The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar


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The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock: A Novel by [Gowar, Imogen Hermes]Full disclosure: I recently read about Leonard Maltin’s review of 1948’s Isn’t It Romantic? (Review: “No.”)  And though I enjoyed both the length and the bluntness of the review, this review is neither inspired by nor an homage to that review, despite it being, for me at least, a rather short review.  Obviously because I’m quite chatty and hopefully because I’m not that petty.  At least, I’ll try not to be.

Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock tells the story of Jonah Hancock, a prosperous merchant in 1780’s London who suddenly comes into posession of a mermaid (think an ugly little sea creature that looks kind of like a gremlin and not The Little Mermaid), and Angelica Neal, a renowned courtesan looking to her next stage in life.  Their paths collide as they begin to learn the dangers of obsession, wonder, and greed of the world around them.

So…I made it 208 pages in a 400 page book…and nothing really had happened.  So I stopped.

Maybe I’ll go back?  I felt like Gowar is clearly a talented writer at the sentence level, and she captured the tone and voice of late 18th century writing better than any other modern writer I’ve read so far.  But when you’re 208 pages in, and the story just rehashes the same character situations and complaints again and again, it’s hard to stay motivated.  And honestly, this surprised me because this book on paper checks a lot of my boxes.  But it just didn’t grab me.

However, a lot of people loved it.  It was a Booklist Top 10 First Novels of the Year for 2018, a favorite book at both Refinery 29 and People, and a shortlisted contender for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.  Plus Madeline Miller, author of the divine Circe, wrote a blurb for it.  So I’m hesitant to say it’s not a good book.  Clearly there are many people who disagree with me, so rather, I will say it was not my cup of tea.  But who knows?  It may be yours.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker


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I spent quite a bit of time with ancient Greek mythology last year, specifically revolving around the Trojan War, starting with Madeline Miller’s luminous Circe and now (a.k.a. last fall) with Pat Barker’s haunting The Silence of the Girls.  I’m excited to continue that trend this year by finally reading Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey.  But first, let’s spend some time with the women who lived the war (mythologically speaking, perhaps).

The Silence of the Girls tells the story of Briseis and the women who were enslaved by the Greek army, living in their camp during the Trojan War.  As the Greek army sacked Troy’s allies, women would be captured and doled out to Greek commanders and leaders as prizes.  Briseis, perhaps one of the most famous of these women, was given to Achilles, and Agamemnon’s “stealing” of her after a dispuit resulted in Achilles boycotting the battle long enough to almost turn the tide in favor of the Trojans.  She is often depicted as Achilles’ lover, and his sitting out of battle a sign of his love for her.  In Barker’s telling, however, Briseis gets to tell her story in her own words rather than through the lens of the victors.

This book does not sugarcoat anything.  Barker peals away all of the layers of distance and years and mythos from our traditional understandings of the Trojan War and reveals the horrifying reality of being a woman, specifically a prisoner of war, in a Greek army camp.  The writing is gritty, realistic, dirty, unflinching, spare, visceral, and evocative.  This is not the love story of Briseis and Achilles that we so often hear.  This is Briseis’s tenuous existance in a place of supposed honor and enslavement.  Barker focuses on the horrors of the lives these women led and the evolution of their feelings around their situations and the men who control things.  She is particularly interested in Briseis’ evolving feelings about her relationships with both Achilles and Patroclus–both encompass distrust, discomfort, compassion, even real care in the case of Patroclus, but not forgiveness.

Structurally, the story is tight and the writing economical.  The book comes in under 300 pages, but each page is packed with nuance and detail, creating detailed images in the reader’s mind.  The narrative felt full, almost exhausted at the end.  Barker writes no more and no less than she intends to and in doing so serves her characters’ stories specifically and precisely.  Barker wants to emphasize how women were considered less than human in these army camps and yet how they fought to retain their humanity, and she forgrounds this theme through the alternating perspectives of her reader-proxy.  The majority of the book is narrated by Briseis in first person, and we are meant to understand the plot through her.  When she shifts to Achilles’ perspective, she writes in third person, keeping us at a remove from him and demoting the masculine perspective as the primary lens for understanding the Trojan War.  The one thing that bothered me was that Barker, who is British, peppered in British colloquialisms throughout the dialoge–for example, “oy” and “mate”– but not consistently enough for it to feel authentic to the characters.  Instead, it was often jarring and took me out of the time and place of the story.

