Yolk by Mary H. K. Choi 

This review from Shelf Awareness prompted me to buy and read this book, and it delivered. I felt fully involved and invested in the lives of Jayne and June Baek, Korean-American sisters born in Seoul and raised in San Antonio, Texas, now living as young adults in New York City. They haven’t been close for years, and now Jayne (our first-person narrator) avoids her sister’s phone calls as she does their mother’s, until June tracks her down on a disastrous third-wheel date and demands they meet. June is very sick. Outwardly, Jayne is the sister with more obvious problems – self-loathing, squalor, harmful sexual practices, generally low functioning as an adult (and some more serious issues that are only gradually revealed). Now that they are sharing increasing challenges, the estranged sisters might just come together again.

As an only child, I have always been fascinated by siblings, whose various dynamics I can only watch from outside, generally with jealousy. One of my favorite things about this novel is its intimate, insider look at the sisters’ relationship, which is troubled (but aren’t they all), love and dislike intertwined with violence and yearning. One of Yolk‘s great strengths overall is immediacy and intimacy, how close we feel to Jayne, in all her messes and flaws. I also really appreciated the writing about place. New York feels right to me, but what do I know; brief sojourns home to San Antonio I am in a better position to judge, and I think Choi (who shares geographical background with her characters) gets it just right. The humid night air and the big skies make me a little homesick, too. The tone of young twenty-somethings dealing with all the madness of life feels pitch-perfect.

Choi includes a brief note at the book’s beginning about some difficult subject matter, acknowledging that she shares some of Jayne’s difficulties and that “for those struggling with body image and food, this story might be emotionally expensive for you.” I had to pause at that phrase, emotionally expensive: I like it. “Sensitivity is a superpower,” Choi instructs us. It is not a novel with an overt message, but I appreciated this one.

I also need to note the loveliness of this hardback book as a physical object: I love the design, the dust jacket, what’s under the dust jacket, and the print on the edges of the pages that continues the image on both dust cover and hardcover. It’s a beautiful piece that feels good in the hand and I’m glad to own it.

Sensitive, funny, raw and often painful – I worried a little early on that I’d taken on something sadder than I needed at this time. But Yolk is a beautiful book about love and hope, too, and with a thread of unlikely romance to it as well. I found it delightful and do recommend.


Rating: 8 glasses of water.

Win Me Something by Kyle Lucia Wu

A young woman must chart her own way, even while quietly craving belonging and home, in this subtle, wise debut.

Kyle Lucia Wu’s first novel, Win Me Something, is a wrenching evocation of yearning in a slim, artful package. The story of Willa Chen, a young woman unmoored in New York City, is defined by liminal spaces and a wish to belong.

In the opening pages, Willa interviews to become a nanny to a wealthy family in Tribeca, even though she can’t quite conceive of what a nanny does. “Maybe I couldn’t imagine these moments because when someone asked about my childhood, my mind clenched and closed like two fists in a pool–fingers squeezing for something to come up with when everything around them was a different kind of matter.”

Willa’s father is a Chinese American immigrant whom she barely knows, her mother a blonde-haired white woman, detached and depressed, who can’t comprehend the microaggressions her daughter faces. Since their divorce when Willa was very young, each has begun a new family, and she feels she belongs to neither. Thus adrift, she enters the Adriens’ household, where she cares for the charming, innocently privileged, nine-year-old Bijou, who studies Mandarin and the violin and cooks coq au vin. Willa feels as unbelonging as ever, but also entranced by the family’s ease, their wealth, their things. “When I looked around their apartment, my veins filled with rushes of want, as if I could see the price tags on everything, as if they would increase my own value.” It’s not that Willa is materialistic, but that she is drawn to the idea of worth suggested by those around her: “I often found myself in friendships with people like this, self-absorbed and sparkling.”

Readers will be engrossed by Willa’s troubled desire to please and her pervasive unease, as she seeks and then deflects the slightest attempt at connection. As she begins to meld into the Adriens’ household, she reconsiders her own childhood and family homes in a series of flashbacks. The subtle racism she encounters is but one thread of Willa’s distress; her estrangement from both of her half-families, and her half-hearted attempts to join the Adriens’, presents a greater challenge on its face, but also stands in for the larger estrangement she feels everywhere she goes, as the in-between spaces of family and race in culture echo each other.

