Cover Image: Harlem Shuffle

Harlem Shuffle

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Harlem Shuffle takes place in 1960s Harlem. It is a mix of mystery and crime genres with a bit of family drama added in. The novel is broken into 3 sections, each of which come together to present the entire story. 

Ray “Carney” is the son of a small time criminal. Seeking a different life, Ray graduated from college, married and started his own business, a furniture store where he sells new and gently used furnishings. Ray is proud of himself for not following in his father’s footsteps. But if, on occasion, a friend (usually his cousin, Freddie) brings by a piece of jewelry or a television to be sold, Ray doesn’t ask any questions. "Ray Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked…"

When Freddie gets involved in a big time heist at the “Waldorf of Harlem” he volunteers Carney’s services as a fence, without his permission. Suddenly fearful for the safety of his family, his store, and himself, Carney wonders how to walk the fine line between the gangsters and the straight life that he claims he aspires to. 

Carney wished for years to fall in with the rich and powerful people - people who are supposedly legitimate businessmen. What he learns is that wealth and power does not necessarily mean honesty and Carney himself becomes the victim of a con. It is then when he realizes that he has his father’s appetite for revenge. 

A story of family, race, crime and power. Harlem Shuffle is an enjoyable read. It is a very different and much lighter book than Whitehead’s most recent Pulitzer Prize winners (The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys). ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️   (4 stars because, while interesting, I didn’t find the book to be a compelling read. That is, it was easy enough to set it down and walk away for a few hours or a few days.) I received a free, advanced copy from Doubleday and NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review. 

For more book reviews and recommendations follow me at #EmptyNestReader #instagram #facebook #Goodreads #HarlemShuffle #ColsonWhitehead  #crimefiction #historicalfiction #bookstagram #bookstagrammer #bookstagramalabama #bookstagrammichigan #bookreviews #bookreviewer #bookrecommendations #AugustReads #readalittlelearnalittlelivealittle #ebooks #librarybooks #arc #netgalley #doubleday #penguinrandomhouse
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Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead- This foray into crime noir is a continuation of Coloson Whitehead's exploration and examination of the race and class struggles of black people in a world of white rules and expectations. Raymond Carney is a young man, growing up in Harlem under some of the harshest circumstances, who still believes he can succeed at being an honest and forthright person. His father was a criminal, his mother died too young, and young Raymond managed to shake that all off and become an owner of a furniture store in Harlem. He was legit, and hoping to keep it that way. But sometimes the occasional friend or acquaintance would bring in a TV or radio, and Carney would slowly slide into the practice of selling stolen goods. Then his shifty cousin gets him involved in a jewelry heist. Raymond is going bad.
Told in three separate but connected stories, we see how being a reluctant criminal takes over his life. The writing is smooth and poetic. Set in the early 1960's, New York is sizzling under a withering heat wave, police actions and violent demonstrations have raised tempers to a volcanic level. Injustice and neglect abound in a document of inequality and suffering. Recommended for both it's crime element and it's commentary
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What a riveting, eye opening novel about Harlem in the 1960s. Full of a diverse cast of characters that will make you rethink humanity, people, and relationships. I found myself unable to put this one down. Thank you for the e-arc.
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Publication Date: September 13, 2021

This book is an interesting combination of mystery, history, and fiction. The story follow the life of Ray Carney as he attempts to balance leading a normal life and the crooked past that keeps coming to find him. Filled with family drama and criminality, this book gave me serious “The Wire” vibes—a fantastic tv show!

This is the first time I’ve read a book by Whitehead and it won’t be my last. His writing style is so detailed and vivid that I felt as if I were right there next to Ray, walking the streets of Harlem, drinking the coffee, and looking in each store window. 

The story would have worked a bit better for me had there been less filler and unnecessary background information. The middle third of the book slowed quite a bit but the end picked up and it definitely finished strong. 

Thanks to Netgalley and Doubleday Books for this digital ARC!
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This book has a little bit of everything in it; humor, mystery, social sciences, history, and more. Sometimes I kept waiting for something to happen but it went another direction. I look forward to reading more from Colson Whitehead.
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Thank you to NetGalley and Doubleday for this ARC. As a big fan of Colson Whitehead I was really excited to be pre-approved for this newest novel, it was like finding a present under your tree and it wasn't even XMAS! This is a bit of a detour from his last two books, The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, both dealing with incredibly painful and difficult subjects. 

Harlem Shuffle is more of a crime novel and its main character, Ray, is incredibly multi-faceted. Ray tries to be a successful businessman running a legitimate business, a furniture store. However, he has high aspirations to move his family into the middle class and attempts to do that by fencing the occasional stolen goods and mixing in with a lot of shady characters. Throughout the book you know he's getting in deeper and deeper and you root for him to have the sense to realize that and get out.

Ray's character illustrates that nothing is black and white, there are many gray areas and his 'good Ray" and "bad Ray" often interlace. 

Once again, not disappointed by Colson Whitehead!
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Given the surface subject matter - the small crimes and scuffles of a striving Harlem family man - it might be tempting to see this as a retreat for author Whitehead after the ambitions of The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys.  But that would be a mistake and would undersell the enormous achievement of Harlem Shuffle.  

While fit with the trappings of a heist novel, Harlem Shuffle is as much a history of five critical years in the history of New York City and Harlem in particular.  But even that reduces the value of the book to that of a social history.  

Read this book for the absolute beauty of the writing.  For the finely-developed characters who reveal themselves fully over the years.  Read it for the atmosphere that is soaked into every page.  Read it the way you watch Chinatown - for the immediate genre pleasures and for the larger issues it is built on.  

This wonderful novel deserves to stand alongside Whitehead’s most recent works, at a minimum. You can make the case for this being the best of the them.
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Compared to so many writers who settle into a genre or series, it's surprising that one author could produce novels as diverse as The Intuitionist, Sag Harbor, The Underground Railroad, The Nickel Boys, and Harlem Shuffle. Each of these books (and his others) is unique in its tone, setting, and voice, each has varied depth and power, but all are beautifully written, draw compelling characters and situations, and take the reader to a new world. Sometimes that world is comforting and almost cozy, often it is violent and disturbing, but there's always an underlying recognition that even the inhabitants of that world are only familiar with aspects of it. Whitehead's ability to let the reader discover truths about the world along with his characters is what makes his books so compelling and engaging.

Given that his last two novels won Pulitzer Prizes and the weight of those novels and their settings--slavery and a murderous reform school--one wonders about the pressure on Whitehead to match his seemingly unattainable heights. In a sense he doesn't try. Harlem Shuffle is a three-act story that takes place in the late 1950's and early 1960s, and centers on a furniture salesman and his family. The salesman, Ray Carney, is "only slightly bent when it comes to being crooked," but it's these side-hustle fences that gradually lead him deeper into a dangerous world with significant consequences. However, we see Carney not simply as a criminal (which he certainly is), but as a business owner trying to make good for his wife and children and prove his in-laws wrong. Carney's relatability makes this book an easier read than the last two, and one can almost read it as pulpy noir. What elevates it beyond the standard crime novel is not only the writing--which is extraordinary; Whitehead is one of the best working today--but also the inclusion of societal elements (specifically race and class) that permeates the entire book. While not as explicit as his previous two books, race and class are suffused throughout Harlem Shuffle and shows that there's more to the story than the plot.

Readers expecting another gut-punch like The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys may see Harlem Shuffle as a lighter and less-substantial work. But there's still an iron fist in that velvet glove, and Whitehead can steal your breath in more ways than one.
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Before the book starts there is a publishers note:... "Harlem Shuffle takes the guise of the any Chester Himes and Elmore Leonard and Richard Stark novels....It's a straight out great rime story, propulsive and cleverly plotted and filled with popping dialogue and expertly mapped out scenes..." This story follow the life of a Black, college educated guy named Ray Carney who owns a furniture store in Harlem and works both sides of the law; on the wrong side of the law mostly as a fence or a middleman for fences. It takes place roughly between 1958-1964 and features 3 different crimes. While it features many of the things that Colson Whitehead is good at, this is not a great book. I had to push my way through the whole thing, and had it not been Whitehead, I probably would have abandoned it. I did not find it propulsive to say the least. My favorite parts of the books were the descriptions of NYC in that era and the characters. The story/stories were just so-so. Why a 4 star? It is Whitehead, and he is a better writer than most crime writers. Whether this book is for you, you will have to find out for yourself.
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With an exciting heist novel, set in 1950s/60s New York, and beautifully written, Colson Whitehead has done it again. He captures humanity in extreme situations so exquisitely. It was hard to put this compelling novel down and I highly recommend it.  
Thank you NetGalley and the publisher for the advanced copy.
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“Harlem Shuffle” focuses on Ray Carney, owner of a furniture store in Harlem during the time period 1959-1964.  Carney sees himself as two distinct people:  an honest businessman, and a somewhat shady fence for “slightly used” goods.  Most of his misadventures, such as the occasional heist, and selling stolen property, are instigated by his cousin Freddie, who he loves as a brother.  The novel details Carney’s various forays into the dark criminal underworld, and the danger into which this places him and his family.  It also depicts his struggles to see himself as an upright businessman and overcome the stain of his father’s criminal background.  

Although the storyline is slow in places, the almost poetic use of language to convey nuances of character with a deft choice of words made reading the book a delight.
In addition, the author did an excellent job of bringing to life Harlem in the early to mid sixties.  This, together with the tensions created by Carney’s dealings with dangerous criminals, made the book an entertaining read.
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This is an excellent read. Whitehead does a good job with really bringing the setting, characters, and plot to life. It has good pacing and I'm sure is going to bestseller lists.
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3.5, rounded down. Good pulpy escapist fun from a supremely talented writer with nothing left to prove. 

Whitehead's won the Pulitzer twice in the past five years for The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, both of which are serious contenders for Great American Novel of the first quarter of the 21st century (the latter even more than the former). Harlem Shuffle is probably going to confound readers who haven't been following Whitehead's entire career, the only constant of which has been wild shifts in genre. It's a loving homage to crime novels of the 1950s and 60s, especially the grandmaster of mid-century Black crime fiction, Chester Himes. 

This is a vividly and richly detailed reconstruction of the overlapping criminal underworld and legitimate overworld of Harlem between 1959 and 1964, where NYC racial politics is inescapable-- especially the brutality of racist cops, the pervasive corruption of the political machine, and economic exploitation by the city's white elite. But Whitehead is more interested here in building multi-layered and suspenseful crime stories with intricate plots and memorable characters, especially a parade of hit men, numbers runners, hired thugs, and drug barons. 

This is really three linked novellas with the same protagonist, Ray Carney, who is navigating both the crooked and the legitimate sides of Harlem as the upwardly-mobile owner of a furniture store on 125th Street who also fences stolen jewels and televisions on the side. While scheming his way into a deluxe apartment on Riverside Drive, Ray finds himself (unwittingly at first) dragged into a hotel jewel heist by his crooked cousin Freddie.

The college-educated son of a criminal who inherited more than his father's ill-gotten money, Ray is a self-made man who thinks he's smarter than everyone else, and begins to succumb to the lure of suitcases of cash, while keeping his wife Elizabeth, the daughter of a wealthy lawyer from Striver's Row, in the dark.  And just like Al Pacino in The Godfather Part III, just when Ray thought he was out, they pull him back in.

Some quibbles: While the plotting is masterful, the storytelling here seemed a bit rushed, with an over-reliance on flashbacks to provide just-in-time exposition. And the info-dumps on New York racial history, the product of serious research, don't feel smoothly integrated into the novel's action.

Many thanks to Netgalley and Doubleday for providing me with an ARC of Harlem Shuffle in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.
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From Goodreads:
Read courtesy of the publisher through Netgalley. A certain circularity to life is shown through through this man’s story…Ray Carney, furniture salesman in Harlem. His side hustles are many and risky, as in illegal. But a justice of sorts, honor among thieves, resonates over the violence. Through it all, family calls the shots, his cousin, aunt, wife and children. And the neighborhood frames the story.
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First, this novel was hugely fun to read. Ray Carney’s dad was a crack crook, but Carney’s dream is to be an entrepreneur with a chain of successful furniture stores. But, his cousin Freddie keeps Carney’s fingers in his dad’s business, handling hot goods. They get into loads of trouble, their lives at stake, while Carney maintains his role as a family man with a sound business, keeping his two lives separate. Carney’s aspirations to move to Riverside Drive and join the Duma Club come to nothing when he himself is conned. The story culminates in a dangerous scheme of revenge.

The writing is clever, with memorable lines.

“He measured his prison time in terms not of years lost but of scores missed.”

“The rug was freshly vacuumed, which suited the captives, who had their faces in it.”

“Certainly she hadn’t quit show business, waitressing being a line of work where you had to play to even the cheapest of seats.”

“The cookies were stale and the fortunes discouraging.”

Harlem in the 1960s is vividly recreated, filled with colorful and unforgettable inhabitants.

The timeline ranges from 1959 to 1964, showing life in Harlem from Carney’s hard childhood, his in-laws from Striver’s Row, to the riots and the razing of neighborhoods to build the World Trade Center.

So, we have a hugely entertaining story of a heist, a revenge plot, sharp writing, vivid characters–but wait! There’s more!

No New Frontier stretched before him, endless and bountiful–that was for white folks…
from Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Because the novel is also a history of class and race. Carney wants to add a cutting-edge furniture line to his story, the first black business owner to work with the company. During the meeting in Carney’s store, the police walk in and the rep scurries out. Business owners lost everything in the riot, because insurance companies wouldn’t write policies for Negro shopkeepers. The riots were blamed on activists from CORE.

I guiltily admit that I have not read Colson Whitehead since his debut novel The Intuitionist. I know. How could I have not read his Pulitzer Prize winning books? When an email came from the publisher with a widget to read Harlem Shuffle, I quickly responded. And am so glad I did.

I received a free egalley from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.
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Not as mind-blowing as the Nickel Boys for me but still an excellent example of skilled craft by a master writer.
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Wow!  One of my best books of 2021.  So incredibly entertaining.  Whitehead doesn’t disappoint.  I wouldn’t have ever imagined his newest novel would involve a heist plot, but it just shows what a talented author we have here. I’ve read all his work and found the Underground Railroad to be the toughest read.  This novel is an easy read in comparison, and I hope it draws in a wider audience for future works.

Whitehead’s storytelling abilities continue to astound me.  I am not a reader who generally enjoys a heist gone wrong story but this one is amazing.  It reminded me a bit of The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton in the amount of detail we get as to the actual heist and its aftermath.  If you enjoyed that book you will love the start of this one as the characters are more alive and real and you get a fantastic setting.  

What an incredible sense of place; I feel like I’ve been to Harlem of the 60s.  The sights, sounds, smells, cadence of speech seem to bring the streets alive.  The story is so alive it doesn’t feel like history but it’s there in the background – race relations, sit-ins etc. 

I was pulling for Ray the entire time.  It is masterful how Whitehead manages to spur me, a 56 year-old white female reader to relate to Ray.  Like us all, Ray is trying to do and be the best he can with what opportunities he encounters.  His portrayal as a parent and a spouse is universal.  How does he best provide with his current business?  How far can he go down the criminal path and still sleep at night?    The questions he asks himself about why he gets a kick out of the criminal life is an interesting discussion on nature vs nurture.  How much is it environment or past family?  Are criminal tendencies inherited?  I love that he admits to enjoying the challenges posed after the heist.  It makes me think what his brain could have accomplished if he had different circumstances and opportunities in life. 

There are some references to the wider world and how it impacts Harlem, Ray and his family, but mostly I felt like this book was its own world, one that I was loath to leave.  Ray is such a likeable criminal!  His sense of family and his constant striving to improve his lot endeared me to him and I personally would love to see another book with him in a starring role.

Thanks Colton Whitehead and NetGalley.   Keep writing!  Faster if possible!!
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Ray Carney lives a hardscrabble life on the knife-edge between legal and not so legal work, trying to make ends meet for himself and his young family.  Sometimes right and wrong are less clear.
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“Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked.” Could not those words opening “Harlem Shuffle” apply to most of us if we were being completely honest? So begins the story, with a caper element, of a somewhat heroic antihero Raymond Carney. You can’t help rooting for him as you did for a Vito Corleone dragging himself up from a sad childhood to care for and love his family. You cheer for his upwardly mobile successes, understand his affection for his problematic, rascally cousin, and sympathize with his need to avenge himself on those who done him dirty. You want him to get that Bella Fontaine account! All is told in staccato like sentences with a humorous line slipped in here and there prompting a snicker.. This is another winning book from a fabulous writer.
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Thank you to Doubleday for the ARC of this ebook.

Nobody tells a story better than Colton Whitehead. If you expect something like his last 2 books, you’re in for a surprise. Historical fiction set in Harlem in the 1960, focused on Ray Carney, furniture store owner and crooked guy on the side. You get a strong sense of Harlem and the changes that are starting. Some still continue to this day. Something different and totally enjoyable, told in 3 vignettes.  It took me a while to get involved with the story and to get the flow, but once I did it was terrific.
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