The Everlasting by Katy Simpson Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rating: 8 fishtanks.

Kindred by Octavia Butler

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

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

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

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

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


Rating: 8 aspirins.

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

Ring Shout is a most interesting, slim, swashbuckling adventure story about hunting and fighting the monsters of the Ku Klux Klan. Here, those monsters are literal: ‘regular’ (human) Klan members are called simply Klans by our narrator Maryse, while those who have ‘turned’ are Ku Kluxes, horrifying beasts who love dog meat and wear human skins but are visible to those – like Maryse and her friends – with ‘the sight.’ What we learn alongside Maryse in the course of this story is that Ku Kluxes are not the only, nor even the worst, monsters in this world.

Ring Shout is set in 1922 and begins on the Fourth of July in Macon, Georgia, where Maryse, Sadie and Chef have set up a trap for the demonstrating Klan: a stinking dog carcass laced with explosives. We begin mid-scene and then slowly get to know our heroines. Sadie is an ace with her Winnie (Winchester 1895), and Chef carries a German trench knife, taken off the enemy when she fought in World War I; but she’s earned her nickname through her expertise with bombs. Maryse Boudreaux is from just outside Memphis, where she experienced a trauma as a young girl that has set her on the path she walks now: she hunts monsters. Maryse, Sadie and Chef are backed up by other talented and badass women at a cabin in the woods outside Macon: Nana Jean is an old Gullah woman with powers of prophecy and root magic; Molly is a Choctaw scientist experimenting on the body parts of Ku Kluxes that the hunters bring her; the German widow Emma Krauss is a folklorist and ardent socialist. It is a motley and formidable crew, backed up by a few male allies who mostly serve as helpers and sexual partners but lack the sight. (This novel attacks racism head-on, while its feminism is inarguable but resides in the background. I love it.)

My editor & buddy Dave didn’t love this book, reporting, “It felt like much more of the action-packed, wise-cracking, zombie-slaying kind of horror story than I’d hoped for. I like my menace to be a bit more subtle.” And I think his description is accurate, but it worked for me. Subtlety is not the language of Maryse or her friends; they are in-your-face angry, foul-mouthed, and unapologetic about their rage, passions, and needs.

Chapters are often preceded by ‘notations’ referring to the Shouts that give the book its title. (“A shout or ring shout is an ecstatic, transcendent religious ritual, first practiced by African slaves in the West Indies and the United States, in which worshipers move in a circle while shuffling and stomping their feet and clapping their hands,” says Wikipedia.) These notations are credited as transliterated by Emma Kraus – differently spelled but the same name as the character in the book. I was fascinated, when I looked up the author P. Djèlí Clark, to find that “Phenderson Djèlí Clark or P. Djèlí Clark is the nom de plume of American science fiction writer and historian Dexter Gabriel; he chose to publish his fiction and his nonfiction under separate names so that readers of one would not be disappointed or confused by the other.” (That’s Wiki again.) This leaves me moderately confident that Kraus and her notations are historical truths, but I can’t confirm that with anything I’ve found between the pages of this book.

Clark’s Acknowledgements paint an intriguing picture of his influences for this story, citing

The 1930s ex-slave narratives of the WPA. Gullah-Geechee culture. Folktales of haints and root magic. A few Beyoncé videos. Some Toni Morrison. Juke (Jook) joints. Childhood memories of reading Madeline L’Engle under the shade of a cypress. Juneteenth picnics. New Orleans Bounce. A little DJ Screw. H-town that raised me…

and more. (Yes, the Screw and H-Town shout-outs please me immensely.) I added one book and one album to my list, and went looking for a book I remember from childhood that plays a role in this story. In other words, Ring Shout ranges widely. It is indeed a rollicking mad adventure story, and in that sense easy to read – under 200 pages and action-packed. Entertaining and horrifying. It is a tale of the memory of slavery and of the Klan and violence. It is quietly feminist. (It is also being made into a television series.) I think I’ll be looking for more by this author.


Rating: 7 juleps.

White Shadow by Roy Jacobsen, trans. by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw

This second in a gripping trilogy of home, place and relationships sees a woman struggle alone, and then less alone, in World War II Norway.

Roy Jacobsen’s White Shadow is the second in his Barrøy trilogy, following The Unseen, which introduced readers to the Barrøy family and the small Norwegian island that shares their name. White Shadow opens: “The fish came first. Man is merely a persistent guest.” It is not a man but a woman, however, who occupies the center of the novel. Now in her mid-30s, Ingrid Barrøy works on the mainland, splitting and salting cod and herring. She “longed to be gone, to be back on Barrøy, but no one can be alone on an island and this autumn neither man nor beast was there, Barrøy lay deserted and abandoned, it hadn’t even been visible since the end of October, but she couldn’t be here on the main island either.”

After paddling back to Barrøy, Ingrid is indeed alone amid the ruins of her family home, until the British bomb a German steamer carrying troops and prisoners of war in nearby waters. In her family’s hayloft she finds a man alive. They do not share a language, but they share much. Hiding her guest from the Nazis and their Norwegian collaborators will send Ingrid away from home again, and it will be another arduous feat to return, but it is always Barrøy for this stalwart protagonist. She stands “suddenly wonderstruck at all the things that had kept her on the island, which in truth were nothing at all.”

Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw, Jacobsen’s prose is as stark and unadorned as the landscape he portrays. His characters are hardworking, worn and stoic against a ruthless natural world, but there is beauty in their strength, and in the harsh simplicity of island life. “It is as it has always been, Barrøy has everything yet lacks something of real importance.” The central setting is limited in its scope, but in Ingrid’s travels she meets a variety of characters, including profiteers and refugees, eventually repopulating her home and tentatively, perhaps, building something new.

While there is a thread of romance here, White Shadow is more a profile of an individual and a culture (“people who never sat down”). It is also a sensory experience of rough conditions and cold, work ethic and strong ties. Ingrid’s community is hard-won and all the sweeter for it. No familiarity with The Unseen is necessary for this second installment, which stands alone comfortably, although the final lines do gesture at questions about the future of Barrøy.


This review originally ran in the March 18, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 herring.

From Hell: Master Edition by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

From this list of horror novels (linked from Shelf Awareness, and thank you for that), I found From Hell, which has been a wild ride. It’s a graphic novel, it’s historical fiction, and yes, it’s horror, but none of these terms suffice. The master edition I invested in was totally worth it for the 40-page appendix (in tiny type) explicating every smallest point of the novel itself, and detailing all the research involved, where fact meets fiction, and Moore’s reasoning behind the conclusions he’s drawn. The meticulous and thoroughly-explained research was its own gripping story, and Moore’s voice in that appendix is frequently hilarious – when’s the last time I laughed out loud at an appendix?! – self-deprecating, clever, and smart. I marvel at what feels to me like rather a new form. (The only comparison, obviously, is the Maus books.)

The novel itself is a fictionalized version of the Jack the Ripper murders, their investigation, and the conclusion(s) drawn and not drawn in 1888 and the years that follow. I entered this reading not knowing much about Jack the Ripper – I knew he was a historical serial killer in London who targeted poor sex workers, did terrible things to them, and was never caught; I think I would have figured his victims at five. That’s about it. I’m not at all sure that a reader more knowledgeable of these events would be a better reader of this work; I had plenty to help me along with the included appendix, although I think I would often have been lost without it. At least, I would have missed many of the subtler references. I strongly recommend the master edition for this reason. On the other hand, with nearly 600 pages, this large-format, hardback work is indeed a phonebook, and I confess I had a few physical difficulties with it: not only size and weight, but somewhat hard-to-read printing (both the tiny-print appendix and the hand-lettered graphic novel) on glossy pages that threw some glare. I had to use more light than I usually do to read. Totally worth it, though.

Jack the Ripper is an interesting case, because it’s very well-known (even if you know as little as I did, you’ve certainly heard of it), but not well-understood. As Moore lays out here, there have been umpteen theories and suspects offered, but few solid conclusions; and now too much time has passed, and we’ll never know who really dunit. There is also something tantalizing about the time period (late nineteenth century) and the intersections of historical figures, of which Moore takes full advantage – those opportunities are clearly part of what’s drawn him to this subject matter. As he writes in a second (graphic) appendix, sort of a meta-narrative about JtR history and research and the birth process of this book, Moore was in 1988 “thinking seriously about writing something lengthy on a murder. The Whitechapel killings aren’t even considered. Too played-out. Too obvious.” And yet here we are.

