The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe

Janelle Monáe’s book is a collection of linked stories – quite long ones – with a handful of coauthors listed, by story (see image below). As the subtitle indicates, the book is a companion, or an expansion, of Monáe’s album Dirty Computer. I know concept albums, and I know accompanying movies (The Wall being a big one for me), but this is the first time I can remember seeing a book version. The Memory Librarian expands on the album’s worldview, and does some mighty worldbuilding; I am pleased.

The opening Introduction, “Breaking Dawn,” was a bit weird and abstract for me; I felt like I was missing something, so it took me a few pages to engage. But the first story, “The Memory Librarian,” took right off. I had to learn about the world we’re in, which was consistent throughout the book – the stories didn’t really have recurring characters (except in the most glancing references), but it was definitely the same world. New Dawn is the authoritarian power, policing its cities and towns with cameras on drones and fearsome Rangers patrolling the streets. People are referred to as computers and must be “clean,” or free from difference, weirdness, subversion, creativity; if they are found to be dirty, they will be cleansed. Notably, queerness is considered “dirty,” and racism is alive and well in New Dawn too. A state-approved drug called Nevermind helps to erase memories; outlaw substances or “remixes” free the mind, in ways that New Dawn absolutely does not approve.

“The Memory Librarian” focuses on a young, ambitious woman named Seshet, with a promising career as (yes) a memory librarian under New Dawn, although as a Black, queer woman she must watch her back hard too. She collects people’s memories (which they can exchange for currency) and helps keep them “clean.” Her own past is mostly lost to her. But then she meets a compelling woman and has to question her relationship to New Dawn, to authority, to her own history, her loyalties and the value of memories and dreams. This story had me fully invested; I was rooting for Seshet and Alethia, and feeling the pressures of their world. Then “Nevermind” introduced the Hotel Pynk, and the gender politics at play even among an apparently progressive feminist enclave. “Timebox” featured a toxic relationship that quite upset but also intrigued me; I think this will be one of the more memorable stories for me. “Save Changes” handles family (and the inheritance of resistance), and “Timebox Altar[ed]” stars children, and brings in more hope than I felt in any previous stories; it has a dreamy, colorful mood that felt good as a way to end the book.

I enjoyed both the stories in their creative concepts and the ways in which they were executed (written). I appreciated the emphasis on the value of diversity (in so many ways) and the importance of art, free thinking, and the freedom to be weird. I liked that these stories trended longer – from 50 to 80-some pages, long enough to get well involved (plus their interconnectedness). I continue to be a Monáe fan, and I’m very impressed with her entry into this different medium. I assume the coauthors brought something useful to that process; and I think it’s worth noting that even though Monáe was joined by a different one for each story, they fit together seamlessly. Someone was on top of the editing. Solid effort; do recommend.


Rating: 7 masks.

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

The Stone Sky is Book three of the Broken Earth trilogy (following The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate). I raced through this series and am now a firm Jemisin fan. I’m just trying to take a breather before I begin the next of her trilogies, to make them last.

Book two left us with a fairly clear trajectory for this last installment: mother Essun and daughter Nassun had been separated for some time (approaching two years) and were at odds. Nassun has found a new parental figure in – of all people – Essun’s former Guardian (and antagonist), Schaffa. She harbors great resentment toward her mother, who was hard on Nassun – for reasons we can perhaps understand, but still hard for a child. (Orogeny may be a fiction, but this parent-child friction is thoroughly familiar.) Essun wants to find her daughter, but sees practicalities as well, and has been developing her own bonds with the community of Castrima, which feels like both a gain and a liability to her. Still the two draw together, and not just because of the mother’s need to be with the daughter. They share an interest in opening the Obelisk Gate, although they mean to do two very different things with that power.

For me, this book fits all the needs of a final book in a trilogy. We got satisfying character development in several corners. The concerns felt like they deepened both in personal realms (Essun, Nassun) and in larger, world-scale areas (literally, the world ending again BUT BIGGER is what’s at stake here; also, development of secondary characters means I care more about the whole world than I did in some earlier installments). By the time we get to the final, highest-stakes scenes, I feel the impact at every level. Pacing is an interesting issue here: I always felt compelled to get back into this story, but I was also able to put it down several times even in the final few scenes. It had a draw on me, but not a compulsory, stay-up-all-night magnetism – and I think this worked out as a good thing, even if it sounds like a criticism at first. For one thing, this book is 400 pages long, so thank you, Jemisin, for allowing me to take breaks. Also, while I felt the momentum of the story, I also felt able to pause and luxuriate in it in a way I found really enjoyable.

