A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

Another perfect recommendation from Liz, A Deadly Education is narrated by El, short for Galadriel, a wizard-in-training at the Scholomance. Her world looks much like ours, but you and I would qualify as ‘mundanes’ – people who don’t see or believe in magic. El is in school to learn spells and tricks and control, and as an independent wizard kid, possibly to earn an invitation to join an enclave. Wizards banded together in enclaves are much safer than indies like El, whose mother raised her in a yurt on a (mundane) commune in the Welch countryside. But her mother Gwen is much beloved, a talented healer and source of all things good, while El’s affinity or tendency is toward large-scale destruction, as in mass murder. She is not a bad person: in fact she has spent her nearly three years in school working hard to keep her affinity in check, hiding the true extent of her powers, and making no friends with her eternally sour attitude. The tension within El between her natural affinity (murderous) and her value system (protective and good) is one of the central conflicts of this story.

Now the school itself: the Scholomance is full of terrors, like mals (short for maleficaria), monsters of all sorts; they live in the in-between spaces so that it’s dangerous to go anywhere alone, even to the bathroom, which is hard on a loner like El. Each year the massive, circular, magical space rotates and ratchets around so that the freshman dorms move down to become sophomore dorms, etc., and everyone gets closer to graduation, which is a euphemism for the seniors being dumped into a space filled with mals where they’ll have to fight their way out to real-world survival. Many of them won’t make it. Thus are your four years at the Scholomance taken up with working to form alliances to help you through graduation, unless you were lucky to come in an enclave kid from the start, with privileges and protections built in.

This accounts for several other intriguing conflicts within the novel: class and classism are up for debate within the enclave system. School in general is filled with petty jealousies and social politics, in ways recognizable to those of us who attended mundane high schools, and with the essential addition of life-or-death machinations re: mals and magic. There are plenty of larger questions about right and wrong and personal agency and what ends justify what means, but none of this is overtly or pedantically the point of the story: this is a page-turning, deliciously readable story of one awkward, socially ill-adjusted, fundamentally sweet but somehow also deadly teenager. El wants to secure her safe place in the world, but she really doesn’t want to hurt anybody. (Well, sometimes. She has a bit of a temper, and she does take a lot of abuse.) She also really wants friends, although she wouldn’t be quick to admit it.

It’s a great story, with some great secondary characters, including those cautiously interested in working with El, and the enigmatic oaf who wants to protect her. By the final chapters (which include some great action/battle sequences to boot) I was hooked and cheering. The last six words of the novel (!) contain a bombshell, and I cannot wait to start book two of this trilogy. Strongly recommend this one for awesome female lead characters, intrigue and world-building, fun magic, and poignant human drama.

Rating: 8 argonet teeth.

Burnt: A Memoir of Fighting Fire by Clare Frank

This exceptional memoir shows wide emotional range in spanning the complexities of firefighting and fire prevention in California and the American West, gender issues, family, work, love, and loss.

Clare Frank’s Burnt: A Memoir of Fighting Fire is a heart-racing, heartfelt story that will make readers laugh, cry, and consider what matters most in life. The author is an indomitable character, from self-supporting teen through a decades-long career in California firefighting (beginning in 1982, when women were few and generally viewed askance), with impressive achievements in her career and personal life. Frank’s memoir is packed not only with adrenaline but with sensitivity, thoughtfulness, and creativity. Beware the impulse to race through these 300-plus pages in a single sitting.

After talking her unorthodox parents into emancipating her at 16, Frank becomes a firefighter at 17 (faced with an age requirement of 18, she simply leaves her birthdate blank on the employment form). Despite being “the youngest, shortest, and lightest person in an academy for the brawniest of professions,” she is indefatigable: stubborn, hardworking, short-fused, and tenacious, earning nicknames like Flipper, Tiger, and Poindexter–as well as degrees in fire administration, law, and creative writing–along the way. Frank rises through the firefighting ranks in her 33-year career (with a five-year doctor-mandated medical break), finishing with the lofty position of State Chief of Fire Protection, six ranks above captain, the highest she once thought she would be willing to attain. She works on structure fires and wildfires, in small firehouses and large ones, in the field and in positions of leadership, on labor and legal issues, prevention, forestry, and more, across the behemoth California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, aka Cal Fire (the largest fire department in the state).

