All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Thanks Liz for this fun recommendation, a bit off my usual path, but right in line with The Expanse (remember that series?!). The Murderbot Diaries is a series of sci-fi novellas; book one, All Systems Red, was an easy single-sitting read. I found it took me a little while to engage. The story begins in media res, which has its advantages, but in this case left me a little murky on some of the situational details and I think delayed my reader-brain clicking into gear. Partly this feels like a sci-fi issue (in media res maybe works less well here, where the reader needs to learn the rules of your world?) and partly, as usual, I’m sure it’s a me issue, because I’m not a very experienced sci-fi reader and it’s been a while since I’ve read any.

But once I clicked in I was decidedly engaged. The story is told in first-person (something of the ‘diary’ effect) by a creature who calls itself Murderbot. It’s a SecUnit (security unit) for ‘the company,’ which has been rented out to a survey team doing scientific work on an unsettled planet. (Some features of this world are very similar to that of The Expanse.) It opens quite intriguingly:

I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites.

What is special about Murderbot is this fact, that it has hacked its governor module and therefore has personal agency, which is unusual among its kind. The humans and augmented humans that it works for don’t know this. It has to remember to appear to be following the rules. But the first odd surprise is contained in that first sentence, too: rather than undertake some evil genius scheme, our Murderbot is most interested in vegging out and binging some telenovelas. (It is forever waiting for the humans to take a break so it can watch tv, basically.) This is unexpected, endearing, a little absurd, and very human, despite the Murderbot being not human. It is a ‘construct,’ containing both organic and inorganic parts; perhaps roughly half human and half bot, although it resists that framing. “It makes it sound like the halves are discrete, like the bot half should want to obey orders and do its job and the human half should want to protect itself and get the hell out of here. As opposed to the reality, which was that I was one whole confused entity, with no idea what I wanted to do.” Again, sounds awfully human. “I know I said SecUnits aren’t sentimental about each other, but I wished it wasn’t one of the DeltFall units. It was in there somewhere, trapped in its own head, maybe aware, maybe not. Not that it matters. None of us had a choice.”

In fact, Murderbot’s kind of lazy and a little negligent. “I don’t know… because it’s one of those things I’m not contractually obligated to care about.” When its assigned team of humans gets into trouble, it has to admit that it didn’t even read the info packet that came with this contract, and has no idea who its team is. (It deleted that file to free up storage space for entertainment files. I am tickled by our tv-addicted SecUnit.)

There is an adventure with the humans; there is danger and action and intrigue. But this is all backdrop for the human drama, by which I mean the humans on the assigned team and, primarily, Murderbot navigating its relationship to the humans. We get to know the protagonist a little bit, begin to see it reveal personality (very begrudgingly) and loyalties, even perhaps desires. This world has more than a few elements in common with that of The Expanse, but also, that human drama at the heart of things is what appeals to me in both cases. At the end of this very quick read, Murderbot has an opportunity open up; and then cliffhanger. I’m absolutely in for the next one.


Rating: 7 little hoppers.

“These Precious Days” by Ann Patchett

From the January 2021 issue of Harper’s Magazine, sent to me by the infallible Liz, a transcendent essay by Ann Patchett. Now, I’m not sure if this is for real or how stable it is, but at least for now this link will let you read it for free, which you definitely should do. And it’s worth whatever they want you to pay for it, in any case.

“These Precious Days” is a lengthy essay, but it is riveting at every point. I had to put it down and walk away just to give my mind and my emotions a break, and to stretch it out – it is that strong and beautiful an experience. And it was hard to figure out where to take that break, because it wants to flow right through from start to finish.

