Songbirds by Christy Lefteri

Set in the old capital city of Cyprus, this is a beautiful, sad novel about human relationships and hard choices, who is seen and unseen.

With Songbirds, Christy Lefteri (The Beekeeper of Aleppo) shines a light on social issues through the story of one woman’s disappearance. The central character is absent from the beginning and remains a mystery until the novel’s final pages.

“One day, Nisha vanished and turned to gold.” Nisha is a Sri Lankan immigrant to Cyprus, where she works in the capital city of Nicosia as maid to Petra, a widow, and her nine-year-old daughter, Aliki. Petra’s upstairs tenant Yiannis is Nisha’s secret lover (maids are not permitted lovers). This absorbing novel opens after Nisha has gone missing, and is told in chapters that alternate between Petra’s and Yiannis’s points of view as they mourn and search for Nisha.

Nisha is representative of numerous migrant worker women in Cyprus, largely from Vietnam, Nepal, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. Petra observes, “The maids here did everything–they were hired and paid (lower than the minimum wage) to clean the house, but ended up being child-carers, shop assistants, waitresses.” Also: “I had started to see the rhythm of these women with new eyes–how the whole neighborhood pulsed with their activity. They had been invisible to me before Nisha had gone missing.”

Although her neighbors are quick to write off the disappearance as abandonment, with the assumptions of casual racism, Petra knows this is out of character. Nisha is devoted to Aliki, and besides she’s left behind her passport and most precious possessions, relics of her late husband and her own daughter in Sri Lanka. The police won’t help. Petra mounts her own investigation, eventually teaming up with a distraught Yiannis, who is facing challenges of his own. He feels trapped by his involvement in the criminal poaching of songbirds, and especially conflicted because he’d grown up feeling so close to nature.

Lefteri deftly weaves Yiannis’s pain at his illegal work and the loss of his love with Petra’s growing realizations about her own culture and Aliki’s attachment to her missing caretaker. Nisha, “a dark and beautiful shadow, who rattled around in old sandals and with fire in her eyes,” is the center of this story, but an absence; the two speaking characters triangulate the third, and readers don’t hear Nisha’s own voice until the very end. Moving human characters and careful depiction of natural spaces contribute to a contemplative tone. Songbirds is quietly urgent in its treatment of Nicosia’s maids, lyrical in its descriptions, and thoughtful, compassionate and important.


This review originally ran in the July 12, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 makeshift oars.

Before the Ruins by Victoria Gosling (audio)

On a recent cross-country drive, I lifted this year’s ban on audiobooks, obviously. This one took me two days of driving – a much more favorable pace at which to take in an audiobook, especially one involving suspense. Before the Ruins isn’t lightning-paced – it’s not that kind of thriller – but there was a steady building of tension.

Andy’s feeling pretty safely distant from her own past when she gets a phone call from the mother of her childhood best friend, Peter, saying that he’s gone missing. She hasn’t seen Peter in six months or so. They’ve grown apart. Asked to look for him, though, she finds herself drawn into the events of their youth. Andy and Peter were part of a close-knit foursome, with Em and Andy’s boyfriend Marcus, then joined by an outsider fifth, David, during the fateful summer that they were 18 and 19 years old. The events of that summer were followed by a nasty winter a few years later, in which everything changed. Now Andy finds herself pulled back to the old manor estate where it all went down, back when she was a disadvantaged kid with an alcoholic single mom, quick to fight and slow to trust. Perhaps less has changed than she’s realized.

The novel slips back and forth in time, flashing back to the summer of Andy’s late teens and the winter of her early twenties, and back to the present, when she is nearing 40, finally financially secure but personally unmoored. Searching for Peter means reopening old wounds that never healed, and reconnecting with people she hasn’t missed.