It is one of Moore’s theses that “in many ways, the 1880s contain the seeds of the twentieth century, not only in terms of politics and technology, but also in the fields of art and philosophy as well. The suggestion that the 1880s embody the essence of the twentieth century, along with the attendant notion that the Whitechapel murders embody the essence of the 1880s, is central to From Hell.” Indeed, this is not just a fictionalized account of a series of brutal murders (and the conspiracies and power structures that executed them), but a carefully research account of 1880s English society, including the roles played by the royals, the Freemasons, law enforcement, medicine and technology, homophobia, misogyny, and economic forces. It is a broad investigation into history across traditional academic disciplinary lines (which is a special love of mine), and again, that appendix makes it a rich study to dip into, leaving me with high confidence in the facts that serve as structure to this fiction. It is broad and rich in concept, too, part ghost story and philosophical probe. There are depths to be plumbed here; a person could write a dissertation on this surprising book.

There’s plots and there’s plots!

I’ve been writing about Alan Moore as if he’s the author of this book – because I understand that he’s the storyteller, and clearly he’s the voice of the appendix. The other listed author is Eddie Campbell, who I understand is responsible for the graphic art itself. He is referred to in the appendix as a separate entity, often humorously: “I have decided to ignore the increasingly surly protests of my co-author, Brisbane’s own Mr. Campbell, and make Victoria herself the instigator of events.” Notably, Campbell is credited for fastidious research for his visuals: “Suffice it to say that any adequate appendix listing Eddie’s sources in the way that I am listing mine would be twice as long as this current monstrosity, which in itself looks set to end up twice as long as the work to which it refers.” The appendix’s self-deprecations amuse me. “[There is another source] to which I would refer the interested reader (I assume there’s only one of you).” I am very open to the occasional self-reference, as when a character in the story predicts: “Mark my words, in ‘undred years there’ll still be cunts like ‘im, wrapping these killings up in supernatural twaddle, making a living out of murder…” and the appendix: “Abberline’s eerily precognitive comments are my own invention. They are also, in their way, a form of shamefaced apology from one currently making part of his living wrapping up miserable little killings in supernatural twaddle. Sometimes, after all you’ve done for them, your characters just turn on you.” You get the point: I am tickled by this narrative voice, and tickled by the research narrative in itself. I can scarcely imagine this book without Moore’s appended guidance; I wouldn’t have gotten half as much out of it.

The novel is horrifying, as is appropriate for its subject matter. It is complex in its explanation of the murders, conspiracies, investigations and cover-ups, including that supernatural angle. I think it’s a hell of a wild ride in itself, but it was the additional material that made this one a complete standout for me personally.


Rating: 9 points of research, decision, and imagination.

Stella by Takis Würger, trans. by Liesl Schillinger

Disclosure: I was sent an advanced reader’s copy of this book for review, originally intended for Shelf Awareness.


Takis Würger imagines a relationship between an inoffensive, rather boring young Swiss man and a German Jewish woman in 1942 Berlin. Friedrich is Würger’s fiction, but the young woman he meets as Kristin is a real historical figure. As a novel, Stella might have worked out in its handling of the troubled love affair, which deals with the layers of mystery and (dis)honesty we wrap ourselves in, set within a developing, expanding, horrifying Holocaust. But this story is too intertwined with those horrors, without adequately dealing with them, and I was left disturbed and unable to recommend it.

The novel opens in Friedrich’s privileged but lonely childhood, his father mostly absent and his mother drunk and abusive. As Hitler rises to power in Germany – a place that is both geographically nearby and psychically distant to the child – his mother, German by birth, is excited, eventually to the point that she leaves her family to go to Munich and cheer the Nazis on. Friedrich, now a young man, decides he wants to see Berlin. He is curious, detached, like a tourist. He notes that the cook in his childhood household – who was kind to him when his mother was not – is Jewish, but seems unmoved.

In Berlin, Friedrich explores, halfheartedly studying drawing; he is bored, until he meets Kristin: she models for his drawing class, she tutors in Latin, she sings in a nightclub. He’s enchanted. She comes to live with him in his hotel room, but remains mysterious; she goes out alone during the days. Eventually she confesses that her name is really Stella, and she is the daughter of “three-day Jews,” who attend synagogue only three holidays per year. This deepens her mystery but does not solve it. Friedrich gradually comes to understand that her freedom to move around Berlin is continually purchased by her betrayal of other Jews in the city. He feels something about this, but the reader feels that he does not feel enough.

The digest-style injections of 1942 current events, month by month, are a wise choice; they keep us rooted in the wider world and horrors of this setting, when Friedrich is in real danger of forgetting them.