With an eye for just the right detail, Wu offers an understated protagonist, self-defeating but still searching. Win Me Something is a nuanced story of longing, of the paired desires to belong and to strike one’s own path. Willa is a quiet heroine, but unforgettable.


This review originally ran in the September 28, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 dresses.

The Birds of Opulence by Crystal Wilkinson

I know Crystal Wilkinson mostly by reputation; I’ve read a few of the stories from her well-regarded collection Blackberries, Blackberries, and listened to her reading her lovely essay “Praise Song for the Kitchen Ghosts,” here. The Birds of Opulence is her second novel, set in the fictional small town of Opulence, Kentucky. It focuses on a handful of women (and the odd man or two), over a few generations: mostly the Goode and Brown family, and their adjacents.

It opens with these lines:

Imagine a tree, a bird in the tree, the hills, the creek, a possum, the dog chasing the possum. Imagine yourself a woman who gathers stories in her apron.

Isn’t that brilliant? In this chapter, a baby is delivered in a squash field, and the story is told by that baby.

The birds of the title are sprinkled throughout as a throughline, something to watch for; sometimes they are women or girls themselves, sometimes just bystanders or witnesses. They also offer something to the titles of chapters: “The Known Bird,” “Wild Birds on Easter Sunday.” Sometimes these chapter titles are like short prose poems unto themselves: “Warming of Old Bones. New Ways. That Hurting Place.” Wilkinson is a decidedly lyric writer with a gift for resonant lines:

A feeling seeped into Mama Minnie’s bones, a feeling like the return of everything lost. Old-time people from across the waters gathered all around her. She put her bony hand on her hip. Every yesterday converged.

The clamor of her own house grows as faint as secrets while she lets her mind ride the night.

Her mind follows the worn path back to the beginning, and she’s only a little surprised that at this moment she can only think in small disconnected spurts, like an old movie reel spinning: a blue sweater, the smell of pine, a large bird’s nest.

Come to think of it, I think I see myself again attracted to lists, as in that last example.

Chapters also refer to the character(s) whose perspective will be featured, so we move from Mama Minnie (a matriarch and rather a seer) through the generations and to neighbors as well… One or two chapters feel more town-focused than character-focused. “Dinner on the Grounds” in particular reminds me of that story I’ve written about before, “Appalachian Swan Song” by Jon Corcoran, for its unusual first-person-plural point of view. This chapter doesn’t actually take the ‘we’ voice, but has the same feeling of a communal gaze. (I wonder if I sense something common between Wilkinson and Corcoran that is Appalachian in nature.) Finally, chapters are also headed under years: the book moves from 1962 to 1995.

Lovely, lyrical writing and evocation of place and culture are the biggest wins here, but the characters and their interlocking relationships, the trouble in those relationships, feel like they will stay with me for some time. Wilkinson is channeling something that feels a little otherworldly here.


Rating: 8 little black bugs flying at the corners of her eyes.

Maximum Shelf: Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez

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 September 15, 2021.


Xochitl Gonzalez’s Olga Dies Dreaming is a scintillating, eye-opening story of family, legacies, and political and individual struggles, set in contemporary New York City and Puerto Rico. Readers will be entirely captured by Olga and her family, friends and associates as this spellbinding narrative twists, turns and unfolds over the years and miles. Gonzalez’s stunning first novel feels far more expansive than its not-quite-400 pages.

Olga Isabel Acevedo, Brooklyn-born child of Puerto Rican parents, is an ambitious, status-conscious wedding planner to New York City’s upper echelon. “Using a traditional American metric for measuring success,” she is winning: she left the family home for a fancy New England college, has her own business and enjoys a certain amount of fame via glossy magazine and television appearances. She has a large, close-knit family still based in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, but with several holes in it: her loving and beloved father, once a proud political activist and member of the Young Lords, now dead from drug addiction and AIDS; her late grandmother who raised her; and most troublingly, Olga’s mother, Blanca, a militant radical who left the family when Olga was not quite 13. “Achieving liberation will require sacrifice,” Blanca wrote to her young daughter. Olga’s involuntary sacrifice in service of Puerto Rican liberation was to give up her mother to the cause.

