The Last Karankawas by Kimberly Garza

Another very fine one on Liz‘s recommendation.

The Last Karankawas has a lot going for it. And yes, for me personally a significant part of the appeal is personal: it’s set in Galveston, Texas (the beach town nearest my hometown of Houston, so a place where I spent a lot of time growing up), with ventures into the Texas Hill Country (where I lived last in my home state). These familiar locations are really well done (Garza’s bio note says “born in Galveston, raised in Uvalde,” giving her greater cred than my own): detailed, specific, absolutely recognizable. You know I’m a sucker for a strong sense of place in any location, but when that place also feels like home, you can bet this won my heart and gave me some homesickness (also a theme of the novel). So, sense of place and detailed execution of setting are objectives strengths here; my personal connections give me a more subjective love on top of that.

It’s a striking novel, not least in form. It could be considered a novel-in-stories: twelve characters each get chapters in their perspective (some first-person, some close third), plus the first chapter told in that unusual first-person plural “we” voice, by the Filipino-American women of Galveston’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church; one chapter focuses on two characters together. As the following image shows, the story centers on one in particular: Carly Castillo is the heart of the story. (I quibble mildly with this graphic because I think those people who relate to Carly through Jess, or others, should be graphically shown as connecting through those other names. Small issue.) Carly and Jess are the only characters who get more than one chapter’s perspective (and Jess only barely, with a second, very short one). Sometimes the connections back to Carly are tenuous, but they’re there. And the book ends with “A Glossary & Guide for the Uninitiated Traveler” to Galveston, which is a delightful piece of hermit-crab-style formal play, and includes the best definition of “state of Texas” I have ever read – hint: it includes multiple entries, some strikethrough text, “none of the above” and “all of the above.” To return to an earlier point, the evocation of place in all its complications and contradictions is absolutely one of my favorite things in literature.

Carly is born in Galveston to a Filipino immigrant mother and a first-generation Mexican-American father. Both parents leave when she is still small; she is raised by her paternal grandmother. We meet her first when she is a small child through the eyes of the church ladies where her maternal grandmother and mother attended. We know her as a teenager and young adult. Carly and the surrounding, orbiting characters are diverse, appropriate for the setting: Filipino and Mexican immigrants and their descendants, mostly. They work in nursing, in restaurants, on shrimp and oyster boats, or driving buses. They navigate class, race, immigration, family ties and ties to place; many wrestle with the opposing pressures to stay and to leave. The novel’s action comes to a head around 2008’s Hurricane Ike, which is catastrophic for Galveston and life-changing for our characters (and which I remember well in its lesser but still significant effects in Houston). It even visits with Isaac Cline, whom some readers will know from Erik Larson’s book Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History. The title refers to the Karankawa Indians who were native to the Texas Gulf Coast region. Yes: there is a lot going on.

It’s a novel with things to say about many themes – class, race, immigration, family, place, community, coping with disaster – but also an emotionally evocative novel about people and relationships. Detail and voice are gorgeously rendered, including the tricks of bilingual culture. It is beautifully done and I won’t forget it anytime soon. Strongly recommend.


Rating: 9 pitches.

Liar, Dreamer, Thief by Maria Dong

A young woman relies on ritual and fantasy to navigate her daily life–until the real world turns as bizarre as her worst fears.

Maria Dong’s debut novel, Liar, Dreamer, Thief, is a masterfully harrowing adventure for both reader and narrator. Katrina Kim is 24 years old and struggling to keep it together. She’s not great at her temp job at an insurance company; she has no real friends other than her mostly absent roommate; she relies on rituals involving geometry and prime numbers to feel safe from her shapeless, apparently irrational fears; she frequently imagines herself into the magical world of her favorite children’s book or the classical works of music she once performed. She argues that she is not stalking her coworker Kurt, but readers will suspect this may be semantics. She has $45 in her bank account and her parents haven’t spoken to her in years. Readers may assume Katrina is struggling with an undiagnosed mental illness, drawing endekagrams (a star polygon with 11 points) to help her get through the days–until she happens to watch Kurt jump off her favorite bridge, while shouting that it is all her fault.