Point of view is another super interesting question to consider. Book one, The Fifth Season, was told in third person, in all three subplots. Book two, The Obelisk Gate, was in second person (the “you” voice), with a specific character-speaker addressing a specific character – but I didn’t realize who each of them were until pretty near the end. Here in book three, that same speaker is still addressing the same “you,” but now I’m on board, and it changes the way the story unfolds. It also implies a future, an “after” timeline in which the speaker can address the audience, which is a fascinating trick.

As I consider this series as a whole, I don’t think I’ve given enough recognition to the themes around the environment and climate change, and major, disruptive climate events, which of course are what Seasons are in this world… They are more than the climate events in our “real” world, but analogous, with the addition of a bit more awareness and purpose. Here, Father Earth is a sentient (and sinister – or merely self-defensive?) being, with motivations, prejudices, and grudges. It’s yet another interesting aspect to consider about the world Jemisin has built (especially because I’m more accustomed to Earth being referred to as a mother – Mother Nature, certainly). So much to consider here! and maybe because I’m so enjoying teaching my literature class this semester, but I find myself thinking in terms of some of our elements of fiction – point of view, character, theme – as I write this review. (I just today, in class, compared this novel to Zadie Smith’s story “Crazy They Call Me.” There’s a connection, promise. Extra credit if you figure out what it is.)

I’m rambling now, but that’s still a commentary on this novel and this series, which sends my brain off in all directions. This is good stuff.


Rating: 8 light-starved mosses.

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

Book two of the Broken Earth trilogy went past like lightning, unsurprisingly. (Mild-to-moderate spoilers for book one – but not book two – follow.)

At the end of The Fifth Season, Essun – the latter-day identity of girl we knew as Damaya and the woman we knew as Syenite – was hiking south in a particularly nasty Season, in search of her missing daughter. She had picked up one companion, a strange boy named Hoa, and then another, an equally-but-differently strange woman named Tonkee (who we will learn also wore a different identity in earlier times). The extremely oddball trio had arrived at an apparently abandoned comm (for community) called Castrima, where they had been sort-of-invited, sort-of-taken-prisoner into a hidden but thriving comm underground of Castrima. There, other reunions: Alabaster had also taken up residency, for one. Castrima is a unique settlement in that it tolerates orogenes, even works to attract them and is led by one. That doesn’t mean that all relations are good, though.

The Obelisk Gate alternates between two storylines: that of Essun in Castrima-under (in a Season and under duress), and that of Nassun, Essun’s daughter (the first time we’ve met her). Nassun’s story backs up in time to allow us to follow her from the start of the Season, and her father’s murder of her little brother, until Essun’s narrative present. Essun learns more about the various people (stills, orogenes, and stone eaters) she’s cohabitating with, and continues to learn under her mentor Alabaster, whose own story is drawing to a close. Nassun finds a mentor as well, another character we know (and have decidedly mixed feelings about) from book one. She grows as a mightily powerful orogene and begins to navigate the liabilities of that power. Mother and daughter draw nearer to each other, not geographically but in common traits and efforts. Book three seems sure to follow that drawing-together.

The obelisks themselves, of the title, are important to the outcome of the world in this series; their power and the power to guide and steer them are central to the stories of both Essun and Nassun. But they feel much less important to me than the character arcs and relationships at play – Nassun and Shaffa, Nassun and her father, Essun and Alabaster (and Tonkee and Hoa and Ykka and Lerna, etc.). Plus, the obelisks get a little more technical, both in the science side of the sci-fi and the magic side of the fantasy. And that stuff is always less interesting to me than the human element (even where it’s not entirely clear who is technically ‘human’).

I love, love, love the complex nature of this fictional world and how full and thorough its rules and customs are. I feel well convinced that Jemisin has done the backstory work to know how its parts operate even in ways that aren’t spelled out on the page. It’s compelling and absorbing, a world to lose myself in, which I value highly. I’m excited about book three (and sorry to see the series close, but happy to have bought a whole ‘nother one already!). Jemisin’s characters are convincing: there really isn’t a one of them that I adore and admire entirely, because they all have their considerable flaws. But they’re very real, and I care what happens to them.

