My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Readers of this blog might by now know that I am capable of calling a book about a serial killer light-hearted. Here it is. This is a fun romp about a serial killer.

First-person narrator Korede is a competent nurse at a hospital, where she has a serious crush on a doctor named Tade. He considers her a friend, but nothing more. She is also the responsible sister, and good thing, because her younger sister Ayoola needs one. Their mother is a bit flighty and detached; Korede’s one ally at home is the house girl, otherwise unnamed, another competent but invisible type. Korede and Ayoola’s abusive father, thank goodness, is dead.

Ayoola is a very different sort: stunningly beautiful, she attracts attention everywhere she goes. Men court her and buy her things; women want to be her. She is utterly spoiled, possibly a sociopath, and she has a bad habit of stabbing her boyfriends to death. Thank goodness for Korede’s (perhaps unhealthy) obsession with cleaning products. She knows just how to get the blood out, cover up smells, and where to dispose of the bodies. Her conscience is beginning to nag, however, and so she does what any invisible hospital worker would do: she confides at great length to a kindly-seeming man deep in a coma. You might guess how that winds up.

The delicate arrangement Korede and Ayoola have established to deal with Ayoola’s violent habit is beginning to fray for several reasons, but one event that pushes it to a head is when Tade, Korede’s beloved doctor, asks for Ayoola’s number. The long-overlooked elder sister is forced to decide: is she really willing to protect Ayoola in all scenarios? At all costs?

Chapters are very short, at most a few pages, which is part of what contributes to My Sister, the Serial Killer‘s sense of momentum. I had to force myself to put this one down and get to bed on a school night; it rather demands a single-sitting read. As the present-tense story of Tade’s infatuation with Ayoola unfolds, we also get flashbacks, in chapters titled “Father,” to the story of that patriarch. Braithwaite in no way answers all the reader’s curiosities about this dysfunctional family, but there are surprises along the way, nonetheless.

This novel is set in Lagos, with some Yoruba language sprinkled in, and the family’s foods were often foreign (and interesting) to me. The Lagos police are woefully corrupt and/or incompetent, but other than these details for flavor, if you will, the setting didn’t have an enormous effect on the story.

Despite Ayoola’s murderous tendencies (and generally annoying personality), there is, again, a sense of fun about Korede’s situation: the antics of the women she works with, and Ayoola’s completely ridiculous nonchalance. I felt like the story could keep going, and I would definitely read another installment about Korede’s hapless existence.


Rating: 7 shoes.

Night Rooms: Essays by Gina Nutt

These 18 essays about gender, horror, grief and much more are thought-provoking, discomfiting and lovely.

Gina Nutt’s Night Rooms is a startling collection of 18 essays ruminating on life experiences, cultural tropes and horror films, examining questions of gender, fear and grief. Fragmented in form, but firmly interconnected, these essays refuse to look away. Nutt’s prose is lyrical, provocative, intimate and intelligent.

“I used to imagine wanting someone alive would revive them, if caught right after dying.” This opening line establishes one of Nutt’s main subjects: the deaths of loved ones and how people do (or don’t) handle them. She wants to find “a balance between mourning and moving on. How does it look to not be so enamored with the image of the final girl–the one who survives–that we forget, or disavow, our dead (selves).” That final girl of horror movies is objectified: a symbol, a survivor, part of a lineage.

Nutt (Wilderness Champion) is also a poet, and has a way with a simple line in brief scenes and observations: in grief or depression, “time pulls thick, opaque as taffy.” “I am making this [darkness] a buoy.” Her voice is vulnerable and frank. Repeatedly she describes a cultural artifact rather than naming it, so it is recognizable to most readers, but made unfamiliar: “the cartoon mouse dressed in a red sorcerer’s cloak and a pointy violet hat with white stars on it.” Quoted sources are named in footnotes, but those only paraphrased are not, so that different readers will find themselves involved to different degrees–as is true with the cultural artifacts themselves.

Haunted houses, horror flicks with sharks in them, ghost stories and slasher films meet beauty pageants, ballet lessons, sexual explorations and home décor to question what it is about the macabre that fascinates. Although subtitled as “essays,” Night Rooms feels more like it contains chapters, which make reference to one another as much as within themselves. The deaths that occupy the narrator in the book’s beginning are relevant again at its close. Indeed, while these essays are fragmented, cinematic in flashes of image, sound and feeling, they are equally fragments of the whole. Together, these pieces form an experience that is sensory, intellectual and emotional, illuminating difficult and even uncomfortable truths.