Liar, Dreamer, Thief is punctuated with geometry lessons (the four stellations of the endekagram) and passages from the fantasy book that provides Katrina with her other, safer-feeling life, emphasizing these coping mechanisms as she embarks on an amateur (and poorly funded) investigation into Kurt’s disappearance. Her barely functional life goes further to pieces. Just as readers begin to worry that this narrator is not only unreliable but completely unstable, the clues shift slightly, and suddenly it appears that some of Katrina’s nastiest and most fantastical fears may be all too real.

This is a completely absorbing novel, both a terrifying whodunit thriller and a heart-wrenching drama about mental health, family, loneliness and moral relativism. Dong’s pacing and revelation of secrets is expert; beware staying up late to finish Katrina’s story in one go (and, perhaps, beware nightmares of the Mirror Man). Katrina makes some cringe-worthy choices while facing challenges both existential and mundane (clocking in on time in the cubical farm); she is an imperfect protagonist but disturbingly accessible, and indomitable even in her lowest moments. Liar, Dreamer, Thief excels at empathy and conveying the frustration of one’s own limitations, as Katrina wonders, “Does everyone in my orbit have a secret tragedy, just crawling underneath the surface?” Its mysteries swell toward a denouement that feels simultaneously unwieldy and inevitable. Probing those secrets may be mortally dangerous–or may be Katrina’s salvation.

This exceptional debut novel showcases relentless momentum, horrors, compassion and an unforgettable protagonist: not to be missed.


This review originally ran in the November 11, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 minutes.

H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Apologies for the very long review that follows, but I just loved this book so much.


Originally published in 2014, H Is for Hawk is a blend of memoir, nature writing and literary musings – a work of creative nonfiction that sounds made for me, in fact. Why did it take me so long? I have heard about this book for all these years but for some reason held off. Maybe it was simply the perversity of resisting reading something that sounds so obviously right. (Why do we do this??) Recently I read something (can’t remember what!) that prompted me to finally get into this book, and I’m sorry it took me so long. This is, indeed, a perfect book for me. It’s likely to wind up the best of the year; I’m putting it alongside Fire Season and Things That Are.

Helen Macdonald is a research fellow at Cambridge University when her father dies suddenly. She has also been a passionate lifelong falconer. One bird she’d never worked with before was the goshawk, a famously difficult bird to train and fly. But after her father’s death – reeling with grief – she feels the need to give this challenge a go. While navigating grief and struggling with her new goshawk, she comes across an old book: T.H. White’s The Goshawk, which she read (along with so many other bird and animal books) as a child, and found fault with then. Revisiting it, she still finds much that troubles her about White’s bungled, amateur efforts with his own gos (he knew a fraction of what Macdonald does when he entered unwisely into the fray), but also finds a kindred in suffering. The book that eventually comes out of this process, H Is for Hawk, is a braid of three threads: the author’s staggering grief at losing her beloved father; her time with the hawk she will eventually call Mabel; and her study of T.H. White’s life, falconry, and philosophies.

She blends these threads beautifully, moving smoothly between them in ways that always feel natural. The woman who is training the hawk is also the woman mourning her father, moving in a dream state through a world that no longer makes sense; in rereading The Goshawk she naturally reflects on her own falconry and her own gos, and on her childhood (when she first read the book) and therefore on her early relationship with her parents, and therefore on her father again – it’s all circular; it’s all linked. Macdonald must also consider the unhappy life of White (whom you may recognize as the author of The Once and Future King and others), a problematic figure in his political leanings, who wrestled with his own sexuality. I’m still describing Macdonald’s subject matter; but the seamless weaving of memoir, grief, falconry, literature, and history is just part of the charm. It’s her writing, and her stark, honest portrayal of the mad human experience, that shines.

