Stories from the Tenants Downstairs by Sidik Fofana

This linked collection portrays the human condition by way of the struggle to make rent in a Harlem high-rise, with a cast of memorable characters.

Stories from the Tenants Downstairs, Sidik Fofana’s electric debut, consists of eight stories featuring eight residents of a low-income apartment building in Harlem where rents are rising and eviction notices are being posted by the score. These men and women struggle at the edge of making ends meet and cope by various means, including hard work, stiff upper lips, bluffing, bluster and despair.

Mimi runs a hair salon out of apartment 14D, spends beyond her means and dreams of a house in the suburbs with her son’s father, Swan. Swan (6B) lives eight floors below, with his mother, marveling at the country’s first Black president and wishing he could find his own way out of the hustle. Swan’s mother, Ms. Dallas (6B), wrestles with her day job as a paraprofessional at the local public school, bemoaning the students’ behavior, scorning the young do-gooder teachers and awaiting the school’s looming closure. Two students from Ms. Dallas’s school each feature in stories of their own. Kandese (3A) suffers losses upon losses, while her boyfriend, perennial follower Najee (24M), dreams of stardom but finds tragedy. Mimi’s erstwhile assistant, Dary (12H), flirts with a darker line of work. Neisha (21J), a former aspiring Olympic gymnast, has quit college and returned home to the building, where she has to face a trauma that still haunts her. Old Mr. Murray (2E) just wants to play sidewalk chess in peace, but the old ladies of the Banneker Terrace Committee of Concern want to make him their cause.

These protagonists are all interconnected, whether they like it or not, by more than their address. Many have been lifelong residents of Banneker Terrace, and while some have fantasized about moving on, others wish only to stay in the home they know. Their stories take various points of view (first, second and third), mostly running to heavy vernacular and each brimming with voice, from Mimi’s bravado to Najee’s fumbled but earnest reporting: the seats on the 2 train are “faded… the scrapes on them wuz also scrapes on my heart.” Fofana shows an ear for pacing and for evocative, frequently musical language. He expertly handles the structure of each story and of the collection as a whole, whose easy readability advances serious themes, including the challenges of poverty in its many iterations, gentrification, humor and hope and anguish.

This quickly shifting narrative introduces vibrant, appealing characters in brief but three-dimensional sketches, and paints a larger picture of existential efforts and persistence. Fofana’s is a striking voice, and his protagonists will linger in readers’ imaginations.


This review originally ran in the June 9, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 skins.

Watercolor in Nature: Paint Woodland Wildlife and Botanicals with 20 Beginner-Friendly Projects by Rosalie Haizlett

This book was a perfect birthday gift. Rosalie Haizlett is a local/regional artist from West Virginia whose work I’m familiar with (it’s in local coffee shops and gift shops, and I’ve got some of her stickers) and and admire. I’ve done a little painting with acrylics over the last decade or so, but no watercolors since kindergarten. And this instructional book is positively wonderful.

Things I love about Watercolor in Nature: clarity and ease of use. Haizlett opens with very brief (one page) sections on how she became an artist and how to use this book (slow down, breathe, take breaks! and, take it in order: each project builds on the one before). She goes over materials, colors, and basic techniques. And then there are the projects, 20 of them in two groups: ten use pencil and ink and ten are watercolor-only. Each adds a new skill to the painter’s toolbox, so it does make sense to take them in order. And the way she walks you through each is perfect – even the most intimidated learner can do this, because she breaks it into intuitive steps, always with images. If you just follow the directions you end up with more or less the intended outcome – that easy. (I say more or less because these are paintings of nature, which is asymmetrical and changeable, and each individual painting is a little different, as it should be.) I was a little intimidated by Haizlett’s lovely art – and another benefit to this book is that it’s filled with her art! – but she made it super easy and friendly; I was never confused. I am a little tempted to cut out some of these pages and put them on my walls. But I’m making my own art, too.

Totally, 100% recommend this to anyone interested in learning watercolor with natural subjects. I’m extremely pleased. After playing around in this book, I trust and like its narrator completely; I feel like she’s a friend. Delightful.


Rating: 9 wild blueberries.

Dawn by Octavia Butler

I thought Kindred was good, but Dawn has blown me away. The former was an excellent and thought-provoking book but (at least at this distance of memory) not something I quite got lost in; this one offered a new level of world-building that took me away from my own life in a way I love. It’s still an outstanding work of craft, and offers plenty of serious issues (see the discussion questions at the back of my paperback edition), but it also captured my imagination and took me out of myself. Very special.