Part personal reflection and part cultural study, this unusual collection will haunt readers, in the best ways.


This review originally ran in the March 15, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 insects framed in flight.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie (audio)

A classic whodunit from Agatha Christie, starring Hercule Poirot, but told through the first-person narration of a character that (as far as I know) appears for the first time in the Poirot-universe. This means we get to see him from afar at first, and recognize him before the narrator understands who we’re dealing with. It’s pure fun. I love the humor and the characters – all of whom, admittedly, are a bit cartoonish, but in entertaining ways. Perhaps the best part of this audio production is the reading by Hugh Fraser, who plays Hasting in the long-running television series I was raised on. The protagonist and first-person narrator of this novel is a Hastings-like character, a stand-in if you will, during the period that Hastings is off living in the Argentine. To have the Hastings actor playing the Hastings-like character, bouncing off Poirot in the loveable way that they do, was just a harmonic moment for me.

Also in classic fashion, the mystery here is clever, ever-twisting and chock-full of red herrings, and the murder takes place in a literal locked room. Everyone is hiding something and harboring overlapping and hidden loyalties. The plot is far from central, however, at least to my enjoyment. (As an aside, I might be a special kind of mystery reader. I can reread the same mystery with no memory of the solution; the plot-level puzzle is rarely my focus; I’m there for characters and relationships. But I might be weird in this regard.) It’s all in the people – here, the caricatures – and the humor. Christie is comfort food, and this is quintessential Christie.


Rating: 7 dropped items.

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray

Once there was a family. The mother died when her children were young; the father, a traveling preacher, remained mostly absent. The eldest sister, Althea, raised her younger siblings. They are Viola, Joe, and the baby, Lillian. A generation later, Althea and her husband Proctor have twin girls, Kim and Baby Viola. Until recently, they also had a successful restaurant in a struggling Michigan town following a devastating flood (locally called the Great Flood). The couple was trusted in town; they ran fundraisers and charity events for those who lost everything. But then it came out that they’d been skimming off the charity donations. Now, Althea and Proctor are facing a trial and possibly serious time for this transgression. The townspeople have turned against them (Althea’s lawyer says, “the community probably wants to see a public hanging”). Lillian has care of the disgruntled teenaged girls; Viola is en route home from Chicago to lend a hand, although she is beset by problems of her own. And Joe turns up, which is not necessarily a good thing.

Althea refuses to let her daughters visit her. Lillian is losing control, particularly of Kim, the difficult child to Baby Vi’s obedient one. Viola is breaking down mid-road-trip. Joe’s past sins remain unresolved. The legacies of their parents do not rest easy. They come together in the family home, which Lillian has renovated to remove some – but not all – its painful stains; she’s also moved in her former-grandmother-in-law, just to enliven this mess of relationships.

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls is an emphatically character-driven novel, and these characters are wonderfully formed: a mess in all the best ways. Viola is a practicing therapist plagued by her own eating disorder and her failing marriage to a rather saintly, patient woman whom the reader really wants to see her with. Lillian’s childhood trauma has left her obsessive-compulsive and guilt-ridden – it is in part this guilt that causes her to care for the elderly Chinese woman with broken English whose grandson she’s wronged, but the friendship that results is in fact a gift. Althea’s mood is foul enough to keep her somewhat opaque, but she is also the heart of this family; just because she was the responsible eldest does not mean she’s escaped her own wounds. The novel follows the three sisters most closely, with chapters moving among their points of view. The title refers to Viola’s eating disorder, to the various literal and figurative hungers of the sisters, and beyond.

Proctor, whom we see less of – in flashbacks to the time before the arrests; in emails to his wife as they are both incarcerated – is still a lovely character, whose love of music has been a gift to his daughters, and who sends punny musical hints to Althea as a game they used to play. He at one point quotes the lyrics of Jason Isbell (whom he leaves unnamed, but I am the reader for this moment, y’all, so you know that gave me a thrill). There are other still more minor characters who make a real impact on the world Anissa Gray builds here, including Viola’s and Lillian’s respective childhood friends, Kim’s goofy stoner boyfriend, and the women Althea serves times with.

