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.

did not finish: The Ecstatic by Victor LaValle

After The Changeling, I thought I was in for anything and everything LaValle, but it turns out he offers a whole range, and it is not all for me. I went 100 pages in (with Nancy Pearl’s slightly misremembered Rule of 50 in mind), out of love for Changeling, but decided to stop there. The Ecstatic reminded me very strongly of A Confederacy of Dunces, which to be fair I read a really long time ago, and itself won a Pulitzer. Both books have won much praise, but all the things are not for all the people, and this one didn’t work for me.

There were some wonderful lines. To begin chapter 1:

They drove a green rented car into central New York State to find me living wild in my apartment. Wearing shattered glasses and my hair a giant cauliflower-shaped afro on my head.

That is an opener to stick with the reader forever, right up there with “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”

They held hands absently, but firm; one set of fingers like kudzu, the other like dirt.

What a delightful image to evoke firm handholding, as a force of nature. And,

My sister and I turned out such heathens I’m surprised we didn’t bubble when baptized.

That one just made me laugh.

But I couldn’t get behind the woes of this protagonist any more than I did Ignatius J. Reilly (sorry). It was sort of interesting but not appealing; I do not always require likeable characters but definitely missed having one here… so I gave up. I’m not done with LaValle, but will be more careful with my next selection.

As ever, your mileage may vary.


No rating for this DNF.

Down Comes the Night by Allison Saft

I found Allison Saft’s Down Comes the Night to be a serviceable YA fantasy/romance, but not the kind of transporting experience (a la TJ Klune) that I’d been hoping for. This one felt more limited to appealing to a YA audience in particular, without the complexity or the writing excellence to bring it into adult readership. It’s not that I disagree with any details from this Shelf review (which convinced me to buy the book), but it never especially wowed me. Good enough. And sorry for the faint praise, but that was my experience.

Wren is the ill-favored bastard niece of the queen of Danu, and a magical healer. Thrown out of royal circles yet again, she takes a chance on an offer from a neighboring lord, to come and heal his favorite servant of a mysterious disease. The servant, however, turns out to be Hal, the most feared magical killer from Danu’s greatest enemy nation. Wren finds herself thrown into intrigue and dangers whose sources she doesn’t quite understand. Meanwhile, as she works to heal Hal for strategic reasons, she finds herself strangely empathetic to this sworn enemy. Is it possible they are more alike than different?

Down Comes the Night has suspense, mystery, romance, fantasy, and some good commentary on war and prejudice. “Maybe the only difference between a monster and a hero was the color of a soldier’s uniform.” “Was it worse for a murderer to hide behind the uniform of a soldier or a gentleman?” Saft’s atmospheric writing is often effective, if a bit heavy-handed. At some point this novel fancies itself a detective story, with our two protagonists teaming up to “investigate” a “case,” but under whose legal system? This part got a bit sloppy, genre-wise, for my tastes, and some of the commentary felt simplistic. Again, perhaps more purely YA than I was looking for. (Does that sell the young adults short? I’m a little out of my realm here.) The romance was satisfying, though.

Final verdict? Easy to read; fine.


Rating: 7 vials.

Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune

TJ Klune is my comfort food reading these days. Under the Whispering Door has all the charm of The House in the Cerulean Sea but a new focus: end of life, death, grief and grieving, and the questions of whether one lived as fully as one might have, and what redemption might be possible. This material has a personal resonance for the author, who lost his partner at an impossibly young age. Despite that heaviness, and the heaviness that we presume, culturally, will accompany these topics, this is still a TJ Klune novel. Death is a new beginning – not one that is all flowers and sunshine, of course; it is accompanied by much pain and trauma, depending on circumstances. But there is hope, even hope for romance, and that romance happens to be between two men, in a beautiful, whimsical, hilariously misfit tea shop that is also a waystation for the recently deceased.

“You’re awfully strange.”

He heard the smile in her voice. “Thank you. That might be the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me. You’re awfully strange too, Wallace Price.”

Where Cerulean featured magical orphans and a socially awkward but well-meaning orphanage inspector, our little built family this time includes a few dead (one a sweet, goofy dog), a few living, and an initially deeply unlikeable lawyer. Three of the five central characters, Klune notes in his Acknowledgements, are people of color, while the author is white, and he emphasizes the important contributions of his sensitivity readers. I found all of these characters delightful, because if there is one thing Klune does well it is delightful, wacky, loveable, flawed characters (even dead people and dogs). Even the comedic villainess here is sort of a joy. As a YA book about death, this is just charming as can be, and I think truly helpful for those suffering a loss; but it is also never saccharine, which is an easy pit to fall into. In short, I am in for wherever Klune wants to take me next, at the juncture of sweetness, fantasy, profundity, inclusivity, wisdom and pure silliness. Strongly recommended.