There is a story running through this piece, and it is a story of a friendship, formed and forged during extraordinary times. As Patchett reminds us, she is a novelist, with a real interest in how stories are structured, where they begin and where they end. So it is with purpose that she gives us the story’s chosen beginning: it’s almost bedtime, Patchett has just finished a novel, and she needs something short to read before bed. From the umpteen books that naturally surround Ann Patchett, she chooses a collection of short stories by Tom Hanks. She is surprised to find it “a very good book,” and this sets her off on a journey where she gets to know Tom Hanks a little, interviews him for a television show, meets his assistant, sees him a few more times. This leads to Tom Hanks narrating the audiobook of The Dutch House, among other things. I’m not going to say any more about what happens. Trust me, you won’t be able to walk away from this one (unless you force yourself to do so with great effort, as I did, mostly for the pleasure of returning to it).

One thing I love about this essay is how it performs as a braided essay, barely. Patchett stays in a single narrative for the most part, telling the story of the developing friendship in the extraordinary times. After her introductory story about Tom Hanks (who is not the new friend, but reappears occasionally), she stays in this main thread so much of the time, and tells it so beautifully (and it is such an absorbing story) that I forget about the other thread – that there is a meta-thread in this essay about story, and about the shape and the shaping of this story. Those few and brief moments when she reminds us of the other topic are all the more effective for their scarcity. We are reminded that the narrator’s character is a novelist, and that the need she feels to shape narrative can’t be divorced from the life she’s living, where she has a dear new friend who is in danger. It’s extremely skillful writing, and I loved several facets of it: that weaving of threads (just barely, just a touch of one for seasoning in the main dish), the expertly paced storytelling, the appreciation for so-called coincidence, the delightful characters (of whom the author’s husband is a secondary example, but one I really liked), and the self-aware voice of Patchett herself. I’m left with the impression that Patchett is like Tom Hanks in a way (or my impression of Tom Hanks): despite being famous, they’re both also very decent and nice, more than one might expect. She’s allowed us intimately in here in a way that I think will appeal to many readers as it did to me.

Now’s a good time for me to confess that I’ve read none of Patchett’s fiction. (I think I’ve read a column or two, within the world of her bookstore advocacy.) I know her by reputation as a fine novelist and an important advocate of independent bookstores. I can now see that she is absolutely gifted and I need to read more of her work.

I can’t remember the last time an essay so bewitched and transported me. I insist you seek this one out. Thanks a million times as usual, Liz. (How’d I do?)

Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau

In this heartwarming, hilarious novel, a dutiful child from a conservative household becomes nanny to a family of riotous hippies, and her world beautifully explodes.

“I had just turned fourteen, it was 1975, and my ideas about home, furniture, and cleanliness ran straight into me like an umbilical cord from my mother.” In the upper-crust Baltimore neighborhood of Roland Park, Mary Jane’s emotionally distant father thanks God every night at the dinner table for giving him an obedient child. Her world is exceedingly neat and regimented, until she begins working as a summer nanny for the Cone family down the street. This is the summer that will change everything for the protagonist of Jessica Anya Blau’s Mary Jane.

Mary Jane’s first-person narration and extremely limited experience of the world make this story both poignant and tremendously funny. While her own family oozes Stepford-style 1950s values, the Cones are consistently barefoot and scantily clad, and their home is a shock. “I’d never before been in a house where every space was crammed with things to look at or think about (could it be that all messes weren’t evil and didn’t need to be banished with such efficiency?).” Mary Jane’s charge, Izzy Cone, is a completely delightful five-year-old girl with untamed curls, copious energy and few boundaries. And then Dr. Cone (a psychiatrist) moves a patient and his wife into the guest quarters. They turn out to be a heroin-addicted rock star and a movie star, respectively–even Mary Jane has heard of them. She finds herself newly enfolded in boundless affection, acceptance, good humor and nonstop (mostly harmless) shenanigans. How will she reconcile this wild, disruptive, noisy new world with the life she’s known?