This writer is a master.


Rating: 8 boilbugs.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

I got sad that there’s still no sequel to The City We Became, so I chose one of Jemisin’s sci-fi trilogies to try while I wait. And it is so good, you guys. I’m already feeling withdrawal from this fictional world.

The Fifth Season is set in a world that keeps ending. It appears to be much like the world I live in now, only much later? (Or earlier? Sometimes the two can blur.) This world has just one continent, as far as its inhabitants know, and it is a very active one. “Like an old man lying restlessly abed it heaves and sighs, puckers and farts, yawns and swallows. Naturally this land’s people have named it the Stillness. It is a land of quiet and bitter irony.” There are ruins scattered around from previous civilizations, that preceded earlier Fifth Seasons, those times when the puckering, heaving land goes a little nuts (tsunamis, blows [volcanic eruptions] and shakes [earthquakes] being the most common issues) and life becomes extra difficult for a period of years. (The book offers two helpful appendices, one a catalog of Fifth Seasons and the other a glossary of terms, most of which were easy enough to suss out by context clues, anyway.) Such an unstable world has sprouted an empire (naturally), a caste system, numerous injustices, and policies meant to help its subjects weather the Seasons: storecaches of food, clear divisions of labor, Seasonal Law. This world is peopled by different kinds of people, too. Some of them are “still,” but others have the power to move the earth. These are orogenes (or the derogatory ‘rogga’), and they can use thermal, kinetic and other forms of energy to control and even cause seismic events. Some of them are controlled and wielded in turn, so to speak, by a class of persons known as Guardians. And then there are the stone eaters…

Jemisin’s narrative centers around three characters, three woman orogenes, in three different, distressing points in their lives. We learn about the possible paths for orogenes from their experiences. One of them is navigating a Season after having just lost a child. Another has been trained at the Fulcrum, and is now being sent out on a humiliating assignment. And one is just a girl, frightened of her own power and identity, newly embarked on the world. As each woman’s story advances, we learn more about the single world they share. There are secrets to be revealed, but not much goodness. (When I say I miss this fictional universe, it’s not because it’s pleasant.) I love a big, complex otherworld. And I loved these characters – not just the main three, but a few others as well. Jemisin’s characters have facets and nuance. I appreciate characters who can be flawed and problematic and maybe not people I’d even want to be friends with, but with whom I can feel such strong connections. That’s true to life.

Also, there are pirates.

Lovely worldbuilding, full and complex and deeply layered, plenty deep enough to get lost in. Despite the presence of those two appendices, which I didn’t find until the end!, I was always more or less clear on what was happening (also true to life: when are we ever on entirely solid ground?). Great characters, beautiful writing, opportunities for philosophical pondering, and some superlatively clever plotting. This book has it all; what’s not to love? Jemisin is a rock star (no pun intended).

I’ve already ordered books 2 and 3 in this trilogy, obviously. And somebody had the very clever idea to include, at the back of this book, snippets from the first books in two other Jemisin trilogies as well, so I ordered one of those at the same time. Good thing she’s written plenty. Stay tuned.


Rating: 8 kirkhusa.

Archival Quality by Ivy Noelle Weir and Steenz

This is a delightful graphic novel with a few threads that I enjoy: it takes place in a mysterious museum/library/archives setting; it’s a ghost story; it is concerned with mental illness and social justice; its cast departs from your run-of-the-mill beautiful straight white people; and it ends sweetly with an emphasis on friendship. I’m not sure where I got this recommendation, but it was a solid one.

Like most graphic novels, I found this one a quick read – I sped cover to cover in an evening. Celeste Walden has recently lost her library job after a depressive episode; she’s not doing so well, and her boyfriend Kyle is concerned, and she knows she has to get out of the house, but she really doesn’t want to work anywhere but a library again. That’s when she finds the Logan Museum, located in an old building that has also housed a hospital, an orphanage, and a sanitorium at different times. She’ll be an archivist, working nights, digitizing the museum’s images collection. And she is expected to live on premises, in a furnished apartment. Which of course involves things that go bump in the night. Kyle does not approve of this new job, but Cel is determined. Her new boss is disturbingly aloof, but the librarian who trains her is a lovely, supportive woman. And then the mysteries begin.

