Into the Heartless Wood by Joanna Ruth Meyer

I don’t think Father’s wall can keep the trees out if they really want to come in.”

What a delightful story. Props to my colleague at Shelf Awareness, Lana Barnes, whose review sold me this book. As I’ve done once before (and with another YA novel!), I’m reposting Barnes’s words here for you.

This dark fairy tale weaves together magic, romance and nature with lyrical words and imagery.

Into the Heartless Wood is an intense and haunting fairy tale tinged with horror, romance and magic, and filled with beautiful imagery of nature and love.

The Gwydden’s Wood is ruled by a witch who uses her eight tree-siren daughters as weapons, “commanding them to sing, to lure men and women into the wood and devour them.” Seventeen-year-old Owen and his sister stumble to the precipice of this fate, but are saved by the Gwydden’s youngest daughter, Seren. After his rescue, Owen–intrigued by the “monster” who defies her purpose of being–visits Seren in the forest every night. Their forbidden friendship blossoms into romance, and Seren’s desire to “be more than the monster [her] mother created” grows. When secrets and an ancient curse drive Owen and Seren apart, they find themselves on opposite sides of a centuries-old feud and must find a way to break the curse to free themselves.

This fourth YA novel by Joanna Ruth Meyer (Echo North) is gorgeously written, deeply intense and emotionally fulfilling. Owen’s and Seren’s story is portrayed vividly through a series of moments of euphoria and heartbreak. Whether it’s a scene of them dancing on a hilltop until dawn or a tree-siren-caused train derailment, Meyer uses poetic language and imagery to ratchet up the intensity. Meyer also uses a blend of prose (Owen) and verse (Seren) to parallel Seren’s transformation. As Seren becomes more humanlike, her short lines and simple sentences become more complex. This all creates an atmospheric fairy tale that is bewitching and unforgettable.

Lana Barnes, freelance reviewer and proofreader

I would add that Seren doesn’t have a name – because monsters don’t – until Owen offers her one. He is the son of a musician (his mother) and an astronomer (his father), both loves he has inherited, but it is astronomy that he excels at and dreams of; the name he offers to his new friend means ‘star.’ Seren’s adoption of that name, offered by her first friend, is meaningful, because names have great power; to name something or someone is to exercise power over it, and imagine the power to name yourself when no one ever has.

The setting is Welsh, or at least Welsh-adjacent: it is just a minor frame, but Owen’s cooking is Welsh, and the character’s names often look it as well. I found this charming, and it added a little bit to the otherworldly feeling of the novel.

I loved the dreaminess of this book, especially in Seren’s sections. I loved the difference in writing (speaking?) style between the two protagonists, as Barnes notes, and how that changed the tone I heard the story told in, and characterized each of them. And I love trees – or leaves – and stars as reference points for worldviews, as symbols. The romance in this book is sweet, innocent, muted – definitely YA – but moving. There really is something about young love, or in this case such youth that it doesn’t even recognize that it is love. The classic narrative trick is to put two people (or beings!) in an attraction but then throw something in their way; the conflict here is across worlds, and with the added challenge of a shared history, Owen and Seren on two sides of an old strife. (I shan’t spoil it, but they are not only opposed in the world-scale struggle between powers but also share a personal connection to certain events.) The obstacles they face are great. But out of great conflicts come great stories. This is a great story: emotionally impactful, heart-wrenching, sweet, beautifully told (with extra points for style, in the two very different voices). I’m charmed. Also bonus points for trees.


Rating: 8 slices of bara brith.

The Hare by Melanie Finn

A totally captivating novel to read in as few sittings as possible (beware!), often a bit disturbing or discomfiting, but always engrossing.

We first meet Rosie and Bennett in 1983. They’re on a date, which doesn’t go very smoothly, and highlights their differences. He’s older, far more sophisticated; he comes from money, while she’s a little awkward. (Or maybe just young.) She dutifully takes his cues, but the reader is immediately uncomfortable. Rosie’s perhaps not as uncomfortable as she should be.