Mary Jane is unendingly charming and fun. The lovable Izzy; the messy but endearing details of the Cones’ home life; the surprisingly kind, down-to-earth pair of stars; and Mary Jane’s own earnest, bewildered narration combine for a romping good time. Music is an important thread: Mary Jane enjoys Broadway show tunes (from the shows her mother finds appropriate) and singing in the church choir. Her new “family” at the Cones’ teaches her about rock, soul and blues, encouraging her to sing along, and takes her to visit “Night Train Music: The Greatest Record Store in America.” There is of course a lesson to be learned in this coming-of-age story: “that adults weren’t always right and could be just as confused and make just as many mistakes as kids,” among other things. But Blau’s appealingly naïve narrator is at her best when she leaves such conclusions to speak for themselves and simply wonders at the colorful world just emerging, in this enchanting novel about personal growth and changing times.


This review originally ran in the April 20, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 silverware drawers.

The Everlasting by Katy Simpson Smith

My friend and editor at the Shelf, Dave Wheeler, recommended this book to me. “It did not get the attention it deserves, in my opinion,” he writes. “And it has one of my favorite voices for Satan that I have ever read–this earnest, wry epicurean seductiveness.” If that line didn’t catch my attention! I don’t actually have any other voices-of-Satan in literature that I can easily call to mind, but that is Dave for you: well-read.

The quality he wanted to call my attention to in this novel is the way it shifts its scope back and forth from the miniscule to the cosmic. It has a most interesting structure, beginning with its epigraph from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Adonais:

Go thou to Rome, –at once the Paradise,
The grave, the city, and the wilderness.

The novel is then set in Rome, in eight sections: the wilderness, the city, the grave, and the paradise (and repeat).

“The Wilderness” takes place in 2015 and centers on an American scientist on semester-long fellowship in the ancient city, to study the effects of chemical pollution on aquatic crustacean populations. He is passionate about his ostracods, but also glad to escape his marriage, if only for a few months – the only thing he misses in California is his daughter, who has just begun to lose her confidence as puberty looms. “His worst failing as a father would be if she meekened into him. A moth. A snail.” The scientist is also a bit of a poet, which is seen as a liability in the scientific field, “but Tom didn’t understand how you could avoid them: either the microscope or the poem.”

“The City” is set in 1559 and stars a Medici princess with a disturbing (to the men in her life) irreverence and independent streak. Giulia seems determined to pick fights and clear her own paths; I adore her, and miss her now. When angry Romans begin burning churches and Giulia smells the smoke “snaked in her hair,” she thinks: “Rome had never smelled so nice.”

“The Grave” takes place in 896-897 and introduces us to Felix, a monk assigned to the putridarium, and this delightful place (if it is new to you as it was to me) is where the monastery’s dead are seated upright to decay and self-destruct slowly under Felix’s watchful eye, until their dry skeleton is ready for the sarcophagus. “His tasks were to defend the bodies from desecration in case of heathen raid and to mark carefully the progress of the bodies’ purgatorial decay so he might converse with monks who had fears about mortality.” Felix was a joy for me, as well, with his quietly morbid interests, his sense of humor and play, his contemplations and anxieties. (Considering his fellow monks’ mismatched hairstyles, Felix comforts himself, “Once dead, they’d match up better.”) I never would have expected a monk to feel so like someone I’d like to befriend.

“The Paradise” is set in 165, and its protagonist is a girl of twelve named Prisca, and by the time we meet her for the first time on page 121, we have begun to recognize her name: Santa Prisca is the monastery where Felix lives in 896, where a minor cardinal serves whom Giulia offers to patronize in 1559, and where Tom will stumble through in 2015. Prisca’s faith has a grandiosity to it that might distance her from me, but she is oh so human, and also a very relatable tomboy frustrated by her own adolescence and the world’s blindness: “Don’t be worried; they won’t come for you,” she is reassured. “Then they’re fools,” she replies.

