When Me and God Were Little by Mads Nygaard, trans. by Steve Schein

A rocky childhood on the Danish North Sea is rendered in weird but apt terms by an extraordinary young narrator.

Mads Nygaard’s When Me and God Were Little, translated by Steve Schein, is a stark portrayal of a hardscrabble childhood in a blue-collar, small town in Denmark, on the coast of the North Sea. Its narrator is seven-year-old Karl Gustav (who would rather be called Big Ox), and his distinctive point of view is filled with preposterous details that make perfect sense to him. “In our town you couldn’t drown barefoot,” he begins, and yet his big brother, Alexander, has managed to do just that, permanently upsetting Karl Gustav’s worldview.

His father is a drunk, but owns his own business building houses, and “Our house was so big that Mom still hadn’t gotten around to vacuuming all the rooms.” “Dad weighed 250 pounds and it was all muscle, except for the hair,” but then Dad goes to jail (something about the papers in his file drawers; the young narrator isn’t concerned with the details), so Karl Gustav and his mother move into a county-owned house in a new town. Unperturbed, the child carries on obsessing over soccer (he plays alone over four fields through the winter) and terrorizing his teachers. Years pass, very few friends come and go, and readers follow Karl Gustav’s experiments with porn, disastrous employment, grifting, a doomed love affair with another damaged young person and a developing relationship with his father. The loss of his brother will always loom large, for Alexander was a hero: “He just smiled, knowing everything.” But other losses accrue, as Karl Gustav learns more about the wide, perplexing world. By the book’s end, the narrator is a teenager, perhaps still ungainly, but wiser for the trials he’s seen.

This is an unusual novel, its narrator’s voice colorful, unpolished and unforgettable in Schein’s gruff translation. It is Karl Gustav’s singular perspective that makes When Me and God Were Little the memorable, bizarre, poignant adventure that it is. It’s absurd and often fantastic, as this narrator delivers an earnestly nonsensical account of events that readers know to be impossible. And yet it rings true, because what is childhood if not nonsensical? Karl Gustav is all bluster and pain, bluffing in the face of forces bigger than he is. His story is gritty, messy but real, and there are no happy endings on this harsh coastline. The novel is filled with cigarettes and swagger and masturbation literal and figurative, often unbeautiful but somehow still lovely in its authentic, unvarnished view of a difficult coming-of-age.


This review originally ran in the October 29, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 hedgehogs.

Snow, Glass, Apples by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran

This quick read combines Snow White (the classic fairy tale) with still more horror, in graphic novel form, with story by Neil Gaiman and beautiful, intricate illustrations by Colleen Doran in the style of Harry Clarke. Gaiman’s version subverts the classic tale to star an evil stepdaughter, and moves away from a children’s story (to the extent that these fairy tales ever are that to begin with!), with sex as well as scariness. Doran’s art is jewel-toned, detailed, evocative, and yes, sexy and scary by turns. The book is hard-covered, slim and gorgeous; I enjoyed every minute on a chilly rainy evening, and again the next day, skimming for both plot details and visual ones. Gaiman’s storytelling (down to word choice) is exquisite, and Doran’s work (which I was not familiar with) is equally so. Again, it is a short book, but a beautiful one which I will revisit. Think of it as a gift option for the fans of dark fairy tales in your life! Sinister and delicious.


Rating: 8 bridges.

Dark Night by Paige Shelton

Piles of intrigue and secrets populate a remote town in Alaska, where an amateur sleuth hopes to reinvent herself, in book three of this cozy mystery series.

Dark Night, book three in Paige Shelton’s Alaska Wild series, continues the adventures of thriller writer Beth Rivers in the insular small town of Benedict, Alaska. Like Thin Ice and Cold Wind, this installment offers intrigue in a low-gore, cozy package.