There are a few plot-level details that never especially coalesced for me. The Great Flood this small town has experienced feels like a looming matter of importance that never quite comes to life, although the long-dead mother had some comments to make about women, water, and rivers that should have connected a bit more strongly there. The crimes Althea and Proctor committed – fleecing their neighbors – are sort of neither here nor there; the plot needed them incarcerated, but it never matters much what they did. I spent some time considering this: Gray had to define their crime, of course, couldn’t just leave it unnamed; but this feels like an odd choice. It’s ethically quite off-putting, while in the grand scheme of things (murder, for example) also relatively minor (embezzlement?), and we’re left with a vague sense of the agency with which the crime was committed. It felt a little bit like Chekhov’s gun never went off. These are minor concerns, and it’s not unusual that a novel so gorgeously and richly character-driven might have some plot weaknesses, but I noticed.

The timeline of Care and Feeding is pretty tight, mostly contained within a few weeks as Althea and Proctor’s trial approaches, their sentences are set, and the immediate fallout occurs. There are flashbacks to earlier times (all the way back to the four siblings’ youth), and a final epilogue-style section set after the dust has settled. But chiefly, this novel is concerned with the quasi-locked-room situation when Lillian and Viola come together to sort out family histories and unhealed wounds. It’s about relationships, the pull of the past, the question of cycles broken or continued, and love.

I found it absorbing; I enjoyed sinking in to the lives of these women and girls, getting to know them, accompanying them. I cared, and they felt very real and immediate. If I cocked my head at the odd and somewhat unresolved crimes Althea and Proctor have committed, so be it; life is sometimes confusing in this way. As a story of regular, imperfect, but good people dealing with life’s confusions, The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls was more than satisfying. Gray’s brief “Beyond the Book” essay at the back of my paperback edition tells us that Viola was a fictional character who just wouldn’t go away, who demanded her story be told. And that makes perfect sense to me; I too would follow Viola wherever she wants to take me, narratively speaking. I would read more.


Rating: 7 1/2 Snickers bars.

Who Is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews

This delightfully disquieting novel explores identity, deceit and extreme measures through two women’s shape-shifting lives.

Is it really possible to shed one’s history “as easily as a coat slips off the back of a chair” and walk away? And if so–what might one walk into? That’s the puzzle posed by the cunningly plotted Who Is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews.

Florence Darrow thinks of her past in Florida “as a gangrenous limb that needed to be severed for the greater good.” Now that she’s landed an editorial assistant position in New York City, she can begin remaking herself. However, she can’t quite make out the shape of the new version of herself she’s trying to form. “How did one go about building up someone new? She tried on moods and personalities like outfits.” Then the opportunity of a lifetime comes along: she is hired as personal assistant to Maud Dixon, pseudonym for the electrifying and mysterious author of the biggest bestseller in recent history. Florence becomes one of just two people to know Maud’s true identity. And she finally has a model to guide her own transformation into the bestselling author and confident self-made woman she knows she can be.

Florence sinks with pleasure into her new life: living in the carriage house behind Maud’s lovely old stone house in the country, enjoying Maud’s cooking and fine wines and opera. This, she thinks repeatedly, is where she belongs, this is the life she’d choose for herself. On Maud’s advice, Florence stops returning her mother’s increasingly petulant phone calls.

But who, really, is Maud Dixon? Florence knows her name, and the name of the Mississippi town she comes from. But much of her hero’s persona remains enigmatic: Maud is unpredictable, thorny, wise and (to the Florida ingenue) perfectly captivating. Florence can’t figure out the road map to get from here to there. (Maud says that “here and there are overrated.”) Florence is thrilled to travel with her to Morocco on a research trip for Maud’s long-awaited second novel, but in the new setting, what Florence doesn’t know about her boss quickly turns sinister. Florence may not be the only one with a past she’d like to shed.

Who Is Maud Dixon? is a wickedly fun study in deception, secrets, striving and longing. Andrews’s stylish, intricate debut novel showcases deft prose and expert use of tone and atmosphere: the cooing of pigeons “had the aggressively soothing tones of a nursery rhyme in a horror movie.” What means might one justify to grasp the life she really wants and (she’s tempted to believe) deserves? These memorable pages hold one possible answer.


This review originally ran in the February 26, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 clean white towels.

Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett

Thanks to blog reader Annie Long for the excellent recommendation.