We rewind just a bit to gather up her backstory. A childhood of privation in Lowell, Massachusetts; an art scholarship at Parsons School of Design in New York City. She’s a student there when she meets Bennett at MoMA, and is excited and flattered at his attention. And they’re off and running.

Somewhere inside, Rosie had the idea, like a stone buried deep in the Presbyterian loam of her soul, this pregnancy was punishment for being greedy. Her orgasms were rich as chocolate cake or red velvet. Layers of sweetness and dripping icing.

What lovely lines, hm? And a good example of Finn’s expressive writing, and Rosie’s rich interiority. We follow her from here over decades, eventually to rural Vermont; and I don’t think I’ll tell you much of what happens, but she grows and changes and learns so much. She’s a riveting character. While I empathize deeply with Rosie (eventually, Rose) throughout the book, there are times I disagree with or feel disturbed by her perspectives. This perhaps only deepens the connection, though, and my need to see her through.

The Hare is told in close third person, meaning Rosie is ‘she’ rather than ‘I’ but we still see what she sees, which allows for the question of whether she is really a reliable narrator. There are a few types of unreliable ones: there’s the narrator who is being deceitful and lying on purpose, and then there are other kinds, who maybe can’t see their own worlds clearly. Do I see myself the same way that you see me? Can I reliably narrate myself? Tiny spoiler here: Rosie consistently tells us she’s not much of an artist. But some others around her think she might be gifted. Who do you believe?

The visual-arts frame is a neat one – I love this stuff when it’s done right. A certain Van Eyck painting plays a small but pivotal role. And a little more subtly, Rosie’s eye for image, color, line, and perspective have an enormous impact on how we see what she sees. This is a novel with layers to it in a way that I love; I think I’ll be thinking of it for some time.

Gender is central to this book. Rosie’s position in her life, her situation in several senses, and her feelings of powerlessness are attributed to her being a woman. Her gender, and those of other characters, are always and unavoidably related to their roles and relationships. The novel itself is a commentary on gender roles; Rose eventually make explicit commentary, but she was always make implicit observations, too. The back-of-book blurb calls her “an authentic, tarnished feminist heroine,” and I think that’s about right. In some ways this is a coming-of-age story, but lasting far beyond the time in her life that we tend to think of as the coming-of-age time. She’s still growing up, as we all are (I have come to see), and I really appreciated noting that here.

Finn is absolutely expert at mood and atmosphere. We are with Rosie when she feels dread on a Connecticut (I think) back road; luxuriates in a boathouse on a fancy estate on the coast; works in fear, numb and bone-tired, in the snowy Vermont mountains. This is a book to take you out of your own life.

This review has included almost no plot summary. That’s on purpose. I want you to read this work of suspense and be as surprised by events as I was. It’s beautifully thought-provoking, often lovely, and occasionally frustrating (in that Rosie sometimes frustrated me – as I feel sure Finn intends). Haunting. The hare of the title does extraordinarily broad and deep work. I am enchanted.


Rating: 8 duck decoys.

Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences by Howard E. Gardner

This is a long review of a big, fat, dense book, not particularly a fun read. But I’ve been intrigued and fascinated by the theory of multiple intelligences for years – I think my mother introduced this to me when I was a little kid. I’d read about this theory, but I’d never read Gardner’s own work; I finally decided it was time.

He has written many books, and he’s published books since this one on the MI theory (Multiple Intelligences; Intelligence Reframed), but I chose to go to the original, in its updated form. Frames of Mind was originally published in 1983. My edition has a tenth-anniversary introduction as well as a first-thirty-years introduction; it was published in 2011. (Although published in ’83, Gardner notes he did the writing in ’81, then moved into revisions.) These supplements were helpful to put Gardner’s work in some perspective and keep in my mind the time period he was originally writing in.