In its actual events, the story often left me just a little disappointed, because the conflicts felt so unremarkable: young people, hormones, sex, hurt feelings. It sometimes felt like a lot of dramatic trappings for fairly humdrum activity. The word for this one is definitely atmospheric – driven not by plot but by feeling, and somewhat less so by character. I was reminded, at its best moments, of Tana French. In the final denouement, there are indeed surprises, but it’s the sense of foreboding, the magic of place (that old manor estate, and certain locations in Italy and France late in the book), and the mystery of character that carry this novel. We only get Andy’s perspective, and because of Andy’s trauma, her self-deceit, her constant bid to reinvent herself, and her caginess, we remain unclear on much of her own internal workings; certainly the other characters are enigmas. The slow reveal of each friend’s motives, what they knew and didn’t know, makes for the most interesting mystery of this thriller.

The audio production by Kristin Atherton is lovely, with voices and accents and reinforcement of that all-important atmosphere. I definitely recommend this format.

Final verdict? Not the most masterful thriller I’ve ever encountered, but absorbing and entertaining, and did surprise me at its end. Worth the time.


Rating: 7 sodden-looking sheep.

The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams

A shared reading list improves the lives of two lonely individuals in this charming novel about the power of a good book.

In Sara Nisha Adams’s sweet, pleasing debut, The Reading List, two lonely characters in contemporary London–and a host of friends and family–learn just how much books, and other people, have to offer.

Mukesh is grieving after his wife’s death: “Now here he was, alone, still without any clue as to what he should do now she was gone, left in a lifeless, soulless, bookless house that had once been their home.” He wishes he were as close to his granddaughter, Priya, as she was to her grandmother, but he does not share their love of reading. Then he finds an unreturned library book his late wife loved and gives it a chance.

Aleisha, 17, works at the library, but begrudgingly. Her older brother is the reader in the family. Both are slowly being crushed by their mother’s oppressive depression; they’ve lost touch with their friends and even each other, leaving Aleisha alone in the world, traveling between work and home until even the boring local library begins to feel like a sanctuary. In a returned book, she finds a handwritten note that begins, “Just in case you need it,” with a list of book titles. Not knowing why, she tucks it away.

Following a prologue introducing the titular reading list, sections of the novel are named for books (The Time Traveler’s Wife, Rebecca and more); most chapters follow either Aleisha or Mukesh. In interstitial chapters labeled “The Reading List,” other characters interact with the same mysterious document in their own ways–a crime thriller fan grieving a break-up; a lonely divorcĂ©; a young woman who collects lists.

Out of guilt and boredom, Aleisha begins reading the books on the found list and recommending them to the elderly Hindu man who has tentatively begun to visit her library. Together, Mukesh and his teenaged librarian share what they read. Both are unpracticed, but each has much to gain from the developing friendship and the fictional worlds that transport them away from their daily struggles. When tragedy strikes, the friendship and the reading list may help them get through: “‘Aleisha,’ Mukesh said softly. ‘Please try to remember that books aren’t always an escape; sometimes books teach us things. They show us the world; they don’t hide it.'”

The Reading List is a tender novel about human connection and community and the healing power of reading, about the support and compassion that all people need at one time or another. This book is a soothing salve.


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


Rating: 8 cups of chai.

The People We Keep by Allison Larkin

A teenaged singer-songwriter takes to the road, both hoping for and running from an experience of love and acceptance.

It is 1994 in Little River, N.Y., when 16-year-old April steals her neighbor’s car to drive into the next town for an open mic night. She returns the car when she’s done, but the teasing taste of freedom she finds on the road–and the crowd’s positive reaction to her songs–set the standard for the rest of this propulsive novel. Allison Larkin’s The People We Keep is the story of April’s journey away from Little River: escape, both seeking something (home, community) and fleeing from it.

Her mother is long gone and barely remembered; her father alternates between abuse and neglect, but he also gives April her first guitar. It is clear that her music is essentially her only lifeline: “My dad used to say that good folk music is etched with the rhythm of the road. I always listen for it in songs and I find it in the best ones. So when I’m driving, I pay attention to all the noise… and I start my song. It begins like a story in my head….”

April finds her first hope and solace in Ithaca, a town with hippies and colleges and baffling coffee drinks, and where she gets a job and a lover and makes her first true friend. Thanks to her past and trauma, though, she both yearns for and fears attachment; she has to keep moving. The rest of the novel follows April up and down the eastern seaboard, living out of her car, busking and playing bars and coffee shops, finding and losing what she most wants, over and over again.