This is a sad, sweet book with an accurately written first-person child protagonist struggling with loss and grief, and with a decidedly odd view of the world, possibly reflecting neurodivergence. (Someone at school calls her ‘retarded.’) If this sounds a lot like the mad originality of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I thought so too. That earlier novel was so unprecedented it blew readers’ minds; and while this one has a lot in common with that one, I don’t think that makes it a bit unoriginal. It’s still a pretty wild (and wildly unusual) model; there’s plenty of room for more surprises in this area.

“On my tenth birthday, six months before she sleepwalked into the river, Mom burned the rabbit cake.” It was one of the wonderful things about her mother Eva that she made rabbit cakes for all occasions – believed in celebrating all the small events of life. Elvis is ten-and-a-half when her mother dies, and she has questions. For one thing, how could such a good swimmer have drowned? Her mother was a frequent if not constant sleepwalker, and “she was an excellent swimmer in her sleep.” Her mother was a gifted scientist. And besides, her mother’s psychic had always been very clear that Eva would die by suicide.

Elvis is clearly a young person who craves control, and so she sets out to take care of things around the house, because her father surely isn’t; he’s taken to wearing Eva’s lipstick and her bathrobe around the house, and mostly ignoring his daughters. Elvis’s fifteen-year-old sister Lizzie has moved on from beer drinking and breaking her best friend’s jaw (in three places) to a particularly self-destructive sort of sleepwalking (although no sleepswimming). Elvis dutifully sees the counselor at school once a week during recess, until she says something especially disturbing and gets upgraded to daily sessions. Ms. Bernstein instructs her that the grieving process generally takes eighteen months, and so dutiful Elvis marks her chart counting down the days until she will not grieve her mother any more. She also works on finishing her mother’s massive book (working title: The Sleep Habits of Animals and What They Tell Us about Our Own Slumber). Elvis knows a lot about animals – enough to annoy everyone around her, until she gets a volunteer posting at the zoo. She comes across an entry in The Reference Guide to Porcupine Anatomy and Behavior in the zoo’s library that mistakenly relates the echidna to the porcupine when it is closer to the platypus. She makes a note to write to the publisher.

You get the picture: this is a child precocious in some areas and a bit hopeless in others. She indulges in magical thinking, but what child doesn’t? and for that matter, who in the throes of grief? Despite Elvis’s story being completely heartbreaking at every turn (warning, friends: this family also has an old dog. Will it never cease? Don’t ask what happens to the giraffe), it’s also frequently hilarious. There is a strong current of absurdism running through it. Lizzie the sleepwalker and breaker of jaws is institutionalized, and returns home with a pathological liar who the distant and negligent father allows to move in. Lizzie decides what she needs is to set the Guinness World Record for most number of rabbit cakes baked. Most, but not all of them, will need to be decorated. Elvis is driven mad by the delicious smell of baking cakes – which she associates with happy memories of their mother – but she is not allowed to eat any of the cakes, which Lizzie must preserve for her world record. I won’t even tell you about the troubles Elvis gets into at the zoo. Or what she discovers about her mother’s sex life.

Delightful, absurdist, ridiculous, heartbreaking; laugh-out-loud funny in the most morbid ways, if you’re into that sort of thing. (Case in point: the reason Elvis’s school counseling gets upped to daily sessions.) I was frequently quite angry at the adults in this child’s life who consistently, near-criminally fail her; I usually keep my cool with fictional characters better than this. In other words, it’s a deeply involving story, with some very wise points to make about grief in the end. That ending is surprisingly upbeat – or maybe it’s not surprising at all.

I’ll be thinking about Elvis for a long time, and about this singular, weird, troubled, endearing little family. I’m remembering Have You Seen Marie?, another gorgeous meditation on grief in fictional form. Cisneros said about that book that she did not conceive of it as being for children. And even though Rabbit Cake‘s star is a child, I don’t think this is a children’s or YA book, except to the extent that any book is right for the reader who’s ready for it. (Tin House, who does not publish children’s books, has marketed it as simply fiction. Although these labels may be worth less than we think they are.) It’s quite a deep-thinking novel, with nuances to satisfy readers of all levels of maturity, especially those who may need to laugh and cry in the same sitting.


Rating: 9 librarians aptly named Reasoner.

The Sentinel by Lee Child and Andrew Child

Here we have it: the first book of Lee Child’s transition to his brother’s eventual takeover of the Reacher series. The Sentinel credits Lee Child and Andrew Child together, as will the next (Better Off Dead is due later this year). I have had my doubts, but I really enjoyed this installment. Hooray!