Beth is known to the rest of the world under her pseudonym, Elizabeth Fairchild, but after an abduction and skin-of-the-teeth escape, she’s retreated to this remote hamlet to live quietly and anonymously: only the local police chief knows who she really is. With winter closing in and a few friends kept at arm’s distance, Beth tries to heal from the trauma and go on with her writing, hoping to hear that her abductor will eventually be caught. Instead, her mother turns up unexpectedly. Mill Rivers is a loose cannon, on the run from the law herself–and she may be Beth’s best hope at finding peace and finally feeling safe again. A local murder, of course, spices things up. Between Beth’s reluctant romantic interest in the comically named Tex Southern, the propensity of Benedict’s residents to keep their secrets, an ill-mannered, unwanted census taker and yet another fugitive in town, mother and daughter will have their hands full solving mysteries large and small.

Beth’s relationship with local law enforcement (and Benedict’s unconventional boundaries in this regard) allow her to act as an unofficial investigator. Mill is a force to be reckoned with in every way: another amateur detective, but with a violent streak, she still seeks her husband (Beth’s father), who has been missing for decades. The librarian is a special-ops dark horse, and the local dog sledder and tow truck driver may have a checkered history of his own. Beth is a by-choice tenant at a halfway house for female felons; the list of eccentrics lengthens from here. Benedict is the town where people go to keep their secrets, but Beth may have to open up if she’s going to learn the truth of her own past.

Shelton’s plot is twistier than a path through the dark Alaska woods. Her characters may be bumbling, but they are generally well-meaning, except when they are revealed as decidedly otherwise. Suspicions shift and suspense builds in this novel of discovery, growth, relationship building and investigatory hijinks. As a bonus, Dark Night ends with a lead-in to the next episode: Beth Rivers’s trajectory will surely extend and continue to complicate as she deepens her roots in the captivating town of Benedict.


This review originally ran in the October 25, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 cheese-foraging adventures.

A Flicker in the Dark by Stacy Willingham

Disclosure: I was sent an advanced review copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.


Chloe Davis was twelve years old the summer that six teenaged girls went missing from her small hometown of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. She found that the place she felt the safest was not so safe after all, when her father was arrested and pled guilty to six murders. As the twentieth anniversary of that summer approaches, we meet Chloe at age thirty-two. She is a clinical psychologist in Baton Rouge, recently engaged, and barely holding it together (she has a prescription pill problem, for one thing, abetted by Louisiana’s unusual system that allows psychologists to prescribe drugs). When a local teenager goes missing, and then another, she begins to lose the plot (no pun intended) while conducting her own highly amateur investigation.

I wanted to like it (not least because this book was originally assigned as a review for Shelf Awareness), but this thriller was not terribly successful for me. The writing was a little tired (Southern accent compared to molasses), and the characters frustratingly ill-suited to their professions: for a psychologist, Chloe is remarkably inexpert in human behavior; the police detective can’t stop interrupting his interview subject. I kind of lost it when the undergrad student said she’ll get her doctorate next, and then, hopefully, her master’s! (To be fair, let’s remember I got an advanced review copy – I surely hope this will be corrected before the final publication. But really.)

I finished it, but wish I hadn’t.


Rating: 4 red herrings.

Once More Upon a Time by Roshani Chokshi

Once upon a time, there lived twelve reasonably attractive princesses who, when lined up together, caused such a sight that the world agreed to call them beautiful. And so they were.

Prince Ambrose and Princess Imelda fall in love at her sister’s wedding; her father, being thrifty, asks them to wed the very next day to save on expenses. He gives them a kingdom called Love’s Keep, which will thrive and prosper only as long as its rulers remain in love. Naturally, then, Imelda falls ill; a convenient witch offers to save her life if Ambrose agrees that they will give up their love for each other, thereby damning both Love’s Keep and their marriage. This story begins when Ambrose and Imelda must leave Love’s Keep, that barren land. Before they part ways forever (unclear on why they every wound up together in the first place), a different witch (at least I think it was a different witch?) appears and offers them a quest. The point of the quest is not for them to fall in love again, but stranger things have happened on quests. The estranged king and queen, then, set off through strange lands, to have adventures and meet wild beasts, cannibals, and a horse cloak that thinks it’s a horse. What will they find, and lose?