While she does meditate on firefighting’s gender issues, her response to the question for much of her career is encapsulated in an anecdote: “While I pulled hose through tangled manzanita, the reporter jammed a microphone in my face and yelled, ‘What’s it feel like to be a female on the line?’ I yelled back, ‘The same as it feels for the guys, except I have chee-chees.’ ” She hoped that if she ignored what made her different, everyone else would as well–a strategy that worked frequently but not always.

Frank is a renegade overachiever in all areas: athletic, career, and (after a late return to the classroom) academic. Her writing is not merely serviceable, but thoughtfully constructed; her memoir’s sections are labeled for stages of fire development: ignition, sustained heat, free burn, growth, full development, and decay. Fire is present in every aspect of Frank’s life and work, including writing, but this always feels natural rather than effortful. By the end of this memorable book, readers will reconsider fire policy as well as family, risk, and hard work. With thrilling momentum and a heat of its own, Burnt is a sensation and an inspiration.

This review originally ran in the April 27, 2023 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 9 bird’s nests.

Hughes: The Private Diaries, Memos and Letters by Richard Hack

This was a most weird experience. I brought this book home when it was weeded from a library where I used to work, in probably 2010 or 2011. It has therefore made several cross-country moves with me. Why was I so invested in a banged-up copy of a Howard Hughes biography? I guess I was just that interested in learning more about this mysterious figure; but it does feel like an odd choice. Its publication date is now more than 20 years past, and it reads like it could be older still. Hughes is a fairly off-putting guy, to put it very mildly, and our biographer doesn’t benefit from soft-pedaling his criticisms. It frankly gave me the creeps throughout. But Hughes is such a profoundly bizarre man, and this is such a shocking story, that I couldn’t put it down, nor really stop talking or thinking about it. So what does that mean for my review? As a book, it’s got some problems. But I couldn’t walk away. It might earn back some points for that.

Richard Hack is noted in his bio to be an investigative writer largely covering Hollywood and the media. I found his telling to be salacious, sensational, decidedly creepy in its interest in Hughes’s relationships with women and (in particular) teenaged girls. The subject of this biography had deeply problematic relationships with women. That doesn’t mean the author had to join him there. Hack consistently characterizes young women as bimbos or manipulators, uses their first names (in contrast to the last names of their male counterparts), and notes that when Hughes was looking for a wife, one of his interests was “still a minor so of no use now.” That’s not Hughes’s voice, but our author’s. Another teenager is characterized as “the untouched plain; the virgin forest; the next unscaled mountain to conquer for the explorer Hughes.” Again, Hack’s own assessment. I apologize that you just read that and assume you feel as sick as I did. (Also, an aside: Hack insists more than once that Hughes was not impotent. It feels like the lady doth protest too much [and might possibly be projecting].)

A friend of mine encountered a podcast, just when I was reading this biography, which credited Hughes as being an ‘engineering genius.’ I can’t confirm or deny that impression, because this biography was far more interested in madness, sex, and bad behavior than it was in engineering. The book ends with a Hughes quotation: “I’m not nearly as interested in people as I should be, I guess. What I am tremendously interested in… is science.” This line, particularly as final mic-drop moment, did not fit at all with the story I’d been absorbed in for nearly 400 pages. Hack hadn’t much set up our subject as being a man of science. (I am exercising all my restraint to not make a “hack” joke here.)

Each chapter is opened by a Hughes quotation, a number of which are demeaning of women or blatantly and horrifically racist. None of these are handled within the text of the chapter – it’s just a hate bomb, followed by the continued story of Hughes’s life. It feels irresponsible, if not ugly, to drop these nuggets and then walk away without comment.

In short, the writing of this biography had me alternately creeped out and angry. Yes, the book’s 2001 copyright date was a long time ago by some measures. But I knew a lot of people even in 2001 who knew better than some of Hack’s gaffes.