Rating: 8 cups of tea, obviously.

Win Me Something by Kyle Lucia Wu

A young woman must chart her own way, even while quietly craving belonging and home, in this subtle, wise debut.

Kyle Lucia Wu’s first novel, Win Me Something, is a wrenching evocation of yearning in a slim, artful package. The story of Willa Chen, a young woman unmoored in New York City, is defined by liminal spaces and a wish to belong.

In the opening pages, Willa interviews to become a nanny to a wealthy family in Tribeca, even though she can’t quite conceive of what a nanny does. “Maybe I couldn’t imagine these moments because when someone asked about my childhood, my mind clenched and closed like two fists in a pool–fingers squeezing for something to come up with when everything around them was a different kind of matter.”

Willa’s father is a Chinese American immigrant whom she barely knows, her mother a blonde-haired white woman, detached and depressed, who can’t comprehend the microaggressions her daughter faces. Since their divorce when Willa was very young, each has begun a new family, and she feels she belongs to neither. Thus adrift, she enters the Adriens’ household, where she cares for the charming, innocently privileged, nine-year-old Bijou, who studies Mandarin and the violin and cooks coq au vin. Willa feels as unbelonging as ever, but also entranced by the family’s ease, their wealth, their things. “When I looked around their apartment, my veins filled with rushes of want, as if I could see the price tags on everything, as if they would increase my own value.” It’s not that Willa is materialistic, but that she is drawn to the idea of worth suggested by those around her: “I often found myself in friendships with people like this, self-absorbed and sparkling.”

Readers will be engrossed by Willa’s troubled desire to please and her pervasive unease, as she seeks and then deflects the slightest attempt at connection. As she begins to meld into the Adriens’ household, she reconsiders her own childhood and family homes in a series of flashbacks. The subtle racism she encounters is but one thread of Willa’s distress; her estrangement from both of her half-families, and her half-hearted attempts to join the Adriens’, presents a greater challenge on its face, but also stands in for the larger estrangement she feels everywhere she goes, as the in-between spaces of family and race in culture echo each other.

With an eye for just the right detail, Wu offers an understated protagonist, self-defeating but still searching. Win Me Something is a nuanced story of longing, of the paired desires to belong and to strike one’s own path. Willa is a quiet heroine, but unforgettable.


This review originally ran in the September 28, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 dresses.

The Late Show by Michael Connelly (audio)

We have another mediocre showing from Connelly here, I’m afraid. This one is a departure from the Bosch series: The Late Show features Detective Renee Ballard, who is also a renegade anti-establishment figure who gets shit on by the LAPD, but with an added woman-in-a-man’s-world angle. (She is also younger.) I was once more a little indifferent as to plot for most of the novel, but I was pleased with some significant twists and reveals in the final denouement, so that was nice. The narrator again felt awfully wooden – what is up with this trend? And why are there so few contractions? (I am instead of I’m, can not instead of can’t) …Connelly’s writing feels consistently awkward over the last many books. I wonder, is it him or is it me? I keep meaning to go back and read some early Bosch (in print!) and investigate this question, whether Connelly’s writing has become less good or I have become harder to please. But devoting that time feels like asking a lot at this point.

Ballard is appealing in some ways but doesn’t quite feel fully fleshed. She has interesting relationships with other cops, and an interesting backstory, referring to various traumas; but all of this feels told and not shown. I kept feeling like I was waiting for the story to ramp up, but instead it ended.

Maybe one more experiment with this formerly beloved author before I give up, with deep regrets.


Rating: 6 and a half black buttons.

The Birds of Opulence by Crystal Wilkinson

I know Crystal Wilkinson mostly by reputation; I’ve read a few of the stories from her well-regarded collection Blackberries, Blackberries, and listened to her reading her lovely essay “Praise Song for the Kitchen Ghosts,” here. The Birds of Opulence is her second novel, set in the fictional small town of Opulence, Kentucky. It focuses on a handful of women (and the odd man or two), over a few generations: mostly the Goode and Brown family, and their adjacents.

It opens with these lines:

Imagine a tree, a bird in the tree, the hills, the creek, a possum, the dog chasing the possum. Imagine yourself a woman who gathers stories in her apron.

Isn’t that brilliant? In this chapter, a baby is delivered in a squash field, and the story is told by that baby.