I am much intrigued by this deceptive little tale, which seems simple on its surface but (as so often!) contains depths. Both prince and princess have some hangups, some baggage, some triggers. Both have put up defensive mechanisms that limit their access to joy and love, and this is not the usual material of prince-and-princess fairy-tale romances, but it is the material of real life. I love that this princess has a trigger about the objects that have been used in her past as a means to exert control, to tie her to the earth. And in a classic miscommunication, her prince’s attempt to use that very mechanism to free her will be misinterpreted – as can happen when we establish less-than-rational associations. There is a question built in throughout as to where love comes from, and whether it can be regained once lost. What is really the obstacle to the success of the relationship and of Love’s Keep? Imelda fears that even in her joy,

This feeling will trap you. There is no freedom in this.

Is love a trap? Can one be safe in love?

Ambrose knew there was no trust in love.

Love made no promise to stay, to put down roots.

Later,

Ambrose knew there was no trust in love.

But there was no love in trusting that truth either.

As ever (and echoing that recent read, Everything, Everything), these things only work if you take a risk that they won’t.

You think it’s lust, but it’s not. It’s bravery. To close distances. To take the raw, beating part of you and hold it up to the light.

A romance, yes, but a far more pragmatic one than fairy tales tend to be. At only 133 pages, it’s an easy and absolutely joyful read. Also, please note that Imelda goes around saving Ambrose’s tail more than vice versa. I’d never heard of Roshani Chokshi but will have to find more.


Rating: 8 apples, naturally.

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

After The Sun Is Also a Star I was sold on anything Nicola Yoon. Everything, Everything is her first novel, also a YA romance of star-crossed lovers, heavy on metaphor. I will buy whatever she writes next.

Madeline Whittier is just turning eighteen when we meet her. She lives in an immaculate home, in an entirely white room where “book spines provide the only color” and her best view of the outside world; she hasn’t left the house in seventeen years. She has SCID, or Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or “bubble baby disease.” Luckily, her mother is a doctor, so she has the best care. She loves her books and goes to school via video calls and the occasional, exhaustively decontaminated visit from her architecture teacher. She has a great relationship with her nurse, Carla, and with her mom; she’s really not unhappy with this life, until a new family moves in next door. Through pantomimes from their windows, and emails, and IMs, Madeline and Olly fall in love.

SCID (a real disease) literalizes several truths about the more universal coming-of-age story. Madeline’s mother wants to protect her, while Madeline begins to chafe at the limitations of that protection. Falling in love involves risk, and necessitates keeping secrets. Throughout this book runs the question of whether love can really kill us or not; for Madeline, perhaps, it literally can. But for Madeline, as for all of us, it is also true that for her to grow into adulthood, she’s going to have to take some risks, and her mother will have to release her grasp a little bit.

The teenaged romance is as enchanted, magical, and absolute as these things really are. Olly is a delightful character, and like the male love interest in The Sun Is Also a Star, he has his own interests and personality to complement Madeline’s. Madeline lives through her books, especially The Little Prince, until her world suddenly grows exponentially larger. Olly is building a fanciful model of the universe on his roof, to escape the trauma of his own home life. They are very sweet with each other, and the whole story is best read in a breathless rush, the way young love happens. Yoon writes lovely, fresh, sparkling prose about universal experiences made specific, detailed, and gorgeous. Her characters are multifaceted and loveable. I feel like I get to disappear into these stories, and I can’t wait for her to write another one.


Rating: 8 rewards.

Maximum Shelf: Vladímír by Julia May Jonas

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 October 18, 2021.


Julia May Jonas’s Vladímír is a compelling debut, discomfiting and riveting, and timely in its themes. With dark humor, pathos and sly references to art and literature, this smart, edgy novel challenges assumptions and forces fresh perspectives.