I’m going to try to keep it as brief as I can. In a nutshell: I still find Gardner’s theory fascinating and instructive; his thinking about intelligence types informs the way I view people in our world to a large degree. It captures my imagination. Reading this book was definitely stimulating for me. But! it was also pretty frustrating to read, mostly because of his mishandling of gender. Gardner almost entirely excludes women from a discussion of intelligences (except, of course, where we may be of use as mothers to male children). It assumes strict gender roles to an extent that seems almost laughable in 2021. I have some concerns about his treatment of cultural differences, although he’s clearly making some good efforts, but I’m less confident in my criticisms in that area, so I’ll discuss those as concerns I’m not sure about, where the gender business was downright upsetting. As I said about Buried in the Bitter Waters, there is enough good thinking here that it needs and deserves a thorough editing (and in this case, a thorough rethinking), and a rewrite for modern times. In general, a little humility and openness to being wrong is probably healthy for all of us (myself obviously included).

On that note, Gardner is quite good at humility and openness to criticism when it comes to his psychological theory of multiple intelligence, his acknowledgement that the number and identity of intelligence types may need revision, and his easy confession that in some realms he’s not qualified to carry the theory any further. (For example, what this book is not is a prescription for educational theory or practice. This is funny because one criticism of Gardner that I’ve encountered is that his educational recommendations are faulty. Again, he makes none in this book. Although maybe he does so in later works.)

Let me back up and offer you at least a little bit of summary. (This will be minimal, and I’m in a bit over my head with the harder-science side, but there are excellent summaries elsewhere online if you want to go further.) Gardner posits that human beings do not have a single intelligence, in which individuals are more or less gifted, but rather we have a number of different intelligences, or competencies, which are independent of each other; an individual can be gifted in one or more, average in others, and below average in some. In this, his original work on the theory, he introduces and details seven intelligences, defending them in neurobiological terms and with some examples. They are: verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal and intrapersonal (grouped together as the personal intelligences), and spatial. He is careful to separate intelligence from sensory abilities, so verbal-linguistic is not tied to hearing (and hearing-impaired and deaf people can be highly intelligent in this area), and spatial is not tied to vision (same story for blind people). In testing whether an aptitude qualifies as an intelligence under his theory, he requires that it involve a skill set that leads to the ability to resolve “genuine” problems or create useful products; that it also entail the potential to find or create problems; and that it have a biological basis, meaning for example that it be potentially isolated by brain damage. A short list of further criteria: the existence of prodigies; a recognizable developmental history and “end-state performances”; an evolutionary history; support from experimental psychology and psychometry; and “susceptibility to encoding in a symbol system.” Whew. Bookending chapters on each intelligence type are chapters on earlier views of intelligence (background of other theories and schools of thought); biological foundations (hard science, and hard for me); a critique of his theory; comments on the socialization of intelligences through symbolic systems; observations about how we educate to intelligences (observations, not prescription!); and thoughts about “the application of intelligences.”

As you may be concluding, Gardner here writes for an academic audience, in that classic, dry, academic style. Against his advice, I did wade through the “biological foundations” chapter (not that I got much out of it, but I’m a completist). It was a good reminder that psychology is brain science. I would love to see this book rewritten for a more general readership. I think I was hoping for more examples of intelligences in practice – hoping to recognize myself and my friends, family, acquaintances. My interest in this theory is absolutely about armchair-analyzing the world around me, so I was hoping for a slightly different type of book than this, but that’s my mistake; Gardner is clear that this is psych theory, not a which-kind-of-fruit-would-you-be quiz. I would have loved more case studies… and I wonder, is this about my desire for narrative, owing to my individual profile of intelligent types? I especially wanted more from the bodily-kinesthetic chapter, which included only two pages about athletes.