Stella has a tone of listlessness or ennui, of not quite caring enough. The publisher’s copy presents this as “a tortured love story against the backdrop of wartime Berlin [that] powerfully explores questions of naiveté, young love, betrayal, and the horrors of history.” As a consideration of young love, it could have been moderately successful. But the use of that backdrop makes me very uncomfortable. To wield the power of the Holocaust to tell such an uninspired story as this one feels inappropriate. That the narrator loves a woman who causes perhaps hundreds of deaths feels like something that should have been dealt with in some way. The heavy moral questions aren’t addressed at all. I don’t necessarily need for Stella’s character to have been wholly condemned; to make her situation complex and make the reader grapple with that would have been a literary feat. But that’s not attempted. It’s just a facet of her life that is brushed over like her hairstyle and her Latin tutoring gig. I don’t think the novel lives up to the weight of its context; I think it might be exploitative. I’m not able to recommend it.


Rating: 3 random billy goats.

Saint Monkey by Jacinda Townsend

Disclosure: Jacinda is a friend and I love her.


Saint Monkey is a rich novel full of detail, color, sound, and texture. In the 1950s, two girls, Audrey and Caroline, grow up as neighbors and (mostly) friends on the “colored” side of the small community of Mt. Sterling, Kentucky. For all that happens to both of them as they grow into womanhood, it is the rocky relationship between them that’s the heart of this book. Audrey is bookish and quiet (Caroline, in her head, calls her Poindexter), while Caroline is a bit more out in the world; the latter dreams of making it to Hollywood, but it is passive Audrey who gets out. Each girl loses a parent in childhood, and halfway loses the other as well: Audrey’s father is killed fighting in Korea, her mother then descending into the bottle; Caroline’s father brutally murders her mother and is then incarcerated (although not for long). These tragedies do not serve to bring them together. Often halfheartedly, but with enormous talent, Audrey plays the piano, and it is this that gets her spotted by a talent scout and packed onto a train for New York City. There she plays in the house band at the Apollo and gets romanced by a man the reader recognizes at once is not worth it. Meanwhile, back home, Caroline samples the young men in town and chooses not to respond to Audrey’s letters.

The novel alternates between the first-person perspectives of the two girls, so that we get Audrey’s close observations of her beloved friend, her earnest hopes and fears, her tentativeness, then Caroline’s brash, prickly, brave face and the vulnerability underneath. Their voices are distinct, and Caroline’s humor and vernacular is one of the highlights of the book, for me. From both angles, this is a world fine-grained and full of sensory details – rich, lush, dense with them – such that I had to slow down to take it all in. Saint Monkey‘s pace is unhurried; we’re here to look around and think and feel, not rush through lives that are hard enough in the first place. There is plenty of hardship: poverty, various forms of abuse, and the persistent low hum of abuse that is being both Black and female.

Audrey loves her grandfather. She loves living in Harlem and playing at the Apollo, loves the scene and even the music, for all that she approached it lackadaisically at first; she loves the man who becomes her husband, although I don’t. But she loves Caroline most of all. Caroline in turn relates to everything and everyone with a simmering rage, including her childhood friend, Poindexter; but the preoccupation is mutual. For all that this book is wide-ranging and handles well so many subjects – segregation, local culture, settings, music, families, frustration, and Caroline’s exquisite voice – I think it’s most about that intersection between two women who can neither come together nor separate. It’s fairly rare that a book insists that I slow down the way this one did. (I think the last was Giovanni’s Room, which is referenced in this one, of course.) I look forward to reading more like this: vibrant voices and the true emotions of human relationships. Look out for Townsend’s second novel to come from Graywolf in 2022.


Rating: 8 cases of cosmetics.

Maximum Shelf: Outlawed by Anna North

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 16, 2020.


Outlawed by Anna North (America Pacifica; The Life and Death of Sophie Stark) is a wild, ripping western with a firm feminist bent, set in an alternative North America.

“In the year of our Lord 1894, I became an outlaw.” Some decades ago, the Great Flu decimated the national population, the United States government collapsed and, in its place, the people established Independent Towns west of the Mississippi. Ada has grown up in the Independent Town of Fairchild, where she has lived a good enough life. Her mother is a skilled midwife; Ada excels in her own training in the profession and helps care for her beloved three younger sisters. She marries at 17, as girls do when they become able to reproduce, and so begins the serious and sacred work of trying to become pregnant. But when six months pass, then more, Ada begins to worry. To be barren in Fairchild is a crime punishable by death.