In small-town upstate New York, an unnamed narrator teaches English at a small college. She lives an easy enough life, reading, writing, teaching, exuding “Big Mom Energy” and enjoying the admiration of her students, whose earnest eagerness for improving the world she appreciates. Then a scandal erupts: her husband, John, chair of the English Department, is revealed to have had sexual relationships with a number of his former students. The narrator herself is quick to point out that these all took place before such relationships were explicitly forbidden. She and John had always had an understanding about their extramarital activities. She is surprised to find that her colleagues and students disapprove not only of John but of the narrator as well, and finds herself increasingly resentful: of John, of the academic machine, of her students and of herself.

Into this upheaval comes Vladimir Vladinski, newly hired junior professor and up-and-coming experimental novelist. Vladimir is 20 years or so the narrator’s junior, sexy, flirtatious and married. The narrator is quickly captivated, then obsessed. A two-time novelist with generally disappointing reviews, she has largely turned to literary criticism and book reviews, but now feels inspired to write fiction again. For the first time she feels the work flowing from her effortlessly, and credits Vladimir as her muse. “There was a burning in my body, an extra level of excitement keeping part of me fed and running that required no sustenance. It was longing for the love of Vladimir.” She writes, masturbates and surreptitiously follows Vladimir one day and her beleaguered husband the next, and then even Vladimir’s wife–beautiful, traumatized, a masterful writer herself. Sexual, romantic, literary and workplace jealousies overlap. Things fall apart: John’s hearing (people keep calling it a trial) at the college looms as their already distant and fractured relationship continues to crumble. Their adult daughter moves back home, in dual personal and professional crises of her own, which throws the narrator into new light as a mother. She neglects her work, becoming increasingly reckless until, consumed by her fantasies, she finally commits a shocking act that precipitates a life-changing event for all involved.

That this narrator is a 58-year-old woman is significant, and provides opportunities to consider issues of gender, age, societal and literary expectations and subversions. Her troubled body image provides an undertone from the very first pages, with near-constant references to weight control and her evening skin care regimen. “I prefer to conceal my neck,” she confides, as she compulsively grooms and criticizes her body before each meeting with Vladimir. “A man could always make me feel worse than anything a woman could ever say to me,” she reflects, as she struggles to align her own sexual revolution with the values of her students. Vladímír questions gender and generational tensions, and the intersection of art and morality within the bubble of academia. In the family, household and larger social realms, it addresses every permutation of human relationship and the relationship between power and desire, while also carrying a strong thread of disturbed body image and issues around aging. In other words, this novel is as varied and harried as life.

As a novel so rooted in English departmental affairs should be, Vladímír is also jam-packed with literary references. Vladimir is compared to Jay Gatsby. “Enraged at my vapidity,” the narrator laments, “I forced myself to sit down and read several articles in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books.” Insisting she’s not jealous or bitter about her own novels’ failure to impress, she notes however that “Margaret Atwood wrote exciting books that practically lived inside of a uterus.” Vladimir’s wife says of her own mental health struggles, that her story is “like Nurse Ratched, like Girl, Interrupted, like The Bell F**king Jar.”

Jonas’s narrator has a strong, assured voice, incisively thinking through her decisions and the surrounding issues while simultaneously–and with self-awareness–mucking up her life. The narrator and the novel take on any number of thorny topics. Were the college students who slept with John seizing agency and free love in an empowered, feminist stance? Or were they taken advantage of by an older man with the power structure on his side? What are the pros and cons of an open marriage? Is our cultural hang-up about intergenerational affairs perhaps a little overblown? Some of these questions and perspectives are decidedly uncomfortable, but Jonas consistently pushes those edges, leaning always away from easy answers and toward nuance. Vladímír‘s central characters are rarely likable but they are always captivating; this story harnesses formidable momentum to pull readers through even its most uncomfortable moments. It is a rare victory in a novel to wrestle with such prickly issues and yet be as entertaining as this. Jonas’s prose is clear, forceful and unflinching, and highly sensual: food, drink and sex are ever-present and frankly, complexly evoked.