When I was in high school, I performed in a production of Euripides’ Trojan Women.  As part of our research, we were assigned a novel about Briseis’ experience during the war.  It was fine, but ultimately it was a romance novel, looking at the story through rose-colored glasses.  It furthered the narrative of Achilles and Briseis as lovers while de-emphasizing her status as an enslaved prisoner of war.  Barker reverses that, giving Briseis agency and dignity in her own story.  I wish The Silence of the Girls had been out then; it’s the book we should have read instead.  And on the whole, it’s pretty sublime.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders


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George Saunders is a name that looms large in American fiction as a whole and in our house in particular.  Michel is a huge fan: Saunders was Michel’s grad school advisor’s grad school advisor, and Michel believes him to be the greatest short story writer living.  So when Saunders’ long-awaited first novel came out, I thought it might be time for me to see what this guy was really about.

Lincoln in the Bardo tells the story of Willie Lincoln, recently deceased and pausing for a bit in the “bardo”, a Buddhist version of purgatory.  In this case, the bardo is the cemetary in Washington DC where his body has been lain in a borrowed crypt.  Many of the spirits in this cemetary don’t realize that they are actually dead, instead thinking they are just sick–coffins are “sick boxes”, mausoleums are “sick houses”.  Many spirits harbor hopes of “going back” once they get well. The spirits of Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins, and Reverand Thomas befriend Willie’s spirit and support him as he tries to stay in this in-between world so he can spend more time with his dad.  Most of the story takes place over the course of one night, and our three spirit friends serve as narrators, telling us of the extraordinary night that the President came to visit his son.

Well.  I shouldn’t have waited.  Saunders won the Pulitzer for this, his first novel, and it’s incredibly easy to see why.  It is one of the most naturally creative books I have read in a long time.  Written like a play, it is a series of monologues and scenes set among the denizers of the bardo, as the spirits tell fight to tell their stories to this new arrival, desperate because their stories are all they have left.  As mentioned above, Vollman, Bevins, and Thomas narrate the action around these stories, interjecting their own stories, opinions, and thoughts as Willie struggles to understand what is happening to him.  Interspersed throughout are chapters with fake primary and secondary accounts of the history of the situation–descriptions of the Lincolns and their parties, Willie’s illness, his death, and his funeral.  We had an opportunity to hear Saunders speak at the Chicago Humanities Festival this past fall about Lincoln in the Bardo (and if you ever have the chance to hear him speak, do so–he is so kind, funny, down-to-earth, and utterly brilliant and couldn’t have been lovlier when Michel introduced himself after).  He talked about how this structure was partly inspired by how early internet chat rooms looked and the ability of that visual to create a chaotic call and response between speeches and stories.  What this form does, then, is completely upend a traditional sense of novel form yet read as if it is a completely normal, familiar form that we engage with every day–which, for modern readers in an internet age, is true.

Additionally, the characters are all highy individual and fully realized people.  The specificity of their stories, their unique voices, and the intensity of their emotions sweep over us.  The sections where the spirts enter Lincoln, shattered by his son’s death and unable to stay away from the borrowed crypt where Willie’s body lays, are some of the most real, true, heartbreaking, and remarkable passages I’ve read in a long time.  And yet, there is a clear theme of viral goodness.  Before Willie arrives, many of the spirits act in their own interest, often quite rudely, selfishly, or even harmfully.  It is this mindset and the resulting actions that keep them in the bardo.  However, as Vollman, Bevins, and Thomas try to protect Willie who refuses to move on without his father, more spirits join them, trying to help.  And that leads to more and more acts of other-focused kindness and goodness, the thing that frees many spirits and allows them to pass on over the course of the novel.

Interestingly, in his talk Saunders said he did not plan for the pattern of selfless acts being rewarded and only noticed it well into the writing of the novel.  However, it is this theme–that humans are ultimately good–that anchors the novel.  Being human, dealing with a human body and human emotions, is often distressing, vulgar, difficult, and gross, and so is the writing.  Saunders is not afraid to display humanity as its most awful.  Yet no matter how base and depraved many of the cemetary’s citizens are, Saunders displays a fundamental hope for humanity and our state of being.  It is an incredibly sweet story at it’s core, and I came away feeling happy and hopeful.