Crucially, Olga still has her older brother, Prieto, with whom she is very close. If Olga is a star as wedding planner to Manhattan’s upper crust, Prieto is a supernova, the handsome, popular young congressman representing their neighborhood in Washington: “He wasn’t quite code-switching so much as he managed, miraculously, to speak several languages simultaneously, creating a linguistic creole of hip-hop, academia, contemporary slang and high-level policy points that made Olga marvel…. Olga herself had never learned this linguistic mezcla that her brother had perfected; this ability to be all facets of herself at once. She always had to choose which Olga she would be in any given situation, in any given moment.”

However well her career is going, Olga feels a void. Blanca writes to her frequently (via go-betweens, from an undisclosed location) to excoriate Olga for pursuing the meaningless, superficial goals of white society rather than working toward liberation for la raza. Prieto, apparently fighting the good fight (if only, their mother writes to him in turn, from inside a broken system), has his own demons and secrets as well.

The plot of Olga Dies Dreaming sees several delicate balances begin to upset. Olga’s surface-level achievements show cracks as she questions what she’s actually working toward. She meets a man she may truly like, which exposes a weakness: her people skills, so polished at work, don’t hold up to a situation with real stakes. Prieto’s carefully maintained façade falters, one of his secret insecurities threatened. When Puerto Rico is gutted by the one-two punch of Hurricanes Irma and then Maria, Olga takes a few hits herself. Can she navigate a romantic relationship? Will her brother withstand the latest storm in his private life–and is their bond up to the challenge? Perhaps most significantly: what does Olga have to gain–or lose–if her long-absent mother chooses these turbulent times to make a reappearance?

The masterful Olga Dies Dreaming roams far and wide, encompassing the most obnoxiously petty, overindulged weddings of the 1% and the dire straits of rural Puerto Ricans lacking clean drinking water, food or electricity. Such range could get unwieldy in less capable hands, but Gonzalez has a firm grasp of her plot threads. With lively, clever prose and adept political commentary, this novel asks questions about race and assimilation, about government corruption and capitalism, about gentrification and family duty. Olga, Prieto, their aunts and uncles and cousins, Olga’s work associates, casual sexual partners and her new bae: likeable, appalling and everything in between, these characters sparkle with authentic detail. While this is Olga’s story, the point of view does sometimes shift to offer Prieto’s perspective and a few others. Readers (uncomfortably) get inside the head of a deeply unpleasant man of great privilege, for example–aptly named Dick–as well as that of our heroine. Gonzalez is also expert with setting, as her novel travels from the peculiarly organized hoarder apartment of Olga’s love interest to an impressively high-tech rebel compound in the Puerto Rican jungle, an opulent Easthampton beach house and more.

From Blanca’s mysterious and blistering missives come political and ideological rhetoric and intellectual challenges. Olga was named for Olga Garriga, activist for Puerto Rican nationalism, but also hanging over her is the story of Olga from poet Pedro Pietri’s “Puerto Rican Obituary,” who “died waiting dreaming and hating.” These are the extreme options she’s been offered: Blanca’s rigid revolutionary ideal or the unattainable, swank American dream. Instead, in the end, Olga must chart her own path to a third option, one where she might finally find peace.

This novel positively glitters with truth, wit, humor, pathos, trauma, love and pain. Gonzalez’s narrative operates with consummate skill on the level of the individual, the family and the political system. There is much to learn and ponder here about colonialism, corruption and policy. And on a more personal level, Olga casts a spell that will linger with readers long after these pages are closed. Olga Dies Dreaming is simply unforgettable.


Rating: 10 songs.

Come back Monday for my interview with Gonzalez.

Maximum Shelf: Bewilderment by Richard Powers

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 August 23, 2021.


Bewilderment by Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Powers (The Echo Maker; Orfeo; The Overstory) is a novel of great pain and empathy. Focusing on a nuclear family but also concerned with ecological collapse and the possibilities of distant space, this is a heart-wrenching story with an important message to convey.