Gardner’s language is often dated. He uses ‘Eskimo,’ ‘victim of autism’ (and clearly sees autism as a tragic disability, when I think we’re pretty far from that mindset now), and ‘idiot savant.’ The use of ‘normal’ for individuals who are neither prodigies nor ‘subnormal’ feels a little wrong to me. And, “for ease of exposition the pronoun ‘he’ will be used in its generic sense throughout this book.” Guess how that struck me. I am aware of the argument that ‘he or she’ is just too much work, and/or too awkward, for regular use, but there are other, more elegant solutions to this problem than just assuming that EVERYBODY IS MALE. You can alternate between ‘he’ and ‘she’ from case to case. You can use ‘he or she’ sparingly (really, I’ve done it, you can). You can also slip into the singular pronoun ‘they,’ which is not a new usage at all, but dates back centuries. To read more than 400 pages of thoughtful and serious social science thinking in which ‘he’ does everything and everything happens to ‘him’ is belittling, offensive, and makes me feel not just left out, but as if I don’t even exist, or these theories don’t apply to me (more on that in a minute). Words matter.

While Gardner is able to cite women as scholars and researchers in his own and related fields (education, psychology, anthropology), he is almost entirely unable to name a woman as an example of one of his proposed intelligences. I noted just four, in these 412 pages plus notes: poet Sue Lenier, ballet choreographer Martha Graham, ballet dancer Suzanne Farrell, and Eleanor Roosevelt (for the personal intelligences, held up alongside Socrates, Jesus Christ, and Mahatma Gandhi). By comparison, his male examples number in the hundreds. His chapter on verbal-linguistic intelligence names 35 men who impress him, and just the one woman: Sue Lenier, who he calls the “possessed poet” for her methods which have been criticized (so that the one woman in that chapter, and one of just four in his whole book, has her intelligence qualified, as if her poems aren’t really her own work after all). Representation matters. I am left with the clear impression that Gardner doesn’t think I could possibly be intelligent in any of seven ways. Yes, it was 1981 when he wrote this book. But some men had already figured out how to see women as people in 1981, so Gardner does not get a pass.

Gardner’s belief in clear gender roles, then, will not surprise you. The development of infants falls squarely on their mothers, and mothers are the only ones capable of playing certain roles in the lives of their infants. (Finally, something women can do.) The chapter on the personal intelligences is far too bound up in a gender binary. I am not extremely well read in gender theory, but I am not sure I buy the strict gendered division of labor and personality going back to prehumans that he sets up. I know that nonbinary gender expressions are not the brand-new item that some would have us believe now, but appear in early and traditional societies as well. I know same-sex couples raising children in exemplary fashion. I think, as a psych theorist, that Gardner is missing some significant pieces of the puzzle here.

When it comes to other cultures, I’m on even shakier ground. And I do want to acknowledge that Gardner’s made an effort to find and examine a variety of cultures, societies, educational systems, and ways of recognizing, valuing, and ‘using’ intelligences in different cultural settings; that is important work and involves his awareness that Western culture is not the only or necessarily the best culture. Sometimes his conclusions feel a little unsure to me, but my expertise on cultures other than my own (let alone in terms of sociology, anthropology, pedagogy, psychology, etc.) isn’t sufficient for me to pick Gardner’s work apart. I did find myself wondering if he wasn’t being a little reductive sometimes, though, as in the stereotypes about Japan and China, for example.

I know I’ve devoted a lot of this review to my criticisms, but these oversights in Gardner’s writing and his perspective on humanity 1) were distracting to me as I tried to take in the theory and 2) make a substantive difference in his theory, because how can one understand human intelligences if one (for example) overlooks half the population??

As a theory, Gardner’s work continues to fascinate me and to inform a lot of my thinking. I am very glad I put in the effort (and it was an effort) to read this book. As a book, it was fairly obnoxious. But as a theory, it is intriguing and evocative. I hope somebody takes on the rewrite someday, and finds some non-men to think about. Who knows–we might learn something.


Rating: 7 puzzles.

Sophomores by Sean Desmond

A boy begins to find himself as his parents face private battles of their own in this poignant and searching novel.

With Sophomores, Sean Desmond (Adam’s Fall) evokes late-1980s Dallas and its suburbs with eerie precision. A nuclear family–father, mother, son–and the worlds they navigate are full of anxieties, choices and possibilities. Spanning just one school year, this is a novel to get lost in.