It’s an astonishingly crafted book, too. I marveled, for example, at how it opens. Check out the first half of the first paragraph:

Forty-five minutes north-east of Cambridge is a landscape I’ve come to love very much indeed. It’s where wet fen gives way to parched sand. It’s a land of twisted pine trees, burned-out cars, shotgun-peppered road signs and US Air Force bases. There are ghosts here: houses crumble inside numbered blocks of pine forestry. There are spaces built for air-delivered nukes inside grassy tumuli behind twelve-foot fences, tattoo parlours and US Air Force golf courses. In spring it’s a riot of noise: constant plane traffic, gas-guns over pea fields, woodlarks and jet engines. It’s called the Brecklands – the broken lands – and it’s where I ended up that morning, seven years ago, in early spring, on a trip I hadn’t planned at all.

And then the way the first chapter ends, after describing a piece of reindeer moss picked up on that trip.

Three weeks later, it was the reindeer moss I was looking at when my mother called and told me my father was dead.

There’s something very neat and circular about this chapter and how it establishes the interconnection between the natural world, and the narrator’s walk looking for goshawks, with the loss of her father. When I read this first chapter, I had little feeling for the shape of the whole book; I was impressed at the time with what that opening and closing promised, and fulfilled. I felt it was a great start. Now that I’ve finished the book, I can see what a *perfect* opening it was, and the promises it makes and fulfills for the whole.

I feel that Macdonald views and portrays her subjects in fresh and new ways. Her father’s death (by natural causes) she experiences as if it were a violence or a natural disaster, with all the power and senselessness of weather. I appreciate the way she describes Mabel, her own goshawk – and other birds, but especially Mabel – the attention and detail with which she evokes the complications of color and feathers. “Formidable talons, wicked, curved black beak, sleek, café-au-lait front streaked thickly with cocoa-coloured teardrops, looking for all the world like some cappuccino samurai.” Indeed, part of what I loved so much about those opening sentences of the first chapter was the level of detail. She’s concerned as well with class and gender in the world of falconry and beyond; she muses on her awkward childhood (and her dear, tolerant parents), and racism and fascism in both historic and contemporary Britain. The best books, I think, open up like this. Falconry and the loss of a beloved parent lead naturally to British colonial history, and why not?

This is absolutely in part a book about the grieving process, descriptive rather than prescriptive. It reminds me strongly of Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which also conjures the muddy, dreamy, drugged madness of grief. But I felt far closer to Macdonald’s narrator than I ever did to Didion’s. I just like Helen better (sorry, Joan). She successfully defamiliarizes her own world by becoming (it seems) part hawk. Part of the training process involves holing up together, falconer and hawk, in the quiet and the dark, to bond and establish trust; when they must emerge, the narrator finds the outside world as strange as the hawk does. “She watches a woman throwing a ball to her dog on the grass, and I watch too, as baffled by what she’s doing as the hawk is. I stare at traffic lights before I remember what they are. Bicycles are spinning mysteries of glittering metal.” This seems a necessary part of Helen’s grieving, but it nearly breaks her, too. “The day-book that records White’s long, lost battle with Gos is not simply about his hawk,” writes Helen, and we sense that she knows the same is true of her book.

This is a masterpiece of writing about the natural world and the points where the wild and the human are the same. It’s a masterpiece of lovely writing, period. It’s a feeling and singular evocation of grief, which I understand to be experienced differently in each instance. It’s a thoughtful consideration of many intersecting threads about the human experience and history, including some of our thorniest issues. The narrator is hard on herself but also winds up with some healing, and some hopeful outlooks – I could see this being a difficult but finally therapeutic read for someone suffering a great loss. It’s a gorgeous and profound piece of literature, the kind I had to pause frequently (at least after every chapter, sometimes within them – and they’re short chapters generally) to let sink in, to take breaks. It will stick with me for a long time.


Rating: 10 drawings.

Spirits in the Sky: Northern Lights Photography by Paul Zizka

Nature and adventure photographer Paul Zizka offers stunning images and narrative in Spirits in the Sky: Northern Lights Photography. Photos with brief, descriptive captions take center stage. They are accompanied by a few concise sections of text, which provide an overview of what the northern lights (or aurora borealis) are; some of the myths used to explain them; and the stories behind Zizka’s work in capturing these breathtaking images. Wildlife, human models, outdoor sports and self-portraits appear among the images, but it is the wildly colorful lights themselves–in the striking landscapes of Canada, Greenland, Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands–that make these photos unforgettable. Spectacular scenery and an elusive natural phenomenon combine in special ways in this gorgeous collection of art photography.