Theo Byrne is an astrobiologist: he writes programs to explore, hypothetically, distant planets that may host life. His work is at the nexus of science, coding and imagination. But readers meet him first in a still more important role: that of single parent to Robin, who is just turning nine. Robin is a special child: artistic, caring, intelligent. “So far the votes are two Asperger’s, one probable OCD, and one possible ADHD,” but Theo resolutely resists the push to medicate him. Bewilderment begins with father and son in the Smoky Mountains on a camping trip, intended as alternative therapy following yet another outburst at school. It helps Robin immensely, but the larger world awaits. “The cars, the asphalt, the sign listing all the regulations: after a night in the woods, the trailhead parking lot felt like death. I did my best not to show Robin. He was probably protecting me, too.” Robin will not tolerate lies. But how can Theo tell the truth about just how vicious our world really is?

Theo’s wife, Robin’s mother, is absent. Aly was a tireless animal rights lawyer-activist, fierce and indomitable and loving; both man and boy are daily devastated by her loss, which readers slowly piece together: a car accident, swerving to avoid an opossum. “I didn’t know how to be a parent. Most of what I did, I remembered from what she used to do.” The novel is told in Theo’s first-person voice, in constant interaction with Robin; but Aly is ever present, too, as a voice in Theo’s head and to whom he turns for advice. On leaving the Smokies, he appeals to her: “We’re fine together, in the woods. But I’m afraid to take him home.”

Indeed, back in Madison, Wisc., Robin struggles at school and Theo, trying to care for him, falls behind at work. Planetary exploration and the sciences in general are underfunded and under attack by a government administration that blusters and crows on social media. Theo’s research partner refers to Robin as “the boy.” The school pushes harder to medicate him. Many evenings, Theo and Robin travel together in imagination to distant, dreamed-up planets that just might support life. These interludes are gorgeously rendered demonstrations of love and inventiveness. But the real world continues to rattle.

Another colleague makes an unusual offer. Decoded Neurofeedback, or DecNef, allows patients, or “trainees,” to mimic the moods of “target” subjects using real-time, AI-mediated feedback: emotional training via carefully monitored neural states. At nine, Robin is an unusually young subject, but he also has a unique opportunity. Before her death, his mother Aly allowed her own neural activity to be recorded. Now the precocious, troubled, earnest Robin has access to her mental state.

Theo and Robin share an appreciation for the Daniel Keyes story “Flowers for Algernon,” and its implications are not lost in Robin’s own unprecedented experience. Theo continues to agonize over his parenting, life on Earth and life in the beyond: “Decoded Neurofeedback was changing [Robin], as surely as Ritalin would have. But then, everything on Earth was changing him.” Robin sees enormous improvement in his ability to handle his rages and his blues, enjoying learning widely about the natural world, with a switch to home-schooling. He shows an uncanny harmony with and knowledge of his mother’s mind, enough to unnerve his father. But there will come a reckoning. Theo and Robin live in a recognizable version of the contemporary United States, beset by climate disasters, political upheaval and hate, wildfires, ignorance. Even as Robin makes his way as an increasingly well-adjusted young activist, bad news bombards their family from all sides, until disaster strikes. Bewilderment circles back to the Smoky Mountains for a gut-wrenching finish in the same place where it began. “From behind us, upstream, the future flowed over our backs into the sun-spattered past.”

Powers deserves his reputation as a consummately talented writer. His careful, lyrical prose conveys precisely the intended emotion and tone at the right time, and weaves meanings and significances in complex layers. This superlative novel invites readers to meditate on the natural world, human and animal rights, the potentialities of deep space, the role of science and technology in human societies, the challenges of modern childhood and more. “Maybe humanity was a nine-year-old, not yet grown up, not a little kid anymore. Seemingly in control, but always on the verge of rage.” Robin is a delightful character, a bright, sincere, intense child, lovable and challenging. Theo is deeply sympathetic in his dual tendencies toward far-thinking astrobiology and the care of his child (“They share a lot, astronomy and childhood”), and in his fear that he will fail his son. Powers pulls no punches: he portrays a brutal world that will damage Robin, Theo and all humanity in profound and irreparable ways. Bewilderment is a beautifully told story, but one that hurts, too.