Prisca is the child martyr who in part ties these stories together – there are other threads connecting them, as well. Back to editor friend Dave: the pond in which Tom collects his ostracods “is the axis that the novel spins on, traversing time and space in extraordinary ways.” And there is an object (you know I love these), a fishhook that over these millennia will be handled by each of our four protagonists in turn. “That this was once treasured by somebody – by anybody – was enough to endear it to Felix.” And to me. A novel in four sections, then, in four times, in one place; four protagonists connected by a location and a thing. The zooming of scope from microscopic crustacean to profundities: the meaning of suffering, the tension and wrestling between God and Satan, love. This is a glorious, impressive book.

I loved the ways in which The Everlasting surprised me. Tom, being of my own time, was the character I most related to on first glance, but he was the one I least sympathized with in the end. Giulia was a brash, take-no-prisoners, badass feminist Medici, hiding and deciding how to handle a secret of her own. Felix and his brothers in the monastery are playful and silly. Prisca is both brave and delightfully snarky: a child in 165 is still just a child after all. Also that voice of Satan was just as Dave promised, and I don’t think I can put it any better than he did: earnest, wry, epicurean, seductive. Loving. Wronged.

The mind of Katy Simpson Smith amazes me; how does one conceive of such a story? I love it and its deceptively simple, all-encompassing structure. I am awed. Thanks for the recommendation, Dave!


Rating: 8 fishtanks.

guest review: Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta, from Pops

My father wrote this up to convince me to read the book; but I liked it enough to share it here. He worried about spoilers: “There is also much to say about the story itself, but I didn’t take the time to puzzle over how to do it without spoiling such an unusual book.” But I think it’s a good review, and a good handling of that problem. Some book reviews are definitely harder to write than others! I think he’s talked me into this one, but not sure how soon it will come to the top of my considerable list. Here’s Pops.

First published in Finland in 2012, Wiki says she wrote it simultaneously in her native Finnish language and English; it is now out in English too (2014); she lives in England.

Set in the far off future: China rules Europe, including the Scandinavian Union, which is occupied by the police State of New Qian. Earth has been devastated by severe climate crisis and oil wars, coastal cities completely flooded, infrastructure destroyed by war and accessible fossil fuels depleted. From clever reuse, this impoverished future retains some basic technology like primitive solar power and handheld ‘pods’ that serve as both information source and text communication. Weapons are knives and sabers, with guns seldom used.

Water is an obsession; fresh sources are limited and controlled by the State; water is a form of currency in local barter economy, held and transferred in plastic ‘skins’ in constant need of repair since plastic is no longer produced. Plastic is the common form of reuse, as it has still not degraded; only its usage changes.

Noria Kaitio is the 17 year old daughter and apprentice of a master of tea ceremony, an ancient practice of orchestrated tea serving and contemplation intended for all comers, but in fact an indulgence of the affluent and powerful. Events and thoughts of the Masters of each teahouse have been recorded for centuries in old books. She has inherited her mother’s quest for knowledge; she’s an avid reader of the rare paper books her mother collects, in a world where the State seeks to control all knowledge, especially history.

Her close friend is Sanja Vanamo, same age, who lives in the village and cares for her mother and little sister Minja, who is sickly. Their friendship is very close, but with tension over status difference. Sanja’s family is poor and must scrounge for water; scarcity contributes to Minja’s illness. Sanja is clever and mechanically skilled; she scavenges in the ‘plastic grave’, the landfill of junk, and makes use of it in many ways.

Itäranta is a master of restrained, sensual language and contemplative narrative. The tea ceremony itself sets the tone for the book’s voice, told with Noria in close third person. As readers we are not hurried, and encouraged to savor what we have before us, in the moment. Water is a constant object and metaphor, often depicted as a force in itself, a bottomless well in Noria’s life. For her, water is a complete source of life-giving sustenance: physical, emotional, spiritual. Such passages are brief and concise, scattered amidst narrative that moves along at a deliberate pace, consistent with the leisurely pace of a tea ceremony.

The narrative follows Noria’s life as she is disrupted by constant change. She is sensitive but wise; she is unswerving in upholding her independence when gender roles threaten.