The narrator writes of Vladimir’s own debut: “The book was funny, clear, awake, vivid. The prose was spare but the voice was not sacrificed in his exact word choice. It felt both like life and beyond life.” The same comments might be made of Vladímír, a clear-eyed treatment of academia and the human condition.


Rating: 7 caipirinhas.

Come back Friday for my interview with Jonas.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Real Life centers around Wallace, a biochemistry graduate student in an unnamed Midwestern town. He feels unmoored and isolated despite having a group of “friends” (he’s not sure how true this term really feels) from school; he is one of the only Black people in this town, running from a traumatic past in Alabama. This novel takes place over the course of one weekend, when Wallace (who is gay) hooks up with one of his male friends (who insists he is straight), and tries to navigate this intrusion into his closely protected personal sphere alongside micro- and macroaggressions at work and among the friend group. The title refers to Wallace’s persistent worry that what he is living is somehow not “real life”; he is considering leaving graduate school but doesn’t know where to turn instead.

What gazes up out of the lapping black sea of his anger? What strange dark stones make themselves known to him?

It is a book of few joys, certainly. Rather, Wallace and his friends experiences large and small traumas and frustrations, hurting themselves and each other. It is a book of beauty, though, in its precise, quietly evocative writing and close observations. As Wallace carefully watches the miniscule creatures he breeds and destroys in the university lab, he likewise tracks the moves, desires and motivations of the people around him, from whom he feels removed. His tennis partner has just discovered that his boyfriend is on “that gay app” and may be cheating on him. A female friend is on the rocks with her Tolstoy-studying boyfriend. His colleagues are generally toxic, mildly if not overtly racist, except for the one woman of color, who is horrified that Wallace would consider leaving her there alone.

Gifted is the sweetness meant to make the bitterness of failure palatable–that a person can fail again and again, but it’s all right, because they’re gifted, they’re worth something. That’s what it all tracks back to, isn’t it, Wallace thinks. That if the world has made up its mind about what you have to offer, if the world has decided it wants you, needs you, then it doesn’t matter how many times you mess up. What Wallace wants to know is where the limit is. When is it no longer forgivable to be so terrible? When does the time come when you’ve got to deliver on your gifts?

A friend-of-friends is blatantly racist, and none of the group (all white) will speak up to even the most obviously offensive comments. We get the sense that Wallace would happily quit this scene if he could identify another option in the world.

The most unfair part of it, Wallace thinks, is that when you tell white people that something is racist, they hold it up to the light and try to discern if you are telling the truth. As if they can tell by the grain if something is racist or not, and they always trust their own judgment. It’s unfair because white people have a vested interest in underestimating racism, its amount, its intensity, its shape, its effects. They are the fox in the henhouse.

These characters are compelling and memorable, and the writing is indisputably fine. If there is a final takeaway, perhaps it is that this is real life – all of life is – and that we are all more or less miserable, whether quietly or demonstrably. It’s an admirable book but not a pleasurable one.


Rating: 7 nematodes.

The Everybody Ensemble: Donkeys, Essays, and Other Pandemoniums by Amy Leach

Amy Leach’s signature playful style, joyful humor and wise questioning of the universe delight and fascinate in these 23 essays, her second such collection.

With The Everybody Ensemble: Donkeys, Essays, and Other Pandemoniums, Amy Leach (Things That Are) takes her readers on a playful, rigorous, mind-bending romp through human nature, the natural world, spirituality and more. Her perfectly singular voice sings the most surprising notes in an imaginative blend of silliness and seriousness.

This sophomore collection of 23 essays opens with its title offering, in which the narrator welcomes all 20 quintillion animals to the Everybody Ensemble. How will they be arranged and organized? What songs will they perform? Leach glories in lists of the unlikely, the weird and the underappreciated: “speckled and plain, perfect and imperfect, indigo-feathered, green-skinned, orange-toed, squashed of face, cracked of shell, miniature of heart, young as ducklings, old as hills, everybody raise your sweet and scrapey, bangy, twangy, sundry, snorty voices.” This embrace of enormous, diverse multiplicity serves as appropriate introduction to an ecstatic exploration of “everybodyism.”