This review originally ran in the November 4, 2022 gift issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.


Rating: 7 moments.

rerun: Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Pulled from the depths of October 2011, please enjoy this rerun review.

Once Upon a River is a beautiful book. The story is not joyful, let me say that right off. But it’s beautifully wrought, and in fact, when I finished it and stepped back and viewed it as a whole, I decided that the story has a certain beauty, too. A sad beauty, but a beauty that’s true to life.

This is the story of Margo. She grows up in a little town on the Stark River in Michigan, hunting, fishing, and living and breathing the river. She is close to her grandfather, and lives in the outdoors; school and social situations are difficult for her. She’s a very skilled outdoorswoman, and an especially good shot; Annie Oakley is her hero. Bad things happen. Margo’s mother leaves, and as her situation further deteriorates, she takes off upstream in the boat her grandfather gave her to look for her mother. Margo lives off the land and the river, mostly. She makes a few alliances but they all fall apart. People and relationships are not as reliable as the river and the outdoor world in which she feels safe and comfortable. More bad things happen. She grows up some, learns about people, and learns more about the natural world. She moves upstream and downstream, learns how to survive with her hands, a few tools, and her skills, along the lines again of Annie Oakley (she will eventually own two biographies, among her few prized possessions).

This story is painful in more than a few spots. Plenty of bad things happen, including several rapes and quite a bit of death. There’s no shortage of young people having sex, to which your reactions may vary. (Consensual? In itself a “bad thing”?) You will cringe. But like many books that are both sad and realistic, the cringing might be worth it. Margo’s story actually looks skyward, hopefully, at the end. She finds and makes some good things, too.

Campbell has full grasp of metaphor. The river flows on, and Margo learns its rhythms, and how to assert herself while following its current. She finds the river to be a more constant (if not predictable) force than human nature. Campbell has full grasp of language, too; she writes beautifully, lyrically, symbolically. In the end it’s a gorgeous book and I recommend it wholeheartedly. So, to recap: bad things happen, but beautifully. It’s a book about life.

I shan’t attempt a retrospective rating at this distance of more than eleven years, but I still remember this one fondly.

Revenge of the Librarians by Tom Gauld

This is a completely delightful collection of cartoons by Tom Gauld, originally published in The Guardian. All have a literary theme and a dry sense of humor, poking fun mostly at bibliophiles, book collectors and writers, and exalting librarians (a safe move!). I am just absolutely charmed & won over, and inclined to just share a few of my favorite strips here in place of review…

At 180 pages, this is very much the sort of thing you can read cover to cover (I did in two sittings) or leave on a side table for joyful browsing in between other activities. For the book lover in your life? This is pretty much a must-have. Consider it for a holiday gift. I loved it.


Rating: 9 stacks.

The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal

Well, this is the most fun thing I’ve read in a while (and that’s saying something). Liz let me know that Martha Wells (of Murderbot) gave this book 5 stars on Goodreads. So I bought it.

Tesla Crane is traveling incognito on a space cruise to Mars with her new spouse, Shal. Tesla is an uberfamous and uber-rich inventor-engineer and heiress, and she just wants to enjoy her honeymoon in privacy, but then a woman is murdered on the way back to their luxury cabins after karaoke, and ship security makes the bad mistake of arresting Shal (himself a recently retired detective), so Tesla is on the case. She is also physically limited by some extreme injuries and a touch of PTSD following a lab explosion, for which she uses the assistance of a Deep Brain Pain Suppressor (DBPS, usually turned up a bit higher than is actually safe), occasionally a cane, and most charmingly, a service Westie dog named Gimlet. With Shal locked down, Tesla is a bit hobbled but also highly motivated (not to say pissed). She navigates the ship, high society, and her investigations with cleverness and aplomb and a sometimes imperfect awareness of her privilege, as Shal gently reminds her; she will make a few friends along the way, but everyone’s a suspect, especially as the body count climbs. Tesla herself is very likeable, but Gimlet steals the show (for readers and most of the ship’s passengers and staff).