Cel’s mental illness is handled differently by different characters, including by herself, in ways that are true to life. The ghost story element is moving and involves some larger issues. Cel’s social circle – boyfriend, boss, librarian Holly, and Holly’s girlfriend – is small but impactful. I enjoyed the story, the characters, and the visual representations, which I felt communicated emotions and personalities nicely. I think this book would make a good choice for YA readers on up, and offers some excellent opportunities to discuss several topics that might appeal in middle school or high school classrooms or book clubs. I also enjoyed Weir’s afterword and Steenz’s “confidential files” at the end, which shed light on their friendship and process; the authors’ lives bear on the book, as is often the case. Definitely do recommend. Also, yay for libraries in literature.


Rating: 7 fruit baskets.

Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton

I cannot recommend this to you enough: find something that you believe in, right down deep in the depths of your silvery plumage, and then throw your heart at it, blood and valves and veins and all. Because I did this, the world, though brambled and frothing at the mouth, looked more vibrant; blues were bluer, and even the fetid puddles that collected under rusting cars tasted as sweet as summer wine.

I have so much to say about this book, but in trying to avoid spoilers I think much of it should remain unsaid here.

Hollow Kingdom is set in contemporary Seattle, and its protagonist and most-of-the-time narrator is a domesticated crow. (Chapters do alternate perspectives, so we get a handful of other voices – very colorful ones that make enormous contributions, and come from all over the world. But our star keeps the mic for the majority of these pages.) His name is S.T., which is short for Shit Turd (naturally), and he has enjoyed a good life with his human, Big Jim, and a bloodhound named Dennis with a deathly fear of windshield wipers and alpacas. The book begins “after,” however, and S.T. is here to tell us what happened to Big Jim and his neighbors: we meet the beloved human only in past tense. He got sick and started acting strangely (more strangely than usual), and then his eyeball fell out, and then things went from bad to worse. Eventually S.T. is forced to venture out of the home and into the wider world, where he’ll have to interact with wild crows, for whom he feels mostly contempt, as well as many other forms of nature, likewise distasteful. And he takes Dennis with him, although he feels a similar disdain for the (not so bright) dog, at least at first. S.T. mostly knows the outside world from television and the opinionated Big Jim. And now he’s up against the worst of times with his limited knowledge and his distrust of the natural world – which may be all that’s left.

Among many remarkable features of this unusual novel, I enjoyed S.T.’s voice: salty, foul-mouthed, neurotic, loyal, loving, admiring of humans (whom he calls MoFos – Big Jim’s influence again) and their inventions, sarcastic, self-deprecating and hilarious. He hates penguins (“hambeast-bellied egg timers”) and says of Dennis, “Man’s best friend indeed. More like man’s neediest parasite that would trade you for a bull-penis dog chewy at the drop of a hat.” Squirrels are “five-star sexual deviants” (borne out by later events). The other voices that occasionally interweave with S.T.’s chapters are equally singular, apt, and surprising: there is a Scottish cow named Angus, a young camel in Dubai, and an irascible, tyrannical cat right there in Seattle, among others. (Genghis Cat thinks of his humans as Mediocre Servants, or “dildo-nosed potatoes.”) A very large part of S.T.’s ongoing struggle is wrapped up in his confusions about identity: unmistakably crow, he believes himself to be an honorary MoFo, meant to be human but trapped in black feathers; in the new world, though, he’s going to have to make new allegiances with those who look more like himself. His relationship with Dennis likewise evolves: he begins scornful of the bloodhound’s apparently lesser intellect, but their partnership deepens in tough times, and he discovers that even if Dennis does not talk like the crow does (and as most animals in this world do), he may have a lot to offer. The lessons abound, but Hollow Kingdom never loses its joyful, wacky ridiculousness, even as it gains in wisdom and profundity. Sounds like a hell of a thing, right? This is an unusual and startling book from the first pages, and keeps on surprising to the end.

I also marveled at how many notes I made as I read. I generally make a few notes, but this tight-packed bookmark with overflow onto the other side is rare.

Many of those notes I will not be sharing here because I’m avoiding spoilers. But I can point out that S.T. has a vocabulary: I had to look up formicary, synanthropic, fuliginous, voltaic, collacine, pedipalp, myotonic, and chatoyant. I also loved his use of so many collective nouns: clowder of cats, murmuration of starlings, collacine of maggots, quarrel of sparrows, and of course the constant reference to S.T.’s own murder (of crows) – these are just a few. I’m a big fan of collective nouns.