In the fall of 1987, Dan Malone is a sophomore at the Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas. He belongs to a tight foursome of boys who support each other at school and in their forays with the girls of Ursuline Academy. A bit tortured by his shyness in both areas, Dan’s interior workings are self-consciously earnest but endearingly real. “Dan felt a sudden awareness, a shimmering sense of discovery, that his journal, the newspaper, music, writing, reading, it was all connected with some hidden purpose… The hour when he would take part in the life of the world seemed to be drawing closer, and Dan wanted to think and write and listen to his heart and find out what it felt.”

Dan’s father, Pat, is an airline executive facing a serious industry downturn, culturally Irish Catholic and miserably estranged by his displacement (for work) from his native Bronx. He drinks too much and hides it poorly from his family. He struggles with a recent diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.

Mother and wife Anne provides an essential counterpoint to Dan and Pat’s heavily male worlds. As a devout young woman, Anne had been a novice at Sisters of Charity, but she grew into a worldly, quietly feminist woman, inclined to be contrary in her internal monologues. Still a serious Catholic, Anne argues with the pastor both in her head and via anonymous phone calls.

These three perspectives triangulate to offer a rich, subtle story of family grief and love, teenaged seeking and adult angst. Desmond places crises in the classroom, where Dan strives for growth and recognition from a teacher “legendary for rigor and Socratic curveballs,” on equal footing with the murder trial where Anne serves as juror. Flashbacks to Anne’s and Pat’s pasts illuminate their characters and provide nuance and empathy. Events vary from the absurd (an ill-fated swim team trip) to the profane (one particularly colorful episode in Pat’s fall from grace), but throughout this narrative there is a sense that all of this is somehow serious, important, holy.

Sophomores is a sharp, crystalline look at a few months in the lives of a “regular” family. With a keen gaze, it captures a city in transition and a boy just coming of age. Dan and his parents will stay with the reader long after the story is finished.


This review originally ran in the January 8, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 sticks.

Copperhead by Alexi Zentner (audio)

I was quite entranced by Touch and so I jumped into Copperhead with nothing but the author to go on. It’s quite a different book, ambitious, and good, but flawed. This novel takes on the timely – not to say trendy – topic of race and racism in contemporary America. I don’t question Zentner’s earnest commitment to the topic, but it’s a tricky thing to execute seriously in fiction without getting a little overwrought.

Our protagonist is 17-year-old Jessup, a high school senior in Cortaca, New York (a thinly disguised Ithaca, with Cortaca University obviously Cornell). He’s a talented football player and excellent student, but still wrong-side-of-the-tracks because of his family’s hand-to-mouth existence, the trailer they live in, and the fact that his brother and step-father are serving prison sentences for the deaths of two Black college students in what was either self defense or a hate crime, depending on who’s telling the story. Jessup’s mother and sister still attend the Blessed Church of the White America. Jessup would tell you he’s not a racist; his girlfriend is Black. He resents that people judge him for his family history and their association with the white supremacist church.

This is all background information; the novel’s action takes place over four days, Friday night’s football game through Monday night’s protests, but it is action-packed. What might be called a series of unfortunate events explodes into increasing posturing, grandstanding, violence. Jessup is pressured to choose sides. Zentner’s greatest accomplishment is the empathy his reader feels for this kid. We don’t like to spend much of our compassion on white supremacists, but this novel ticks boxes for two intellectual puzzles I’ve long been interested in: 1, the concept that bigots are made or taught, not born, and there’s somebody there, at some early-enough point, that I do feel for. And 2, the question of when we begin to hold a person responsible for his own crimes – the abused child we feel for, but when he grows up to be an abuser we don’t; at what age or stage is the cut-off? I feel like Jessup’s character begs both these questions. He is in some ways a good kid. And while he’s far more fair-minded than some of his family and church, he’s also a white supremacist, by default rather than by hate. The puzzle of Jessup himself I think is well-expressed; we stay with his close third-person perspective throughout the novel, and I find it easy to like and sympathize with him, even though he’s problematic too. I find it realistic that (especially) a 17-year-old boy with such a troubled past would have the kinds of blind spots that Jessup has. That doesn’t mean I think it’s all okay, but I think it’s realistic.