Sounds compelling, and with some unusual literary elements. Thanks for sharing, Pops.

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (audio)

Following on Ward’s excellent (nonfiction) Men We Reaped, I found her earlier novel Salvage the Bones, read by the same narrator, Cherise Boothe. This one I loved less for a while in the middle, but I loved it at the end. And I’m afraid my one real criticism of this novel is my fault and not Ward’s. I’ve read 14 and a half books since I started listening to this audiobook – the shape of my life involves so little listening time these days. The long middle of the book dragged for me; I felt the pacing was off, but it might be the pace at which I took the story in, and not the pace at which the story is told.

Esch is fifteen years old, the only girl in the family. She has three brothers. Skeetah, sixteen, is entirely consumed by his love for his fighting pit bull, the china-white China. Randall, seventeen, is a gifted basketball player, whose friends occupy much of Esch’s attention – especially Manny, who she can’t keep her eyes off of. Then there’s Junior, seven, fed and diapered by Esch and Randall after their mother died giving birth. They live in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and their father is present, but only physically. He is drunk and a bully, and more concerned with hurricane season than his four children. Only halfway into these pages do we hear the name Katrina for the first time.

The novel opens with China giving birth in a poorly lit shed to her first litter of puppies. The whole family gathers round. Skeetah is rapt; his dog and her puppies are his whole world. Esch watches him watching them. He is the brother she is closest to, but China’s motherhood also holds new meaning for the girl, who is just realizing she is pregnant. In the novel’s twelve day span, from the birth of China’s puppies to the aftermath of Katrina’s devastation of their coastal town, that pregnancy feels like the subtext of every other story: Daddy’s obsession with the approaching storm; Skeetah’s obsession with his dogs; Randall’s focus on his sport; Junior’s low-level whining and neediness; Manny’s distance from the girl he treats as sex toy and not human; Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, which Esch is reading for school. This thread makes a significant contribution, even though its screen time (if you will) is brief. Esch is captivated by the strength and singlemindedness of Medea, the crooked model of motherhood she presents. In the world of Bois Sauvage – poverty, lack of parenting, the closeness of siblings who care for each other when no one else does – Medea offers a surprising outside point of reference. Also, I read the same book for school at the same age (under very different personal circumstances), and I found the parallel striking.

There is a stagnant time in the novel’s middle, again, where I got a little adrift. And again, it may have been my slow reading (listening) pace. But Esch takes her time acknowledging her pregnancy; she vomits and can’t get enough to eat; China’s puppies begin to die one by one; Daddy behaves badly; the weather hangs heavy and humid. Actually, the weather and restiveness feel a lot like the time before a hurricane hits. Also, Manny is such a terrible guy that I got sick of him very quickly and was forced to spend more time considering his awfulness than I’d have liked. So there was a hard bit for me in the middle.

But once Manny’s betrayal becomes clear, and the storm begins its approach, things pick back up. The stakes rise before the water does; there is a dog fight, and a human one (or several). In the end, this novel considers the profound effects of Katrina and the fierce love of kids who look out for each other. The account of the storm itself is striking and impactful. Esch is a hero, not a victim.

Katrina: the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive. Left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sunstarved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and saltburned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is a mother we’ll remember, until the next mother with large merciless hands committed to blood comes.

Motherhood is bloody when it is taught by Medea, and by China, the mother who fights and rips, whose white coat is streaked with blood in her victories. Her own mother is gone, so Esch learns this fierceness. It’s not romantic or pretty, perhaps, but it is something to marvel at.

There is no question that this story is beautifully told and I think masterfully told, my problems with pacing notwithstanding (again, perhaps mea culpa). Ward continues to impress. I am hypnotized by the storm, and the storm in Esch. I do recommend this novel, and Boothe’s narration here.