Hollow Kingdom approaches a few commonly-occurring incidents in literature (which I am still not naming here) with truly fresh eyes. The voice of a domesticated crow navigating an identity crisis in the context of a wider-world crisis is new and inventive. This book is filled with tragedy, but is simultaneously hilarious, hopeful, even joyful.

Trust, it turned out, was a very beautiful and fragile thing with a taste like wild raspberries and experienced only by the very brave.

There are Big Thoughts alongside toilet humor, and commentary on the importance of relationships even in the most bizarrely changing world imaginable. Lots to love. Buxton has a rare and fascinating mind and I love the weird voices she’s created here; I’ll definitely look for more from her.


Rating: 8 Cheetos.

Down Comes the Night by Allison Saft

I found Allison Saft’s Down Comes the Night to be a serviceable YA fantasy/romance, but not the kind of transporting experience (a la TJ Klune) that I’d been hoping for. This one felt more limited to appealing to a YA audience in particular, without the complexity or the writing excellence to bring it into adult readership. It’s not that I disagree with any details from this Shelf review (which convinced me to buy the book), but it never especially wowed me. Good enough. And sorry for the faint praise, but that was my experience.

Wren is the ill-favored bastard niece of the queen of Danu, and a magical healer. Thrown out of royal circles yet again, she takes a chance on an offer from a neighboring lord, to come and heal his favorite servant of a mysterious disease. The servant, however, turns out to be Hal, the most feared magical killer from Danu’s greatest enemy nation. Wren finds herself thrown into intrigue and dangers whose sources she doesn’t quite understand. Meanwhile, as she works to heal Hal for strategic reasons, she finds herself strangely empathetic to this sworn enemy. Is it possible they are more alike than different?

Down Comes the Night has suspense, mystery, romance, fantasy, and some good commentary on war and prejudice. “Maybe the only difference between a monster and a hero was the color of a soldier’s uniform.” “Was it worse for a murderer to hide behind the uniform of a soldier or a gentleman?” Saft’s atmospheric writing is often effective, if a bit heavy-handed. At some point this novel fancies itself a detective story, with our two protagonists teaming up to “investigate” a “case,” but under whose legal system? This part got a bit sloppy, genre-wise, for my tastes, and some of the commentary felt simplistic. Again, perhaps more purely YA than I was looking for. (Does that sell the young adults short? I’m a little out of my realm here.) The romance was satisfying, though.

Final verdict? Easy to read; fine.


Rating: 7 vials.

Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune

TJ Klune is my comfort food reading these days. Under the Whispering Door has all the charm of The House in the Cerulean Sea but a new focus: end of life, death, grief and grieving, and the questions of whether one lived as fully as one might have, and what redemption might be possible. This material has a personal resonance for the author, who lost his partner at an impossibly young age. Despite that heaviness, and the heaviness that we presume, culturally, will accompany these topics, this is still a TJ Klune novel. Death is a new beginning – not one that is all flowers and sunshine, of course; it is accompanied by much pain and trauma, depending on circumstances. But there is hope, even hope for romance, and that romance happens to be between two men, in a beautiful, whimsical, hilariously misfit tea shop that is also a waystation for the recently deceased.

“You’re awfully strange.”

He heard the smile in her voice. “Thank you. That might be the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me. You’re awfully strange too, Wallace Price.”

Where Cerulean featured magical orphans and a socially awkward but well-meaning orphanage inspector, our little built family this time includes a few dead (one a sweet, goofy dog), a few living, and an initially deeply unlikeable lawyer. Three of the five central characters, Klune notes in his Acknowledgements, are people of color, while the author is white, and he emphasizes the important contributions of his sensitivity readers. I found all of these characters delightful, because if there is one thing Klune does well it is delightful, wacky, loveable, flawed characters (even dead people and dogs). Even the comedic villainess here is sort of a joy. As a YA book about death, this is just charming as can be, and I think truly helpful for those suffering a loss; but it is also never saccharine, which is an easy pit to fall into. In short, I am in for wherever Klune wants to take me next, at the juncture of sweetness, fantasy, profundity, inclusivity, wisdom and pure silliness. Strongly recommended.


Rating: 8 cups of tea, obviously.

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.

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.
%d bloggers like this: