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.

Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin

This strangely delightful debut novel, with its charming, anxious, bumbling hero, crackles with warmth.

Emily Austin’s spellbinding and unforgettable first novel, Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead, stars an unusual hero: Gilda is so profoundly socially awkward, anxious and depressed as to be practically nonfunctioning as an adult. She is perhaps too kind for her own good.

The story begins with a car wreck, when Gilda, who narrates, is struck from behind by a beige van. When she arrives at the emergency room (having driven herself, with a broken arm, because “I do not like to be a spectacle”), she is told, “You are a lot calmer than you usually are when you come in here.” Readers begin to understand that Gilda is a little odd.

From this misfortune, she follows an ad for free counseling and is dismayed to find that it is being offered at a Catholic church (Gilda is an atheist). She is too polite to disappoint the priest who thinks she’s there for a job interview, and finds herself working as the church’s new receptionist–therefore living a double life, posing as a Catholic and sort-of-dating a parishioner’s abhorrent brother-in-law (Gilda is a lesbian). While keeping up this increasingly complicated act she also finds time to worry about her brother (drinking too much) and a missing neighborhood cat, among countless other stressors; topping that list may be the fate of the church’s previous receptionist, Grace, who died under suspicious circumstances. Gilda is obsessed with death, her mind on an endless loop: hit by a bus, choke on a piece of bread, clogged arteries, cancer, apartment fire, malaria, carbon monoxide, lightning strike. Almost without meaning to, Gilda begins investigating Grace’s death, and because she doesn’t have the heart to break bad news, posing as Grace in e-mails to the woman’s old friend. What could go wrong?

Gilda’s anxiety and social ineptitude could hardly be overstated, and she bumbles through life with such painful clumsiness that her story should be hard to read. But somehow, Austin’s remarkable narrative is engaging and snappily paced even when its first-person narrator is lying in a dry, empty bathtub without the will to move. Gilda’s voice is frequently extremely funny, with gut-laugh punchlines made more effective because they are so surprising.

Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead is disarmingly sweet even in its grimness. Gilda is a singularly memorable character. She ponders big questions–“I feel simultaneously intensely insignificant and hyperaware of how important everyone is”–and remains open to all possibilities, sometimes even the good ones.


This review originally ran in the June 7, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 pots of macaroni.

Home Stretch by Graham Norton

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

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

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

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

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


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


Rating: 8 pints.

The Murder Wall by Mari Hannah

From Shelf Awareness I got this list of “One Author’s Top 10 Queer Protagonists in Crime Fiction,” which sounded like something I needed. This is the book I chose to buy (and it had to come all the way from the UK).

As a murder mystery, I found this one engaging, not lightning-paced but with enough momentum to pull me right through its 450 pages. In Newcastle Upon Tyne, DCI Kate Daniels is on a career fast track; she’s a favorite of Detective Superintendent Bright, who is also a dear friend. (He and his idealized wife reminded me a bit of Elizabeth George’s Detective Lynley and his Deborah. And Daniels is just a bit of a Havers.) Daniels is not without her secrets, which are uncovered slowly, or her traumas, which we know more or less at the outset: eleven months before this novel’s events begin, she discovered two bodies in a church, whose unsolved murders still haunt her. Now she lands her first case as Senior Investigating Officer, which is a rush–until she sees who the victim is.

Daniels is dogged; she is good; and she has that self-destructive thread that all good fictional detectives, it seems, possess. Her buddy DS Hank Gormley is a treat, too: loyal, smart, funny. All the troops in fact are well written and more or less likeable (there’s always that one guy). This is the start of a series, and the elements I’ll want in a series are all here; I’m ready to follow these characters forward. In the world of murder mysteries, this is a darkish one, focusing on the evil that lurks in some (all?) of us, and the novel does not shy away from sexual assaults (heads up, if you need it). I’m in for more. I will say, though, that the LGBTQ angle isn’t as developed as it might be. If you come to this book chiefly for that element, you might be mildly disappointed. I didn’t necessarily feel shortchanged, because the mystery is strong. Daniels as queer protagonist counts as representation, which is the point of the article that brought me here, and that is significant. Her queerness isn’t central, which cuts both ways: it’s cool that it’s allowed to be no big deal, but it also doesn’t add much as a framing element. Her sometimes-partner is a bit underdeveloped as character, too, but I suspect she’ll come forward as the series does. Daniels is not out at work (this was the breaking point for the erstwhile partner), and her fear of repercussions is a minor plot detail that could also develop nicely; this is the 2000s, but it’s still very true that she’s already at some disadvantage in a men’s world, before inviting homophobia in as well.