Obviously, I recommend this.  But I also recommend that you read it and then listen to the audio book.  (I say this as someone who does not particularly enjoy audio books.)  It has an incredible (and humongous) cast  (Nick Offerman as Vollman, David Sedaris as Bevins, and Saunders himself as Rev. Thomas, along with a whole host of Oscar nominees and winners, comedians, and musicians–I found this character key from Penguin Random House helpful when listening), but listening revealed things I missed the first time around.  It particularly highlights the humanity of some of the more difficult characters and really lets the beauty of the novel’s structure sing.  I also love the push-and-pull between the modern and historical influences and the multi-modal consumption of the story.  And honestly, this is a story meant to be spoken and heard rather than read as just a novel, much like Shakespeare.  I expect that Lincoln in the Bardo may challenge many readers.  It is, after all, a meditation on life, death, grief, what we give up in life, and what we gain when we do.  But it will also remind you to look for what is so often missing in today’s world: hope.

Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution by Todd S. Purdum.


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I’ve gotten really good at immediately jotting down notes about the books I read, which has been super helpful the further behind I get on my blog.  (Only 12-ish behind now! Phew…) So imagine my shock and horror when I went to my notes app in my phone only to find I had NO NOTES on Todd S. Purdum’s delightful and comprehensive Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution.  Lucky for me, my mom’s book club just read this book for their January book, and she was more than willing to share her thoughts with me.  (I read it early last summer.)  So, for the first time ever, please enjoy a review co-authored by my mom, Shirley!  (Surprise, Mom!)

Purdum’s book delves deep into the personal and professional histories of the legendary musical theatre team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.  He explores their upbringings, their family lives, their pre-R&H professional partnerships (particularly that of Rodgers and Hart), their drastically different personalities and how they both found working together challenging and fulfilling, and the legacy of their creations.  He also spends quite a bit of time on their processes and the creation of many of their most (and less) important shows.

Let me tell you, this book is DENSE, but in the most wonderful way.  Purdum is thorough in his research, and each page is packed with insights and details about everything from the writing process to their different approaches to family to New York theatre culture and their relationships with their theatre colleagues.  That said, it never drags.  Purdum maintains a clear, engaging, easy-to-read style and is a sophisticated writer who can deliver a lot of complex content with ease.  Mom noted that “[the book] avoid[s] one of the pitfalls of non-fiction/biographical books in that it [keeps] the narrative and time line moving forward.  Things do not happen in a vacuum, but some authors lose the sense of an overall arc of a life by jumping back and forth to pick up this detail or that.”

I really appreciated, in particular, how focused Purdum was on the composing process, talking through specific musical passages that Rodgers wrote, why he wrote them in that way, what his revisions were, and how it impacted the text of the song or even the arc of the show itself.  In some cases, I think it probably helps to have some music theory background to fully understand exactly what Purdum was describing.  However, if you don’t, I don’t think he delves so into musical minutiae that it’s impossible to understand without any prior knowledge of theory.  I also think it’s a wonderful excuse to do some listening while you read!  There’s really nothing like hearing the musical passage an author is attempting to describe.  My mom and her book club were particularly interested in the shifts in Hammerstein’s processes–notably that he wrote lyrics to Lorenz Hart’s music, while instead Rodgers often wrote music based off of Hammerstein’s lyrics.  Mom said, “I personally think that it showed his flexibility and that his primary inspiration for lyrics was the source from which he was working (play, novel, etc.).  He could produce the lyric based on that alone or make the lyric fit with a melody as well since he was the ‘wordsmith’.”  My mom wondered as well if Rodgers felt that he needed to know what he was setting in order to write the “right” music to accompany the sentiment, whereas Hammerstein often was able to work from source material that could guide him whether or not the music came first.  It leads to an interesting exploration of how creativity and the act of creation work and how individualized the process can be even in collaboration.

However, as Mom mentioned above, nothing is done in a vacuum, and Purdum does a great job of putting Rodgers and Hammerstein’s work in context of the other creatives they worked with, the evolution of Broadway during their partnership, and even 20th century American history.  One thing that Mom found enlightening was the number of people who took Rodgers and Hammerstein’s songs and turned them into a full musical–“an orchestrator who actually wrote much of the music, the choreographers, the director–all of whom had huge impacts on the finished product”, some of them famous and some of them not, some who received clear credit for their contributions and some who did not.  For me, what really stuck out was how central to Broadway and American performing arts Rodgers and Hammerstein were for so many years.  Really, they created and formalized what we understand as the modern musical and the language we use to communicate about it.  Yes, technically Show Boat was the first musical, but R&H took that starting point and created a whole new structure, solidifying the art form.  They understood music history and used it as a place from which innovate, and now other artists are doing the same with R&H’s work.  Sondheim was one of the first, being Hammerstein’s protege, but take Hamilton–it’s pushing all the boundaries but does so successfully because Lin Manuel Miranda knows his music history across genres, countries, and time.  If you listen carefully, you hear Gilbert and Sullivan, Sondheim, and Rodgers and Hammerstein, among others, in Hamilton’s music and lyrics.  Without R&H, there wouldn’t be Hamilton.  And I think Purdam does an excellent job of rooting his biography in this wider context without getting overblown.

