Stone Blind by Natalie Haynes

Natalie Haynes splendidly showcases classical scholarship, witty humor and an appreciation for nuance in this reframing of the story of Medusa.

With Stone Blind, Natalie Haynes (A Thousand Ships; Pandora’s Jar) brings her authoritative expertise in Greek myths to bear on Medusa, whose story is fresh and surprising in this telling. Haynes is both a scholar of the classics and a stand-up comic, and that combination is brilliantly evident in this sardonic, darkly funny adaptation.

Stone Blind combines several threads familiar to fans of Greek mythology, although readers need no previous knowledge to follow along. Zeus, king of the gods on Olympus, philanders and bickers with his wife, Hera; this narrative will witness Athene’s birth and a battle between gods and giants, among other Olympian events. Medusa is delivered as an infant mortal to the two elder Gorgons who will be her sisters–in this version, they are monsters only in their unusual appearance, and they care for their fragile mortal sister with great tenderness. As a young woman, Medusa is raped by Poseidon in Athene’s temple. The goddess is so offended by this sacrilege that she punishes the victim, replacing Medusa’s hair with snakes and bestowing her most famous attribute: the ability to turn any living creature to stone by eye contact. In a third thread, the demigod Perseus comes of age as a bumbling incompetent: self-serving, lazy, whining, unnecessarily violent. And Andromeda, legendary beauty and princess of Ethiopia, is cursed to death by her mother Cassiope’s hubris.

These threads come together in complex ways when gods are offended and angered and play out their dramas with mortal pawns. Traditional storytelling has cast Perseus as a hero and Medusa as a monster, but Haynes does not concur: “The hero isn’t the one who’s kind or brave or loyal. Sometimes–not always, but sometimes–he is monstrous. And the monster? Who is she?”

“Who decides what is a monster?” Medusa’s sister asks. To which Medusa responds: “I don’t know…. Men, I suppose.”

Haynes’s genius lies not only in her subtle recasting of this story–with an emphasis on who assigns roles and draws conclusions–but in her dryly scathing humor. Her gods are (even more than usual) immature, selfish and often silly. Athene is “delighted with herself” for the simplest of observations about humanity; she burst forth from Zeus’s head fully formed, but not necessarily with the emotional maturity or world knowledge her physical perfection would imply. Poseidon’s bluster and Zeus’s carelessness of his children are exaggerated. Perseus is a dolt, impervious to learning the lessons of his (mis)adventures. Haynes writes in many voices: those of olive trees, Medusa’s snakes-for-hair, a crow, the gods and mortals that make up this twisting tale. A surprising ending caps off her truly delightful and novel version of a very old story.


This review originally ran in the January 6, 2023 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 birds.

The Same River Twice by Chris Offutt

First book I’ve read in the new year and it is a big winner. I read Offutt’s No Heroes some years ago, and I have a few clear memories of it – and I gave it an 8 – but I have to say it’s faded some since then. This one, I think, will be different. From the first pages he had me nodding along in recognition and agreement, when I wasn’t laughing til my sides split. This is a remarkable book in several ways.

For one thing, as an example of craft and structure in memoir, I appreciated the format: alternate chapters switch between two timelines, one (the narrator’s present) in which his wife is pregnant (with the courtship & marriage compressed at the start), and an earlier one in which the younger man leaves his home in the eastern Kentucky hills and travels for more than a decade around the country as an itinerant, not to say bum, short-term laborer and modestly aspiring artist. In the end, this is a memoir of becoming a father. The younger Offutt’s travels, bumbles, attempts at self-destruction eventually make him the man (for better or worse) who meets Rita, marries, and enters on purpose but somewhat reluctantly into the pregnancy that defines the narrative present. When the two timelines meet at the book’s end there is, again, heavy compression, rushing us through Rita-to-pregnancy; I can sense some readers protesting at that rush, but I think it suits the scope of this book. True memoirists have at least several memoirs in them; there’s a piece of Bernard Cooper wisdom on this topic. The Same River Twice is about Offutt becoming a father within himself. It’s not so much about Rita, who in these pages is a lovely and likeable person but mostly remains off-page.

In his roamings of the country, Offutt recalls Blue Highways (maybe even On the Road) but with perhaps more angst – or at least angst that felt more familiar to my own – and definitely more laughs. I could hardly breathe at Offutt’s first couple of sexual encounters, and his adventures in the Florida swamp had me pretty riveted. This is some of the best humor writing I’ve seen in some time.

And on the other hand, in the later timeline, a more mature and serious-voiced narrator (who nonetheless self-deprecates) walks alone in the floodplain woods near his and Rita’s rental home on a dirt road on the Iowa River. This man is contemplative and highly observant of the natural world. He’s struggling with pending fatherhood; he always wanted children but felt less ready than Rita. She worried about her age, while he worried that he still lacked stable employment (he’s trying to sell his writing) and general responsible adulthood. When Rita becomes pregnant, he feels pride, relief, and happiness that she is happy; he feels terrified of the responsibility, and selfishly (he’d say) sorry to lose his freedom. He’s afraid he’ll damage his child; his father has always said he comes from a long line of bad fathers. Fear, in fact, is paramount. “I fear the loss of independence although I didn’t do so well alone.” He’s on a journey to learn about pregnancy and babies, partly through library books and an ill-fated hospital-based Lamaze class, but also via walks in the woods, where he watches the natural world cycle through life and death. Seamlessly integrated facts about biology and natural and human history add to his musings. If the earlier hapless-bum episodes are woeful and hilarious, the older man is quietly thoughtful and wise (even if he denies it). I thought there were some fascinating observations about what it means to be a parent. (I am not a parent. I did call up a few friends to discuss their experiences.)

Let me also note, I found Offutt because of my connection to writing in Appalachia. Relatively little of this book is set there: we see young Offutt leave as a teen, with two brief returns (one for recuperation from injury, one under great duress for his brother’s wedding); otherwise he is all over the country or settling in Iowa. But eastern Kentucky looms throughout; it’s what he’s escaping and it continues to define him, most obviously in the accent that other people feel marks him as a type.

Where I’m from, the foothills of southern Appalachia are humped like a kicked rug, full of steep furrows. Families live scattered among the ridges and hollows in tiny communities containing no formal elements save a post office… Our hills are the most isolated area of America, the subject of countless doctoral theses. It’s an odd sensation to read about yourself as counterpart to the aborigine or Eskimo*. If VISTA wasn’t bothering us, some clown was running around the hills with a tape recorder. Strangers told us we spoke Elizabethan English, that we were contemporary ancestors to everyone else. They told us the correct way to pronounce “Appalachia,” as if we didn’t know where we’d been living for the past three hundred years.

This is a narrator who then travels to, of all places, Manhattan, where he has to relearn how to walk to accommodate the traffic of other people doing the same thing near him. After some hours on a bench watching New Yorkers walk near each other, he concludes his stride is too long and regular for the environment; the locals use quick, short steps, like dancing. “As long as I concentrated, everything was jake, but the minute my attention wavered, my gait lengthened and someone’s legs entangled with mine.”

Offutt makes repeated references to Kentucky’s Daniel Boone and explorer-to-America Christopher Columbus, as he styles himself also an explorer and a frontiersman, but without the aggrandizement that implies. “Two hundred years back, someone asked Boone if he had ever been lost. He answered no, but that he’d once been bewildered for three days. I knew exactly how he felt.” On returning home for the brother’s wedding: “After Columbus’s third trip across the sea, he was brought home in manacles and chains. I knew how he felt.” The aspiring-writer Offutt is a funny thread: he journals compulsively, copiously, but despite defining himself as a poet for a long stretch, writes no poetry. (He also decides to be a painter and a screenwriter at different points without actually producing any art.) I loved this bit:

My adherence to the jounal slid into a strange realm where I viewed my immediate interactions as a form of living diary. If riding a bicycle through a snowstorm sounded like good material for the journal, I borrowed a bike in a blizzard. The actual ride didn’t matter. What I did was try to observe myself as carefully as possible, while simultaneously imagining myself writing everything down later.

If that doesn’t sound like a social media obsession before its time, I don’t know what does.