Rating: 8 shoes.

movie: Hemingway (2021)

Obviously I was interested in the new documentary from PBS titled simply Hemingway, and appearing in three episodes totaling just shy of six hours. I’ve read a dozen or so Hemingway biographies and almost all of his fiction and nonfiction, much of it repeatedly. Let’s say I’m a fairly serious Hem scholar for an amateur. But it’s also been a few years. This counted therefore as a good check-in and test of my continuing interest.

I think Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and their team did a good job with the nuance and contradictions, the good and the bad, of this intriguing man, his life and his work. This doc isn’t just about his writing or about the man, but both at once, back and forth, because they’re inextricable. Hem was a truly extraordinary talent, a genius; he was also a bully and a jerk in many ways; he could also, apparently, be a lovely person some of the time. He had an unfortunate tendency to be cruelest to those who most helped him. He profoundly and undeniably changed writing in the English language. He was a very ill man late in his life, in terms of his mental health. And that life was full to brimming of wildly improbable stories (two plane crashes in a row?). He was larger than life, by several measures, and so it’s a hard life to write about. And it’s easy to say (because it’s true) that he was the genius, or the asshole; but it’s harder to say that he was many contradictory things at once. This production handles it very well, in my opinion.

Hemingway constructed his myth, to a large degree, and he made the mistake that all mythmakers do: he thought that he could control it. And there comes a time that you can’t anymore. It’s taken on a life of its own. It became very exhausting to be Hemingway, the Hemingway that the public thought, and let’s face it, when he was in the public he was always in the public eye. And people expected Hemingway to be Hemingway.

–Michael Katakis

The film is packed with still images of Hemingway and the characters surrounding him; his original works; and (more limited) archival footage. It relies heavily on his own work. And it includes interviews with other writers (Tim O’Brien, Abraham Verghese, Mary Karr, Edna O’Brien, Mario Vargas Llosa, Tobias Wolff); Hem’s middle son, Patrick; John McCain (a surprise, but he made some meaningful contributions); and biographers and scholars including Mary Dearborn, Paul Hendrickson, and Michael Katakis, manager of Hemingway’s literary estate.

Even in six hours of close study, I was left feeling like this was an abridgement – and of course it is, when so many (different) biographies have been written, which would take much longer than six hours to take in. That’s the Hemingway nerd talking. It’s impressive what they do accomplish in this time (which of course would be plenty for most viewers). It gives a very thorough introduction to a complicated life. I think the only new-to-me information I noticed was the extent to which the Kansas City Star‘s style sheet prescribed what we think of as the Hemingway style: short, declarative sentences, few adjectives. I loved spending time again with the four women who married this man. They’re so different from each other, fascinating, and strong characters themselves.

He weighs about 200 pounds, and he is even better than those photographs. The effect upon women is such that they want to go right out and get him, and bring him home, stuffed.

–Dorothy Parker

In the end I found this a nicely balanced representation, which shares my view that Hem was both superlatively talented and also deeply, awfully flawed. His work and his life fascinate me no less than ever, and that’s really saying something. I do recommend this documentary, which you can stream online for free here.


Rating: 8 strings above the toilet.

Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley

Within a London apartment building in some disrepair, diverse lives intertwine in an absorbing story of connections and change.

On a nondescript block in London’s Soho district stands a 17th-century building with a decades-old French restaurant on the ground floor. The specialty of the house is snails in garlic butter. On the rooftop, two women bicker and smoke. In the cellar, an encampment of squatters scrapes out a home. On the middle floors, sex workers entertain clients in apartments where some of them also live. Myriad and motley, these characters and their sordid and sympathetic lives form Hot Stew, a compelling, compassionate novel by Fiona Mozley (Elmet).