I am intrigued and shall continue. I’m also keeping my eye on the possible television series adaptation – that would be fun!


Rating: 7 bags of donated clothing.

Gay Bar: Why We Went Out by Jeremy Atherton Lin

This superb, multifaceted book takes a close look at gay bars individually and as concept, in history and in the author’s life, tackling big questions with wisdom and grace.

Jeremy Atherton Lin brings a wise, wry voice to his masterful Gay Bar: Why We Went Out. This thoughtful study is part memoir, part research project, part travelogue and a large part classic essay-as-assay, seeking answers on the page. His subtitle indicates a wondering: Why did we go out? The answers are various; they change over time and of course are personal for Lin, but he progresses toward an understanding of what the gay bar really was, is and might be. “The question arises as to what distinguishes an enclave from a quarantine, and whether either is any longer necessary.” If gay no longer needs a bar, is this a victory, or a loss?

“A salon of effete dandies engaged in witty banter, a lair of brutes in black leather, a pathetic spot on the edge of town flying a lackluster rainbow flag for its sole denizen–one lonely hard drinker. Of course, a gay bar can be all these things and more.” Gay Bar is a personal history and a history in the traditional, researched sense: it relates Lin’s coming-of-age as well as a world of gay bars, from the scintillating to the sordid, dating back hundreds of years. Seven sections are devoted to locations–bars or neighborhoods–and represent epochs, both in Lin’s life and in the lifetime of the gay bar. Lin’s specific bars are located in London, Los Angeles and San Francisco, over the course of decades. He ranges through LGBTQ topics including protests, hate crimes, the gay rights movement, relationships with law enforcement, Stonewall and Harvey Milk, and gay-bar topics of sexual consent, music, booze, poppers and pills. Lin considers race, gender and class, and questions exploitation and appropriation. His broader subjects include community and identity, bar and nightlife culture, people’s relationships to place and more–this book has something for every reader.

Lin’s writing is consistently intriguing, descriptive and lovely: “the cranes and glassy high rises hover like chaperones.” As narrator he is by turns pensive, funny, self-deprecating, exasperated and reverent; he can be delightfully suggestive. “A pipe spilled chlorinated water. The brickwork had grown mossy down the length of its trajectory, like a viridescent trail-to-adventure on the building’s belly.” Gay Bar is enriched by the voices of others–thinkers in history, philosophy, literature and queer theory–but Lin never loses his own. This exploration is personal, deeply researched, smart and essential.


This review originally ran in the January 29, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 mirrors.

Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood

This classic noir-style mystery recast with humor, female leads and superb style is both satisfying and great fun.

Willowjean Parker (who goes by Will) ran away from home at 15 to join the circus. She’s working on the side, a security job at a construction site–the kind of job women get to do now that “the men who’d usually have taken them were overseas hoping for a shot at Hitler”–when she first meets Lillian Pentecost, the famous lady detective. A few clever deductions and a little knife-throwing skill later, and she finds herself in Ms. Pentecost’s employ, apprentice to the aging lady detective. Stephen Spotswood’s first novel, Fortune Favors the Dead, sparkles with the wit and personality of this bold, unconventional heroine. Will may revere her boss, but readers know that it’s the intrepid younger woman who stars.

In Will’s delightful first-person telling, peppered with vernacular asides, the two women initially clash in a violent midnight action sequence worthy of the kind of pulp novel Will so loves. She now relates this and other stories from a distance of some years, confiding in her readers the difficulties of choosing what to include. The major case she highlights is that of the Collins family: the patriarch dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound, matriarch bludgeoned with a crystal ball following a séance–in a locked room–leaving twins Randolph and Rebecca to tease and manipulate their hired detectives, Ms. Pentecost and Will. The twins’ godfather is now acting CEO of Collins Steelworks; his loyalties are unclear. And the medium and “spiritual advisor” whose crystal ball became a murder weapon is another wild card: she seems to have unusual power to intimidate Ms. Pentecost, which unnerves Will entirely.