Lilith wakes up in a plain room devoid of color and objects, accompanied occasionally by disembodied voices, fed a bland stew or cereal in edible bowls, driven a little mad by isolation; and this happens over and over again. Eventually she passes enough tests to meet her captors, who turn out to be nonhuman alien “people” who inform her that she is not on Earth – Earth as we know it was destroyed in a nuclear war, which she remembers – but on a ship. And, long story short-ish, she is among the few human survivors who will eventually be sent to Earth to repopulate it. But there is a price: the alien people, the Oankali, want something in exchange for shepherding humans out of near-extinction.

Lilith is a special human. She’s been identified as having the right combination of qualities to lead and teach humans how to move forward. This role will come with its own frustrations and burdens. It is the Oankali’s belief that humans have “a mismatched pair of genetic characteristics,” which alone would have been advantages but together may doom humanity. These are intelligence and hierarchical thinking. Lilith’s troop of humans have these characteristics, of course. They are also traumatized by war, and the challenges of survivalism include some tendencies to violence, for one thing.

This is a story about the way humans behave, and about relationships, between humans and also across species with the Oankali. In some basic ways, it reduces to a story about people, which I appreciate. It also considers some more unusual questions, especially because the Oankali have some very novel qualities, skills and abilities, and ways of relating to each other. Sex and gender appear in new ways here, which is thought-provoking. Lilith is a Black woman, which has some implications for her place in a human society, because even post-nuclear-war we haven’t lost our societal issues and prejudices. Dawn deals with questions about agency and self-determination; love, sex and gender; and the persistence of old hangups. I was intrigued and engaged by the Issues, but I was most pleasurably lost in the story and the novel world and people.

Very much sold on this series – I’ve ordered books 2 and 3, and can’t wait.


Rating: 9 breadnuts.

The Book of the Dead by Muriel Rukeyser; introduction by Catherine Venable Moore

Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead was originally published as a poem cycle in her 1938 collection U.S. 1. It was unearthed, if you will, by Catherine Venable Moore, and republished in a new edition in 2018 with Moore’s introduction. (Disclosure: Moore was a visiting faculty member in my MFA program when I was a student there; I have met her, very briefly.) That introduction is lengthy, occupying fully half the pages of this book, which I hadn’t realized in advance; that is to say, while Rukeyser’s poetry is its raison d’etre, Moore’s essay is indispensable to the reading experience I’m reviewing here. That essay was published in Oxford American (a magazine I adore) in 2016, in its entirety – I did a pretty close page-by-page spot check, and if the two versions differ, it’s by words or punctuation marks, not paragraphs. (OA actually offers more images, too.) You can read Moore’s work here, and you absolutely should (I write, at the risk of unselling a copy of this book; but you will still want Rukeyser’s poems!).

The subject is the years-long industrial disaster at Hawk’s Nest Tunnel near Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. Miners were tasked with both tunnel construction and the mining of silica, a convenient byproduct of the tunneling; they worked without protective equipment and inhaled quantities of silica, which caused silicosis (as it was known at the time it would), of which they died by the hundreds. Most of the miners were migratory Black Southerners housed in temporary work camps. The death toll is still unknown.

Rukeyser, a young lefty poet/journalist, traveled to West Virginia to document these events in 1936, as the last of the miners testified before a congressional committee even as they coughed and died. She was accompanied by a photographer friend (whose photographs, but two, were lost). The Book of the Dead was Rukeyser’s result: documentary, poetry, journalism, testament. Moore’s essay places this and much more information in context so that the reader is ready to appreciate Rukeyser’s poems when they come. Recall that I am infinitely more at home with essays than with poetry, but I found Moore’s work to be very moving, beautifully done, and informative. I found the poems more challenging, and I would not have gotten as much out of them without Moore’s help. Perhaps my favorite was the title poem, which is also available online at The Poetry Foundation, for whom I am grateful.

I’m very glad I spent a day immersed in this story, certainly an important one in our national and regional history. This was a bit of homework before, hopefully, visiting the recently dedicated memorial myself. I am very glad that Moore did the work of getting these poems and this story out into the world again.


Rating: 8 hills of glass.

Tiny Nightmares: Very Short Stories of Horror ed. by Lincoln Michel and Nadxieli Nieto

Forty-something short-short horror stories collected here, and as one might imagine, they vary in how memorable and loveable I found them. I think I will choose “Katy Bars the Door” by Richie Narvaez and “Human Milk for Human Babies” by Lindsay King-Miller as my favorites; and I read one that still makes me angry, but I think I will not name it here, out of spite. Short-short stories are delightful, and I do love a themed collection like this; I would do such a thing again. I appreciate as well the wide range of what constitutes ‘horror’ to different writers: the grisly, the ghostly, the suggestively disturbing, the creepy in different senses. Your mileage as always will vary – you will love the ones I forgot as soon as I finished them, and vice versa. Ah well. Happy horrors, friends.


Rating: 6 beads.

The Wild Hunt by Emma Seckel

On a remote Scottish island, villagers battle the sluagh–crows said to host the souls of the dead–and the aftermath of World War II, and one young woman reckons with the ghosts of her own past.

“On the first of October they arrived.” Leigh Welles has just returned home to the island of her birth for her father’s funeral, and the crows have returned as they do each October, but she finds nearly everything else changed since the war. So begins Emma Seckel’s first novel, The Wild Hunt, an atmospheric story of place, family, home and belonging.

This small, isolated Scottish island lost many of its young men, “nearly an entire generation off to fight for a country they’d barely thought of until now,” in World War II. Leigh’s brother had gone, and though he survived, he did not come home, and all they’ve done since is argue. Leaving has in fact been a family trait, beginning with their mother’s mysterious departure when Leigh was a girl. Later, Leigh had committed the sin (in island eyes) of moving to the mainland, where she’d been miserable: “the telephone call summoning her home had been a black sort of blessing.” Now she’s returned to the Welles home, “a run-down sheep farm with no sheep.” Her mother gone, her brother gone, her father dead, the island haunted by its absent young men and by the sluagh–those crows who group in threes and beat upon windows and strike at eyes and kill.

Leigh drops with surprising ease into the old ways, reciting the Gaelic and joining the rituals meant to protect the islanders from the sluagh, which are said to carry the souls of the dead. She is disturbed, however, to see the crows’ increased audacity–attacking villagers in the street–as well as the villagers’ subdued reactions and the persistent signs of the war, which has been over for years. Meanwhile, Iain MacTavish, widower and RAF veteran, struggles to function at all, some days leaving his bed only when forced by his mother-in-law. Leigh’s younger childhood friend Hugo McClare kills a crow, and then disappears, on this island too small to hide a man. Leigh and Iain unexpectedly connect over a shared purpose, although it may be of the saddest sort.

The Wild Hunt is part ghost story, part elegy to war and traditional lifestyles, dreamlike even in its horrors. Seckel weaves historical fiction with mystery and fantastic elements and threads of romance in this tale of love, grief, attachment to place and resistance to change. Her island setting is both otherworldly and firmly rooted, and her prose style is lushly evocative. This imaginative novel is memorable and wild indeed.


This review originally ran in the May 27, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 goats.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (audio)

I got this title off some list of bests somewhere, and queued it up behind In the Woods on the return trip from Texas. It was a delightful, weird, engrossing adventure. I am going to be careful and vague with this one, as it hinges on big reveals that I don’t wish to spoil.

Set in Victorian London, Fingersmith begins with the first-person narration of Sue Trinder, an orphan who has been raised by a household of ‘honest thieves’ and a mother figure, Mrs. Sucksby. Sue and her comrades are fingersmiths, or pickpockets (and they partake in other crimes and cons, mostly of the property reassignment category). One day Sue is invited into a masterful heist: she will pose as lady’s maid to an innocent, sheltered woman of just her own age, the also-orphaned Maud Lilly, to aid in a fellow crook’s seduction of the lady. He will then marry her, steal her fortune, and have her locked away in a madhouse (which is sinfully easy to do to women, in those times and into quite recent history). Sue has never been a lady’s maid before, so she has much to learn about the job, but off she goes. The plot proceeds, but Sue’s loyalties become split, as it turns out she rather likes her mistress.

This is just the very beginning of the complications. But then! Part two! The first-person perspective shifts, which I did not see coming. And everything the reader thought she knew about this story gets turned on its head. I will stop writing about plot now, but it continued to surprise me, repeatedly, and Waters gets full marks for this feat. Also, I was not expecting erotica, which popped up a few times to (again) surprise me and was remarkably well done. Fingersmith is absolutely a plot to get thoroughly lost in; really great road trip fodder. I did feel in the middle that it dragged on a bit longer than it needed to – especially when the victim of this or that plot must wallow in her misfortune. I could take much less of the wallowing. But eventually we stepped out of that puddle, and the story continued to twist and turn; I was riveted right until the end, and was sorry to be done. Masterfully plotted; do recommend.


Rating: 8 ink stains.

The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe

Janelle Monáe’s book is a collection of linked stories – quite long ones – with a handful of coauthors listed, by story (see image below). As the subtitle indicates, the book is a companion, or an expansion, of Monáe’s album Dirty Computer. I know concept albums, and I know accompanying movies (The Wall being a big one for me), but this is the first time I can remember seeing a book version. The Memory Librarian expands on the album’s worldview, and does some mighty worldbuilding; I am pleased.

The opening Introduction, “Breaking Dawn,” was a bit weird and abstract for me; I felt like I was missing something, so it took me a few pages to engage. But the first story, “The Memory Librarian,” took right off. I had to learn about the world we’re in, which was consistent throughout the book – the stories didn’t really have recurring characters (except in the most glancing references), but it was definitely the same world. New Dawn is the authoritarian power, policing its cities and towns with cameras on drones and fearsome Rangers patrolling the streets. People are referred to as computers and must be “clean,” or free from difference, weirdness, subversion, creativity; if they are found to be dirty, they will be cleansed. Notably, queerness is considered “dirty,” and racism is alive and well in New Dawn too. A state-approved drug called Nevermind helps to erase memories; outlaw substances or “remixes” free the mind, in ways that New Dawn absolutely does not approve.

“The Memory Librarian” focuses on a young, ambitious woman named Seshet, with a promising career as (yes) a memory librarian under New Dawn, although as a Black, queer woman she must watch her back hard too. She collects people’s memories (which they can exchange for currency) and helps keep them “clean.” Her own past is mostly lost to her. But then she meets a compelling woman and has to question her relationship to New Dawn, to authority, to her own history, her loyalties and the value of memories and dreams. This story had me fully invested; I was rooting for Seshet and Alethia, and feeling the pressures of their world. Then “Nevermind” introduced the Hotel Pynk, and the gender politics at play even among an apparently progressive feminist enclave. “Timebox” featured a toxic relationship that quite upset but also intrigued me; I think this will be one of the more memorable stories for me. “Save Changes” handles family (and the inheritance of resistance), and “Timebox Altar[ed]” stars children, and brings in more hope than I felt in any previous stories; it has a dreamy, colorful mood that felt good as a way to end the book.

I enjoyed both the stories in their creative concepts and the ways in which they were executed (written). I appreciated the emphasis on the value of diversity (in so many ways) and the importance of art, free thinking, and the freedom to be weird. I liked that these stories trended longer – from 50 to 80-some pages, long enough to get well involved (plus their interconnectedness). I continue to be a Monáe fan, and I’m very impressed with her entry into this different medium. I assume the coauthors brought something useful to that process; and I think it’s worth noting that even though Monáe was joined by a different one for each story, they fit together seamlessly. Someone was on top of the editing. Solid effort; do recommend.


Rating: 7 masks.

In the Woods by Tana French (audio)

Loading up on audiobooks for the big drive to Texas and back, I made an unusual call: I chose to reread a book, or rather to listen to one I’d read years before. Life is mostly too short for rereads, but: 1, I love Tana French and have read everything of hers already. 2, I found this one on a best-of list of some sort, I think specifically referring to the audiobook (or else it’s just that I discovered late that she is especially good on audio, because of the Irish accents). 3, I am that lucky mystery fan who forgets plots and can therefore enjoy them again and anyway 4, I read this one of hers first and (mostly importantly) before I had this blog. So, off on the big drive with this excellent book…

…which it turns out I had forgotten wholly, because the plot scarcely felt familiar at all past the introductory scenes. First, a prologue flashback: in 1984, in a Dublin suburb, three 12-year-old best friends don’t come home when called for tea. Two of them, a boy and a girl, will never be seen again. The third, Adam, is found with his broken fingernails dug into a tree’s bark, with blood in his shoes but unharmed. He is catatonic and unable to help the police with their investigations. He goes away to boarding school; his family moves away; and then the reader discovers that he is the novel’s narrator, now a grown murder detective who goes by the name Rob Ryan (having taken his middle name to avoid his rocky past). Hilariously, Rob believes that his career choice has nothing to do with his lost childhood best friends.