The People We Keep is intimate, urgent and direct; April’s first-person voice is magnetic, compelling. She is damaged and still so young–years go by and she is still in her teens–but extraordinarily resilient, a “miracle girl who is so full of piss and vinegar that she survived it all.” Just when it begins to feel like she’ll never learn to stop moving, she makes a discovery. “We have people we get to keep, who won’t ever let us go. And that’s the most important part.”

This is a novel of great empathy, about connections and coming of age, built families and self-acceptance. It contains heartbreak and redemption, and a plucky, irresistible protagonist. For any reader who’s ever wished they could go, or wished they could stay.


This review originally ran in the July 1, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 picks.

“The Butcher of Anderson Station” by James S. A. Corey

Just a quickie here: this short story establishes the history of Fred Johnson, aka the Butcher of Anderson Station, in The Expanse universe. It only makes me want more from this series, of course. The story handles two timelines. In one, Colonel Fred Johnson is ordered to retake the captured Anderson Station, and he does so, making what appears to be the wisest military decision along the way. Then he gets some new information. In a parallel story that takes place later, the OPA’s Anderson Dawes wants to talk about it with Fred. The story cuts back and forth between the two. By the end of this quick installment (36 pages, I’m told, in print – I’ve got an ebook version), we see the Fred Johnson that we’ll meet in the bulk of The Expanse. Dawes is also a recurring character; the rest (those central to the novels) are absent here, but it’s absolutely the story of Johnson himself, so supporting characters are mostly extraneous.

This story has it all: space jargon, tough decisions and moral quandaries, interesting characters and rich world-building. It whets the appetite nicely and I’ll be looking for more Expanse, as ever.


Rating: 8 seams.

The Council of Animals by Nick McDonell, illustrated by Steven Tabbutt

A council of animals decides the post-Calamity fate of humans in this wise, witty, perfectly compelling tale of adventure and survival.

In the witty and compelling The Council of Animals by Nick McDonell (Twelve), humans are nearly extinct following an unspecified disaster (“The Calamity”) of their own making. The animals, also sorely suffering in a changed world, gather to debate and vote on the next steps: to allow the humans to live, or to kill and eat them all. This council includes a grizzled, arthritic bulldog; a not-so-bright horse; an underfed grizzly bear; a religious crow; an aloof and possibly turncoat cat; and a bully of a baboon. The belated seventh council member is the source of some trepidation and mystery. When the humans (who mostly remain offscreen) appear doomed, a motley alliance must form, swelling the ranks of animal characters to encompass a trio of moles, a giant lizard that thinks it’s a bat, a small but important scorpion and more. To save humanity, these intrepid creatures will travel and adventure together, learning interspecies trust and new animal facts, and finding hilarity and danger along the way.

This story contains both whimsy and life-or-death consequences, charmingly related with humor and sagacity by a narrator, “a humble historian (or animal contextographer),” who conceals their own identity until the very end. The details of this animal-centered world are endlessly entertaining, as reference is made to “the wallaby who taught Elvis how to sing. The lobsters who elevated Salvador DalĂ­’s conceptual practice. The raccoon who, quite disastrously, advised Calvin Coolidge.” Steven Tabbutt’s deceptively simple illustrations reinforce the storybook impression and advance character development, as when the bear classically addresses a human skull during an existential crisis. While frequently playful, this narrative is not all fun and games: the dog might have PTSD, the baboon has disturbingly dictatorial tendencies and the stakes couldn’t be higher. McDonell’s clever, lively prose and snappy pacing propels readers onward.

The Council of Animals has the feel of a fable, both a romp with sweetly goofy animal characters and a serious and clear-eyed story about the real world and its dangers. “It is the duty of the historian to face the hideous facts, and violence is one.” Ultimately, this is a tale about community and cooperation. Humans may have something to learn from the animals about communication and mutual responsibility: “Even bony zompompers at the bottom of the Marianas Trench like to chat with blue whales now and then.” Thought-provoking, captivating, funny, instructive: this is a book for readers who have ever yearned for a little extrahuman wisdom and cheer.


This review originally ran in the June 21, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 crustacean colonial novels.