That being said, we both had some quibbles.  First, we both would have liked to have been able to learn more about their wives.  Both women were reportedly extremely influential in their husbands’ lives in interesting and different ways, and yet there is only one chapter total specifically devoted to them.  They are, of course, mentioned throughout, but more attention could have been paid them.  Additionally, R&H wrote a lot of songs that didn’t always make it into their intended shows but popped up later in a different show.  In some cases, Purdum is very detailed in tracking the use of a particular song, and in others, he veers away from the evolution of a song and never picks it back up.  This particularly bothered Mom, who recently performed in a production of State Fair and was very interested to learn about two of the songs that were added in the mid-90’s revival (“So Far” and “The Man I Used to Be”) that had been used in previous shows (Allegro and Pipe Dream respectively).  However, it was unclear when the songs had been written and for what, and since Purdum mentioned each specifically, she thought he might have clarified their performance use and history.

But overall, this is really the seminal biography of Rodgers and Hammerstein.  It is as joyful and delightful to read as it is joyful and delightful to see one of their shows.  Rodgers and Hammerstein truly revolutionized American musical theatre and culture.  Even if you are not a huge musical theatre nerd, I strongly encouraged you to spend some time with Something Wonderful.  You won’t be sorry.

The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night by Jen Campbell


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Fabulism has become increasingly prevalent in women’s and queer literature over the last two years, serving, as Zach Doss said at a 2017 AWP panel on Fabulism as a Platform for Minorities, Women, and the LGBT Community, “as a lever to crack [open] and express something that can’t be expressed in any other way.”  It’s like magical realism but more directly allegorical, taking the intangible things we find so difficult to talk about and making them tangible in a safe way.  In particular, fabulism is popping up more and more in short story collections, and Jen Campbell’s The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night is one of the latest.

Campbell’s collection is inspired by fairy tails and weaves together stories that flirt with the line between reality, fantasy, and even horror.  We as readers drop in and out of stories where children-plant hybrids look for a missing friend, a couple re-writes the origin of the world in the middle of the night, a man lives in a society where heart surgery is common place and animal hearts create different manifestations of love, and a girl and her aunt run a coffin B&B, allowing guests an opportunity to try out the death experience.  I was super excited to read this collection.  I’m not usually a short story person, but oh my gosh, that title!  It just snakes around you and pulls you in!  The blurbs I read invoked stories of whimsy and joy and magic with just the right touch of danger and darkness.  Plus it was regularly cited as a strong entry in the fabulist genre.

I was not prepared.  The first story was so dark and off-putting that I almost stopped reading.  It threw my morning off, and I talked about it with a few reader friends at work, all of whom were similarly put off.  Traditional fairy tales are often dark, but they are written (or told) so to teach children how to behave (or at least scare them into behaving).  The German word for fairy tale, Kindermärchen, reflects this purpose.  This story was not dark in order to teach.  It was just dark.  The overwhelming emotion throughout the collection, though, was sadness.  The book was filled with a deep, aching sadness and loneliness, often (though not always) from a child’s perspective.  For me, it made some of the stories feel muted, sepia-toned.  Additionally, a lot was left unsaid, Campbell preferring to have her readers infer deeper meaning, but the result was that often her major theme–that the world is full of disappointment and danger and much of those things come from those close to us–felt glossed over.

All that being said, the collection is extremely well written. Campbell clearly loves language and loves playing with language.  Her stories are filled with striking imagery and gorgeous syntax, and each story feels completely unique.  The voices of her characters were less so.  Each first-person narrator seemed roughly the same as the previous.  And maybe they are the same person!  Maybe each story is a different non-consecutive snapshot in an unreliable narrator’s life!  Or maybe not.  Campbell also played with visual form.  My favorite story was the titular one, written as a scene from a play.  Another story played with the visuals of the print on the page–a waterfall of words visually falling down the page also described an actual waterfall, for example.  I wish there had been more of this visual pushing of the envelope.  It felt fresh and exciting when you turned the page and suddenly the page didn’t look like a traditional paragraph-based story, but ultimately the attempts felt tentative and stuck out because there were so few of them.