Rating: 8 opossums.

Come back Friday for a follow-up in Powers’s own words.

Snowflake by Louise Nealon

Coming of age from an oddball Irish country family in the chaos and snobbery of Dublin’s Trinity College has never been so sweet, funny, moody and real.

Louise Nealon’s Snowflake is a novel that keeps readers guessing, a madcap family drama and coming-of-age saga for Debbie, who has grown up on a dairy farm outside Dublin in an eccentric household. “My uncle Billy lives in a caravan in a field at the back of my house,” it begins. Billy is a bit of a drunk with an unusual interest in constellations and Greek mythology; he keeps the farm running and is devoted to his niece. His sister, Maeve, Debbie’s mother, is less stable. She considers herself a writer and a prophet, fanatically recording and interpreting her dreams. Maeve’s much younger lover, James, “was stitched into his John Deere overalls when he came out of the womb and was born into a family without any land.”

Debbie is now off to Trinity College as a commuter student to study English, but she is deeply self-conscious and without city skills; she spends “half the day scoping out toilets to squat in and take a break” and cry. Her first friend on campus is Xanthe, a young woman of greater experience and privilege but, to Debbie’s surprise, with problems of her own as well. The idea that everyone is suffering something, even unseen, is not a new one, but it is refreshingly presented by this cast of wonky, wonderful, traumatized characters in a chaotic, beautiful, flawed world.

Debbie’s first-person narrative is self-deprecating and endearingly messy. Her life is constantly off-kilter, one wrench thrown after another, and this quality could be too much, but Nealon’s earnestly wacky protagonist pulls it off. Sometimes life is too much, but Billy will have another pint and Maeve will take to her bed and Debbie will muddle through–at least until tragedy strikes. An Irish country farm (with side trips to Dublin and to a dubious beach house) provides backdrop to an unlikely list of themes: mental illness, social awkwardness, art, class, guilt and different kinds of love.

The title offers layers of meaning: a little fun at the expense of millennials like Debbie? A fascinating shape worthy of study and analogous to the stars Billy so loves? Something precious, unique, ephemeral? Snowflake is that sort of novel: twisty-turning, multifaceted, smart, funny even when it is at its most serious. Nealon’s debut shows an expert eye for detail and pitch, and an appreciation for the absurd, the profound and the ridiculous–especially when they converge.


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


Rating: 7 pink dressing gowns.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

It was such a treat to return to the revelatory writing of Brit Bennett with this one – I read The Vanishing Half first but this one was earlier, her debut. The two novels definitely feel like they come from the same hand; The Vanishing Half spanned generations, while this one covers only two decades or so, but still feels expansive, because of the narrative voice (more on that in a minute), and both zoom out to accommodate cross-country travels, so that their scope is large. Both deal with a defined but largish cast of characters and decidedly big issues. In under 300 pages, The Mothers gives the impression of being about capital-L Life in a way that is powerful and well done.

The narrative perspective in this novel is unusual. For good chunks of the text it feels like close third-person, meaning the pronouns are ‘she’ and ‘he’ but the reader has intimate knowledge of the thoughts and feelings of the character highlighted at any given time. But occasionally we get a first person plural perspective: the pronoun ‘we,’ which is rare in fiction. Much is said of the rarity of the second person (‘you’), but I think we see more of that than we do ‘we.’ It made me think immediately of “Appalachian Swan Song,” the opening short story in Jon Corcoran’s collection The Rope Swing, which I love and have taught twice now. In Corcoran’s story, the ‘we’ is not quite defined; my students and I discuss it and feel that it’s the townspeople, or the town itself, the community, in some way. It’s a story very much about place, and the town or some representative(s) of it get to speak. In The Mothers, the ‘we’ gets better defined, although not right at first. ‘We’ are the Mothers of the Upper Room Chapel in Oceanside, California, where the story is most solidly set. These Mothers are the church’s elder women, and they offer nosiness, wisdom, and a long view; they are a Greek chorus of sorts. I really appreciate the effect.