I love the elements that combine in this story. There is a strong core of sci-fi, which other reviewers assure us is accurate and well-researched (this reviewer is happy to assume this is the case and move along). There are some fun, thought-provoking cultural elements, especially around gender: in the year 2075 we don’t have much patience for gendered language, using Mx. in place of Ms. or Mr. and spouse in place of the gendered versions, and it is extremely rude and outdated to introduce anyone without noting their pronouns. (Tesla’s spouse Shal is a very masculine type and very handsome but also very engaged with textile arts, particularly embroidery.) The protagonist couple takes their cocktails and coffee very seriously, and each chapter opens with a cocktail recipe (some of which are zero-proof); bar culture and bartenders also form a significant framing element. Gimlet the service dog gets full appreciation both for her skills and training and for her dogness (she’s a dog, not a robot). It all forms a really neat combination, although let me also say the plot needed no bolstering: the mystery itself is fully-formed and legit. What’s not to love?

I was completely absorbed and stayed up late into the night finishing this one. Firmly recommend. Thanks for the tip, Liz & Martha.


Rating: 8 ounces.

Factory Girls by Michelle Gallen

Amid the Troubles in Northern Ireland, a scrappy young woman comes of age in this inspiring, humorous and moving novel.

With Factory Girls, Michelle Gallen (Big Girl, Small Town) delivers a heartrending, funny, blistering and beautiful novel of foreboding and hope. In the summer of 1994, Maeve Murray and her two best friends are on the cusp of escaping their small Northern Irish town for bigger, better and safer things. Maeve is a child of the Troubles: “neighbours shooting neighbours was just the way things had always been for her.” She comes from a poor Catholic family and has been taught to expect little, but she has hopes that her exam results will move her beyond the background that, in her world, defines her. “Nobody as poor as Maeve could afford to have notions about herself. Which was why she treasured them.” Maeve and her friends Caroline and Aoife find summer jobs at a shirt factory in town, hoping to save a bit before going away to college. Exam results loom all summer, in this novel organized by a countdown beginning “74 days until results.”

Caroline has a loving family, and Aoife is downright privileged compared to Maeve’s rather stark upbringing, not only in poverty but with the death of her sister (unexplained for much of the novel) shadowing all her family’s interactions. “Maeve sometimes wondered if [her sister]’d still be alive if she’d failed and stayed in the town.” Factory work is a bit of a miracle in this depressed town, but it comes with unforeseen challenges, like working alongside Protestants, while outside the gates a never-ending war of retaliation is played out by paramilitary groups on both sides. Maeve worries about losing her kneecaps or her life before she ever makes it to London. “The news reports had said the children were ‘lucky,’ for despite being packed together in the parish hall, they’d received only minor injuries…. She didn’t feel lucky when she felt the slap of the explosion.” Alongside wrestling with grueling work making shirts that nobody she knows can afford and fending off her slimy English boss, Maeve will find still greater challenges spring from the factory floor. “It was the factory workers–both Prods and Taigs–who were at the bottom of a very long and merciless food chain.”

Factory Girls takes on class, corruption and the Catholic/Protestant and English/Irish divides; gender and labor rights; female friendships; family disappointments; the specter of opportunity and the puzzle of how to transcend one’s roots without leaving part of oneself behind. This may sound like a heavy, ambitious group of subjects, but Gallen draws delightful, richly rendered characters and imbues her narrative with a vernacular voice that will charm readers and keep them firmly rooted in time and place. This novel is as hilarious as it is heartbreaking: not to be missed.


This review originally ran in the October 25, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 crisp sandwiches.