Overall it’s a good collection of short stories, well-written and certainly unique.  I didn’t exactly enjoy reading it, but there were parts that I thought were incredibly beautiful.  Honestly, it would be a good collection to read around Halloween–just the right amount of creepy to get you in the spirit.  If you are not a big short story person, I wouldn’t start with this collection as a stepping-stone to reading more.  And if you are interested in fabulism, I like Helen Oyeyemi better–I’m working my way through her collection, What is Not Yours Is Not Yours, and it’s pretty breathtaking.  However, I think The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night is a worthy entry into the fabulist genre, and Campbell is a writer to watch, especially as fabulism becomes increasingly visible and important as a platform to express the strangeness of alternate experiences in this world.

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi


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In 2018 I ventured a bit more back into YA literature than I had in several years, and overall, I continue to be impressed and heartened by the quality of books available for young readers.  One of the hot YA titles of the year was Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, a book so popular that I couldn’t even find it at airport bookstores while it was on the NY Times Bestseller list.  Fortunately one of my students let me borrow his copy, since if I had gotten on the library list, I would still be waiting 6 months later.

Children of Blood and Bone presents a modern take on the classic hero’s journey rooted in West African culture and mythology and set in a fantasy version of our world.  To quote Publisher’s Weekly, “Eleven years ago, King Saran cemented his grip on the throne by banishing magic from Orïsha and slaughtering the realm’s maji—Zélie Adebola’s mother included. The maji’s descendants—dark-skinned, white-haired people called divîners—have lived under tyranny ever since, but now there is cause for hope. Thanks to information gleaned from Saran’s kindhearted daughter, Amari, 17-year-old Zélie has a chance to restore magic to Orïsha and activate a new generation of maji. First, though, Zélie, Amari, and Zélie’s brother, Tzain, must outrun the crown prince, Inan, who is determined to finish what his father started by eradicating magic for good.”

I really enjoyed it.  The novel was very well done for the most part, and Adeyemi is particularly adept at world building.  Her writing is incredibly evocative with regards to settings and descriptions, and each locale was carefully distinct in its culture, population, and purpose.  Clearly Adeyemi knows, loves, and respects the traditional fantasy canon and is a skilled enough writer to push the boundaries a bit.  Her world building, like the rest of the novel, is clearly rooted in West African myths, but also feels a little bit Tolkien, a little bit Harry Potter, and a little bit Star Wars, all in the best possible ways.

Structurally, she also draws from Tolkien, alternating first person perspectives in each chapter.  Her main narrators are Zelie, Amari, and the crown prince Inan.  The structure is intentionally crafted and is particularly effective in creating multiple lenses for major events.  It also allows Adeyemi to play purposefully with the timeline a bit.  Time jumps were never so big that you felt like you lost information, and time repetitions always felt purposeful and added new information, all of which really upped the anticipation and excitement.

A few things, though:  Tzein is a main character, yet he is the only one of the 4 main teenagers who does not get to highlight his own perspective.  No chapters are narrated by him.  Maybe adding a 4th narrator would have been a lot for Adeyemi to handle structurally (this book is a beast at well over 500 pages with a massive cast of characters), but I would have liked to have heard directly from him.  Since the other 3 main characters all got to tell their versions of the story, it just felt a little odd that he did not.  Because of that, I felt like the story lost something in places, particularly when the major conflict between our young heroes arose.





I felt like Inan’s conversion to Zelie and team’s side was abrupt, no matter what he learned to prompt that conversion.  It felt too immediate given the extreme, almost fanatical, nature of his previous feelings and approach.  Obviously, his perspective shift signals a separation from his father, a key moment for his own character growth, but it felt disingenuous.  Similarly, the resulting relationship between Zelie and Inan gave me whiplash.  It got real hot and heavy real fast and, again, in a way that felt abrupt and not rooted in the reality of their situations.  For a book that is 530 pages, the rushed nature of these two elements definitely affected the emotional impact of the ending for me.


And let’s talk about that ending!  This ending has caused a lot (and I mean A LOT) of people frustration because it ends on a cliffhanger.  But honestly, not a big deal.  Why?  Because I had the advantage (which I will now pass on to you) of knowing going into reading this book that is the first in a planned trilogy, something that is not immediately apparent…or even apparent at all until the last 3 pages or so.  And though the penultimate section felt very Harry-Potter-and-Dumbledore-near-the-end-of-book-7, I wasn’t really bothered by it.  I do believe, though, that’s because I knew there would be more coming, and by sharing this tidbit with you, I would like to spare you the angst of the many readers who came before us.

Overall, I think Children of Blood and Bone is an excellent addition to the YA canon, especially for representation and the teaching of empathy and understanding in genre-fiction (the fantasy and sci-fi genres, in particular, being historically populated by white male heroes and “diversity” coming mainly from non-human characters).  In fact, challenging genre norms and creating a specific example of inclusion and representation while celebrating everything that’s great and engaging and exciting about the fantasy genre is why Adeyemi started this series.  Yes, these characters look different from me, but it’s still the same kind of teen empowerment fantasy that I read as a kid, and that’s key–it doesn’t feel different or less than  in quality, nor does it feel like I can’t connect to these characters.  But for young readers who rarely see themselves in this kind of genre fiction at all, they now get to not just see themselves but see themselves as the hero in an excellent example of quality fantasy writing.  And that’s huge.  The novel highlights cultural differences and the more universal aspects of the human experience at the same time.  It does exactly what good children’s and YA lit is supposed to do: teach compassion, empathy, kindness, inquiry, and a desire to learn and build relationships.  And it does so within the structure of some mighty fine fantasy writing.  So whether or not you are a young reader or have one in your life, this is definitely a YA series worth spending some time with.

Raven Black by Ann Cleeves


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As periodically happens, I went on a mystery kick for a bit, re-reading Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace (second in her Armand Gamache series) and starting a new (to me) series by Ann Cleeves.  Raven Black, the first book in her Inspector Perez series, traces Inspector Jimmy Perez’s investigation into the murder of a local girl, Sally Henry, when she disappears after a night of revelry with her best friend.  Magnus Tait, a mentally delayed man who was the last person to see Sally and who was supposedly involved in the disappearance of a young girl years before, is the immediate suspect, but neither Perez nor Fran, a recent arrival to the remote community with her daughter who lives close to the murder scene, are convinced.  As Perez’s investigation deepens, social structures, relationships, and deeply held secrets all threaten to come undone.

This is a solid mystery.  It’s set in the Shetland Islands, a new location for me in my reading.  The pace of the mystery as well as revelations was good.  Nothing felt gratuitous or unlikely, and every revelation or break in the case was well-supported without being telegraphed.  The novel reads very quickly, and the flow was such that it was easy for me to not just keep going but to want to keep going.

Cleeves writes the story from multiple perspectives, starting with Magnus Tait.  These sections, in my opinion, are some of the best.  They are certainly the most upsetting.  Cleeves does a fantastic job conveying Magnus’s confusion, fear, jumbled memories, and lack of understanding of what is going on around him.  Her writing of him is both specific and empathetic, and these sections created both the strongest reaction and buy-in from me as I read.  I also liked Perez.  He is a good detective with strong instincts, and the personal conflict he was dealing with throughout the novel supported his character development without detracting from the mystery.  Overall, most of the characters seemed complete, but I did feel like I was watching a lot of them from a distance, even when I was reading from their perspectives “inside” their heads.  As a result, some elements of the novel felt a bit perfunctory.  The stakes didn’t all feel real or seem to matter until the end, and even then, there wasn’t a visceral connection for the reader.  So much of mystery writing is about conveying the very real, horrible, and human emotions and experiences around such an event as murder, and for me, the characters just felt a bit detached.

Additionally, and this is a small thing, the jumps in time felt abrupt to me.  For example, people are having a conversation in a car, and one sentence later, they’ve jumped 30 minutes ahead in time and are at a party in the house.  The problem for me wasn’t the jumps in time themselves but the construction of those jumps–no transition words or statements to indicate time and place had moved ahead or changed.  A couple of times, I had to go back and reread to make sure I knew when and where everyone was.  It bothered me because it didn’t feel like a purposeful structural choice, just jarring and disorienting.

That being said, the twist at the end was great.  I totally didn’t see it coming, but it absolutely made sense when it happened.  I didn’t completely buy the events that wrapped up the ending, but the twist was completely earned–the kind M. Night Shyamalan can only dream of.

