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.

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 divorcé; 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.

This Shining Life by Harriet Kline

A family struggles to honor the loss of one of their own and a remarkable boy works to solve the puzzle of the meaning of life in this poignant, loving debut novel.

Harriet Kline’s This Shining Life opens with a brief prologue: a happy family, a joyful party at sunset. Then the tone shifts. “My dad died. He gave everyone a present before he died. He gave me a pair of binoculars. They smell of books that haven’t been read for a very long time.” This is the voice of Ollie, a boy with certain gifts (sudoku, puzzles, literal meanings) and challenges (socks, hugs, turns of phrase). As the novel considers the death of Ollie’s dad from various points of view and at different points in time, Ollie’s chapters will always begin the same way. “My dad died.”

Ollie’s dad, Rich, was spontaneous, fun-loving, kind and a great lover of cheese. He was a devoted husband to Ollie’s mom, Ruth. Ruth’s sister, Nessa, originally set them up; she and Rich had been best friends since college. Ruth suffers from depression, like their abrasive, troubled mother, Angran; Nessa believes in charging in and grasping life in a firm grip, consequences be damned. Rich’s parents, Gerald and Marjorie, are starched and proper where Angran is bohemian (Gerald says it as if it’s a dirty word) and brusque. They are a motley crew, but all devoted to Rich. In this engrossing story of grief, love and mix-ups, Ollie fixates on the puzzle he believes his father has left him, in the presents he left behind. Because of something Rich said, Ollie believes these gifts hold the secret to what it means to be alive. “I want to do that puzzle now. I want to feel happy like he did. All I have to do is get the answers right.” Time jumps around, so that Rich is dead and alive again, as Ollie attempts to track the gifts Rich has sent to his loved ones and discern their hidden meaning.

In a novel about grief and love and continuing on, these characters are heartbreakingly flawed: Nessa’s pushiness, Angran’s rudeness, Gerald’s blustering into dementia. Shifting perspectives do the essential good of enforcing empathy even in the face of quite bad behaviors. As Ollie single-mindedly pursues the solution to his father’s puzzle, the adults around him seem too caught up in their own struggles to aid him; will they rally in time?

This Shining Life is attuned to the importance of setting, including natural spaces like the waterfalls that dominate this family’s neighborhood, and the deep potential significance of objects, like those fraught gifts that Rich gives. It is a sad story, of course, but also joyful, in the style of Rich delightedly offering cheese at his final party. It proposes that grief and love are inextricable, and that there may be light even in pain.


This review originally ran in the May 27, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 threads.

Home Stretch by Graham Norton

This novel of strong bonds, secrets and small-town Irish life is both sweet and horrifying, and completely absorbing.

Home Stretch by Graham Norton (Holding; A Keeper) wends its way from small town to big city, from Ireland to England and the U.S., and back again, tracking family and community. This aching saga begins in 1987, in a small village in Cork, when six young people are in a car wreck on the way home from the beach. Three are killed, one lies comatose and two walk away unscathed–physically, at least. But their lives, and those of everyone in the village of Mullinmore, are changed forever.

The novel follows these characters over the ensuing decades, most centrally Connor Hayes, the social outcast who was inexplicably driving the car when it overturned, and his younger sister, Ellen. Turned out of town by shame, blame and guilt after the tragedy, Connor lives and works in Liverpool, London and New York City, wrestling with his past and self-loathing. “The task of untangling the mess of secrets that he had created seemed so impossible.” Ellen stays in Mullinmore. A chance encounter in a Manhattan gay bar will eventually reconnect Connor to his distant past and see the next generation get another shot at correcting certain mistakes.

Norton rotates the novel’s point of view so that readers see the impact of the car wreck from many angles. The Hayes family suffers Connor’s survival alongside the grief of the families of the dead, two of whom were on the eve of their wedding. But it is that tangled mess of secrets that will most haunt these characters, and readers, as Norton doles them out teasingly into the final pages.

Home Stretch is by turns charming and harrowing as it accesses some of humanity’s darkest moments and impulses, as well as some of the best. That expert balance of comfort and pain is perhaps the most memorable feature of a novel with complex plotting, twists and turns and characters who do not fit easily into likable and unlikable categories. This is a story of the many kinds of love and betrayal that can hold and haunt people, of filial and community ties and the meaning of home. “This is what homecoming meant. Arriving in a place to discover you’re fluent in a language you’d forgotten you ever knew.” Home Stretch is a riveting narrative, a character study, a love letter to a place and a culture, and a moving coming-of-age story.