This mystery plot has all the twists and surprises a fan of the genre could ask for, but it is Will’s distinctive, captivating voice and background–from difficult childhood to the circus to lady detective–that is Spotswood’s real triumph. Fortune Favors the Dead resets classic noir elements (smoky nightclubs, femmes fatale, unexplained midnight gunshots) in 1940s New York City as experienced by women who like women and men who like men, as Will discreetly frequents a slightly different kind of nightclub, and no one is precisely who they seem. Ms. Pentecost’s expertise and no-nonsense attitude are appealing and entertaining, but gutsy Will, with her snappy, slangy narrative style, ultimately wins readers’ hearts and carries the day.


This review originally ran in the October 2, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 pockets.

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

Extra long review today.

I have owned this book for years and years. I have no idea why it’s taken me this long to read it. I have many times referenced a quotation on page 92: “perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” (My copy of the book falls open naturally to page 92 and the line is highlighted. It’s pretty weird to have this relationship with a book I’d never read before.)

The novel’s narrator is a young man named David, an American who has been living in Paris. The book opens: “I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life.” He takes much of the book, however, to reveal what is so terrible about the morning to come. One of Baldwin’s interesting artistic choices here is a disjointed chronology; the story is told from this night-before-the-terrible-morning, in flashbacks, which sometimes jump backward and forward in time, and then we return to the night and the terrible morning. David had been in Paris with a woman named Hella. When he proposed, she left to go travel in Spain; she needed time and space to think things through. She’s an independent woman. In her absence, David accompanies a sort of frenemy, Jacques, to a gay bar, where he strikes up a conversation with the bartender. (Jacques had intended to hit on him, but got distracted.) This is Giovanni, a young Italian man, with whom David finds interesting conversation, mutual attraction, and a very complicated set of feelings: push/pull, desire/revulsion, love/hate. They go back to Giovanni’s room, and they live together there until Hella’s return some months later, when David leaves (saying nothing to Giovanni) to return to her. She has decided she wants to be married, and David is too bound up and self-loathing to stay with the man he loves. Giovanni is distraught. I will not spoil the plot item that is the “most terrible morning of [David’s] life.”

The story is told in David’s first-person perspective, and it is full of angst and disquiet. I don’t think he’s supposed to be remotely likeable. He’s disappointed in his relationship with his father, in his relations with women (including but not especially Hella), in his feelings for men (before Giovanni, there was a boy in his boyhood as well, though he has repressed this memory), in his view of his own masculinity. He struggles with the ideas of home and belonging, both in terms of geography and identity. He is a miserable partner to Giovanni, and we are left with the impression at the book’s end that David will walk away from these events angsty as ever but materially fine, while Giovanni most certainly does not.

Giovanni’s Room has a handful of themes and angles for interpretation, but there are a few that especially interest me.

For one thing, I think the novel is very much about power structures. Jacques, the friend who takes David to the bar, is older and richer; David doesn’t actually like or respect him but wants to borrow (or “borrow”) money. Giovanni’s (also older) boss at the bar holds an analogous power over his employee: as an immigrant, Giovanni’s work prospects are few, and Guillaume is an egregious sexual harasser. David and Giovanni have a twisted codependency, and the power dynamics within their relationship are complicated. Giovanni works while David keeps house (some basic cleaning duties, but he is clearly anxious about the housewifeliness of it all). David comes from a far more secure background, economically, although he’s effectively broke on the ground in Paris because his father won’t send him any money. By contrast, Giovanni is in real danger of homelessness and starvation if anything goes wrong in his life. David withholds emotional intimacy; Giovanni is always chasing after something he can’t get from his partner. As discussed with my friend Vince, though, I think there’s an argument that each is obsessed with the other, in different ways. Then there is Hella, the strong woman who fled a marriage proposal to travel alone: she returns changed, suddenly dedicated to a life in which she explicitly wishes to be beholden to a man. She’s decided it is women’s only option, only way to truly live. (Vomit: but this is the 1950s.) I think in the end, David’s anxieties about manhood and masculinity, and his distress at his homosexuality (bisexuality?), are in some ways about power structures, too.

On a related subject: the elephant in the room here is that Baldwin’s protagonist is a blonde-haired white man. I felt surprise when I discovered this (as do many readers), which bears examination. Who do we expect to write about whom? Clearly I expected Baldwin, a Black man, to write Black characters. (To be fair, he has done so in all the other works of his I’ve read, but that’s not the root of my assumptions.) Baldwin was also a gay man, and an American who lived in Paris: he gave his protagonist these characteristics of his own, but not race. What does it mean, for one thing. And, this is too big a subject to be properly handled within this review, but it’s also part of the ongoing question about representation in fiction: what identities are represented, by what authors (of what identities), who gets to be the “default,” and on from there. Elsewhere Baldwin has written his frustration that, as a Black man, he’s expected to write about “the Negro problem,” and never allowed out from under that bell jar. Here he just turned his back on the topic entirely (or did he?), and if I felt surprise, or even if I felt a bit cheated, this is a good time to be reminded that he doesn’t owe his readers any content in particular. He is quoted in The New Yorker: “I certainly could not possibly have—not at that point in my life—handled the other great weight, the ‘Negro problem.’ The sexual-moral light was a hard thing to deal with. I could not handle both propositions in the same book. There was no room for it.”

There is an argument that racial tension does appear in Giovanni’s Room. Giovanni is Italian in France, and there is no question that this is a) racial and b) a disadvantage for Giovanni. Baldwin does not go Heart of Darkness with darkness imagery, not in terms of skin tone: when we meet Giovanni, he is “insolent and dark and leonine,” but that is the only mention I found. There is however a lot of darkness imagery in the story: mainly related to spaces being dark, which can be related to their boding ill, to privacy, to queerness, to the shame David feels about this and other liaisons. Based on the above quotation from Baldwin, it sounds like he either did not intend commentary on race, or he didn’t want to acknowledge it; it’s entirely possible that any such commentary was subconscious, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I think there’s an undeniable power imbalance between the blonde David and the Italian Giovanni, which is most explicitly about class, rather than race – but since when have class and race ever been extricable? And let’s keep in mind that Italian immigrants to the United States (where both Baldwin and David grew up) were historically considered very much not white, although that would change shortly after this book was published.

Physical spaces, and a sense of home and the belonging that it entails, make up another theme that fascinates me here. (Recall that line marked in my copy.) As I keep reminding my students: pay attention to titles; they are trying to tell us something. This novel is not titled for the story of David, or of Giovanni, or for love, or death; it is titled for the room. Giovanni’s room is the place where he and David live and love together, a life and love which David feels are dirty, and sinful. It is rather obsessively described and recalled, always in negative terms. Small, claustrophobic, dirty, untidy, in a state of change (“Giovanni had had great plans for remodeling the room and there was a time, when he had actually begun to do this, when we lived with plaster all over everything and bricks piled on the floor”), cluttered, garbage-filled, dark. It is like living underwater. Other spaces where David does sinful things are also dark and dirty, as are corridors, alleys, and the spaces under bridges where men tryst, and the bars where they meet. David leaves Giovanni’s room to go to Hella’s. He never has a space of his own. The book opens and closes in the “great house” in the south of France which he must clean before he leaves it. He is embarrassed for the landlady to see the state he’s kept these rooms in. All of this accrues to anxiety about place and about spaces, and the connection between spaces and the activities they contain. None of which even begins to address the American-expat-in-Paris problem, which is a whole genre of novels unto itself (see also Stein, Hemingway, Henry James). Whew.

[I was reminded of Hemingway often. The American expat in Paris; certain aspects of character, like detachment and resistance to intimacy (others have cited Jake from The Sun Also Rises); a writing style that lends itself both to brevity as well as syntactic complexity; an insecure obsession with masculinity. I wonder if I project my own reading history. But no, Baldwin has named Hem as an influence. It shows.]

In addition to home as irrevocable condition, consider this Schrodinger’s cat between Giovanni and David.

‘…you will go home and then you will find that home is not home anymore. Then you will really be in trouble. As long as you stay here, you can always think: One day I will go home.’…

‘Beautiful logic,’ I said. ‘You mean I have a home to go to as long as I don’t go there?’

He laughed. ‘Well, isn’t it true? You don’t have a home until you leave it and then, when you have left it, you never can go back.’

‘I seem,’ I said, ‘to have heard this song before.’

I’ve heard it before, too: the version I like comes via Maya Angelou in a 1987 interview. “You can never go home again,” is the famously quoted version. The completion of her fuller line is instructive. “You can never go home again, but the truth is you can never leave home, so it’s all right.” Okay, I’m revealing my own obsessions now, but I think it’s safe to say that Baldwin shares them (and David, too).

This review has gotten awfully long, and yet I’ve barely scratched the surface of what there is to interpret and interrogate about this novel, brief at under 200 pages and yet deep and rich. What can I say about Baldwin? Go read him yourself.


Rating: 8 glasses.

The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickels

Disclosure: Carter Sickels (ed., Untangling the Knot) has taught at my MFA program in the past and we have some mutual friends. He was not there during my studies and we’ve never met.


A gorgeous, transcendent book, this novel just captured and held me. I read it in a single sitting; I couldn’t look away. I was drawn in. It was often painful, but often beautiful, and magnetic throughout. I am so grateful to have read two books in a row that received a rare rating of 10 here at my little blog.

The Prettiest Star is set in 1986. Brian is 24 years old when he decides to leave New York City, where he has lived for six years, and return home to small-town Chester, Ohio, in the Appalachian foothills. He is dying of AIDS; his partner has died, along with so many friends and loved ones, and he can no longer stand the city, filled with its reminders of the past. “Home” in Chester is not exactly a friendly place to return to. His father can scarcely acknowledge him, and will certainly not acknowledge that he is gay, let alone his HIV status. His mother feels only a small measure more tenderness, and responsibility, to her son. His sister Jess, now 14, was just eight when he left. No one has bothered to tell her anything about her brother, who she once worshiped but who is now a stranger. The extended family and the larger community don’t offer any better hope of tolerance, let alone support, with one exception: his paternal grandmother, Lettie.

The story is riveting, the characters beautifully nuanced and believable. I think it’s a victory for a novelist to write a character like Brian’s mother, Sharon: we recoil from her intolerance of her son, but we can also sympathize with her misunderstandings of the world. I don’t mean to be an apologist for bigotry. But Sickels is artist enough to show us that it’s not that black and white. (Also, 1986 was a different world.) I have a harder time feeling compassion for the father, Travis – but take note: Brian, Sharon, and Jess all get alternating chapters giving their points of view. Travis gets only one, at the very end of the book. The author’s choice not to let me into his head absolutely contributes to his being more enigmatic and less sympathetic.

Jess is a perfect teenager, conflicted about her body, boys, other girls, her place in the world; crazy (and very smart) about marine biology; rightfully (I feel) upset that the family doesn’t trust her enough to share certain facts about her brother. Each character felt perfectly wrought. I really responded to Brian’s struggles with memory and memorializing, with his own mortality (unimaginable), with his unasked for role(s) as gay and HIV-positive in a community’s gaze. He’s a regular guy, and an artist, and I enjoyed getting to know him.

Sickels’s choice to alternate chapters from the first-person perspectives of Brian, Sharon and Jess was a good one, I think; it let me triangulate a view of the household and get to know several very well-written characters, and feel empathies in tension with each other, which is life. Another layer to this storytelling method: Brian’s sections are the transcripts of the video he shoots, on cassette tapes, with a camcorder (because 1986). He’s documenting his life (and therefore his death). So where we get Sharon’s and Jess’s POVs in the usual novelistic style, as if we were sort of in their heads, we get Brian’s voice more intentionally: he knows he has an audience, although he’s not quite sure who that audience is. (He occasionally addresses his dear, fierce friend Annie, who comes to Ohio to enter the story at a few points.) He’s consciously recording his life, what he sees and thinks and feels, which makes for a different narrative voice than Sharon’s or Jess’s.