As far as British-style mysteries go, it wasn’t my favorite, but it wasn’t the worst.  It was very different from the Slow Horses series I’d been checking out, and I think generally I like this better.  However, I wondered as I was reading if it might not work better on television where the visuals of the Shetlands, which are supposed to be a huge part of the atmosphere of the novel, can have a more immediate impact.  I will probably read the second one in the series at some point, but like Slow Horses, the second novel needs to be a significant step up for me to continue the series after that.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas


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I’ve been out of the YA game pretty much since I started teaching college-level classes, though I sometimes dip my toe back in.  But I kept hearing about this book, Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give.  It sounded good and something I should probably read.  And the book I thought I should probably read became a book I should read and then became a book I had to read, especially when my friend, Alexis, forcefully handed me her signed copy with a look that said, “You have to read this book, but if you damage or harm or lose this book, I will destroy you with the fire of a 1000 suns.”  You don’t mess around with Alexis gives you that look.  You do what she asks.  And she was right.  This is a phenomenal book, a book that I had to read, and a book that we all have to read.

The Hate U Give tells the story of Starr Carter, a young African-American teenager who moves between the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy neighborhood of her private prep school.  She maintains an itchy, uneasy balance between the two worlds until the night her childhood best friend is murdered by a police officer in front of her.  The resulting trial and its aftermath tear open Starr’s world in a myriad of ways, as she is the only one who really knows what happened that night.  As she fights for her voice and her identity, she has to decide whether or not to fight for peace and justice as well.

When I was reading a lot of YA, dystopian YA was very “in”, and I had several conversations with people who wondered why that was so.  It was, in part, because the stories gave teen readers worlds where they could have control, where the actions of adults had consequences, and they, the teens, were the ones who could actually fix, change, or save things.  It created real-world empowerment in a fictionalized safe space.  The thing I’m seeing now, though, is that it’s not dystopian worlds that are the thing–it’s our real world—the here and now–because our world is such a difficult place it can no longer be ignored.  This is a good thing.

THUG is about empowerment, finding and using your voice, speaking truth to power, and accepting discomfort and growing from it.  It’s about fighting for the right to live in safety, to not be discriminated against, and to not be controlled neither by others’ fear nor our own.  Actions, good and bad, should and do have consequences, good and bad, and we have to continue fighting for what is right and good and true.

Thomas is a masterful writer, creating nuance and emotion and clarity with the simplest phrase, and she foregrounds ideas and topics integral to humanity today through realistic portrayals of lived experience.  This book is immediate, visceral, timely, and timeless.  It deals with police brutality and the lack of accountability and justice; the anxiety and challenges of code switching; the loss of friendship in many forms; school choice; and, at its root, identity.  It explores the challenges of our society from the African-American perspective, but it allows those of use who have had different experiences from the characters in the book to move closer to understanding what life could be like one neighborhood over or across the city.  Because here’s the deal.  As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently said in her keynote address at the 2018 NCTE conference (and I’m paraphrasing), it is important to read about people who are not like you because most of the world is not like you.  Any story, if done well, becomes universal because stories are all about being human, and all writers are identity writers because identity shapes the way the world interacts with us and the way we interact with the world.  And that is what THUG captures so clearly and beautifully.

So yes, you have to read this book.  And if THUG exemplifies what our young adults are reading now, there may be hope for the future yet.


The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden


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Ok, my middle and high school self (and, let’s be real, my adult self) is squealing with excitement.  Katherine Arden VERY quickly pushed out her the second book in her Winternight trilogy, a follow up to her gorgeous The Bear and the Nightingale, and I’m so delighted to share that it is just as good as the first!

The Girl in the Tower starts with Vasya on the road to Moscow, disguised as a boy traveler, trying to get to her brother Sasha, who is now a warrior monk, and her sister Ogla, a princess in the Russian court.  Both she and Sasha independently discover that someone is burning villages and kidnapping young girls, and they are determined to figure out what’s going on and save their people.  However, her very presence complicates things for Sasha and Olga as they navigate their precarious roles in the court of the grand prince Dmitrii, and if Vasya’s disguise were to be discovered, she (and her siblings) could be punished for indecency or even witchcraft.  All the while, her relationship with the frost demon Morozko gets complicated, the mysterious newcomer Kasyan Lutovich keeps everyone on edge, and a supernatural evil is once again afoot.

I loved it!  LOVED it!!  I know I say that about a lot of books, but I really did.  Arden is a master of world building.  This was a book where I wanted to keep reading as fast as I could, but I also didn’t want the book to end.  I wanted to stay in that world a while longer and was sad when I had to leave.  This time there is a shift in the world, and Arden brings us more into the real world of 14th century Russia.  It’s a really interesting shift away from the safety and explicitly magical contexts of the rural village and forest and highlights the widespread impact of forces beyond our control.  The Moscow setting also foregrounds the clash of the old and new that was so central to The Bear and the Nightingale in a more urban context, as well as the real dangers to Vasya in an increasingly religious country as more and more people forget the old ways, causing the chyerti to fade.  And to be clear, it is not anti-religious but more an exploration of what happens when beliefs, traditions, and values change at both a local and national scale.