At the end of a year, her husband’s family rejects her, and Ada’s mother sends her to the Sisters of the Holy Child, hoping to keep her safe. In the nunnery’s library Ada continues to read and study, seeking the truth about infertility; her mother had taught her, against popular belief, that barrenness was a medical condition and not witchcraft, but the details are not well understood. It is not a wish to have children herself, but Ada’s hunger for knowledge that drives her from Holy Child and further west, to join up with the infamous Hole in the Wall Gang. This band of outlaws is led by the Kid, “nearly seven feet tall, the sheriff said, and as strong as three ordinary men put together. His eye was so keen he could shoot a man dead from a mile away, and his heart was so cold he’d steal the wedding ring from a widow or the silver spoon from a baby’s mouth.” But like everything else Ada has been taught, these stories aren’t quite accurate. The Kid is charismatic, beloved and possibly dangerous in entirely different ways than the rumors insist, and the outlaws are not what they are thought to be. It is only in the West that it occurs to Ada that “perhaps barren wives were not hanged for witches everywhere.”

Outlawed is a delightful tale of adventure, rebellion, the importance of knowledge and the value of family–however family is made or defined. With the Hole in the Wall Gang, Ada finds unexpected freedoms and fluid gender roles, and is forced to consider what she has to offer her new friends and the world. “I don’t think I’m much of a threat,” she tells the Mother Superior when she leaves Holy Child, but her story is just beginning.

In her new life of crime, Ada learns to care for horses, to shoot and to be a member of a community she’s chosen and loves. As the gang plans and attempts robberies, North’s narrative is often lighthearted, with style, humor and a sense of fun, but her protagonist never forgets the high stakes. Ada meets men and women who are not what they seem, including an actor who’s studied male dress, movements and mannerisms because “the male roles were the most prestigious.” She becomes aware of not only gender but also race as a point of prejudice and contention in North’s version of the Wild West. She learns new skills to supplement her midwife training; she treats gunshot wounds and mental illness and comes to be called Doctor. She learns to carry herself differently. But she never stops worrying about the sisters she’s left behind in Fairchild, who are vulnerable to punishment simply for their relationship to Ada, “a barren woman, a discarded wife, an outlaw wanted for cursing women’s wombs even though I had helped coax dozens of babies into the world.” Ada does not take naturally to the business of holding up stagecoaches or robbing banks, but her devotion to her new group of friends forces her to take risks. Eventually she must choose to invest in their future, or strike out on her own again.

Part of the genius of Outlawed is that its feminist themes juxtapose neatly with the traditionally male-dominated western genre. In Ada’s first-person narration, the critical significance of reproduction and fertility seems simply a background element, central to the workings of North’s fictional world, which is in itself curious and thought-provoking. Ada’s voice is perfectly authentic and easily believable: her developing rebellion is organic, born of her love for her family and friends. She is a maverick, and the best kind of heroine: adventurous, innovative, self-doubting but brave, with intense loyalty and a magnetic, compelling curiosity.

Outlawed boasts a lively, quick-paced plot, a well-constructed alternate-historical setting and an indomitable heroine. While North clearly has something to say about gender in society and the politics of reproduction, this novel is absolutely a work of energetic literary entertainment first. For all readers in all times.


Rating: 7 drops.

Come back Friday for my interview with North.

The Secret Music at Tordesillas by Marjorie Sandor

Disclosure: I was sent a copy of this book by the author in exchange for my honest review.


Marjorie Sandor (author of the lovely essay “Rhapsody in Green“) shines a light on the Spanish Inquisition through the voice and music of one man with her historical novel The Secret Music at Tordesillas. It is 1555, and the Spanish Queen Juana I of Castile, also known as Juana (or Joan) the Mad, has just died at Tordesillas following forty-seven years of gentile captivity. One of the handful of musicians employed for her entertainment is the elderly Juan de Granada, who chose not to leave the palace when the rest of Juana’s retinue did; instead, he remains to be questioned by inquisitors, firstly over the fact that he is not at church. The novel is told in his first-person perspective as he recounts his life for a very specific audience, the commissioner and scribe sent to investigate rumors of a secret Jew at Tordesillas. This choice of narrative voice and audience is the first interesting move by Sandor to bring her subject to light. The ways in which Juan aims to ingratiate himself serve to characterize and set the tone; we are always clear on who holds the power in this transaction.

Juan’s story begins by cycling back to 1492, when the Jewish quarter of Granada was conquered and cleared out, and ten-year-old Juan was baptized. He relates how his family and neighborhood were torn apart and forced to assimilate, how he escaped, and how he came to be a part of Infanta Juana’s household as a small boy. Clutching his father’s oud (“that antiquated ‘lute’ of the Moors”) and already well trained in music, he is lucky to continue his musical education and play for royalty. He travels with Juana to Flanders for her wedding to Archduke Philippe, and then back to Spain; he is rarely away from her, in fact, in all his years. And therefore he is frequently with Inés de Castro as well, one of Juana’s most trusted ladies, and a central figure in Juan’s long life.