Offutt is a gorgeous writer of prose. The subject matter – family dynamics and stress, the natural world, travel and restlessness, the meaning of life, place and particularly Appalachia, the angst of trying to be a writer – certainly speaks to me. An entire chapter is devoted to the importance of names (a special interest of mine). But the writing is notable for its own sake. Check out this metaphor-to-simile turn: “The sky was a gray flannel blanket like a watercolor background with too much paint.” And metaphor plus anthimeria: “The riverbank is a crouching porcupine, bare tree limbs quilling the sky.” This is probably my favorite travels-in-America chronicle yet, and I’ve read a few. I’ll be thinking about this one.


Rating: 9 tracks.

*this book was published in 1993.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Monica Brashears

Following Friday’s review of House of Cotton, here’s Monica Brashears: Feel the Life in the Ghosts.


Monica Brashears is an Affrilachian writer from Tennessee and a graduate of Syracuse University’s MFA program. Her work has appeared in Nashville Review, Split Lip magazine, Appalachian Review, the Masters Review and more. Her debut novel is House of Cotton (Flatiron Books, April 4, 2023), a novel about ghosts, mothers and the struggle to survive, set in Tennessee with its lingering challenges of race and class. Brashears lives in Syracuse, N.Y., where she is at work on her second novel.

What makes Magnolia a compelling protagonist?

photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan

The reason I love her so much, and why she’s my baby, is because of her willingness to create other worlds as a response to trauma. There’s such a tenderness there. It’s an act of hope, that the world can be velvet. It doesn’t have to be so harsh all the time. Even in moments when it’s the harshest, she has an ability to make it velvet, and I think that’s special.

To what do you attribute that ability in her?

That ability is both a method of survival and another sort of haunting. Magnolia’s imagined fairytales stem from coping strategies she turned to as a child and because she’s carried them into adulthood, her trauma still lives in that humor. Additionally, Mama Brown’s laughter and steady shelter taught Magnolia her definition of safety and, because of that, Mama Brown’s life is reflected in the way Magnolia jokes.

Was Magnolia the beginning of this novel coming to you?

House of Cotton began as a short story in undergrad, and it was plot driven. The characters were not-quite-formed-laughing-things. I had no intentions of returning to the story, but three years later, Magnolia returned. I only knew that she had an emotional cavity, and inside that cavity, she claimed there were geodes. Usually, for me, the plot comes first as a way to announce all the ways I’m fed up. But I don’t have anything to work with until the characters show me how and why their yearning stretches beyond their exhaustion.

Does writing a ghost like Mama Brown differ from writing a living character?

I tend to write a lot of ghosts because I was raised hearing these Appalachian folktales. I think I feel the life more in the ghosts in the first draft, because there’s an urgency there. They’re back–why are they back? What do they need? I kind of prefer writing ghosts, strangely.

Is this an allegory about slavery?

Not entirely. I think it’s very much rooted in the present. Although I do understand that reading, because the effects of slavery are in the present. It’s in the fabric of everything that’s happening now. And, of course, the title is House of Cotton, which kind of primes the reader.

How important is setting to this story? Could it happen anywhere else?

The basic plot could happen anywhere. But the setting, the love and the lust and the tenderness, is very much tied to the land–all the plants, the kudzu.

House Mountain is mentioned in the novel, and I move it around. It’s generally always in my writing, but I move it around Tennessee. Knoxville is also, I would say, an Appalachian city, but it doesn’t get viewed that way. The mountains are there. So I like to say hey, remember? Don’t forget! We’re in Appalachia.

What does it mean to be an Affrilachian writer?

I believe Frank X. Walker coined the term. I remember writing, and it was always about the mountains, in undergraduate workshops at the University of Tennessee. And then one day in a poetry workshop my senior year, just before I was getting ready to move to Syracuse for my MFA, I was called Affrilachian. And I was like, what do you mean? Can I claim that? I wasn’t literally living on a mountain, but I was at the feet of them, so I was always on them growing up. So it really felt like coming home in my writing. When people think Appalachia, I don’t think they often think about Black people inhabiting the mountains, so within the genre there’s kind of a pushback against that erasure. This is our land, too.

Is there a special challenge to writing something this strongly based in place while you are elsewhere?

I did write the novel in Syracuse. I carry home within me, always, and nurture that sense through familiar music or food. If anything, Syracuse winters helped me focus on the specifics of all I missed; the book’s infatuation with Tennessean summertime is yet another layer of yearning.

Has your MFA program changed how you work as a writer?

It definitely has. I love the community. When I first came here everyone was name-dropping all of these authors and I felt very out of place. But I took a class that was focused on Ulysses. We spent the entire semester reading Ulysses, and it was full of suffering, and it was bizarre, but I came out of that really uncomfortable semester having definitely improved in seeing all of these fun craft maneuvers available. Permission was gained. I’ve been exposed to so many texts and writers and traditions that otherwise I wouldn’t have, and it’s improved my craft and widened my love for literature.

What’s an example of a good craft maneuver you learned?

Approaching revision with an acknowledgement that a writer’s subconscious has the story figured out before the writer helped unlock the process for me. There’s a pleasure in finding hints within a story or novel and toying with them until I find their meaning. My hints usually present themselves as repetition. There’s an urgency that’s accidental and charming and indicative of strong emotion. But what am I really trying to say?

What can you tell us about your next novel?

It is a trailer park noir filled with jewels, and the fear of God, of course, and murder.

What’s your favorite thing about this novel?

I think Magnolia. I often think of her as my child. I was raised an older sibling, so I was kind of assigned motherhood occasionally, and she feels like a younger sibling or a child. Someone I hold close and within me and tend to love every day.


This interview originally ran on January 4, 2023 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.

Maximum Shelf: House of Cotton by Monica Brashears

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on January 4, 2023.


Monica Brashears’s House of Cotton is an engrossing coming-of-age novel about ghosts, mothers and the struggle to survive. It is also a novel of the lingering challenges of race and class. Brashears’s prose style is sharp and incisive, and the entrancing, distinctive voice of her protagonist is by turns weary, sardonic and yearning. A haunting story and unusual perspective make this a memorable and thought-provoking debut.

Magnolia Brown is 19 years old when her grandmother, Mama Brown, dies. Her absent mother struggles with substance abuse and an abusive partner, so that leaves Magnolia more or less alone in the world, fending off a lecherous landlord (who is also deacon at her grandmother’s church) and struggling to get by. She works the night shift at a Knoxville, Tenn., gas station, where she tries to care for Cigarette Sammy, the muttering man who goes through the trash outside (“the only other Black person I see on this side of town”), between one-and-done encounters executed by her Tinder persona, Carolina Nettle. It’s a tenuous living, and she misses Mama Brown terribly. One night “a whistling man with blood-smeared hands” walks into the gas station. “Hearing a man whistle when he walks in a place he don’t own ain’t natural. Like finding a chipped tooth on concrete. An omen.” When he returns from the bathroom after cleaning his hands, she sees the man is polished, manicured, smooth-talking, wearing good cologne. Cotton offers Magnolia a modeling job, but she’s wary; Magnolia knows omens. But she’s also broke, and quite possibly pregnant.

At the address he gives her, Magnolia finds the Weeping Willow Parlor, a funeral home run by Cotton and his gleefully friendly, drunk Aunt Eden. The pair is eccentric: Cotton needs to constantly finger a piece of pocketed twine to remain calm; Eden is something of an alcoholic and firmly does not believe in ghosts. They are wealthy, and culturally foreign to Magnolia.

Cotton and Eden Productions offers Magnolia a most unusual modeling job: they provide families with lost or missing loved ones a final contact, a side business something like a séance. With Eden’s uncanny funeral-home makeup skills and Magnolia’s amateur acting, Magnolia will play the part of the dead. She’s used to pretending; it has long been her coping mechanism: “When I get this way, when I feel like kudzu is wrapped tight around my ribcage and I’m bleeding a bright heat, I like to slip inside my head.” She slides smoothly into Cotton and Eden’s world and their comfortable, decadent habits: cocktails at all hours, joyriding in the hearse. She moves into the funeral home, lets Eden apply pale body paint to allow her to become missing white women and men, and begins saving her money. The ghost of Mama Brown checks in with Magnolia: knowing, comforting, but judging as well. Reading a letter Mama Brown left her, Magnolia knows “[S]he ain’t left me. I ain’t seen her, but she sits by me. Unseen but real as humidity.” Soon the ghost will be seen as well.

Magnolia’s life becomes split. At the Weeping Willow, she lives in ease and has money to spare, but feels estranged from the very different world Cotton and Eden come from. The relationship is transactional, and she’s always acting, even when the makeup is off. And then there is Mama Brown’s home, where the garden (the place Magnolia still meets her Tinder dates) grows out of control. By tending the needs of the rich white folks who help support her, Magnolia has literally let her own house get out of order. Her caretaking of Cigarette Sammy has become disrupted. Cotton’s requests get weirder and weirder, and Mama Brown’s ghost expresses concerns about Magnolia’s choices, which have affected Mama Brown in the afterlife. The worldly and otherworldly pressures mount.

Set in the grand Weeping Willow Parlor, complete with secret passageways and haunted by Magnolia’s much-loved but literally disintegrating grandmother, House of Cotton pits traditional gothic elements (the haunted castle, women in distress, death and decay) against contemporary questions about race and class and the persistent legacy of slavery. It shares the genre’s sense of suspense and foreboding, but Magnolia’s struggles are very realistic. Her first-person narration brings an immediacy to the events, and an intimacy that’s advanced by her frank voice and turns of phrase. On its face, this is an intriguing ghost story with a compelling, beleaguered protagonist. In its layers, there is much more at stake.

“I am a tattered quilt of all the women before me. I am a broken puzzle,” Magnolia states, but she is clearly a survivor as well. Despite her many fears, she is somehow fearless in pursuing the truest version of herself. Brashears excels in strong characters and deeply felt emotions, and in a robust sense of place: Knoxville shines as both urban and cultural setting and in the details of its natural world. Brashears offers a fresh new perspective on Appalachia and the American South, and Magnolia’s rich voice will echo with readers long after the pages are closed.


Rating: 7 missing fingernails.

Come back Monday for my interview with Brashears.

Lakewood by Megan Giddings

This was a striking, chilling novel, which I’ve chosen to tag as horror although it is of the disquieting sort and relies less on jump-scares and gore (although the gore is not entirely absent). It contains very apt, detailed descriptions of contemporary young people and family dramas; characterization and specificity are strengths of Giddings’ writing no matter what she does. But it quickly moves beyond writerly deftness into seriously troubling subject matter, to make this a novel both thought-provoking and book-club-worthy, and riveting.

We meet Lena when she is a college student burying her beloved grandmother, Miss Toni. Her mother (Miss Toni’s daughter) Deziree is present, and can be a good friend to the younger woman; but Deziree is frequently ill, and it was Miss Toni who Lena thinks of as Mom. Now she is faced with a stack of bills: medical bills for Deziree and for Miss Toni, bills for the funeral, the house, general costs of living. She must maintain a high GPA to keep her scholarship. Her college roommate Tanya is a great friend but from a walk of life that makes her unable to empathize with financial strain. A letter arrives. “An invitation to participate in a series of research studies about mind, memory, personality, and perception. The Lakewood Project. It offered Lena and her family health insurance if she was selected to be a participant. Also housing and a weekly stipend… It was addressed specifically to her.” The money is so good – and more importantly, the medical care for Deziree – that Lena leaves college. If she can last a year in Lakewood, it could be life-changing.

Lena is a young Black woman in an unnamed Michigan city with a college and a sizable Black population. Lakewood is a small Michigan town in which she is almost the only Black face. Place is not one of the biggest elements of this story (and maybe I overemphasize it because you know it is always an important one for me), but the city/small town divide definitely accounts for part of Lena’s estrangement; she notices the differences in noise and quiet, and the anonymity of the one versus the sense of being watched in the other, which is of course very much about race as well as population density. Lena is very aware of race. With a single exception, the participants in the Lakewood Project are Black, Latinx or Native American. The staff, doctors and observers are all white. She is conscious about performing a “safe” version of herself in the town of Lakewood. The study itself involves acting, but so does her larger life.