Even when exploring these larger ideas, Arden stays focused on her characters, and the relationship building was really beautiful this time.  It’s the first time we really have a chance to see Vasya in relationship with her siblings, and the relationships with Sasha and Olga are both beautiful, messy, loving, complicated, and completely distinct.  No matter what magical forces are tugging at them, no matter what sort of societal or royal responsibilities they have, this is a real family with real fears, hopes, and dreams for themselves and for each other.  I also really loved the way that Arden turns the trope of the girl and the magical being on its head a bit.  Morozko was so confident and in control in the first book, and here we see more of his humanity (he might argue weakness) because Vasya makes choices he doesn’t always expect.  She unbalances him, and it’s written in a really lovely way.  And finally, Vasya’s relationship with Solovey, her horse, is always a highlight.  Perhaps it’s a bit Disney-esq, giving Vasya an anthropomorphized animal sidekick, but Solovey is delightful, loyal, and constant.  Besides, who doesn’t love a story about a girl and her horse?

I really love the perfect blend of historical fiction and fairy tale-based fantasy that Arden creates.  Her work is meticulously researched in both areas, and she weaves them together seamlessly.  And it doesn’t hurt that Vasya is a great, complex, and real heroine, especially for high school readers.  If you were only to read one book in the series, read The Bear and the Nightingale.  But honestly, read the whole series.  I cannot wait for the 3rd one!

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell


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I mentioned in the previous post that I had to take a break from Eleanor Oliphant and read something cheerier.  I chose Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation.  It explores the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley through Vowell’s road trip pilgrimages, so to speak, to sites relating to the presidents and their assassins, John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau, and Leon Czolgosz respectively.  Vowell also spends some time on John Wilkes Booth’s much more sympathetic brother, Edwin Booth, who actually saved the life of Lincoln’s son, Robert, and Robert Todd Lincoln himself, nicknamed (by Vowell) the Presidential Angel of Death for his close relationships with all three assassinated presidents.

As usual, I loved it.  It was much more engaging than The Wordy Shipmates (her exploration of language and writing in Puritan times).  And as a writer, I just really love Vowell’s colloquial style, her humor, her bluntness, and her digressions.  In addition to her wry wit, she is a keen and thoughtful observer and often makes connections that the reader might not have otherwise notices.  I also enjoy her frequent travel companions, her sister and her nephew, Owen.  Owen, in particular, is a hoot.

The first section on Lincoln, the Booths, and Dr. Samuel Mudd was the most comprehensive and wide-ranging.  She even traveled to a fort located on a tiny island off the Florida Keys were Dr. Mudd spent some time.  That being said, much of the content was familiar or at least rang a bell.  My favorite section was the second one on James “I’d Rather Be Reading” Garfield and Charles Guiteau.  I’ve decided that Garfield is my presidential spirit animal because he literally told people he’d rather be reading than president-ing (or anything else) and had a chair custom made to accommodate his preferred reading position.  My favorite part about Guiteau is his time in the Oneida commune (a.k.a. free love group, a.k.a. sex cult).  Apparently he was such a load, he was regularly brought up in their nightly complaint sessions where they shared issues about a particular person so they could fix them.  Additionally, his nickname at Oneida was “Charles Get-out”, and he not once got laid.  That he failed at that in a free love commune speaks to his repugnant personality.

The section on McKinley and Czolgosz was the most perfunctory for me.  We learn much more about Teddy Roosevelt and Czolgosz’s inspiration, Emma Goldman, than McKinley or Czolgosz.  I really wish I’d learned more about those two main people, and on the whole, the section felt less engaged than others.  The final chapter about Robert Todd Lincoln and his connection with all three presidents was not actually about him at all but served as a nice little wrap-up for the book.

I will almost always recommend Sarah Vowell.  She is a sharp, insightful voice who is not afraid to look clearly and bluntly call out our national short-comings and failures while still sharing her intense love for our country and its history.  Assassination Vacation does not disappoint.  As oxymoronic as it sounds, it’s a fun, insightful look as some major American tragedies, and I would highly recommend it.