The birds of the title are sprinkled throughout as a throughline, something to watch for; sometimes they are women or girls themselves, sometimes just bystanders or witnesses. They also offer something to the titles of chapters: “The Known Bird,” “Wild Birds on Easter Sunday.” Sometimes these chapter titles are like short prose poems unto themselves: “Warming of Old Bones. New Ways. That Hurting Place.” Wilkinson is a decidedly lyric writer with a gift for resonant lines:

A feeling seeped into Mama Minnie’s bones, a feeling like the return of everything lost. Old-time people from across the waters gathered all around her. She put her bony hand on her hip. Every yesterday converged.

The clamor of her own house grows as faint as secrets while she lets her mind ride the night.

Her mind follows the worn path back to the beginning, and she’s only a little surprised that at this moment she can only think in small disconnected spurts, like an old movie reel spinning: a blue sweater, the smell of pine, a large bird’s nest.

Come to think of it, I think I see myself again attracted to lists, as in that last example.

Chapters also refer to the character(s) whose perspective will be featured, so we move from Mama Minnie (a matriarch and rather a seer) through the generations and to neighbors as well… One or two chapters feel more town-focused than character-focused. “Dinner on the Grounds” in particular reminds me of that story I’ve written about before, “Appalachian Swan Song” by Jon Corcoran, for its unusual first-person-plural point of view. This chapter doesn’t actually take the ‘we’ voice, but has the same feeling of a communal gaze. (I wonder if I sense something common between Wilkinson and Corcoran that is Appalachian in nature.) Finally, chapters are also headed under years: the book moves from 1962 to 1995.

Lovely, lyrical writing and evocation of place and culture are the biggest wins here, but the characters and their interlocking relationships, the trouble in those relationships, feel like they will stay with me for some time. Wilkinson is channeling something that feels a little otherworldly here.


Rating: 8 little black bugs flying at the corners of her eyes.

Maximum Shelf: Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez

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 September 15, 2021.


Xochitl Gonzalez’s Olga Dies Dreaming is a scintillating, eye-opening story of family, legacies, and political and individual struggles, set in contemporary New York City and Puerto Rico. Readers will be entirely captured by Olga and her family, friends and associates as this spellbinding narrative twists, turns and unfolds over the years and miles. Gonzalez’s stunning first novel feels far more expansive than its not-quite-400 pages.

Olga Isabel Acevedo, Brooklyn-born child of Puerto Rican parents, is an ambitious, status-conscious wedding planner to New York City’s upper echelon. “Using a traditional American metric for measuring success,” she is winning: she left the family home for a fancy New England college, has her own business and enjoys a certain amount of fame via glossy magazine and television appearances. She has a large, close-knit family still based in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, but with several holes in it: her loving and beloved father, once a proud political activist and member of the Young Lords, now dead from drug addiction and AIDS; her late grandmother who raised her; and most troublingly, Olga’s mother, Blanca, a militant radical who left the family when Olga was not quite 13. “Achieving liberation will require sacrifice,” Blanca wrote to her young daughter. Olga’s involuntary sacrifice in service of Puerto Rican liberation was to give up her mother to the cause.

Crucially, Olga still has her older brother, Prieto, with whom she is very close. If Olga is a star as wedding planner to Manhattan’s upper crust, Prieto is a supernova, the handsome, popular young congressman representing their neighborhood in Washington: “He wasn’t quite code-switching so much as he managed, miraculously, to speak several languages simultaneously, creating a linguistic creole of hip-hop, academia, contemporary slang and high-level policy points that made Olga marvel…. Olga herself had never learned this linguistic mezcla that her brother had perfected; this ability to be all facets of herself at once. She always had to choose which Olga she would be in any given situation, in any given moment.”

However well her career is going, Olga feels a void. Blanca writes to her frequently (via go-betweens, from an undisclosed location) to excoriate Olga for pursuing the meaningless, superficial goals of white society rather than working toward liberation for la raza. Prieto, apparently fighting the good fight (if only, their mother writes to him in turn, from inside a broken system), has his own demons and secrets as well.

The plot of Olga Dies Dreaming sees several delicate balances begin to upset. Olga’s surface-level achievements show cracks as she questions what she’s actually working toward. She meets a man she may truly like, which exposes a weakness: her people skills, so polished at work, don’t hold up to a situation with real stakes. Prieto’s carefully maintained façade falters, one of his secret insecurities threatened. When Puerto Rico is gutted by the one-two punch of Hurricanes Irma and then Maria, Olga takes a few hits herself. Can she navigate a romantic relationship? Will her brother withstand the latest storm in his private life–and is their bond up to the challenge? Perhaps most significantly: what does Olga have to gain–or lose–if her long-absent mother chooses these turbulent times to make a reappearance?