I love the different ways the title works, too. These Mothers who tell the story are an obvious reference point; the book is about motherhood in many other ways, too. Our chief protagonist is Nadia Turner, who we meet at 17, when her mother has just killed herself in rather spectacular fashion (gunshot to the head). She has gotten pregnant with the help of the pastor’s son Luke (that’s the pastor of Upper Room), and had an abortion just before going off to college in Michigan. The couple’s relationship, such as it was, did not survive the abortion, but each remains caught up in the other without knowing it’s mutual. That same fateful summer, Nadia becomes friends with a girl her age named Aubrey. Aubrey is also motherless but by different means: she lives with her older sister, because their mother was guilty of some severe mistreatment (trying to avoid spoilers here). The girls understand early that motherlessness is part of their bond. “Aubrey wondered if they were the only ones who felt they didn’t know their mothers. Maybe mothers were inherently vast and unknowable.” Nadia’s choice not to become a mother at 17 will affect her life, and Luke’s, and Aubrey’s, for years to come. Nadia wonders about her mother’s choice to keep her own accidental teenaged pregnancy. Imagining a world in which she, Nadia, hadn’t been born, and her mother hadn’t turned to suicide: “Where her life ended, her mother’s life began.” You see the layers of significance around “the mothers.”

The novel mostly follows Nadia, but we get to spend time with Aubrey and Luke as well. The community that surrounds them, in Oceanside and at Upper Room, are of secondary importance. It’s a story about family ties and secrets (“After a secret’s been told, everyone becomes a prophet”) and obviously motherhood but much more besides. Race is a background issue – these characters are Black but that’s a simple fact and not The Point of the book. The quietly reset default in that is one I value and I’m trying to mix a little more of it into my reading.

This is a writer I’ll follow anywhere. I hope there are many more to come.


Rating: 9 crab bites.

L.A. Weather by María Amparo Escandón

In a novel alternating between fun and heartbreak, a prosperous, big-hearted, messy family struggles to weather literal and metaphoric disaster in 2016 Los Angeles.

L.A. Weather is a lovely, compelling and occasionally brutal novel by María Amparo Escandón (Esperanza’s Box of Saints) about a family on the brink of disaster, in a city similarly on edge. Captivating, sympathetic, funny characters and never-ending surprises (that even those involved compare to a telenovela) form a world for readers to get lost in.

Patriarch Oscar Alvarado has become a shell of his formerly assertive self; his wife, Keila, a sculptor, is losing patience. Their daughters are Claudia, an author and television chef; Olivia, an architect and mother of twin girls; and social-media maven Patricia. The Alvarados are a close-knit family of successful, high-powered professionals, bridging Oscar’s Catholicism, Keila’s Judaism and their shared Mexican-American heritage in Los Angeles, a vibrant city beautifully evoked by Escandón’s loving descriptions of food, traffic and culture.

In L.A. Weather‘s opening pages, a horrifying accident befalls Olivia’s daughters (parents beware), prompting various responses to trauma and launching the story directly into the Alvarados’ family dynamic and cascading failures. Oscar’s obsession with drought and wildfire may at first seem random, if not nonsensical, but it reflects a secret he’s been keeping from his family, and serves as symbol for their shared concerns. When Keila announces she wants to divorce him, their daughters protest vehemently, although it is soon their own respective marriages that threaten to catch fire. The city crackles with heat as one crisis or shenanigan after another ensues.

“[The] family’s stories were never neatly wrapped up at the end of the year. They just went on, and it felt good, this continuum.” The novel is defined by time, however: Escandón chronicles events from January through December of 2016. Her story is a feat of both plot and character. Each member of the extended Alvarado clan is intriguing and flawed but deserving of empathy; even when they make questionable decisions, they are both convincing and entertaining. Climate change serves as a clever way to monitor the metaphoric fire risk to a family that loves fiercely but stumbles in the execution of that love. L.A. is richly portrayed: “the wildland-urban interface, that zone where nature and city cohabited (or collided?), where your surveillance camera could spot a mountain lion roaming in your backyard while you slept…. [Oscar] could not stop thinking that it was this unashamed human encroachment into nature that was causing so much destruction.” This is a story of people, place and connection. Absorbing, moving, comic and tragic, L.A. Weather will capture readers and never let them go.


This review originally ran in the August 9, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 squash-flower mini tamales.

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.
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