Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore (audio)

This audiobook, also part of my cross-country travels, was a birthday gift from my mom. Thanks, Mom!

Valentine is a powerful novel. It’s set in Odessa, Texas in 1976: a central West Texas oil town in a harsh environment filled with hard-edged, struggling people. The setting is definitely part of the appeal, as I know Odessa a little and its region a little better, and Elizabeth Wetmore’s striking writing about place I found very affecting and authentic. Mostly, this place comes across as rough, stark, unbeautiful; but a close read will reveal appreciation for the natural world and the people who find something to love in it. These characters are really well done, too. Chapters shift between the points of view of a number of them, with a firmer focus on three or four. All are women: men are only viewed through their eyes. As a woman, in a world of books historically over-focused on men, I appreciated this, too.

Let me get in a content warning before we go too much further: the event the book opens with, which is also the event that the entire narrative centers around, is a brutal and violent rape. It’s described in what I’d call moderate detail, which is plenty disturbing. Readers for whom this may present a problem should avoid the whole thing.

This rape and its aftermath affects all our characters in various ways. Even those who are initially unsympathetic become three-dimensional and complicated when they get their own chapters, in that way that I love: all people are complex, no one all good or bad, no perfect heroes or villains. I love a complication like nothing else. There is even a brief – failed – attempt to understand the perpetrator of the rape; that impulse and its failure both feel real and right to me.

Gloria, or Glory, Ramirez rightfully opens and closes the book. Fourteen years old, the US-born child of an undocumented Mexican immigrant mother, Glory’s life brings race and racism into the story. Valentine is centrally concerned with women’s lives and violence against women, but this layer is important and (of course) related. Then there is Mary Rose Whitehead, young mother of a young daughter, drawn into Glory’s life by circumstance. She rebels against many of the structures of the world around her, in ways that we applaud, but this is no fairy tale, so she will not necessarily triumph. Next comes Corrine Shepard, an older woman, recently widowed and handling her grief with booze, cigarettes and not giving two sh*ts what you think about any of it, which serves her well, to a point. I think of these three women as the core, although there are probably other interpretations – I haven’t counted chapters. Again, there are others who get less spotlight but make important contributions: I’m thinking of the bartender/babysitter/waitress we get to hear from near the very end.

This book covers so much. Race and racism and immigration, women’s lives and violence against women, economics patterns and the dire straits it puts all kinds of people in; the cultural and ecological milieu of a particular place, in a particular time, including what it looks like for an oil boom to hit a town like Odessa, which my friends who live in the region today tell me about: it sounds like it looks awfully the same after more than 40 years. Valentine‘s contents contain a lot of ugliness, brutality, violence, hate, tragedy: beware. But it’s also a beautifully rendered novel. And I appreciate its glimpses of beauty even in Odessa in 1976. It’s masterful, in other words. I’m very impressed, and I’ll be thinking about these characters for a long time.

Thanks again, Mom. Good pick.


Rating: 8 pistols in purses.

In the Field by Rachel Pastan

A Nobel-winning scientist holds the focus of this lovely, contemplative, completely absorbing novel.

“What if Cinderella had asked her mother’s tree to give her a microscope instead of a ballgown?” With In the Field, Rachel Pastan (Alena) offers a compassionate, clear-eyed story of self-determination, love and science. The novel begins in 1982, when Dr. Kate Croft receives a phone call from the Nobel committee, then rewinds to 1923, when Kate is a first-year student at Cornell University, to the disapproval of her family, male professors and classmates.

Kate is entranced by biology, if not obsessed: “The cell was an uncharted country, and she was an explorer newly landed on shore… that was part of the joy of it: the promise of richness that lay ahead. The sense she had of undreamed-of discoveries–unimagined systems and structures–waiting there in the dark to be found.” Socially challenged and estranged from her family, she grows up with a single-minded devotion to her work, despite the struggles of being a woman in a male-dominated field and her difficulties in love.

An author’s note acknowledges that Kate Croft is based on Barbara McClintock, but Pastan makes clear that this is a heavily fictionalized account of the geneticist’s personal life, while remaining accurate to the science. Kate is a “corn man,” in the parlance of the day, studying maize genes at Cornell’s College of Agriculture. Her colleagues accept and respect her to varying degrees: one reports, “People say either you’re a genius, or else you’re off your rocker.” Kate’s greatest joy is in carefully tending her corn, her slides and her data. Other scientists profit off her discoveries (she is a gifted researcher) and deny her credit; she has difficulty accepting help. Meanwhile, she wrestles with her secret love affair with a woman, and maintains a lifelong friendship with a fellow corn man.

The curiosity that drives Kate’s research fuels her love for humanity, too. “Couldn’t people change their natures? Couldn’t they change, the way her corn had changed in the middle of the growing season, suddenly producing leaves with different frequencies of streaks? Something switched on, something else switched off, deep inside the cells.” These questions of free will are as important as those of heredity or meiosis. In the Field excels in its multifaceted view of a complex woman: scientist, lover, friend, student of life in both biology and philosophy. Readers will be better for time spent with this patient, tender, loving examination of a life devoted to examination of life. Kate will stay with readers for a long time.


This review originally ran in the July 15, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 chocolate walnut cookies.

The Travelers by Regina Porter

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

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

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

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


Rating: 8 pieces of pecan pie.

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.
%d bloggers like this: