Tuesday, September 21, 2010

'The Last Block in Harlem' by Christopher Herz

Fiction, originally published 2009, re-released 2010
Amazon Encore, ebook, 224 p.
From the publisher:
All fire escapes lead back to the same block in Sugar Hill, Harlem- where kids run through hydrants and music blares from stereos plugged into lampposts. When a new resident (the story's unnamed narrator) notices the trash polluting the picturesque streets and tainting the block's beauty, he is spurred to action. However, his best intentions go awry when the clean-up brings media coverage that in turn, sets off a rash of evictions and ushers in an influx of new and affluent tenants. In an attempt to preserve his neighborhood, the tenant mobilizes a grassroots effort to improve the neighborhood from the inside out.

Realizing he has yet again polluted his reality with unintended consequences, his fight to clean up the block evolves into a quest to cleanse his soul. The choices he makes cannot change the past and the secrets that haunt him, but will alter the future for himself, his family...and the last block in Harlem.
I met the author briefly at the Book Blogger Convention held in New York in May, and became curious about this book because the back-story is quite fun, and even inspiring. The author, Christopher Herz, over the course of a year or so, wrote each morning for a couple of hours before going to the work that paid the bills. Once he'd completed the book, however, he had 1000 copies printed, left his job, and hit the streets of New York City, hand selling the book to people, to strangers he met on the street. As luck would have it, one of the people who bought the book knew a writer at Publishers Weekly, who ended up writing a story on him and his novel approach of getting his book out there. This exposure led to a publishing deal with Amazon Encore, Amazon's new publishing venture. What a fortuitous series of events, don't you think? And proof that persistence pays off. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be able to do that myself but Christopher just exudes self-confidence, and it says something that he believes so strongly in himself and his book.
“You know, we all have the same time in one day. What you do with it is the only thing different about us. Don’t believe what anyone tells you is impossible.”
As for the book itself, it's a wonderfully vivid look at this particular block in Harlem, which truly becomes a character in itself. Both the block and its inhabitants were portrayed in such a way that I almost felt I was right there sitting on a stoop on the block myself, watching the story unfold there in front of me. We didn't go much beyond the usual tourist sites of Manhattan (Times Square, Central Park, Ground Zero, etc.) when we were there earlier this spring, but reading this book made me wish I had at least walked down a similar block to experience it for myself. One thing we did notice though, was just how vibrant and multi-cultural New York City is, and The Last Block in Harlem also captures this aspect of NYC perfectly. Herz's love for the city simply oozed off the pages.

The story explores the effect of gentrification on this area of the city, while looking at how people connect with their environment. How it's not just a place to live but "home". And the importance of community. On a more individual level, the book is also about one's search for identity, and meaning in one's life.
I wished that life could be lived like a song: short, amazing, and without too many words.
The main character, who remains unnamed throughout, was a bit annoying sometimes in his overly-idealistic obsession with cleaning up the block.  This was on purpose though as he ends up being kind of the bad guy of the story.  However, I felt that the story lost its way a little in the later part. Although, to give the author the benefit of the doubt, the main character, in his quest to give his life meaning, is also becoming increasing lost and out of touch with his life as the novel progresses, so perhaps this was intentional as well. The story also took quite a strange turn near the end, one that I can see bothering some people. I thought it fit with the personality of the character, and it made a kind of sense, but it was still rather abrupt and unexpected, and I would have preferred if it had been somehow handled in a different way. In other words, perhaps the book could have used just a little more polishing in the editing room.

All in all, despite a few minor complaints, it was an interesting, honest look at life in this particular neighborhood of New York City, and a worthy debut. I wish Christopher all the best of luck with his writing in the future. I hear that he is even working on an epic story set in Mongolia, for later on down the road, which certainly has me intrigued.

Publishers Weekly article: Author/Publisher Gives New Meaning to Handselling

Check out the author's blog, Herz Words.
Follow Christopher on Twitter

Interview at The Fiction Circus
Interview at Take Me Away
Review at Take Me Away

Buy The Last Block in Harlem at: Amazon.com | BookDepository.com | BookDepository.co.uk

Thank you to Christopher Herz for the opportunity to read this book.

If you've reviewed this book, let me know and I'll link to it here.


The small print:  This book was received free of charge from the author for review purposes.  Links in this post to Amazon (including book cover) or The Book Depository contain my Associates or Affiliates ID respectively.  Purchases made via these links earn me a very small commission.  For more information please visit my About Page.


  1. What a terrific story-behind-the-story! And I love the idea of a block becoming a character in its own right. That's how I felt about the setting in Kate Grenville's Secret River (though that's Australia, not NYC).

  2. That is a wonderful story behind the publishing of this book!


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