The old man sits for hours spinning his story for the commissioner and the scribe; there is a hint of Arabian nights in the way he holds his audience, both those two in the book and us, the readers. Between the times he brings us back to his immediate situation – under threat of the suspicion of his inquisitors – we get lost in the story, the present tense of young boy and then young man and then maturity. Juan and Inés, and others, walk a fine line between dangerous secret Jewish traditions and outward propriety. Numerous cultural, musical, and culinary details mark this tightrope.

I confess I was often confused. Better familiarity with this period in history and Spanish and Jewish cultures would have made me a much better reader for this novel. Perhaps I’m unusually ignorant of this material; if you’re like me in that regard, be prepared to keep close track of the details, and perhaps to do a little research as you go.

One of the first things I notice about Sandor’s writing is its lyricism, which is fitting since this is a novel about music and the appreciation of music. I was unfamiliar as well with the implications of musical instruments and styles, but didn’t feel troubled about that; the way Juan talks about his family background and the significance of music was effective and affecting. It was often a lovely story to get lost in, even if I sometimes missed a cue. It is also, of course, a disturbing story. “You know how vigilant the pious are. It is their duty to keep an eye on us all.”

It has been a theme for a few reviews now that I’ve gotten a bit bogged down in the middle of a book. Especially after a few such experiences in a row, I guess this is likely to be at least as much about me as about the books in question. This story is both lovely and absorbing; I don’t know what to say about my small struggles. Perhaps because of my unfamiliarity with the historical period, I was not the perfect audience. There is always so much more to learn!


Rating: 7 lemons.

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain (audio)

From the author of The Paris Wife, about Hemingway’s first wife Hadley, comes this novel about his third, Martha Gellhorn. Each novel focuses on the woman first, with Hemingway in a supporting role. This one is told from Gellhorn’s first-person point of view, with very few, brief glimpses into Hemingway’s own perspective – I enjoyed these but I think it was wise to limit them. We follow Gellhorn from young womanhood, early in her writing career, into meeting Hemingway in her 20s – he’s married to Pauline – and into the Spanish Civil War, where Gellhorn finds the talent she will be best known for: she becomes one of the most important war correspondents of the 20th century. The arc of their relationship defines the novel’s timeline, but it is as much the story of the woman. Such a fiery relationship with such a larger-than-life figure as Hemingway does threaten to dominate, but one of the things I love about Gellhorn is that there was so much more to her than this, and I think McLain communicates that.

A little like with The Trespasser, I felt a slowdown in the middle of this book. I’m not sure it’s a criticism of McLain, or simply the fact that Hemingway is a difficult character: mythic, swaggering, enormous, and perhaps difficult to write without becoming a sort of cardboard cut-out who makes dramatic (not to say predictable) pronouncements. I even considered the possibility that I’m a bit sick of him; maybe I’ve read too many fictional treatments of the man. I definitely rolled my eyes at Gellhorn’s hand-wringing and devotion over her selfish, cruel, immature lover, but I had to remind myself that this nonsense is likely perfectly realistic. Which doesn’t make it any easier to sit in.

Whatever that was about, McLain pulled me back. It’s definitely a good strategy, I think, to keep Gellhorn front and center. Along with Hadley, she’s my favorite of Hemingway’s wives; she didn’t entirely take his shit, and had a formidable career of her own. She refused to sublimate, which is why their marriage failed, but it’s why she got to keep herself, too. In the end, I was left feeling really good about this read, although it hadn’t always been easy to take in. Kirkus writes, “Martha comes across as one tough cookie, Ernest as a great writer but a small man,” and well, yes. Welcome to Hemingway.

It’s been a long time since I read The Paris Wife – almost ten years – which I remember loving without reservation. But I suspect I’m a more critical reader now, so I’m not certain at this distance that the first was a better book. Certainly I recommend Love and Ruin for the Hemingway completist, and I think it’s a good overview of the Gellhorn story. Kirkus further writes that “it basically rehashes information and sentiments already available in [Gellhorn’s] own memoir and published letters,” but I don’t know why that has to be such a criticism. Having that information presented in a stylish fictionalization seems like a service, and I found it an enjoyable read.


Rating: 7 rabbits.
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