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


Rating: 8 pints.

Maximum Shelf: We Are the Brennans by Tracey Lange

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on May 12, 2021.


Tracey Lange’s We Are the Brennans is an utterly riveting debut novel of family ties, secrets and the depths of love. Beware the unintended single-sitting read: this magnetic story has the power to draw its reader from cover to cover in one gulp.

The Brennans are an extremely tight-knit Irish American family living in West Manor, N.Y., just north of Manhattan and “leaning upper middle class.” Mickey Brennan is now widowed, but the memory of his wife, Maura, casts a shadow. They have four children. The eldest, Denny, has a large frame and a large personality. He is half owner of a pub called Brennan’s (or Ó’Braonáin’s, in the Gaelic), begun on a loan from Mickey and Maura and very much the family business. Next in age is Sunday, the only child to have left the neighborhood, much to the family’s chagrin. Jackie is her Irish twin, at just 14 months younger: recently in trouble with the law, he’s moved back home to save money and help out. Shane is the youngest, genial and developmentally disabled, around whom all the Brennans rally. And then there is Kale: Denny’s business partner, a neighbor since childhood, an honorary Brennan–and Sunday’s former fiancé. Aunts and cousins cycle through as well; the charismatic Brennans have a large, comfortable household with a strong center of gravity.

As exceptionally close as they are, the Brennans also specialize in secrets. Denny has not been honest with his wife or Kale about the pub’s poor financial situation. Jackie is the only one who knows why Sunday really left town.

Chapters alternate perspective among these characters, chiefly the four siblings but also the other Brennans and Brennan-adjacents. There is an argument to be made for Sunday as main character; she was the glue that held this clan together, and it is her homecoming that sets the novel’s events in motion. But the book’s title points toward the family unit as central; their inextricability is compelling, unique and apparently infallible. Each chapter ends with a line of dialogue that also opens the next chapter, but from a different point of view, which contributes to the momentum that will keep you up all night to finish this book in one go. The effect is nearly cinematic, as if the camera shifts to show the same scene from another angle. This technique also highlights the impact of a deeply bonded family insisting on keeping secrets.

The Brennans are captivating, even hypnotic, for readers as well as for those who enter their orbit in the world of West Manor. In her debut novel, Lange shows a sure hand with characters both flawed and complex: Jackie loves bartending and is a talented painter, although only Sunday supports his art. Kale’s devotion is complete, even when he’s had to navigate the relationship of his best friend (Denny) and his childhood sweetheart (Sunday). Kale’s wife is challenging, but nuanced. Denny’s daughter Molly is sweet and spirited: she embraces her new Aunt Sunday wholly (after sitting her down for a serious talk about the preexisting plan for her to inherit Sunday’s room when Molly turns five). These damaged, fierce, loyal Brennans and their intricate problems will capture readers’ hearts entirely and not let go. Their story has everything: intrigue, crime, heartbreak, therapeutic awakenings and a romance that feels both impossible and inevitable.


Rating: 9 broken glasses.

Come back Wednesday for my interview with Lange.

The Travelers by Regina Porter

Looks like I need a new way to talk about novels like this: huge and sweeping in its scope, but in a neat, tidy package, right at 300 pages. The Travelers opens with a Cast of Characters, like a play, which made me a little nervous, and indeed I needed to use it some throughout, although less so in the second half once I got situated. These characters come from a few families over a few generations. Cast of Characters is followed by Time (“from the mid-fifties to the first year of President Obama’s first term”), Settings of Note (Amagansett, Long Island; Buckner County, Georgia; New York; Memphis, Tennessee; Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Brittany, France; Berlin, Germany; and Vietnam”) and Background, which discusses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which made me still more nervous; what is this book I am entering? But it turned out wonderfully.

Where to begin? Clearly I cannot tell you about all these characters and happenings on several continents over several decades. I’m still not sure how Porter has managed to do it in 300 pages. Among my favorites, though, are definitely Agnes and Eloise, who were lovers as young women in Buckner County, Georgia, but who go on to live long, full, well-traveled lives, while never ceasing to circle each other at least in their minds and at least a little. (“Just because you couldn’t stand someone didn’t mean you no longer loved them.”) The man Agnes marries has an obsession with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that begins when he is serving in the Vietnam War, and remains ties to a trauma from that time period; his odd relationship to an odd play, and its impact on his and Agnes’s two daughters, was a fascinating through-line for me. There are plotlines that are linked to race, as well as gender and sexuality, another expansive dimension to the novel that I appreciate. I think what I’m most marveling at here is the compression: now that I’m trying to tell you about this book, I’m amazed at how much was in it, at how much American history got slipped into a story about regular people.

It’s absorbing. There are some problematic characters that I still felt for, and some downright entrancing characters (like Eloise, who trains as a pilot in homage to her hero, the real-life Bessie Coleman) who I already miss. The overall impression is spellbinding, really. I like that settings recur, and characters appear and reappear in new arrangements with each other – new relationships. These threads form a weave that help this somewhat sprawling plot and cast to cohere. It could have been too much to keep together, but it makes just enough sense, with the recurring connections. Oh, and photographs: chapters are headed by small black-and-white images, and there are a few more within the text. A ‘photo credits’ section is a great bonus. The images come from true history, while the novel is of course fiction, but they add historical authenticity; so this Black soldier in Vietnam is not the one I’m reading about (because the latter is a fiction), but it adds a layer.

I think I’m going to be thinking about this enormous, deceptively slim novel for a long time.


Rating: 8 pieces of pecan pie.

Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi’s reputation is stellar, and her backlist is healthy: six novels besides this one and a story collection, and she’s just 36. (Wow.) With this, my first of her books, I’m adding my voice to the chorus. Oyeyemi is a prodigious talent.

Gingerbread is under 300 pages, but I’m still a little intimidated by the task of saying what all is in it. There are three generations of women in our story from the start, and they remain our focus. Margot Lee, her daughter Harriet, and Harriet’s daughter Perdita make up a very close family, and the titular gingerbread is a family recipe with magical powers, apparently – but literally, or figuratively speaking? They live in London, but Margot and Harriet come originally from a country called Druhástrana, where Perdita has never visited. [I was immediately intrigued by the name Perdita: this word in Latin means lost; it is the name of a moon of Uranus; and it is the name of the heroine of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Which of these undertones is intended or instructive here? Maybe all of them.] “Several prominent thinkers have proposed reclassifying Druhástrana as a purely notional/mythical land”; at any rate, it is unclear how one would get there, or from there to here.

There are magical elements sprinkled throughout, in a book that is mostly realistic; just enough magic, then, to keep me a bit off balance in my reading of this world. Perdita has four dolls that speak (and not just to her); they are like her chorus, in the classical Greek sense. The Lee family gingerbread has powers, certainly. Druhástrana is a land of rather more magic: “She’d seen some plant-vertebrate combinations in the clearings, glassy gazing dormice and owls that earth had risen up around; the ground was growing them, and they looked uncomfortable, as if they’d been stretched and stuffed with straw. There was a leaf that people chewed for relief from pain, and the girl brought this leaf to the plant-vertebrate combinations when she had time; it seemed to make things a bit better for them.” Another girl “had two pupils in each eye; that’s why her eyes looked like bottomless lakes in the torchlight.”

Perdita, being a remarkable 17-year-old, manages a rather extreme act in search of her motherland. As she lays in bed recuperating from this adventure, Harriet sits with her (and her four speaking dolls) and tells the story of her own – Harriet’s – childhood and coming of age. This is the story of growing up in Druhástrana, the legacy of the gingerbread, and Perdita’s heretofore unknown paternity; it’s a story of families and class distinctions, and it takes up the bulk of the novel, right up until the story told at Perdita’s bedside moves into the present, when they get up and go continue to live it.

I love these characters: strong women with strong senses of humor and independence, and wise one-liners. “Everybody around her was living out a different story in which events had different causes and motivations according to how they were perceived.” “Life isn’t ill-natured; it’s just dirt poor, like any other public resource.” Harriet’s anxieties about the intimidating, insular Parental Power Association (what Perdita’s school has in place of a Parent Teacher Association) and its social structure are priceless, hilarious, and relatable.

I’m a sucker for a blend of realism with a few key points of wild unreality, which we find here, and I fell hard for Margot, Harriet, and Perdita. There is a real satisfaction to this novel’s ending, even if it doesn’t tie up all loose ends. I’m definitely in for more from Oyeyemi.


Rating: 8 powders.

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.

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.

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.
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