Now here I am. Alive, in Ohio, where we do not speak of the dead. Let us pretend. Where are all my beautiful men?

I love it – it contributes to a tone of elegy, of speaking from a beyond, of looking back in time, all of which feels appropriate to this story because of its subject matter, and because it was published in 2020 about 1986.

Let’s talk about that time for a minute. I saw Sickels read from this book and discuss it at a pandemic-distanced event alongside Paul Lisicky promoting Later. (I had planned to attend this event in person, but here we are.) That event prompted me to preorder the book. Sickels took a question about whether this novel is historical fiction, which I found interesting. I was taught in library school that historical fiction is defined as being set in a time period before the author‘s lifetime – meaning, it’s not about the timing of the reader’s experience of the book, but about whether the author mines a lived timeline or one that is historical to him. Without Googling Sickels’s age, I’d venture that he was alive, but young, in the 80s (like me). We are at an interesting distance from this time period: it was less than 40 years ago, easily in living memory of many of us who are alive now, but it also feels remote in a few ways. For one, technology is almost unrecognizably changed, and was a defining feature of that decade. There are lots of satisfying period details to this novel – clothing, food, music, technology. I think the (clunky, heavy) camcorder that Brian uses to document his life is a neat choice as an eye on this story, because it sets some of the stage props (if you will). Another defining element of the 80s is the AIDS crisis as epidemic and as a failure of social and political systems to support disenfranchised populations, like the gay community. In too many ways, we’re not doing beautifully at the same sorts of issues today, but we’ve come a long way too. To look back at the 80s feels like looking a long way back, although it’s not actually that far away, either. That weird contradiction feels important to me.

Bowie fans will recognize the book’s title, and the titles of chapters. Disclosure: I don’t know Bowie well, so I don’t know how deep the references go. (I have recommended this read to my buddy Dave, #1 fan.) For someone like me, it served as a little background flavor. Possibly the whole thing is filled with references I missed. At any rate, the smell of the 80s is here. The video documentary is an inspired choice, I think, as narrative device as well as for staging. The alternating chapters work beautifully. The characters are expertly done, and the plot moves at an irresistible pace and with such momentum – so feeling, powerful, important to me – that (again) I was never able to stop reading. I think it’s a near-perfect work of fiction.

The subject matter is well handled, I think. It’s important that we keep telling and hearing these stories. I thought Brian’s life was treated sensitively and not as a type, or a cause, or anything like that. Obviously I very highly recommend this book, but I know that some readers will find this material especially painful, even triggering – I guess I haven’t said it outright, but there’s plenty of nasty homophobia in the story. It’s hard stuff; I cried for at least 50 pages. But it’s also really beautiful, and I found it all worthwhile.

I’m so glad I read The Prettiest Star and it’s one of the best of the year for sure.


Rating: 10 photographs.

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

“This book is very close to perfect,” says the front-cover blurb by Seanan McGuire, and I confess I raised my eyebrows. But I just finished this book, and I agree.

I’m going to take an unusual step and repost my colleague’s review of this book as published by Shelf Awareness (on March 2, 2020), because I think it’s an excellent review and it’s why I purchased this book. (Which is not my typical fare.) My comments follow. Thanks, Jaclyn, for your good work!

A repressed orphanage inspector takes a stand for six magical children and their charismatic caretaker in this humorous, inclusive love story.

In this sparkling romantic fantasy, TJ Klune pits a mild-mannered paper pusher against the forces of discrimination, inhumane bureaucracy and precocious children, with hilarious and inspiring results.

“Make sure the children are safe… from each other, and themselves,” Extremely Upper Management of the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY) instructs 40-year-old Linus Baker. Linus’s thankless task is inspecting orphanages that house magical children. He blanches at the children’s powers but treats them kindly and believes his work supports their welfare. His quiet life with his old Victrola and “thing of evil” cat Calliope gets interrupted when administration dispatches him to remote Marsyus Island Orphanage, home of six especially unusual children.