Precious is an immigrant mother and grandmother. “Everyone assumes ‘Precious’ is the name she adopted on entering the trade,” but it’s her real name. She shares her apartment with her maid and life partner, Tabitha, retired from the trade. One of the brothel’s customers, Robert, an older man retired from a life of crime, drinks at a nearby pub with his friend Lorenzo, a young actor. The pub is also frequented by two of the cellar squatters: a man who does magic tricks and a woman with a heroin problem and a mysterious past. A young man of wealth and privilege reconsiders old connections as he explores the Soho building that ties them all together. Looming dangerously over all their lives is the formidable Agatha Howard, born of a Russian teenager and a fabulously wealthy crime boss septuagenarian. Agatha owns the building where these lives intersect, and she wants to gut it for renovations to increase her profits. But Precious and Tabitha are disinclined to leave, and once the thread of gentrification is tugged, it becomes clear how complex is the weave of an unassuming building in Soho.

Hot Stew is concerned with class, history, legacies, how each person ends up where they do and the degree to which they hold agency over their futures. Mozley’s character sketches are delightful and engaging: detailed, complicated, flawed and beautiful. As the stakes rise for each and as their apparently disparate stories come together, a sense of menace threatens the interconnected human stew. “The men behind the masks aren’t men. They are a natural disaster: a hurricane, a flood.” Just a few of these variously disreputable but lovable characters feel the tremors that have begun to tease at Soho’s underbelly, until it seems that the fates of the building, its inhabitants and all of Soho are one fate. This is a novel of empathy, shared histories and hope in the most unlikely of places.


This review originally ran in the April 6, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 sighs.

The Changeling by Victor LaValle

This is a difficult book to review. I want to use lots of superlatives, and I want to rate it a 10, but with a big asterisk, because I think it should come with a warning label of some kind. I am no longer sure where I got this recommendation from, but I missed a major headline: this is a horror novel, and a truly horrifying one of those, too. I had grasped it as fantasy, which is not wrong but it’s not all. So let me start off here: this is an excellent, mindbending, outstanding novel, but it is likely to upset even hard-to-upset readers (I consider myself one of these). Also, I want you to go in spoiler-free, which makes this review even harder to write.

Shelf Awareness’s review begins:

The Changeling is Victor LaValle’s version of the marshmallow test: forgo the quick thrill of a mass-market mystery/horror and be patient as the author genially paces you through 120 pages of buildup, and you’ll receive the kind of shock that fairy tales are made of.

and I think that part is well done. (I’m not a fan of the rest of it, which gets one important detail wrong and includes a spoiler, and that’s why it’s not linked here. Please avoid spoilers.) Truly, part of why I was so shocked is that those first 100+ pages are so delightful and unhorrifying. LaValle lulled me with the completely realistic, imperfect but sweet story of our protagonist, Apollo, beginning with his parents (white father from Syracuse, Black mother a Ugandan immigrant) and their romance in New York City, Apollo’s birth, and his father’s disappearance when the boy is quite young. Apollo grows up quickly to become a used book dealer (in the best of times, a rare book dealer, but you take what you can get), a kind and driven man. He in turn enjoys his own romance with Emma, a librarian and profoundly independent woman. These are complicated and nuanced people we really like and root for. Their first child, in an unlikely turn, is delivered on a stalled and stranded A train, underground, by Apollo and a few motley fellow passengers; but he is born healthy. Emma appears to suffer from a severe postpartum depression, however. And then things take a strange, strange turn.

I love the characters: Apollo, his mother Lillian, Emma the badass librarian, her sister Kim, her old friend Nichelle. Apollo’s best friend and fellow book dealer, Patrice, is a delightful giant of a man, an Iraqi War veteran with a great sense of humor and a hobbyist’s interest in computers. They’re all fully developed, with small background details that make them real humans rather than types. That these characters are Black is not the point of the book and rarely needs pointing out, except when it very much does (“you and me are two black men sitting in a minivan in the middle of the road in the middle of White Ass, Long Island,” Patrice reminds Apollo. Time to go). That full realization of characters, the round shape of them, applies to the general setting in time and place as well. I can tell that LaValle is an author who knows things about these characters and this world that didn’t make it into the pages; they’re complete like that. It’s a wonderful story to sink into for these reasons. There is commentary on fatherhood: Apollo’s continuing reckoning with his own absent father (and related nightmares), and his role as proud father himself. The passage about New Dads and how they are different from Old Dads is priceless, and self-deprecating: “New Dads do half the housework (really more like 35 percent, but that’s still so much better than zero).”