The events that kick off (no pun intended) the weekend’s action are a bit contrived, in terms of narrative: a perfect-storm sequence. Sometimes life really does work in such strange ways, but it is also clearly a novelistic device to get the issues moving that Zentner needs to address. That’s more or less okay with me, but the mechanics of plot here are showing a bit more than some might like. Characters other than Jessup are less well developed than he is (also understandable; a lot has been put into this protagonist, and there’s less left over for everybody else). Things get a little ham-fisted with the stepfather, David John, who is just such a great guy aside from the white supremacist business… and this allows Jessup to wonder how it’s possible for a racist to be such a deeply decent dude? (The answer, staggeringly obvious to everyone but Jessup, is that he’s deeply decent to white people. But honestly, I do buy Jessup’s blindness on this account – again, as one of those believable blind spots. Seventeen years old!) Where the novel goes most wrong is in the final events and epilogue: wrapping up this complicated and fraught story is a challenge, and Zentner was maybe a little overcommitted to a redemption narrative. Only in the final pages (minutes, in my audiobook) does the novel, which excels in drawing out my sympathies, descend into morality tale. It gets a little graceless. Again, Zenter’s earnest good intentions are not in question, and it’s a pretty good morality tale, one that will yield good discussions in classrooms and book clubs. But as a novel, the last bit is a bit cringey.

There are some beautiful, moving, thoughtful moments, and absolutely memorable images, and I think Jessup’s character is all win. The complexities of family, legacy, and the taught-and-learned nature of hate are well illustrated. Copperhead took on an ambitious mission, and as a novel, doesn’t quite stand up to that tall order, but it gives us plenty to think about. I think its greatest accomplishment was in how much I empathized with Jessup, and how uncomfortable I felt with my own empathy – not always a pleasurable experience, but an instructive one. I was certainly engaged throughout, and I do recommend this read, with a few caveats. I respect Zentner’s work here, and I’ll look for more from him.


Rating: 7 text messages.

Night School by Lee Child

My mother also reviewed this novel here. We had similar feelings.

Above-average, even for Reacher. I loved this one. It’s set back in the time when Reacher was still serving as a military police detective – maybe we need more of those; they make up a minority of the canon. Here’s the set-up: fresh off receiving a medal for “the thing in Bosnia,” Reacher is sent back to school for a course in “Impact of Recent Forensic Innovation on Inter-Agency Cooperation.” He finds himself in a room with two guys from the FBI and the CIA, respectively, in similar positions: good competent agents who’d expected better than some bullshit course in cooperation. Luckily it’s not what it seems. Reacher and his counterparts are instead assigned a top-secret mystery involving an unknown American trying to sell something to someone for an unknown reason. They can have anything they need; so Reacher gets Sergeant Frances Neagley, who we know from books like Without Fail and Bad Luck and Trouble (among others). I like her.

The action of Night School takes Reacher and Neagley (and some of his new teammates) to Hamburg, back to Virginia, and back to Hamburg again, where they tangle with some far-right Nazi-types and the mostly pretty good Hamburg police. Plus of course the mystery American and the mystery foreign interest who wants to buy the mystery thing.

I thought this one was excellent fun. I enjoyed seeing Reacher do the kind of mental detective work he excels at (a la Criminal Minds), and I enjoy seeing him still in the Army’s grasp; that system gives him something to push-and-pull with in ways that I think serve the narrative well. There is a little less physical ass-kicking here than in some Reacher novels, and that’s fine with me; that action stuff is fun here and there but it doesn’t make a story the way the mental game does. There’s also a little sex (as usual) but not in a way that takes over the novel, either. And again, I really like Neagley. The mystery itself has elements of unreality, but welcome to Child’s fiction: it’s escapist-realism, not hyperrealism.

Without spoilers, I will say that I often thought this was one of the more cinematic efforts of the series; I especially enjoyed thinking of the final action’s setting onscreen. But as long as they keep Tom Cruise as the big screen’s Reacher, nah.