Though no stranger to telekinesis or witchcraft, Linus balks at the group: a distrustful forest sprite, a button-hoarding wyvern, a female garden gnome who swings a mean shovel, a boy who turns into a Pomeranian when frightened, a green blob who likes to play bellhop and “Lucy,” the six-year-old son of the Devil. However, their gentle, unflappable caretaker, Arthur Parnassus, unsettles Linus most of all. He exhibits no intimidation at parenting the magical equivalent of a nuclear warhead, and Linus, “a consummate professional,” finds himself attracted to the orphanage’s master in a most unprofessional manner.

However, his reservations about the children fade as Linus gets to know them and sees Arthur’s commitment to giving them a thoughtful, loving upbringing. The intention of remaining detached and going home in one piece evaporates when Linus learns that the island’s non-magical inhabitants have threatened the children. Nevertheless, Arthur Parnassus is more than he seems and, sooner or later, Linus will have to choose between remaining safe but complicit in an oppressive system or standing up for the people he has come to love.

Stuffed with quirky characters and frequently hilarious, this inclusive fantasy is quite possibly the greatest feel-good story ever to involve the Antichrist. Klune, who has previously won the Lambda Literary Award for Best Gay Romance (Into this River I Drown), constructs a tender, slow-burn love story between two endearingly flawed but noble men who help each other find the courage to show their true selves. Charged with optimism and the assertion that labels do not define people or their potential, The House in the Cerulean Sea will delight fans of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series and any reader looking for a burst of humor and hope.

Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

It started just a hair slow for me, perhaps because the style and genre weren’t what I’d been involved with lately (or much ever), but soon the magnetism of the story took hold. Linus is frustratingly meek; it took me a minute to get invested in his future. But there is certainly magic here, not only in the fun, quirky, vulnerable children, but in Klune’s imagination and the lovely house in the sea. By the end, I cried. This book is just deeply sweet, and sometimes we need that. It’s also got some powerful messages about acceptance, authenticity, honesty, and the value of a built or chosen family; and those messages are nicely couched in a story that is sweet but not precious. I found it most moving; TJ Klune has a new fan. I’m so glad I stepped away from my standard reading material. We all need that sometimes.


Rating: 9 buttons.

The Tree and the Vine by Dola de Jong (trans. by Kristen Gehrman)

This sensitive novel illuminates women who love women in pre-World War II Holland.

Originally published in 1954, Dola de Jong’s The Tree and the Vine was a groundbreaking portrayal of lesbian lives in Holland just before the outbreak of World War II. This updated translation from the Dutch by Kristen Gehrman retains what is fresh, understated and moving in the original.

Bea, a shy office worker and the narrator of this story, keeps to herself and considers social activity a chore, until she meets Erica. Within weeks, they become roommates, and Bea is increasingly fascinated by her heedless new friend: Erica, a journalist, keeps strange hours and doesn’t seem to sleep. Her moods vacillate. Over many months, the pair becomes close, and Bea is simultaneously obsessed and resistant to her own feelings, telling herself that independence is paramount. “I could no longer live without her, and with her there was nothing but the strange existence that had been predetermined.”

As the threat of a German invasion grows, Erica gets involved with several female lovers, often in abusive relationships, while Bea plays the loyal friend always there to bail her out of trouble. On the brink of war, realizing that Erica is half Jewish and engaged in risky behaviors, Bea takes a half-step toward recognizing what they share. “She never spoke those few words again…. We’ve accepted it, each in our own way.”

The tone of The Tree and the Vine is often backward-looking and elegiac, told at a distance of years. But the immediate events of the women’s lives feel frantic: Erica rushes about, Bea panics. What is most important almost always goes unsaid.

The prose can occasionally feel a bit stilted, or involve a bit more telling than showing; but in fact what is shown, often, is not actions or expressions but Bea’s own deep feeling and anguish. The result is a love story on the brink of war in which the love never quite steps out in the open and the war remains off-stage. A sense of looming, momentous events pervades this slim novel.

In a thoughtful translator’s note, Gehrman notes linguistic peculiarities of de Jong’s original: anglicisms and words and expressions from the French, for example, which Gehrman has worked to maintain, and her delicate handling of Dutch idiom. She argues that The Tree and the Vine is not just a lesbian novel but “reflective of a broader female experience.” By turns emotional and restrained, this powerful story indeed offers valuable perspective on the human experience.


This review originally ran in the April 23, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 sandwiches.
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