Above the Smoke: A Family Album of Pocahontas County Fire Towers by Leanna Alderman and Eleanor Mahoney

Loaned by a friend who found out I’m into fire towers, this book has a particularly local focus, and I dug it. This project began when LeAnna Alderman, as a VISTA volunteer at Allegheny Mountain Radio, interviewed a retired fire lookout, and was so absorbed that she pursued more such interviews. She left the station before she could finish the collection, which was continued by Eleanor Mahoney (also a VISTA volunteer) until this book was built and eventually published some six years after Alderman’s first interview. It consists of three main sections: background on fire lookouts and fire suppression efforts in the US and in Appalachia, including the Depression and the CCC; information on each of the twelve towers in Pocahontas County; and best and finally, twelve interviews with retired towermen and one towerwoman, and their family members.

I think this slim book would serve as a good introduction to the idea of lookout towers; I didn’t need that introduction, but found it fascinating as a look at one small region’s relationship to the system. In comparison to the Gila out west (an example I know pretty well), this story involves considerably more emphasis on the Depression and the CCC, and tower use ended precipitously and much earlier in these parts. It was interesting to see the lookouts’ opinions of what came after (smoke spotting via aircraft! which was shortlived) – most were not impressed. And it was interesting to see a small community’s impression of the lookout system in general. As part of a larger network of forestry and roads/infrastructure operations, the lookout towers provided critically needed employment and developed a relationship with the forests, and an understanding of fire prevention a la Smokey the Bear. I did find it interesting that Above the Smoke didn’t deal with the idea that fire is both natural and necessary for healthy forests – a relatively recent idea in the officialdom of forestry (etc.), but important to Fire Season, for example.

I loved learning about a forgotten chunk of old growth: “The 140-acre tract of virgin red spruce forest located near the tower was named the Gaudineer Scenic Area. This tract was never logged because of discrepancies between competing land surveys – this tiny slice of old growth forest survived because it wasn’t on any company’s map!” (I like to think that there may have been some intention in this ‘error’.) And mention of the Thorny Mountain tower was noted – “Hopefully, one day, Thorny Mountain will reopen to the public.” Well, it has, although it’s awfully hard to book. I hope to snag a couple of nights there myself next year.

This book is short and modest in its scope. The interviews themselves remain faithfully in the vernacular, which I enjoyed. They provide a glimpse of life in a particular time and place, and I’m super grateful to the folks who collected these memories for us all. Thanks for the loan, DB.


Rating: 7 cans of peaches.

Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells

This is book six, the final to date, in the Murderbot Diaries series. I am very relieved to learn that there are three more books to come, because I am not done with this fascinating character.

Fugitive Telemetry takes place between Exit Strategy and Network Effect, and I was not prepared for this and really missed getting the next installment in the story as developed in the latter, but there’s still a lot to love here. Murderbot is living uneasily on Preservation Station, and there has been (gasp) a murder, which never happens here, and therefore the regular security forces aren’t really equipped for an investigation. Our favorite bot construct gets drafted (that is, asked nicely by Dr. Mensah) to help out, but (predictably) it doesn’t love working with the security forces, and the feeling is mutual. Murderbot has also been asked to not hack any systems, a promise I’m a little surprised it keeps; this hamstrings its investigative efforts somewhat, and takes us into the realm of more classic detective work. That’s the premise of an excellent review by NPR of this book, and indeed they’ve done so well with it that I’m linking you there in lieu of my own longer review. Check it out: “Murderbot meets Miss Marple in Fugitive Telementry.”

I love everything that happens here, but I remain anxious for a sequel to Network Effect. I want more Amena and more ART and more Murderbot in general. I’m just glad it’s happening.


Rating: 7 limbs.

Born Into This by Adam Thompson

These cunning, clever, piercing stories of marginalized indigenous Australians are both compelling and illuminating.


Adam Thompson’s Born into This is a striking collection of hard-edged, penetrating stories set primarily in the Australian state of Tasmania and wrestling with issues of race, colonialism and individual agency. Every story features Aboriginal characters, generally in the central role; the various experiences and complexities of this identity (which the author shares) form the heart of the stories’ combined impact. The collection is loosely linked by recurring characters and settings: an act of angry protest at the center of one story reappears as a minor annoyance in another. An island on the Bass Strait is home to a family over generations.