This is the most enjoyment I’ve gotten out of a Reacher novel in some time. Maybe it just caught me at the right time.


Rating: 8-and-a-half backpacks.

Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

I used to follow Allie Brosh’s blog, Hyperbole and a Half. (I always loved that name.) I did not read her first book, by the same name, but I love the blog. This is her second.

Solutions and Other Problems is brilliant. Brosh is so vulnerable, honest, willing to share, and hilarious. Her openness is disarming and I think healthy both for her and for her readers who are comforted by knowing that they’re not alone in their struggles. And some of what she has to share is raw and painful. But also, she makes me laugh harder than almost anything, ever. I mean I laughed until I cried, gasping, couldn’t breathe, peed on myself. I was oxygen-deprived; she nearly killed me, I laughed so hard. (The funniest bits, for me, are anything about pets, and the chapter about the car stereo system and the smartphone trying to boss her around.) I would love to be able to spend a few minutes every day laughing this hard. I guess I need to re-follow her blog.

This is a graphic work – as in graphic novel, but nonfiction. A graphic memoir-in-essays, if you will; it’s not linear, but a sampling of experiences that have been especially funny or painful or moving. Because she jumps around so much and generally gets a little silly (in all the best ways), I thought it was neatly appropriate that (as noted by a brief “Explanation” following chapter 1) Brosh’s chapters are numbered but there is no chapter four. “Because sometimes things don’t go like they should,” she explains, and because she’s exercising a little power here, and we should be grateful she didn’t take it further than she did. It’s a random little bit of ridiculousness; but it’s also expressive of the kind of fun and angst I think she excels at.

Brosh’s illustrations are also a little ridiculous, fanciful, hilarious, and distinctive. I love them. She explains the world as she experiences it, in part, through fictional monsters and fantasies. Her drawings capture the mystery and awkwardness of life in a way that feels precisely right. (And I think she has dogs down pat.) (The Oatmeal‘s pretty good at this too.)

At one point she notes,

Experiencing real loneliness for the first time is like realizing the only thing you’ve ever loved is your home planet after migrating to the moon.

and I think that’s just perfect. I recognize this feeling. I had to migrate to the moon to find out just how place mattered to me.

I find Allie Brosh’s work comforting, as well as so funny that it leaves me a little breathless and wrung out. I recommend her so strongly, and I guess I need to go back and find the first book now too. Thanks, Liz, for the recommendation.


Rating: 9 sneakponies.

Psalms for Mother Emanuel: Elegy From Pittsburgh to Charleston

Psalms for Mother Emanuel is a brief chapbook commissioned by the Pittsburgh Foundation on the first anniversary of the 2015 shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. It includes nine poems and one visual piece, and they are beautiful and impactful. Beyond that I hardly know what to say about this collection; it feels almost holy, and many poems do maintain the reverence of the title, so that to comment sort of feels inappropriate.

The whole thing is… wrenching and also lovely.

Here is the title and first line of Cameron Barnett’s contribution:

If a bag of silver coins and a bag of bullets sound the same
then take my ears, I do not need them

You can actually view the book here, and I recommend you just do so.

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

At just under 200 pages, Red at the Bone is a brief novel, but rich. I read most of it in a single day and finished it the following, but that doesn’t mean it’s not full of feeling. In fact, it has the kind of multigenerational sweep that we usually find in big, fat novels of 500+ pages, the kind that require lots of time and rest to take in. I appreciated the compressed depth.

Each chapter takes a close third-person perspective (sometimes first person) of a different person in the family, beginning with sixteen-year-old Melody, on the night of her presentation to society in a formal ceremony in her grandparents’ Brooklyn brownstone. The first word of this novel is ‘but,’ which you don’t see very often: “But that afternoon there was an orchestra playing.” They’re playing Prince’s “Darling Nikki,” but without the lyrics, naturally.