I have some appreciation for the vivid telling of Hughes’s story in this work of creative nonfiction: Hack frequently gives us the play-by-play, including dialog and interior thoughts, in scene. This is fun to read, novelistic, but it raises some questions. The book ends with massively copious source notes, and it’s possible that Hack’s claims about dialogs, thoughts, and small-scale actions are well supported by evidence; but the absence of footnotes or endnotes leaves me wondering where speculation meets documented conclusion. I regret this.

I struggled very much with the telling of this story. But the story itself? Whew. Howard Hughes was many things, as claimed here and elsewhere. He was one of the richest men in the world, arguably the first American billionaire, and in a combination of personal contributions and those of his companies, massively changed aviation and motion-picture-making. He remains an important figure in the history and economy of my hometown of Houston (I have ridden my bike past his gravesite, and fun fact, my former father-in-law worked for Hughes Tool for over 50 years); I didn’t realize til this reading how many pies he had a hand in. He was not self-made (though he did massively increase his personal wealth) but born wealthy, spoiled, and privileged, and was raised in eccentric fashion, probably contributing to his later eccentricity and (I’m going to say it) insanity. It is not for me to diagnose him, but the behaviors described in this biography read as completely unhinged. He was reclusive, paranoid, a strange combination of germaphobe and filthy, a drug abuser and decidedly an abuser of people. I knew he was more or less nuts in popular opinion, but what shocked me most in these pages was not how nutty he was – I have personally known some cases – but how much he got away with. His wealth and fame surrounded him with people who did what he asked even when those asks were unreasonable, abusive, and counter to his own basic physical needs. I was surprised at how far down the rabbit hole he was allowed to travel. According to this telling, there was just one moment when Hughes’s handlers considered having him committed. The ability to keep earning money off his follies seems to have quickly defeated the thought.

I had an obviously conflicted time reading this book, but I couldn’t have put it down, either. For this I’m giving it a very conflicted rating. I’m a little tempted to go find another, better biography of Hughes for comparison and contrast, but I think I’ve spent enough time in the company of a pretty toxic character.

Strange times.

Rating: 6-and-a-half Hershey bars with almonds.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Brando Skyhorse

Following Friday’s review of My Name Is Iris, here’s Brando Skyhorse: Life Under a Perpetual Dark Cloud of Fear.

Brando Skyhorse was born and raised in Echo Park, Calif., and has degrees from Stanford University and from the MFA Writing Program at UC Irvine. He is an associate professor of English at Indiana University in Bloomington. His debut novel, The Madonnas of Echo Park, received the 2011 PEN/Hemingway Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Take This Man: A Memoir was named a Best Nonfiction Book of the Year by Kirkus. Skyhorse also co-edited the anthology We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America. His dystopian novel My Name Is Iris will be published by Avid Reader Press on August 1, 2023.

Does a novel like this begin with story or character?

Brando Skyhorse (photo: Eric van den Brulle)

I tell my students: it always begins with character. But not this one. It actually started with an image. I think you can guess: it started with this wall, just kind of growing out of the ground. I was finishing up my last project, an anthology of original essays on ethnic and racial passing, and it was summer of 2016, and let’s just say there was a certain word that was getting bounced around, this relentless drumbeat. I started thinking about it. I remember talking to my agent, and she said that’s interesting, but seems kind of topical. When Clinton is elected president, who’s going to be there to buy it? And I said, I’m going to keep thinking about it.

The more I thought about it, the more I had questions. That word, wall–the most banal thing imaginable, became coded. It was a very specific kind of reference, and a relentless barrage. Where is this wall? Who is attached to it? What’s the situation? I said, I’ll finish this in a year. Because I didn’t start with character, but with an image, it took me another five years to figure out the specifics of character and situation. Iris is trying to take care of herself, to take care of her child. She has a community that she’s estranged from, and she’s doing the best she can. Once that part of the story got laid out–it’s about safety for her. Her American dream is safety. That’s it for her. And that’s something a lot of readers can relate to, I hope.

What is it that makes Iris a compelling protagonist?

Based upon the experiences Iris has had, she decided early on, I want to be safe above all. I want to protect myself and my family–that’s the trade-off that I’m making, and if that makes me brusque or unlikable, I’m rolling with it. But what does that leave for Iris in the life that she’s attempting to live? Has it been fulfilling; has it been satisfying? What kind of reckoning is afoot for her?

Once you get the totality of her situation, she becomes very easy to understand. I realize it’s a bit of an authorial risk to put this character out there and have her say the things that she says, and put up her own wall. She has lived a very structured and specific life. My family, my daughter, my household. Very intentional. The idea of what it means to be a woman of color at this time, in this place, at this part of American history, what’s that experience like? At least as I see it, there’s probably a sense of guardedness, apprehensiveness. I’m not sure what the next day is going to bring me so I have to be on guard. What’s out there waiting for me?

I didn’t want to turn it into a Twilight Zone episode where this is a character who is being punished because she’s bad. What’s her backstory? Where’s she from, what kind of life is she trying to live? I had to move that character development forward while at the same time pressing her from all sides. Every chapter, another bad thing happens. How to create a character who isn’t solely reactive? If it’s not the wall, it’s the bands; if it’s not the bands, it’s what’s going on with her family or with her daughter. She needs to take some control, some agency, but each time she does, there’s something else another step ahead of her. Thinking about the lived experience that all of us have had over the last few years, I think this book is what it was like for me.

And the technology. Oh look, it’s this cool little thing from Silicon Valley, and it’ll track how much garbage you throw away. And very suddenly it becomes this whole other thing altogether. We have a collective embracing of certain technologies, if we feel there’s going to be a benefit, and sometimes there’s a flipside, unintended or intended consequences. Iris has traded away an essential part of her identity for the convenience of being American. Her community has traded away the idea of citizenship because there’s a little thing that can tell them how many steps they take in a day. What does that mean for us? I don’t know. But I don’t know if it means anything good.

Are there heroes or villains in this story?

I don’t think so. If there’s a villain here, it’s just fear. It’s very simple. Fear leads to paranoia leads to a series of decisions… everybody in this universe in this novel is living under a perpetual dark cloud of fear.

Do you feel your readers need knowledge of Spanish to follow this novel?

My goal is not to confuse or alienate anybody. When you write a book, you’re trying to connect with as many readers as possible. What I ask myself is, what’s most important for this character in this situation? English, Spanish, switching back and forth? When she’s with her mom, at the house, having dinner… it flows freely, and I wanted to capture that. I wanted it to be correct for that experience.

So much of the conversational nature of this book was influenced heavily by my family. My biological father left me when I was three, and I found him in my 30s. I was accepted into this family I didn’t know, and all of a sudden, I had three sisters. When I hang out with them the conversation varies based on who I’m talking to, the context, what’s being discussed. My Spanish is not great, but I can get what’s being said if they speak really slowly, like to a child. Part of this is trying to mimic that experience for me. That sense of what would it be like to have a relationship with this language, which is important for communicating with your family, your community–lose it, and then work your way back. I hope that’s one of the themes in the book. Our main character goes through this journey–if I’ve done it correctly–with the Spanish language. If I’m going to take the readers on that journey it has to be correct.

This interview originally ran on May 10, 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: My Name Is Iris by Brando Skyhorse

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 May 10, 2023.

My Name Is Iris by Brando Skyhorse (The Madonnas of Echo Park; Take This Man) is a chilling near-reality dystopian novel, set in an unnamed state that resembles California (and is called the “Golden State”). Protagonist Iris Prince is a second-generation Mexican American whose parents view her birthright as a gift and use the refrain “you were born here” to shame her whenever they feel her bad behavior shows a lack of gratitude. (“I am a second-generation Mexican-American daughter of Mexican immigrants, meaning that of course I was ungrateful.”) Born Inés Soto, she was glad to have her first name simplified by white schoolteachers, and then to take her husband’s last name. Iris is proud to be a rule follower, her highest ambition to blend in.

When the novel opens, Iris Prince has just left Alex, her husband of 16 years, and is determined to finally build the sanitized, magazine-cover life she’s dreamed of: a new house in a suburban neighborhood on a cul-de-sac, a new school for her nine-year-old daughter, Melanie. She has shunned her parents’ low-income home in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood (where her younger sister still lives, annoying Iris with her activism) and avoids Alex’s overtures at co-parenting or getting back together. Iris feels that her real life–coffee clubs, gardening, and white picket fences–is about to begin.

Then one morning, she looks out of her lovely new bay window to find that a wall has sprung up in her front yard. It seems permanently fixed, and no one but Iris and Melanie can see it. Her realtor and contractors claim the wall must have been there all along, until gaslit Iris wonders, “Who was I to say otherwise?” And, impossible as it is, the wall seems to be growing.

Meanwhile, a new piece of wrist-wearable tech called “the band” is sweeping across the state. Iris herself voted in favor of the proposition that established this technology as a paper-saving, easy identification to “facilitate paying for and receiving state and public services, act as a drivers’ license,… help users regulate a household’s water usage and garbage output, serve as proof of residency for your child’s enrollment in school, and potentially save the state millions of dollars.” But it turns out that, regardless of citizenship, one must have a parent born in the United States to qualify for a band. Iris’s confidence in her place in society is shaken. “Wear your bands and prove you belong here,” says the propaganda. Hatred, bigotry and intolerance quickly swell into violence. “Somehow, in an overnight or two, my social contract had been renegotiated. Politeness vanished.” Iris’s loyalties are challenged: she has long associated herself with law and order and the establishment, but those forces have turned against her, despite all her rule-following. Each morning she drops her daughter off at school, the band’s seductive glow encircling Mel’s slim wrist–due to Alex’s birthright, Mel qualifies for the privileges of the band. But Iris fears for her home and her job; her mother has been fired for her bandless status, and the family is in jeopardy. Under these pressures, Iris will have to consider just what she’ll risk to protect her hard-won sense of identity.

Skyhorse seeds his text with plenty of Spanish-language dialogue, especially with Iris’s parents and sister; non-Spanish-speaking readers will easily use context clues. In addition to this lovely linguistic texture, Skyhorse imbues his all-too-lifelike novel with fine details–Iris’s anti-nostalgia for a defunct supermarket, her love for bland ritual–and judicious use of highly impactful notes of the mysterious or the surreal. These twists of magical realism include a ghost from a childhood trauma who haunts Iris in her vulnerable moments, and of course the wall itself, which grows and morphs overnight. The wall is ever-present, at one point “almost like a co-parent,” even as it literally deprives her home of the sun’s light and heat, as well as her sense of security: “Later, when I would dream, I dreamed of walls.”

My Name Is Iris is terrifying with its proximity to reality. Iris is perhaps preoccupied with labels and appearances (as the book’s title forecasts), and not the most likable protagonist, initially; but her flaw is simply in seeking the American dream as it’s been advertised. Despite her obedience–teaching her child to always trust the police, adhering strictly to HOA rules–the world she’s trusted has turned on her. What can one woman do to fight a state security regime or a magically self-constructing wall?

This gripping dystopia poses difficult but important questions about the world as we know it and the few small steps it takes to slide into horror. Intolerance and xenophobia lurk in the most seemingly benign corners. My Name Is Iris is part social commentary and part thoughtful consideration of themes that include family, identity, transitions, perspectives, and hope. In addition to being an engrossing, discomfiting tale, this will make an excellent book club selection and fuel for tough conversations.

Rating: 6 chanclas.

Come back Monday for my interview with Skyhorse.

Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries by Heather Fawcett

This was a fun one. Emily Wilde is an academic, and a bit of a type: grumpy, antisocial, deeply socially awkward and mostly unbothered about it; she is passionate about her work in the field of dryadology, which is faeries, or the Folk. Her hair is absolutely without exception a mess, even under the influence of magic. We meet her en route to do a season of fieldwork in the very remote, far northern village of Hrafnsvik, whose faeries, known as the “Hidden Ones,” are poorly documented. The research she hopes to accomplish here will complete the work of a decade or more, her Encyclopaedia of Faeries, whose publication should cement her academic reputation and finally get her out of adjunct work and into a position with tenure. (Those of you who know my personal life these days will hear me chuckle in bitter recognition.) This book takes the form of her journal entries, intended as notes for her professional work and as “record for those scholars who come after me should I be captured by the Folk.” Which, mild spoiler, she will be.

Emily arrives in Hrafnsvik with her loyal dog Shadow but fails to immediately thrive, because of her clumsiness with the locals (whose help she needs, whether she acknowledges it or not) and unfamiliarity with the climate (very cold). A few small quibbles with the novel’s consistency here: Emily is proud of her past expeditions into the field, which have ranged far and wide; she is far better with fieldwork than she is at working with other mortals. “I am used to humble accommodations and humble folks–I once slept in a farmer’s cheese shed in Andalusia.” But she’s also never started a fire (?!) and doesn’t know where to begin, and can’t figure out how to split wood (certainly an acquired skill; but her inability to jump in and begin feels like it belies an experience ‘in the field’). She is assessed as an ‘indoors type’ by a sneering local, at which she bristles but doesn’t disagree. And yet she does some massive mountain hikes in the course of her research; she estimates that her daily limit is twenty miles, and in precipitous conditions. In a word, these feel like inconsistencies in the character: is she an indoors type who is unable to light a fire? or is she an intrepid mountain hiker and experienced field researcher? (There is also a woman who mourns the loss of her husband. But then her daughter comes home to both parents.) Small details, perhaps, but they catch my brain distractingly. There is still much to love, however.

After Emily’s early struggles in Hrafnsvik, she is both assisted and further irritated by a new arrival: her colleague Wendell Bambleby. Famous, handsome, and well regarded in the field – if a bit academically lazy, in Emily’s view – he decides inexplicably to crash her fieldwork party, tidying up her lodgings, charming the locals, and generally causing trouble. (To highlight their different personalities, one of his first nights in town was “the most enjoyable evening I have spent in Hrafnsvik, as the villagers largely forgot about my existence amidst the gale-force winds of Bambleby’s personality. I was delighted to sit in the corner with my food and a book and speak to no one.”) The challenging local community, the region’s mysterious and intoxicating Folk, and Bambleby – both obnoxious and somehow appealing – combine to offer Emily chances she’s never really had before, in terms of research, friendship, and romance.

The result is funny, fun, frequently silly, and also suspenseful. Emily is definitely a type (the well-meaning but curmudgeonly professor), but still charming; her new acquaintances include mortals and faeries and at least one frightening faery king. Even Shadow, the loveable loyal hound, is more than he at first seems. I loved the worldbuilding aspect of dryadology, for example, the concept of oíche sidhe, a housekeeping faery driven mad by disorder. The device of Emily’s journal means we get appended faery tales, which was fun. While the Hrafnsvik story is neatly wrapped up, Emily’s own ends on a bit of a cliffhanger; this novel is book 1 in a series, and despite some small quibbles, I’m in for book 2.

Rating: 7 needle-fingers.

The World We Make by N.K. Jemisin

It’s been nearly three years since I read The City We Became, and I wish I’d spent a few minutes reviewing that one first. I still felt close to the avatars of New York’s boroughs, but New York himself (he goes by Neek, as in NYC if you pronounce the Y like ‘ee’) felt less familiar, and I’d lost track of some of the rules of Jemisin’s carefully constructed world. For slightly better results, you might want to keep book 1 a little handier than I did here, but it was still a hell of a ride.

Highlights include the personalities themselves, their relationships, and the final action scene(s). I remembered loving Manny (Manhattan), Brooklyn and Bronco (the Bronx); I feel like we get to know Padmini (Queens) better here, and I really enjoyed that. I applaud Jemisin’s work with Aislyn, the bigoted Karen-in-training avatar for Staten Island; she is unlikeable but complicated enough that the reader grudgingly sympathizes, which is a feat (and an exercise in patience and empathy that some might have excused the author for not engaging in). These avatars have had time since the last book’s action to settle in to relationships among themselves in ways that are pleasing; the characters were strong to begin with but they perform best when they play off each other (true of all characters, probably). Then there are the avatars of other cities around the world: I imagine it must have been so fun to build characters for places like London, Tokyo, Istanbul, Paris, Budapest, Kinshasa, and Amsterdam… because this novel ends up in a massive showdown. In its course, we (and our avatars) learn more about the rules of the world of living cities and their great Enemy. The threat, as threats do, grows larger and then imminent, and a major brawl ensues. This series was originally billed as a trilogy, and actually I still thought it so at book’s end; it was only in Jemisin’s acknowledgments that I learned we’re done here. I do think the ending allows room for more if she finds her energies refilled, but I understand the effects of the pandemic and Trump’s evil on her intended storytelling, and (not that she needed my permission) I can grant her this ending, too.

Three years ago, when I read The City We Became, Jemisin was new to me. Now I return to this series having since read every novel Jemisin has ever written.* With this perspective, the Great Cities duology feels both familiar and very different from her other work. This one is set in the most recognizable of her fictional worlds, closest to our own real one. The characters are modern, urban, fresh and real-world-adjacent, while the characters in her other outstanding works are realistic but recognizably otherworldly. I don’t think I have a preference, but it’s a different effect. I guess for readers more reluctant to venture into proper sci fi/fantasy, this urban version might feel friendlier.

*I have not yet read How Long ’til Black Future Month?, her short story collection, which I erroneously thought comprised works by other authors that she’d collected and edited. I would have gotten around to that eventually. But it is in fact all her own work, which means I need to get there soon.

I love the action and attitude of these living cities, and Jemisin is an important figure in my lifetime of reading. Can’t wait for more – whatever she does.

Rating: 8 sticky toffee puddings.

The Nigerwife by Vanessa Walters

In this riveting novel about a young woman’s disappearance, Lagos high society hides personal struggles and larger cultural concerns.

Vanessa Walters’s American debut, The Nigerwife, is a gripping work of suspense, a psychological puzzle, a mystery, and a critique of marriage and high society. The prologue begins: “Nicole often wondered what had happened to the body.” This foreshadowing line refers to a body floating in a trash-filled Lagos lagoon, viewed from the home of a young woman who had recently left London to join her Nigerian-born husband. This narrative perspective, “Nicole, Before,” defines every other chapter of the novel, interspersed with the viewpoint of “Claudine, After.” The pivotal event of these dual timelines is Nicole’s disappearance, which gives the prologue’s opening line new and sinister meaning.

Nicole spent years in Lagos with her husband, Tonye, and their two young sons. She ceased communication with her family in London and formed and dissolved friendships both in and out of a club called the Nigerwives. “The Nigerwives were so different, a pick ‘n’ mix of skin tones, hair textures, body shapes, and facial features, but their stories were one and the same. They had all defied the prides and prejudices of their families, sacrificed friendships and careers and independence, and followed heart and husband to Nigeria for what they believed would be an epic adventure.” For Nicole–and perhaps for other Nigerwives before her–that adventure would end badly. Between fancy dress and art openings, social posturing and boating parties, she struggled to keep her sanity and independence.

In the days after Nicole goes missing, the aunt who raised her travels to Lagos to look for answers. Claudine does not know Tonye’s family well and is dismayed to find how little the family or the police seem to be doing to find Nicole. “She could see [the household help had] been warned not to tell her anything, not even what time of day it was, though they were very respectful clams.” The more she attempts to unravel her estranged niece’s life, the greater her fear that she’s arrived too late. As their timelines progress, Claudine and Nicole each work separately to sort out the family issues that drove them apart, which will not be revealed to readers until the story’s end.

With a sense of foreboding, The Nigerwife considers overlapping loyalties and betrayals and the strict constraints of marriage, family, gender, and culture. Nigeria’s largest city is ruled by glamour, glitz and materialism; motivations for marriage include love, financial and political gain, and cultural compatibility. Various characters criticize Lagos and Nigeria, but this is not the novel’s aim. Rather, Walters’s inexorably paced plot examines institutions and the choices women face. “Nothing compensated for having family around to look out for you. But then, what kind of family?” This engrossing novel both entertains, with the mystery at its heart, and provokes questions that go far beyond Nicole’s personal story.

This review originally ran in the April 7, 2023 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 hidden knives.

The Wanderer: An Alaska Wolf’s Final Journey by Tom Walker

This unforgettable portrait and travelogue of an individual Alaska gray wolf gorgeously and thoughtfully illuminates issues for the species and for all Arctic wildlife.

Tom Walker (Wild Shots; Alaska Wildlife; The Seventymile Kid), an accomplished photographer, author and longtime Alaskan, turns his naturalist expertise to a single individual animal emblematic of a larger story in The Wanderer: An Alaska Wolf’s Final Journey.

“On the northern frontier of Canada and Alaska sprawls a wilderness largely devoid of human imprint.” Walker outlines his subjects broadly: the land, its natural and human histories, flora and fauna and variations in land use over centuries. He transports his readers to early November of 2010, to the slopes above Copper Creek, where two gray wolves roam: an older female, already collared as Wolf 227, and her younger male companion. Biologists spot them from a helicopter and descend to tag him as Wolf 258, although Walker will call him the Wanderer (with some protest from scientists, who prefer the impersonal numbering system over names, even the archetypal). Over the following 11 months, GPS tracking shows the Wanderer traveling nearly 3,000 miles, earning his nickname in a lengthy quest for prey, territory, and a mate.

Walker narrates this journey in detail, with lyricism and a clear love for the land and life forms he describes, using his informed imagination to provide specifics where the GPS collar cannot. “The Coleen tumbles through treeless highlands that in summer are resplendent with wildflowers. Between storms, the crystalline waters rush lyrically over the cobblestones…. In summer, lupine and fireweed bloom in willow thickets alive with breeding songbirds and ptarmigan.” In Walker’s telling, with the benefit of expert biologists’ opinions, the Wanderer makes repeated inexplicable decisions: to turn away from abundant prey and to move into areas of greater risk from humans or other wolves–although he will generally be lucky in avoiding threats. Through his choices and movements, readers consider broader questions about habitat, climate change, predator/prey relationships, and the rights of human vs. animal hunters. (Walker relates the history of predator control policies in Alaska and throughout the U.S.)

Stunning photographs and essential maps help readers follow the Wanderer’s ramblings. Intermingled with his meticulous account of the wolf’s wanderings, Walker handles related subjects: geology and natural history; Alaska politics; remarkable stories of animal and human life in the Arctic; pack dynamics; and the changing habits and habitats of species the wolf interacts with, including caribou, grizzly bears, Dall sheep, Arctic ground squirrels, moose, and muskox. The Wanderer is a deeply enjoyable example of creative nonfiction and nature writing: literary, lovely, meditative in its pacing, informative and clear.

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

Rating: 7 artic ground squirrels.

The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna

I no longer remember where I got this recommendation, but it was a *great* one.

In the opening pages we meet Mika Moon, a young Indian-born witch living in modern-day England. She was raised by a quickly-turning-over series of tutors and nannies, who were in turn employed by an elder witch named Primrose. Primrose is the keeper of the Rules for witches: in a nutshell, witches live in secret and in minimal contact with one another, because witches together mean too much magical dangerously combining in small spaces. Mika is lonely. As a relief valve for her enthusiasm for witchiness, she releases videos on her YouTube channel in which she brews potions and casts spells: it’s not meant to be taken seriously, of course. So she’s alarmed to be caught out by a strange offer to tutor three young witches at a mysterious estate called Nowhere House.

Mika struggles to balance her own strong desire for companionship, community, even family, and her passion for her work, with her grudging respect for Primrose’s Rules. Three little witches in one space should be very dangerous indeed, especially because (like young skunks!) they’re not yet in full control of their powers. Nowhere House turns out to be magical in many ways for Mika, though. She is just beginning to find the kind of kinship she feared would never be an option for someone like her – someone different – when it turns out there are still more layers of secrets than she’d realized.

The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches is a lovely book. With themes involving outsiderness and the search for belonging, the risks of relating to other people, built families, passion for one’s calling, and every kind of love, it’s a beautiful, affirming study in humanity. Central characters show a nice diversity in age, ethnicity and sexuality. Especially with its realistic, fully-formed child characters, it feels like it wants to be friendly to young adults (such positive messages!), and I was going to classify it as such for nearly 300 pages – at which point there occurred a pretty heavy sex scene, so keep that in mind.

I’d recommend this to anyone – even kids if you’re ready to expose them to sex! – and am anxious to see more from Mandanna. I am so charmed.

Rating: 9 star fragments.
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