And then there’s the horror story – which is fantasy and fairy tale too. It’s a delight, actually. I just didn’t have my seatbelt buckled up for it. And if the idea of harm coming to children is a trigger point for you, fair warning here. (Fairy tales can be pretty awful in this regard, to be fair.) When things go south for Apollo, he will have to step out of the modern Queens that he knows and into something more ancient, awful, elemental. “For a moment he pawed through the contents [of his suitcase]: a mattock, some clothes, a children’s book, and a gravestone. This was how you packed for a trip to another world, not another borough.” Just put your seatbelt on.

I am deeply impressed with LaValle’s skills and have just added to my purchase list all of his books: three more novels, a story collection, a novella, and a comic. I’m completely sold. I was horrified! But it was worth every minute for this transporting read.


Rating: 10 moldy hardcovers, but be careful.

Kindred by Octavia Butler

Kindred is interesting to me in several ways. First, Octavia Butler stands out as a Black woman in a genre – science fiction – that is still awfully short on non-men and non-white writers, and was practically devoid of either when she began publishing scifi in the 1970s. This novel, her bestselling and I think best-known, might be more easily classified as fantasy than scifi, although I’m not going to get caught up in that labels argument. (I’ve tagged it as horror, here, too.) Either way, it is also very much realism and well based in history. Our protagonist, Dana, is a modern 1970s Black woman who suddenly finds herself time-traveled into the 1810s. “Time travel was science fiction in nineteen seventy-six. In eighteen nineteen–Rufus was right–it was sheer insanity.” Rufus is a young red-headed boy who she quickly understands has the (unwitting) ability to “call” her to his time when he is in danger; she seems bound to protect him. Because… it turns out he is her ancestor.

So we have the grandfather paradox, which ironically was just the other day explained to me by the character Natasha in The Sun Is Also a Star. Rufus grows into a deeply problematic white man and slaveowner, but she must preserve his life, even facilitate his relationship with the enslaved woman Alice who will bear his children, to ensure her own birth. Talk about tough subject matter and moral relativism. Back “home” in the 1970s, Dana is married to a white man, one of the good ones, named Kevin. But even the good ones may turn out to be a little troubling, especially when Kevin manages to get transported back in time with his wife. In the 1800s, Kevin can help protect Dana by posing as her master, but that only leads to more lines to be blurred.

This scifi/fantasy plot draws heavily on history. My paperback edition includes a critical essay at the back by Robert Crossley, who points out that Kindred is a sort of fictional memoir, following the traditions of slave narratives, which Butler studied closely. Aside from the time travel element, this story could be considered strict realism. And the time travel could be considered a literalization of a more metaphoric need to enter into another time – one far less distant than we are sometimes tempted to feel – and understand it better, because the forces of racism (and sexism) are alive and well. (While race is the forefront issue here, gender is absolutely at play as well, in the dynamics within slavery as well as the modern marriage of Dana and Kevin, among other places.)

Butler’s skills are on display. Dana’s first-person narrative voice is compelling and immediate; we experience panic, fear, rage, helplessness, and more along with her. Her relationships with Kevin and with Rufus, with Alice and with other enslaved people, are complex; the society of slaves offers a few apparent ‘types’ which Butler then immediately complicates, and Dana’s own biases are exposed in the process.

Topically, this is an important book to read and to think about. ‘Purely’ as a novel, it’s a hell of a ride, fast-paced and high-stakes and absorbing. Dana’s voice is compelling and intimate; she’s flawed and complicated and completely believable. It’s one of those stories it’s hard to look away from. Butler’s reputation is well deserved.


Rating: 8 aspirins.
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