In other words, the novel begins in media res. Gradually we move through the perspectives of Melody’s mother Iris and father Aubrey, and Iris’s parents Sabe and Po-Boy; in their memories, especially Sabe’s, we learn of earlier generations. This family has come from all over – Aubrey from cities up and down the Gulf Coast, his mother from Santa Cruz and Berkeley; Sabe’s family stretches back to Tulsa and, crucially, the massacre of 1921. When Iris gets pregnant as a teenager, Aubrey is all in, but she wants to get out, and eventually goes away to college at Oberlin where her world widens while Aubrey and baby Melody make a family with Sabe and Po-Boy in the brownstone of the opening scene. The “fire and gold” remembered from Tulsa reaches forward in time to 9/11, and beyond.

This is a story about family and legacy, about what does and doesn’t carry from one generation to the next, about love and changing cultures and also about class. It has tragedy and comedy and love and heartbreak and love – again, that large and sweeping scope, but in a compact form, easy to take in practically in a single sitting. This is some very fine storytelling, especially because each chapter inhabits a different voice. And I appreciate all the markers of culture and time, like music, literature and fashion. In other words, Red at the Bone checks a lot of fine-fiction boxes in a really accessible package (no small feat). Woodson makes it look effortless. I enjoyed Another Brooklyn, but I think this one is better still. I’ll look for more from this author.


Rating: 8 drops of milk.

Thunderbird by Chuck Wendig

It’s been years since I got into a Wendig, but I had an itch. Frankly, at this point the specific events of previous books in this series (Blackbirds, Mockingbird, The Cormorant) are blurry, but the character of Miriam Black and the shape of those events still have a clear flavor for me, and I missed her. So, Thunderbird is book 4. Miriam is traveling the southwest states, deep in nic fits as she tries to quit smoking, running through the deserts. She’s searching for a woman who might just be able to relieve her of her curse, her gift, whatever it is.

Miriam’s curse is that when she touches a person for the first time – skin to skin – she can see how they die. She’s used this to her advantage, and she’s occasionally used it to try and change the events she sees, but that’s tricky: to change a death she has to cause a death. She’s ready for it to just all be over; she’s trying to get healthy and be a better person; she’d like to try and settle down. (Yes, this is all a little unbelievable to those who know Miriam; she’s as surprised as anyone.) But she’s having trouble finding the woman, and naturally, she’s running into all kinds of trouble along the way. For example, a crazy woman trying to protect her son; a mad militia; and an FBI agent following her around. Also, Miriam’s got an accomplice of sorts this time: a woman named Gabby who wants them to be more than friends.

It’s a fevered run around the New Mexico and Arizona badlands and cities. There’s lots of violence and some dark magic. There’s a kid in danger; and we learn more about Miriam’s past than we knew before. There are birds, magical birds, “a Hitchcockian apocalypse.” There are double- and triple-crosses, and of course there’s Miriam herself, who is an angry, profoundly antisocial, foul-mouthed, dirty, bad woman, who is also a sentimental softie. She reminds me of Mickey Milkovich. She’s got a certain badassness to her, but unlike a Reacher-type hero, she excels in poor decision making.

I thoroughly enjoyed this read. It’s snappy and well-paced; chapters are extremely short. Some of them are ‘interludes’ that shift backwards in time to help give context. It feels like a cinematic technique in which scenes move kind of choppily in time and space; we are often just a little off-balance, but that’s Miriam’s experience, too. She takes a pretty good beating in this book; perceptions are often challenged and challenging.

I find Wendig’s secondary characters engaging – friends like Louis and Gabby, enemies like those in this book, and then the ones who don’t quite fit either category at first – and entertaining, and the plot keeps me hooked and moving. Crisp pacing and clever language are definitely part of the appeal. But I think it’s clear that it’s the character of Miriam herself that makes this work; I’m here for her, whatever she does and whoever else comes along for the ride. She’s intoxicating, deeply messed up and sympathetic and with a delightfully sick sense of humor. I love her. I’m going to go order book 5 right now. Good stuff, Wendig. Keep it coming.


Rating: 7 cigarettes.
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