.  If something feels wrong in your gut, mostly likely it is, especially when you have to look up the author and now see who she is.

Poor Historical Context

Lastly, adding in journal entries about the Detroit riots does not give further permission to discuss most black people as an enraged, robbing, and a raping bunch of people. Maggie at one point acts like she is protecting the ‘bad’ black people over race. Plus, using the words “Negro” and the “N*” word have no place in this book when there is barely any context. Those few dubious historical references in random journal entries add nothing to the plot with the exception plugging in more derogatory terms.

Game of Thrones Collection

A Misguided Understanding Of Racism 

What threw me over the edge and had me seeing red?  This may be hard for some to digest and read:

Maggie works as a media specialist at what she repeatedly describes as an at-risk, mostly black school.  Kids get free and reduced meals.  There are fights, and problems…and everything that Sage continues to fault in the black world. Here, Maggie struggles connecting with students because of her skin color.  Or, so she claims.  More so, a committee full of all black women shun her.  Maybe their disdain originates because she’s a creepy predator and not because of her skin color, like Sage suggests? Just a thought. Ultimately Maggie says that their cruelness towards her–mere cold shoulders–is comparable to reverse racism:

“I experienced what I’m sure people of color have experienced from time and time again in this country. While I haven’t been able to exactly walk in their shoes, I tried them on and felt the pinching. So, I too, have known something of racism and have discovered what a hell on earth it truly is” (Sage 231).

OK, Kayne West, with your mistaken views of racism and black history. Do I need to talk about this deplorable statement? Teachers did not want to talk to you. You assumed this isolation had to do with the color of your skin. Then, you compare this to living like a black person facing discrimination and racism? You tried on those shoes?  Good lord!! You defined white privilege for us. Maggie’s statement is telling of this entire book and its racial understanding.  Sage did not write a masterful piece about race; she continued the white narrative.

I was done. I am done. In the current political environment where few white people think they are now the minority and white men are running for office on platforms of privilege and prejudice, I cannot and will not take any excuse for that statement. I am ashamed.  White nationalist America will love this title.

Mistakes In Writing About Race:

I am by no means an expert on race.  I am a little white chick from New England, but I am human and educated.  From my African American lit classes–I have a B.A. in English and History from Smith College–to my multicultural children’s and young adult lit classes taken throughout my MLIS, I am confident in my ability to analyze a prejudice, failing multicultural book.  Not to mention I am a U.S. Fulbright Scholar who lived abroad, an avid world traveler, an urban educator and nonprofit leader, and a person who dedicates part of her life to staying educated on race and prejudices. A Mentor and Her Muse fails miserably at race.

Red flags that you are reading a biased book:

  • Almost all characters of a particular race are portrayed in a negative, stereotypical light
  • Even worse, the biracial character in that culture is the only person with a hopeful future
  • White people in a book think a black person not speaking to them is comparable to reverse racism
  • A white person compares their experience as an alleged outsider to all of the black community and their history with prejudice
  • White privilege, white privilege, white privilege
  • Writing in what you assume is the dialogue of a black person
  • Using phrases like “Black Fertility Goddess” and slipping in the N* word when it adds no true history, context, culture or meaning to a book
  • You bring up historical moments to incite racism but have not done the proper research or provided the proper context

Crossing The Line Of Being Review-Worthy

As you can imagine, this book has changed the way I will accept reviews. I have never quite seen anything like this book in my requests.  Sadly, this probably won’t be the last time.  I cannot personally recommend A Mentor and Her Muse. You can purchase a copy at Amazon and Barnes and Noble here, as I do believe in letting my readers form their own opinions. Be warned, though, that in my opinion A Mentor and Her Muse is a hurtful book.


I would like to thank Book Glow, Open Books, and Susan Sage for providing me with a free ebook copy of A Mentor and Her Muse in exchange for a fair and honest review. As I review with brutal candidness, I feel like with this one, I have to remind readers that all views and opinions are my own. I mean no harm or ill will to the authors or publishers.  Please refer to my full Book Review Policy disclosure for how I will continue to review.

A Mentor and Her Muse by Susan Sage [Open Books 2018]



  1. June 13, 2018 / 11:04 pm

    Dear god, that sounds terrible. The publisher and editor should be ashamed of themselves.

    • Christine
      June 13, 2018 / 11:13 pm

      I honestly kept trying to give them some benefit of the doubt–which I knew was wrong. I just couldn’t believe what I was reading. Then that last part about trying on the shoes of racism… I almost tossed my iPad into the pool. I was going to refuse a review until that statement. I just couldn’t let it go after seeing the author post a review or two that praised her coverage of race. Someone needed to say, hey wait a second. The context, history, and writing were just completely missing for this to be anything but a perpetuation of stereotypes and a white privilege narrative.

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