In the present, some twenty years later, the body of a murdered child turns up in the very same suburb, in the same woods (now much abbreviated by development, and under controversy as a freeway expansion runs up against an archeological dig). Ryan and his partner and best friend, Cassie Maddox, pull the case, despite being rather the young misfits of the department. Unbelievably, the murder squad does not know that Rob Ryan was once Adam Ryan, the very famous found boy of that old–and possibly connected–crime. Cassie is the only one, beside Rob’s parents (whom he feels he barely knows), who knows his identity.

In the Woods is an atmospheric, contemplatively-paced mystery novel in two timelines. As Ryan works on the present-day murder, he also probes at his own lost memories of that childhood trauma. It is also the story of relationships: Rob and Cassie share a very special bond, a very special friendship, which both resists and succumbs to stereotypes. I think it’s worth remarking that I do not actually like Rob Ryan, our narrator, protagonist, and therefore one might expect our hero. He isn’t that. Cassie is a compelling and likeable character, but since she is only seen through Ryan’s eyes (we get the story from him), I fear she never quite becomes fully known–not only in the way that none of us ever really knows anyone, but also because for all his adoration and attempts to understand her, she is finally a cipher for Ryan’s own issues. Perhaps what disappoints me most about him is that even after all his complexities and soul-searching, Ryan winds up predictable after all. I do not like him in the end.

The plot is however not predictable, even to this rereader. In fact, as I think about other Tana French books, it’s not actually the whodunit solution that I remember, but the atmosphere, the experience of being in the story as it unfolds. There were times when the pacing felt a bit off, when I felt we spent too much time wallowing, and that feels perhaps familiar from other T. French novels as well, but that’s a fairly minor quibble when I think about how real these characters felt. Also, the accents are completely wonderful on audio, which I think is the best way to do Tana French.

As I write this review, I’ve let too much time pass (because vacation), and already the denouement’s details are fading for me, but the relationships – between Ryan and Maddox, and other ones – still feel very near to me, the personalities and the conflicts. And I’ll always be back for more French.


Rating: 8 home-cooked meals.

Thrust by Lidia Yuknavitch

A remarkable girl moves through past and future timelines to connect disparate, marginalized characters in Lidia Yuknavitch’s imaginative otherworld.


Lidia Yuknavitch’s Thrust is a complex novel of great imagination, outside of time but very much concerned with it. At its center is Laisvė, also known as the Water Girl. In the late 21st century, she and her father hide away from what is left of society in a submerged New York City where only the tip of Lady Liberty’s torch is visible at low tide. Laisvė has a fascination with curious objects and an unusual set of skills. “She knew not to be afraid to go to water, because time slips and moves forward and backward, just as objects and stories do.” Laisvė is a carrier, who can move not only objects but people, through time as well as space. In Yuknavitch’s lovely, weird prose, Laisvė will eventually connect Frédéric, the French sculptor of the Statue of Liberty, and his captivating, beloved cousin Aurora; a violent, abused boy and the social worker–the daughter of a war criminal–who hopes to save him; and a tight-knit crew of three men and one woman who help build the Statue, and who represent “an ocean of laborers.”

Yuknavitch (Verge; The Chronology of Water) moves between worlds as her chapters follow different characters in turn. Some are labeled ethnographies, and form an ode to unrecognized workers, immigrants and misfits. “The story of workers is buried under the weight of every monument to progress or power. Our labor never reaches the height of the sacred. No one ever tells the story of how beautiful we were. How the body of us moved. How we lifted entire epochs.” Characters come from all over the world, speak a range of languages and concern themselves variously with history, the arts, social welfare and the body. Their stories are intertwined and connected by Laisvė’s travels. Laisvė “wants the words to rearrange, to locate differently, the way language itself could if you loosened it from human hubris and let it flow freely again as a sign system, as the land and water did, as species of plants and animals did, everything in existence suddenly again in flux, everything again possible.”

Yuknavitch’s writing style is recognizable to readers familiar with her lyricism, coined words, love of the downtrodden, and water as an emphatic theme. Thrust is many things: a speculative history of the United States, a recognition of forgotten classes, a fluid song about the power of love, a celebration of the power of language and storytelling. It is an intricate novel in its interconnections, plotlines twisting away and back together again, but readers’ attention will be well rewarded by profound, thought-provoking and deeply beautiful observations about humanity in an ever-changing world.


This review originally ran in the May 10, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 pennies.
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