Leach employs a huge range of rhetorical devices while retaining a sense of whimsy and plain fun. Her genius perhaps shows best in her selection of the singular, startlingly unexpected detail. Adept as she is at wordplay, Leach’s writing goes much deeper than that, wondering and speculating at larger questions. In “The Wanderer,” she considers how to critique the extravaganza show called Earth, “already in production for five million years now” but unfinished. The artist of this show has strengths (facility and versatility), but “imagination unchecked can result in a mishmash.” If only “we could just establish the genre, whether this is supposed to be comedy or tragedy or romance or what,” we could make sense of the effort. Don’t be misled by her joyful absurdity or wit with words: Leach is deadly serious in her questioning of the cosmos, Earth’s composer and whether “even with all the troubles of our time, maybe it can still be fun to be a frog.”

“O Latitudo” ponders the imagined choice of a supervolcano: to erupt or to self-suppress, “consequently composing a gassy, burpy, muddy Ode to Joy.” “In Lieu of a Walrus” offers a list of writers to whom one might turn when the first-choice interlocuter is unavailable, including Hafiz, Ovid and God. “Green Man” honors the mesquite tree, loved by few, who has been given “the freedom to dig his own disputable way.” “Beasts in the Margins” considers the more incongruous illustrations of 14th-century books of psalms: “Who let the monsters into the psalter?” These and other essays range widely in subject matter but accrue to a meaningful whole. Leach is smart, effervescent, earnest and funny. Her voice is perfectly unmistakable, her themes expansive; her prose glitters. The Everybody Ensemble is a revelation.


This review originally ran in the October 14, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 extracommercial tigers.

Yolk by Mary H. K. Choi 

This review from Shelf Awareness prompted me to buy and read this book, and it delivered. I felt fully involved and invested in the lives of Jayne and June Baek, Korean-American sisters born in Seoul and raised in San Antonio, Texas, now living as young adults in New York City. They haven’t been close for years, and now Jayne (our first-person narrator) avoids her sister’s phone calls as she does their mother’s, until June tracks her down on a disastrous third-wheel date and demands they meet. June is very sick. Outwardly, Jayne is the sister with more obvious problems – self-loathing, squalor, harmful sexual practices, generally low functioning as an adult (and some more serious issues that are only gradually revealed). Now that they are sharing increasing challenges, the estranged sisters might just come together again.

As an only child, I have always been fascinated by siblings, whose various dynamics I can only watch from outside, generally with jealousy. One of my favorite things about this novel is its intimate, insider look at the sisters’ relationship, which is troubled (but aren’t they all), love and dislike intertwined with violence and yearning. One of Yolk‘s great strengths overall is immediacy and intimacy, how close we feel to Jayne, in all her messes and flaws. I also really appreciated the writing about place. New York feels right to me, but what do I know; brief sojourns home to San Antonio I am in a better position to judge, and I think Choi (who shares geographical background with her characters) gets it just right. The humid night air and the big skies make me a little homesick, too. The tone of young twenty-somethings dealing with all the madness of life feels pitch-perfect.

Choi includes a brief note at the book’s beginning about some difficult subject matter, acknowledging that she shares some of Jayne’s difficulties and that “for those struggling with body image and food, this story might be emotionally expensive for you.” I had to pause at that phrase, emotionally expensive: I like it. “Sensitivity is a superpower,” Choi instructs us. It is not a novel with an overt message, but I appreciated this one.

I also need to note the loveliness of this hardback book as a physical object: I love the design, the dust jacket, what’s under the dust jacket, and the print on the edges of the pages that continues the image on both dust cover and hardcover. It’s a beautiful piece that feels good in the hand and I’m glad to own it.

Sensitive, funny, raw and often painful – I worried a little early on that I’d taken on something sadder than I needed at this time. But Yolk is a beautiful book about love and hope, too, and with a thread of unlikely romance to it as well. I found it delightful and do recommend.


Rating: 8 glasses of water.
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