True to the Game, by Teri Woods is the book that really put urban lit on the map when it was first published in 1994. Her novel gives us a vivid look into the gritty reality of urban life – the women, drug lords, and the rest of the residents of South Philly. True to the Game II continues that look into the underbelly of urban life. If you like books and movies about the lives of mafia and crime lords, you will really enjoy these two books, and be anxiously awaiting the release of True to the Game III.
When Teri Woods first self-published True to the Game in the early 1990s, she was selling it to the people in her neighborhood of Philly, as well as on the streets of New York City before finding a publisher. A middle-class, mid-thirties, white woman from the suburbs was probably not on her radar as a potential reader, but now that True to the Game has been republished, along with True to the Game II, here I am reading and reviewing. If you grew up worrying about being politically correct and/or in a different environment from the setting of True to the Game you may have some difficulties with some of the language used in the novels. No, I’m not talking about swearing, murders, or drugs. Within the culture of these novels, the word “nigga” is used between characters casually and with great frequency. It was very disconcerting at first, especially after years of being taught how to be politically correct, but once you really get the feel for the story line and the characters, the words flow and the language contributes to the book’s authenticity.
True to the Game introduces us to a world many of us have never seen – the life in and around the projects of Philadelphia. We meet Gena, a 17 year old who is at once mature for her age as well as immature and superficial. Gena and her friends are accustomed to making it on their own, finding ways to get themselves out of the projects. However, their method of doing this seems to rely exclusively on getting money from boyfriends – often thousands at a time. Getting “paper” is an expected part of life and part of why you spend time with men. You wouldn’t date someone who wasn’t “papered up”.
I was originally annoyed with Gena’s perspective until I realized that we were both expecting money as our due at the same age, though I was expecting it from my parents, while she was expecting it from men. I became impressed with Gena’s attitude when she ditches her boyfriend after he beats her up – there are too many books where the women stay with abusive men. Of course, if Gena hadn’t dumped Jamal, she wouldn’t be available when a much better offer comes along.
Gena’s world changes when she starts dating Quadir, one of the top drug lords – she’s got paper. Gena goes on a trip to the Bahamas, and she moves up from an apartment on the edge of the projects to a mansion. Woods tells us Gena’s story from multiple points of view – Qua, Gena, their friends, and their rivals. When Gena has made it big, her spending feels wildly excessive and overdone, but in my world, wealth is understated. In her world, if you’ve got it, flaunt it! She definitely flaunts it well, with more clothes than she can wear, rooms that are never used, furs, and jewelry encrusted with diamonds.
True to the Game is an intense book that pulls the reader into a world that exists outside the law and in a unique time and place. Anyone who has lived in the world of drugs, crime, and a mix of poverty and excess will love reading a book that hits so close to home. For those of us who have never been a part of that world, it offers us a peek inside – a rare opportunity to really understand the world from a completely different point of view.
When True to the Game concluded, I didn’t know how a sequel would work. Even the author writes,
“The first thing that ran through my mind was, how? How do I write the sequel to a book that has been deemed a classic? How will I keep the spirit of my characters alive? How will I write a Part II that everyone will love just as much as they loved the first”
Gena has lost Qua, and her world changed forever. While I had wondered what would happen next to Gena, the story line seemed to have come to a conclusion. I was curious to start True to the Game II right away and see if it could stand as a legitimate sequel to the original, or if it would be a shadow of True to the Game, especially since there had been a 13 year gap between the two publications.
My skepticism was unfounded. By page 9 of True to the Game II, I was hooked. Gena is working on getting herself back into the game, and ends up hooking up with the one man she should be avoiding. We cringe impotently as we see what is happening, but since Gena doesn’t have the same omniscient perspective, she can’t see where she is heading, nor the true identity of her new man.
True to the Game II continues to explore the hidden underworld of drug lords, crime, and cops in Philly. This second novel shows us the law enforcement perspective, and I was surprised to find myself cheering for the “bad guys”. Woods has really created characters you with whom you can bond, bypassing the stereotypes and exploring the realities. There are so many hidden secrets unearthed, and so many secrets hidden in this novel that it feels like we are walking through a maze – who knows which secret, and when will the other characters find out what has been hidden? When one character is having a hard time living with his decisions, we squirm for him, and we want to beat Gena over the head for missing clues about her new boyfriend. These intensely drawn characters come to life, even if you are reading about them from the world of the suburbs.
It’s possible that the language of True to the Game II is just as strong as in the first novel, but I had become used to it. The shock had worn off, and it wasn’t distracting any more. There is more violence in book 2, however, and it’s more personal – one man’s vendetta. In book 1, however, the violence is more routine – one group of drug dealers versus another. Seeing the world of the streets from the police officers’ perspective is also unique to True to the Game II, and while perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by the behavior of the police, I am appalled. I suddenly understand why some people believe that police officers are part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
The secrets that were unearthed and hidden in True to the Game II, as well as the cliffhanger ending make me anxious to find out what happens in True to the Game III! Unlike my reluctance at the beginning of the other novels, I doubt I’ll be starting it with any reservations at all.
I give both books high marks, and they are definitely recommended reading for anyone with a love of crime novels!
(No one was harmed, and only one dinner almost burned while doing research for this review)
These novels were received from the publisher for review
I never read excerpts, because they end up just teasing me with what I can’t have. However, I did read the excerpt of True to the Game III, because I just couldn’t stop at the ending of True to the Game II. I can’t wait to read about Gena’s next adventure. It has not yet been released but it is available for pre-order, so you can make sure you get it as soon as it’s released.