A little like Blue Moon, this plot has Reacher step into a scene in media res, where he sees something bad about to happen. (This is not an uncommon Reacher device, actually; I’m thinking of Gone Tomorrow too.) In a little town in Tennessee, the streetlight is out and the police phones are down. Something’s a little odd here, and why does everybody seem so angry at one rather nerdy man in particular?

There is nothing new about the broad strokes: Reacher takes on the PI role even though nobody really wants him to, let alone the local cops, whose job he can do better than they can. The details are rather fascinating, though. I’m not sure it always works for me when Child tries to be uber-timely (here, the Russians might be trying to hack an American election, which is a subject I’d like a break from in my fiction, I think). But that’s a personal call, maybe. I do like when Reacher finds himself a team of local amateurs, or quasi-amateurs, as he did in Blue Moon, to my great enjoyment then and again here. And I think I appreciated that we took a bit of a break from Reacher’s amorous exploits.

Instead, Reacher ends up the knight in shining armor for a dweeby, dreamy (male) IT manager, and that relationship struck me as sweet and a bit of a departure for our hero. Knight-in-shining-armor is a bit of a theme here, actually, because the opening Reacher scenes involve both his love for quality live music (and especially blues), and his tendency to stick up for the little guy. I liked that the action didn’t open with Reacher, but jumped around among a few characters whose relationship is not immediately clear. I found a few lines of dialog here and there a bit out of character – and I’m sorry I didn’t mark those to share with you, but I read this book in a day, staying up too late to finish it, which doesn’t happen much these days (because it shouldn’t; teaching has me busy and exhausted). Being a smidge out of character may be a result of bringing in a new coauthor (who, we assume, knows the Reacher oeuvre as well as anybody, but still). However, my need to finish this book in a single day is an excellent commentary. It’s been a while.

I’m shying away from plot here, as I sometimes do with Reacher, to say that this is pretty straight-on Reacher with just a few twists, already mentioned, which worked well for me. If this is the new Andrew Child style, I am sorry I doubted, and I’m looking forward to more.


Rating: 8 cables.

Forget Me Not by Alexandra Oliva

A woman with a strange past struggles with a near-future reality in this riveting, moving masterpiece of both character and plot.

In Forget Me Not, Alexandra Oliva (The Last One) introduces a strong, damaged protagonist in a near-future world very similar to our own. Captivating characters carry this absorbing cautionary tale.

It’s been six years since the pandemic. Everyone wears a Sheath around their forearm that links them into social networks, maps, business reviews and details about the people they pass on the street. But Linda didn’t grow up in this world: she was 12 years old when she climbed over the walls that circumscribed the only world she’d ever known. Twelve years old when she was thrust into a never-ending spotlight, because of where she’s come from and who she is.

Now, as an adult, she lives alone in an apartment in Seattle, terrified to step outside, to make eye contact, to interact. “People bemoan the inhumanity of her childhood, but the outside world is so much worse.” That childhood remains an enigma for much of the book, but Linda remembers running barefoot and relying on herself, a life that seems more natural and straightforward than the one she knows now. “She was limber and determined and not once in her life had someone ever asked her, Are you okay? She knew no other way but to keep going.”

Then an unusual woman moves in down the hall. Anvi seems open, forthright; Linda knows better than to trust anyone, but Anvi captivates her. She’s persistent. And she introduces Linda to a virtual reality gaming world where she feels, perhaps paradoxically, a bit more real. Reality itself begins to look less certain: “Could her whole existence simply be someone else’s side quest? She can feel the urgency with which she wants some version of this to be true. To wipe herself of responsibility–to claim it wasn’t fear but an algorithm that made her run….” When Linda’s past resurfaces, Anvi accompanies her back to the place where she grew up, to search for answers she may regret finding. Linda’s shaky understanding of her very existence is thrown into question.

Forget Me Not explores humans’ relationships with the natural world, with technology and with each other. It is far from polemic, however, with affecting characters, a real sense of urgency for their various plights and a thriller’s racing plot. Linda is deeply troubled and deeply sympathetic; Anvi is a dear, quirky young woman with insecurities of her own. This is a poignant novel of isolation, terror, misperceptions and, ultimately, empathy.


This review originally ran in the February 19, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 buzzes of the Sheath.

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

Liz sent me a clipping from The New York Times Book Review recommending this book, which turned out to be a happy synchronicity in two ways: one, I had had the book on my shelves for years, still bearing a sticker from the library where I worked when I first met Liz. Two, I stuck that clipping, that slip of paper, in the book as a reminder, and the book turns out to be in some ways about little slips of paper, which I had learned by the time I found the clipping in its pages again. Good work as ever, Liz.

Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman is a fine example of creative nonfiction writing of the less-personal kind: not memoir, but history; but history told with a novelist’s eye. This Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary is for word-fans, of course – that OED mention has pulled them in – but also for readers who enjoy an absorbing historical narrative.

The Professor, here, is the Scottish Dr. James Murray, teacher and philologist who was eventually recruited to take on a formidable role: the editorship of a project of such enormity that most thought it could not be done. Here, Winchester backs up to give us a quick history of lexicography (Samuel Johnson figures centrally). The new project attempted something unprecedented: to define every word in the English language, not only those deemed “difficult” or somehow deserving of promotion; to describe rather than prescribe how they were used; and to record the history of each word, using quotations from written material, including the identification of each word’s first entry in written history. The philologists and word-nerds who undertook this goal repeatedly declared that they thought it would take a handful of volumes or a handful of years; it would take more than seventy years to publish its first “complete” version in twelve volumes, which of course needed immediate supplementing and updating. Dr. Murray was the editor and boss of this project, which would become the OED, in one of its earliest incarnations (the one that stuck).

That’s the title’s Professor. And then there was Dr. William Chester Minor, an American who spent his childhood in Ceylon with missionary parents, then trained as a medical doctor at Yale, served as a surgeon for the Union army in the American Civil War, and was later institutionalized for his delusions. Enjoying a little freedom in London in 1872, those delusions convinced him that he was pursuing one of the bad men who abducted and molested him at night, which is how he came to shoot and kill an impoverished local brewery worked named George Merrett, who left behind a pregnant wife and seven small children. For this, Minor would be “detained in safe custody… until Her Majesty’s Pleasure be known.” He spent nearly the next fifty years of his life in an asylum in Broadmoor, just outside of London, “a certified criminal lunatic.”

Winchester offers that Minor’s life was saved, in a sense, when he came across an advertisement from Murray, seeking volunteers to read… well, everything, and search out the quotations needed to write what would become the Oxford English Dictionary. Minor happily had some spending money (his family was well-off, and he drew a pension from his military service), and the good graces of the asylum leadership at Broadmoor let him build a prodigious library of rare and old books. Aside from these he had nothing but time, and created his own system of indexing that changed the way he was able to serve Murray and the OED. Over decades, he would serve as one of the most prolific volunteer contributors to the project, sending in tens of thousands of little slips of paper with words and quoted texts carefully penned. He and Murray would build a friendship, and together they built a book. It is Winchester’s conclusion that while Merrett’s murder was tragic, and Minor’s life another tragedy, they were both necessary to contribute to something of a miracle in lexicography.

Liz’s clipping from the NYTBR (by Charlie Savage) calls The Professor and the Madman a “mashup of erudition and melodrama,” and I think that is a fine description. There is plenty of hearty history and lexicographic detail here, which I loved. There is also a definitely flair for the dramatic, and there were a few points where I didn’t love Winchester’s editorial tone. (A laugh at the expense of one dictionary reader and then “one of the women readers” – why that detail? – or a snobbish note about a slum. He could be a bit creepy about the naked girls on the Ceylon beaches. I didn’t care for the way he characterizes the stepmother as “so often the cause of problems for male children.”) There’s no question that this is a novelistic history, in the spirit of Erik Larson or Jon Krakauer – who were among my first experiences with creative nonfiction. By novelistic I mean that the storytelling is clearly meant to be entertaining: an eye for the colorful detail, a leaning into suspense, even a bit of a red herring here or there. It’s great fun. When Samuel Johnson is “damned” as “a wretched etymologist,” I cackled.

Chapters open with dictionary definitions of a word that will figure in that chapter’s narrative. This was a fun way to keep the OED in our sights and a little history in our perspective. There were a number of words and phrases in the text that I had to go look up, too: manqué, astrakhan, vade mecum, pudicity, rebatos, Rhinegrave, perukes, nostalgie de la boue, tocsin, rebarbative, swingeing… and you know I always enjoy that part of my reading, too. (Haven’t convinced my students yet that it’s fun to learn new words, but I’m working on it.) So again, is this a book for word-nerds and OED fans? Emphatically yes; but not only for them (us). It’s also just a ripping tale, a bit sensational and pathos-ridden. If you like dramatic historical fiction, this one is for you, too.