Odder by Katherine Applegate, illustrated by Charles Santoso

I fell in love with this book as reviewed by a colleague of mine at Shelf Awareness (here), and bought it for the six- and ten-year-old sisters who are my friends. But when it arrived I couldn’t let it go and so I read it first.

It’s every bit as delightful as it sounds in the above review, and I’m so glad I picked it up, and glad that I have young friends to inspire me. I loved the storytelling style: easy-reading, brief, free verse poems that speak plainly but also with lyricism (Odder’s front paws when she was just a pup were “dream-busy / small and soft as / a toddler’s mittens”). I loved Odder, of course, her name and her personality and frank responses to the world. What do I know about sea otters? but this story and characterization felt true to the natural world, and at the same time, offered many lessons applicable to other life forms. “Why simply dive when she could dazzle?” The ocean isn’t about morality, and there are no villains here; after a shark attack, Odder doesn’t blame the shark. “She’s seen enough to know / that this is how life is, / and this is how death comes.” (Spoiler alert: death has not come for Odder yet.) There are some excellent how-to poems: “how to rescue a stranded otter” offers important points about not rushing in; there are two versions of “how to say goodbye to an otter,” for both humans and otters. There’s a neat little poem called “keystones” that teach the meaning of ‘keystone species’ succinctly, which is a fine example of how Odder gives both naturalist lessons and broader ones.

I’m charmed, and so happy I spent some time with this book. Definitely recommend.


Rating: 9 clams.

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine’s voice is as powerful as you’ve heard, and Citizen is many things, in ways that can be challenging but also make it a rewarding meditation. A slim book, it rewards slower-paced reading, because there’s a lot to think about (and look at). I think I had envisioned a book of poetry in more traditional fashion, which would be challenging for me (because I find poetry difficult; I think I look too hard for literal readings). What I found was a little more form-bending, which mostly made it a little easier to take in. Lyric essays intersperse with poetry, and there are a handful of images of visual art as well, and references to other media, including YouTube videos and Rankine’s own “situation videos.” Predictably, I follow along better in the prose-ier sections than the poetry-leaning ones, and the former come first in the book, which I think made the transition a little harder. This is a problem on my end (when will I get over my fear of poems?). I sort of wish for a reading guide, although that runs the risk of prescriptivism.

Citizen is about race, or about race in America, or about what it is like to be Black in America. It relates macro- and microaggressions so that they build up: does the reader feel shocked? weary? angry? reading them? Well, maybe that’s the point. The small, everyday experiences have cumulative effect. The narrator spends a chapter (essay?) describing what it is to sigh incessantly, and be shushed in her sighs. She spends time observing Serena Williams: her play, the aggressions she experiences, when she does and does not react with outrage, and how the world reacts to her reactions. There is a chapter of scripts for Rankine’s situation videos, about which she says on her website: “It is our feeling that both devastating images and racist statements need management.” (I couldn’t figure out how to watch the actual videos on her website, although some are on YouTube.) There is a list of names of Black men and women killed by police; it fades out into gray text because the list is too long. The visual images that come in between the text sections might be said to offer a break, but it’s more like a different way of looking.

On the cover image, I most like these words from The New Yorker‘s review: “The book’s cover, an image of a black hood suspended in white space, seems to be a direct reference to Trayvon Martin’s death, but the image is of a work from 1993, two years after Rodney King was beaten senseless by members of the L.A.P.D. It’s called ‘In the Hood,’ and it suggests that racism passes freely among homonyms: the white imagination readily turns hoods into hoods. The image also makes you think of the hoods in fairy tales and illustrated books, part of the regalia of childhood. But its white backdrop recalls the haunting quotation from Zora Neale Hurston that keeps cropping up in Citizen: ‘I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.’ The hood becomes an executioner’s headdress, too.”

In the end after finishing the book and trying to review, I find my impression is more of poetry than of prose, because there’s an overall feeling even between the moments where I was frustrated because I couldn’t always parse the literal meaning. (Maybe Vince will show up to explain it to me.) Not for the first time, the poet is smarter than I am. But it was a hell of an experience, and I’d read more. Her reputation is deserved.


Rating: 7 lessons.
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