The collection opens with “The Old Tin Mine,” a story about a bitter, aging guide at a “survival camp” for city youth, who may be nearing the end of his career. “Honey” offers a cold, brutal, satisfying justice in the face of hate. In “Aboriginal Alcatraz,” a man wrestles with a life-changing decision in the midst of a storm, building to an ironic conclusion. Some stories lead with forceful blows, others sneak in to nag at the back of the reader’s mind: an alcoholic recalls the worst thing he’s ever done; a young man views a current love affair with cynicism. In the title story, a young woman fights an inherited losing battle involving eucalyptus plants. Working in the woods “was like looking into a mirror.” In “The Blackfellas from Here,” a young activist proposes an extreme and perhaps unrealistic, but also perfectly reasonable, resolution to a controversy. These punchy tales question family ties, infidelity, superstition and who has the right to claim Aboriginal ancestry.

Thompson’s characters are stoic, taciturn, often blue-collar. They struggle with racism, exploitative economic systems, class tensions and the disappearing natural world that a culture once depended on. Their reactions to these challenges range from rage to lethargy; their stark stories are frequently, quietly, brutal. The lives and attitudes of these characters vary, offering a revealing set of perspectives on the contemporary landscape. It is not all bleak: Born into This contains as well dark humor and even slim strands of hope. Thompson’s prose style appears blunt at first glance but shows nuance. His 16 stories are unyielding in terms of their values, yet somehow deft, even delicate in their storytelling and various voices. The overall effect is understated: simple, unglamorous lives and events crescendo toward a thought-provoking and memorable whole. Even (or especially) in its quietest moments, this is a haunting debut collection by a skilled writer.


This review originally ran in the June 11, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 eucalypts.

Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin

This strangely delightful debut novel, with its charming, anxious, bumbling hero, crackles with warmth.

Emily Austin’s spellbinding and unforgettable first novel, Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead, stars an unusual hero: Gilda is so profoundly socially awkward, anxious and depressed as to be practically nonfunctioning as an adult. She is perhaps too kind for her own good.

The story begins with a car wreck, when Gilda, who narrates, is struck from behind by a beige van. When she arrives at the emergency room (having driven herself, with a broken arm, because “I do not like to be a spectacle”), she is told, “You are a lot calmer than you usually are when you come in here.” Readers begin to understand that Gilda is a little odd.

From this misfortune, she follows an ad for free counseling and is dismayed to find that it is being offered at a Catholic church (Gilda is an atheist). She is too polite to disappoint the priest who thinks she’s there for a job interview, and finds herself working as the church’s new receptionist–therefore living a double life, posing as a Catholic and sort-of-dating a parishioner’s abhorrent brother-in-law (Gilda is a lesbian). While keeping up this increasingly complicated act she also finds time to worry about her brother (drinking too much) and a missing neighborhood cat, among countless other stressors; topping that list may be the fate of the church’s previous receptionist, Grace, who died under suspicious circumstances. Gilda is obsessed with death, her mind on an endless loop: hit by a bus, choke on a piece of bread, clogged arteries, cancer, apartment fire, malaria, carbon monoxide, lightning strike. Almost without meaning to, Gilda begins investigating Grace’s death, and because she doesn’t have the heart to break bad news, posing as Grace in e-mails to the woman’s old friend. What could go wrong?

Gilda’s anxiety and social ineptitude could hardly be overstated, and she bumbles through life with such painful clumsiness that her story should be hard to read. But somehow, Austin’s remarkable narrative is engaging and snappily paced even when its first-person narrator is lying in a dry, empty bathtub without the will to move. Gilda’s voice is frequently extremely funny, with gut-laugh punchlines made more effective because they are so surprising.

Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead is disarmingly sweet even in its grimness. Gilda is a singularly memorable character. She ponders big questions–“I feel simultaneously intensely insignificant and hyperaware of how important everyone is”–and remains open to all possibilities, sometimes even the good ones.


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


Rating: 8 pots of macaroni.
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