I’ll stop here, because I hope to encourage you to read this book and be surprised by its turns as I was. But you can safely see from here that Lakewood is about the sinister side of medical research studies and race and racism in this country, both throughout history and in the present. Giddings is a rising writer of note, and this novel is quietly terrifying.


Rating: 8 teeth.

Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi

For this review I created a new tag, Oyeyemi, to represent my continuing confusion about how to categorize her mysterious novels. I was tempted to call it ‘mystery’ but I’ll settle for ‘puzzle,’ with suspense and speculative elements, a contemporary/magical setting and absolutely its own set of rules. My enjoyment outweighed my bemusement – not that the latter prevents the former but it can make it a little harder. I am charmed and perplexed. I’ll do my best here.

Our narrator for most of the novel is Otto. He’s on a train with his partner Xavier. They are taking a honeymoon but not really because they are not married. They are traveling with their pet mongoose, Árpád XXX (as in the roman numerals), who is descended from a long line of mongooses called Árpád who have been companions to Otto’s family. The train is a former tea smuggling train with a most unusual full-time resident, its owner, Ava Kapoor, who receives copious hate mail for her family’s past crimes. She is an heiress set to inherit under unusual terms which have led her to live on her train, served by a staff consisting of her girlfriend and a sterner woman with more sinister outside employment… She also keeps a pet mongoose (naturally?!) and plays a theremin. So far I’m just listing weird elements, right? That’s part of the point. There are invisible people, or people who may or may not actually exist, and who may or may not be the same person. And it is on this weird train – whose most unusual cars possess (of course) strange traits – that the partnered Otto and Xavier discover they may have some history in common that they didn’t know about, not only with each other but with Ava Kapoor.

It was a raucous adventure and a puzzle whose solution I’m still not sure of. I enjoyed the locked-room aspect of the train as setting (very Agatha Christie), and the mongooses, and the eccentric old aunt character (who sends our non-honeymooners on their trip), and the questions about art and pursuing one’s creative processes. It is, I think, about that concept of “being seen.” I am all the way off balance about the whole thing but still intrigued by Helen Oyeyemi’s singular mind. I don’t know what to tell you at all; your mileage may vary.


Rating: 8 letters.

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

My third Oyeyemi. She is brilliant and fascinating; her books have a momentum of their own. I am often left with the sense that she is smarter than me, that more is happening here than I was able to grasp. Gingerbread was the novel of hers that I most enjoyed, The Icarus Girl was the most confusing, and this one fits in the middle of the list by both measures.

I am going to keep this summary pretty brief, because there are some good-sized spoilers in the novel. We meet our protagonist, Boy Novak, when she is in her late teens. She has white-blond hair, a face somewhere between ‘harsh’ and ‘fine-boned,’ and a fascination with mirrors. She speaks to other versions of herself in them. She may be lonely. She lives in Manhattan with her father, a rat catcher and seriously abusive, until she runs away at age 20. She takes the last bus of the night to the end of the line, arriving in Flax Hill, Massachusetts in 1953 with few possessions, but she is able to start fresh, making friends, dating, working odd jobs, eventually marrying a man with a craft, a family, and a dear daughter named Snow. Part One is told in Boy’s first-person voice, but Parts Two and Three will shift perspective.

I can go no further with summary. The setting remains chiefly in Flax Hill, with exposition traveling to Boston, Mississippi, and back to New York. Oyeyemi’s characters are completely fascinating; among the secondary characters I love most are Mia, a driven journalist and free-thinker, and Mrs. Fletcher, who runs a bookshop and acts as a bit of a community mentor. Boy, Snow, Bird is concerned with race and gender identity, the true nature of love, family dynamics, damage and forgiveness, sisterhood, motherhood, and national and societal patterns around race and racism. It is billed as a bit of a riff on the Snow White tale, but is not exactly a retelling. There is the girl Snow; there is a stepmother who is (at one point) accused of evil; there is something strange going on with mirrors, and not only for Boy. There is definitely some commentary on vanity, beauty, and the shaping of family by these means. But it strays quite far from the fairy tale. Actually, this would be an awfully interesting one to study alongside stricter retellings. I feel unable to say more.