The masterful Olga Dies Dreaming roams far and wide, encompassing the most obnoxiously petty, overindulged weddings of the 1% and the dire straits of rural Puerto Ricans lacking clean drinking water, food or electricity. Such range could get unwieldy in less capable hands, but Gonzalez has a firm grasp of her plot threads. With lively, clever prose and adept political commentary, this novel asks questions about race and assimilation, about government corruption and capitalism, about gentrification and family duty. Olga, Prieto, their aunts and uncles and cousins, Olga’s work associates, casual sexual partners and her new bae: likeable, appalling and everything in between, these characters sparkle with authentic detail. While this is Olga’s story, the point of view does sometimes shift to offer Prieto’s perspective and a few others. Readers (uncomfortably) get inside the head of a deeply unpleasant man of great privilege, for example–aptly named Dick–as well as that of our heroine. Gonzalez is also expert with setting, as her novel travels from the peculiarly organized hoarder apartment of Olga’s love interest to an impressively high-tech rebel compound in the Puerto Rican jungle, an opulent Easthampton beach house and more.

From Blanca’s mysterious and blistering missives come political and ideological rhetoric and intellectual challenges. Olga was named for Olga Garriga, activist for Puerto Rican nationalism, but also hanging over her is the story of Olga from poet Pedro Pietri’s “Puerto Rican Obituary,” who “died waiting dreaming and hating.” These are the extreme options she’s been offered: Blanca’s rigid revolutionary ideal or the unattainable, swank American dream. Instead, in the end, Olga must chart her own path to a third option, one where she might finally find peace.

This novel positively glitters with truth, wit, humor, pathos, trauma, love and pain. Gonzalez’s narrative operates with consummate skill on the level of the individual, the family and the political system. There is much to learn and ponder here about colonialism, corruption and policy. And on a more personal level, Olga casts a spell that will linger with readers long after these pages are closed. Olga Dies Dreaming is simply unforgettable.


Rating: 10 songs.

Come back Monday for my interview with Gonzalez.

I’m Possible: A Story of Survival, a Tuba, and the Small Miracle of a Big Dream by Richard Antoine White

After a childhood of homelessness and few options, the narrator of this rousing memoir becomes a professional orchestra musician and an inspiration.

Richard Antoine White’s memoir I’m Possible: A Story of Survival, a Tuba, and the Small Miracle of a Big Dream begins onstage, with a professional orchestra performance facing “the plumage of red seats,” then flashes back to the narrator’s childhood, homeless on the streets of the Sandtown neighborhood in Baltimore, Md. The tension between these two scenes outlines his story. White is the first African American to earn a doctorate of music in tuba performance; his family and community background has included addiction, violence, poverty, instability and racism. In his prologue, he sets the upbeat tone he’ll hold throughout this memoir. “I want you to read this story and feel like you are a superhero,” he writes. “I am possible. You are possible. Everything is possible.”

White recounts how he survived his mother’s addiction, childhood homelessness, unforgiving Baltimore winters and much more. He was lucky to find family in more senses than the biological, and lucky to find the trumpet (in fourth grade) and, later, the tuba. He journey takes him from Sandtown to the suburbs to the Baltimore School for the Arts, then to the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins, graduate school at Indiana University and eventually the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. He enjoys strong friendships and excellent mentorships, and becomes a hard worker. Music is an escape, “a light going on in the dark. Like seeing a star for the first time.”

White writes passionately about his studies and relationships, his tone disarmingly direct, with flashes of lyric brilliance: “The look on her face was flint and it struck against the steel in me and sparked.” I’m Possible is both a life story and a series of character sketches; White conveys his love for his biological mother and then for the couple who raised him, whom he calls Mom and Dad, and his many friends, mentors and students shine as well. (Look for a cameo by “a skinny upperclassman with a raspy voice named Tupac Shakur, who schooled me.”) White’s message is tirelessly uplifting: he is no genius, he insists, “although I do possess a profound belief in what is possible and a deep gratitude for how I came to be here,” and he reliably credits those who helped him along the way.

This is a story of perseverance, hard work and a little luck; of love of music and the importance of community and both built and biological families. White also comments throughout on the role of racism in his experience and in that of so many in the United States. His casual, earnest storytelling style beautifully suits this moving narrative, and admirably achieves a tone that is stirring but not saccharine. Readers will find his account touching and inspirational.


This review originally ran in the September 7, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 Cup Noodles.
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