Not perfect, no, but enormous fun.


Rating: 7 catchwords.

Maximum Shelf: Kin by Shawna Kay Rodenberg

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 February 17, 2021.


Shawna Kay Rodenberg’s harrowing memoir Kin leads the reader backward and forward in time and across an American landscape of trauma and healing. With a persistent focus on family and home, Rodenberg documents a process of learning and personal growth that is both unique and universal.

Kin opens in 2017, as the author guides CBS reporters though her native eastern Kentucky. They seek to crack open what they see as Trump country, and Rodenberg hopes to complicate that story. The backdrop is “my family’s mountain, the mountain where my grandfather mined coal, where my father was reared with great love and brutality, where I picked my grandmother’s strawberries and my grandfather’s roses… the mountain on which my family sought refuge after leaving The Body, an end-times wilderness community, cloistered in the woods of northern Minnesota, that my father joined when he was red-eyed and mad with fear, following his tour of duty in Vietnam.” The narrative then moves back in time to Rodenberg’s childhood in Grand Marais, Minn., and the purposeful deprivations of The Body.

Rodenberg’s upbringing in this strict religious sect gives her a cultural background that will make it hard for her to fit in later, and she suffers more than one form of abuse within The Body, including her father’s recurrent rages. “Instead of following in alcoholic, workaholic footsteps, he made religion his primary vice, religion that was unconventional, ecstatic, even perhaps rebellious–and virtually militaristic, which must have felt familiar.” The family eventually moves back to the secular world, to Ohio, to Kentucky and finally to the mountain of family origin. The austere, often angry influences of The Body will follow them.

This memoir recounts family stories, some from Rodenberg’s memories, some passed down. She writes of each of her parents’ childhoods, and of her aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and neighbors. She recounts the history of her hometown, Seco, Ky., a former coal-mining camp. Kin begins well before the traumatic story of Shawna’s birth, “bruised-ass-backward into a world of chaos.” The chronology is disjointed, jumping back and forth, shifting timelines as well as locations, which can be disorienting for the reader, but that effect feels true to the narrator’s experience: Kentucky exerts a strong pull even in Minnesota, and pains felt by generations past are ever present.

At each stage, Rodenberg struggles with the meaning and shape of love and caring, and the confusing truth that those who love us most can hurt us most. Religion will continue to play a large role in her life, complicated by her father’s movements to and away from a strict adherence to The Body’s teachings. She will continue to wrestle with sex and the aftermath of childhood sexual abuse, through her troubled first attempt at college and beyond. Kin closes with Rodenberg on the cusp of pregnancy and marriage, but hints at what is to come: “I wish I could tell [that earlier version of myself] she had come to the beginning, not the end.”

Rodenberg’s prose is graceful and effortless, vulnerable and raw, beautifully descriptive without drawing attention to itself. She emphasizes character of place, from coal country where women “kept the food covered and draped cribs with quilts to keep the dust off their babies” to “town-sized time capsules, stoppered and sealed…. Barns sank beneath fields of kudzu and the roofs of old houses bowed in the middle like the backs of the ancient, singular mares that waited outside to be fed and put away.”

While Kin is first and centrally a memoir of family, it is also about Appalachia, about histories more complicated than the opening scene’s reporters care to see. It is ultimately about forgiveness, understanding and love. Rodenberg seeks an emotional reconciliation with her parents, especially the father she has butted heads with all her life. Of that battle, “even now, writing about it fills me with worry that I might be inadvertently reengaging, and that is why talking about it, why telling was and still is the hardest thing…. This is what it means to come from people who have been broken and exploited, they see the world in sides, theirs and the other, and disloyalty is the gravest offense, the blasphemy of the mountains.” In a world of just two sides, it might be an act of rebellion to both love someone and hold them responsible.

As narrator, Rodenberg is intelligent and insightful. As character, she is resourceful, scrappy, defiant, brave and exposed. Her memoir is heart-rending and hard-won. “I didn’t know when I started writing this book that it would become my own book of Revelations, rife with warning and promise, an account of my own and other apocalypses that created me, end times that predated me but shaped me as surely as if I’d lived through them myself.” That sense of regional and filial legacy defines Kin, a work of nuance that complicates received narratives in all the best ways.


Rating: 7 skirts.

Come back Monday for my interview with Rodenberg.

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