There are lots of images and concepts that I’m going to keep revisiting. I’m not sure I got it all: not always a comfortable feeling, but certainly a stimulating one. No question, I’m going to continue my study of Oyeyemi. Stay tuned. I do recommend this one, and feel free to come back and explain it to me.


Rating: 7 records.

Shades in Shadow: An Inheritance Triptych by N.K. Jemisin

He does not pay attention to most of what he detects via the dark that is his ears and skin and teeth and guts. Most of it is routine, and supremely boring. Stars–sparkle flare sparkle. Planets–spin shatter spin. Life–chatter chitter chatter. The unutterable tedium of a breathing, beating universe.

This trio of short stories returns us to the world of Jemisin‘s Inheritance Trilogy (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, The Kingdom of Gods, as well as the novella The Awakened Kingdom). Each story fits into the timeline already established by the larger trilogy, with mostly characters we already know.

“The Wild Boy” featured Nahadoth in the early phase of his imprisonment – the god of darkness kept in a pit in a dungeon – and meeting a young mortal with a grudge against the Arameri. This opening story was perhaps the weakest; the (digital) pages turned easily enough, but I didn’t feel that anything new was revealed about Naha or the world he inhabits. It was just a little extra time spent with him, which I don’t begrudge but didn’t advance anything. “The God Without a Name” was of more interest: Nahadoth’s human double for the spell of his imprisonment coming slowly to terms with his post-Naha identity, the emptiness and lack of purpose, his troubled relationships, and eventually his improvement of these circumstances. Finally, I think “The Third Why” was the best of this triptych, neatly linked again to the second story, so that they connect like links in a chain – not only joined by the Inheritance universe but by characters one to another, from Naha to the nameless god to Glee in this third story. “The Third Why” sees Glee leave her mother’s home to search for her father, whose identity is a spoiler if you haven’t read the trilogy… but if you haven’t read the trilogy, frankly, you will have limited interest in this trio of shorts. So, spoiler coming: Glee goes to find Itempas and travel “with” him (they cleverly circumvent the rule that he must travel alone by pretending it’s all coincidence – this only works, of course, if the other gods willfully look the other way). The development of these two characters and their relationship makes this story the strongest in my view.

On the whole, I think Jemisin’s novels are quite a bit stronger than these shorts. (And recall I really did love that novella mentioned above.) The short story format is truly a different art form than the full-length novel, to be fair. And what Jemisin undertakes here is something particular: a further development of a preexisting fictional world. The audience is necessarily readers already familiar with that world. As a member of that audience, I was pleased – increasingly so with each story, which represents a good choice, I think (better to end on a strong note). I would not recommend readers enter the Inheritance universe here, but those who miss our weird pantheon of gods should be satisfied with the small investment in this e-book only edition (which translates to just 64 pages). I’m perfectly happy to have spent my time this way. I am still more excited to get back to Jemisin’s big, fat, juicy novels.


Rating: 6.5 groundnuts.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

I’ve had this one on my list(s) for a while now, but as it increasingly appeared in credits from books I enjoyed – as inspiration, as research, as most admired – I knew I needed to get to it sooner. Homegoing deserves the accolades. It’s both expansive and easy to read, in how beautifully it flows – although the subject matter is not generally easy.

There’s a helpful family tree in the front matter, as in These Ghosts are Family (which is one that refers to this book in an interview with the author at the end). This lets readers track the connections as we move through generations. Each chapter is titled for the character it focuses on, and each character appears in the family tree; they are featured chronologically across centuries. At the head of this tree is a woman called Maame who lived in what is now Ghana in the mid-1700s. We slowly learn that she had two husbands and two daughters at two different points in her life in Fante and Asante territories respectively. The daughters, Esi and Effia, did not know about each other, and their lives led in different directions. Near the novel’s beginning they are found under the same roof but in very different circumstances: one as the wife of a white British slaver, the other imprisoned in the dungeon underground. One is able to stay in her home region (Gold Coast as a British colony), while the other is kidnapped and carried across an ocean to become a slave in America. Later chapters follow their descendants until more or less contemporary times – everyone on the family tree gets a focus chapter except for Maame herself, whose story we learn only in pieces. These lives are filled with color and detail and struggle and pain, and love and music and beauty; in every iteration they continue to witness racism, colorism and the enduring legacies of slavery and colonialism, in different ways. I of course failed to mark the quotation that said so eloquently how the same prejudices were ongoing but in subtler and more insidious ways in later times than they had been in slavery’s heyday.

Homegoing is a beautiful, absorbing novel. Every one of the featured lives is so finely wrought, I spent at least half the book lost in each of them individually; it took me most of the book to begin anticipating their connections, although I was aware of those connections all along. They are all filled with such detail and richness, but it is possible that earlier chapters stand alone more securely than later ones. Some readers call this a novel in connected stories, and I do feel that each character’s story is a whole work in itself. But there’s no question in my mind that it is more novel than collection.

Aside from realistic portrayals of lives across a remarkable span of years and locations, Gyasi also offers threads of something mythic or otherworldly: there are persistent suggestions that this family may be cursed by ill luck and fire, and its members may have a special gift of foresight. Indeed, some coincidences are difficult to explain. On the more real-world side, Homegoing is very much about the legacy of slavery from African roots to American “improvement” of the system. It has big thoughts and observations to make while still being first a story about individual people.

The New Yorker is rather harder on this book in Laura Miller’s review, and I confess that she has some points, particularly about typing in the American characters versus the African ones. The larger impression I walk away with is much more positive than Miller’s seems to have been. But I am entirely on board with her optimism about Gyasi’s future work.


Rating: 9 cocoa nuts.

Brutes by Dizz Tate

A group of 13-year-old girls tries to deal with another teenager’s disappearance alongside their own coming-of-age in an unattractive Florida town beset by increasingly adult threats.

Dizz Tate’s first novel, Brutes, is set in Falls Landing, Fla., a small town formed of theme parks, mall food courts, gated communities and swampland. At its center is the mystery of a missing teenage girl, and the group of younger girls who adored her: the narrative voice is the unusual first-person plural “we,” which perfectly suits a girlhood of conformity and togetherness. The 13-year-old narrators yearn for individual recognition but also fear separation. Their collective voice slips into the singular only when the girls speak from their adult perspectives, looking back. This narrative “we” contributes greatly to the haunting atmosphere of a story about loss, secrets and the costs of growing up.

“Where is she?” the girls imagine Sammy’s parents asking the morning after her disappearance, and this question will echo. They worshipped, followed and watched Sammy on the nights when she climbed over the wall of her exclusive community to meet her boyfriend, Eddie; they share her love for Eddie and, after she’s gone, shift to attach themselves to Sammy’s best friend and rival, Mia. “We wanted to be like them, to become ever louder and brighter, but we could feel their futures slipping through our fingers, because we were not stupid.” Sammy and Mia had both been affiliated with Star Search, the local talent agency, and everyone in town wants to be selected, to be seen as special, to be given a business card or a plane ticket to L.A. “We squashed our faces against the glass of our own lives. Is this it? we asked. Are we having fun like they have fun? Are we in love like they are in love? We filled up our days following them, watching them, waiting to be invited in.” The girls come from the apartment towers of Falls Landing, not the desirable neighborhood behind the white walls that they watch obsessively. Their mothers are harshly portrayed with both love and derision by the daughters they call “brutes” for their childish cruelties.

Brutes offers stark and unlovely characterizations, but with moments of striking beauty. The girls (and their mothers) are grasping, even desperate, but capable of compassion. Tate’s Florida is steamy and thickly rank, with blinding sunlight and shadowy depths, not least in the lake that many residents believe houses a monster–maybe the monster that took Sammy, although the human monsters in this community are plenty sinister. This is a dark coming-of-age tale and meditation on childhood and the cusp of adolescence: authentic, often grim, but with glimmers of hope.


This review originally ran in the December 16, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 fire ants.
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