Maximum Shelf author interview: Brando Skyhorse

Following Friday’s review of My Name Is Iris, here’s Brando Skyhorse: Life Under a Perpetual Dark Cloud of Fear.


Brando Skyhorse was born and raised in Echo Park, Calif., and has degrees from Stanford University and from the MFA Writing Program at UC Irvine. He is an associate professor of English at Indiana University in Bloomington. His debut novel, The Madonnas of Echo Park, received the 2011 PEN/Hemingway Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Take This Man: A Memoir was named a Best Nonfiction Book of the Year by Kirkus. Skyhorse also co-edited the anthology We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America. His dystopian novel My Name Is Iris will be published by Avid Reader Press on August 1, 2023.

Does a novel like this begin with story or character?

Brando Skyhorse (photo: Eric van den Brulle)

I tell my students: it always begins with character. But not this one. It actually started with an image. I think you can guess: it started with this wall, just kind of growing out of the ground. I was finishing up my last project, an anthology of original essays on ethnic and racial passing, and it was summer of 2016, and let’s just say there was a certain word that was getting bounced around, this relentless drumbeat. I started thinking about it. I remember talking to my agent, and she said that’s interesting, but seems kind of topical. When Clinton is elected president, who’s going to be there to buy it? And I said, I’m going to keep thinking about it.

The more I thought about it, the more I had questions. That word, wall–the most banal thing imaginable, became coded. It was a very specific kind of reference, and a relentless barrage. Where is this wall? Who is attached to it? What’s the situation? I said, I’ll finish this in a year. Because I didn’t start with character, but with an image, it took me another five years to figure out the specifics of character and situation. Iris is trying to take care of herself, to take care of her child. She has a community that she’s estranged from, and she’s doing the best she can. Once that part of the story got laid out–it’s about safety for her. Her American dream is safety. That’s it for her. And that’s something a lot of readers can relate to, I hope.

What is it that makes Iris a compelling protagonist?

Based upon the experiences Iris has had, she decided early on, I want to be safe above all. I want to protect myself and my family–that’s the trade-off that I’m making, and if that makes me brusque or unlikable, I’m rolling with it. But what does that leave for Iris in the life that she’s attempting to live? Has it been fulfilling; has it been satisfying? What kind of reckoning is afoot for her?

Once you get the totality of her situation, she becomes very easy to understand. I realize it’s a bit of an authorial risk to put this character out there and have her say the things that she says, and put up her own wall. She has lived a very structured and specific life. My family, my daughter, my household. Very intentional. The idea of what it means to be a woman of color at this time, in this place, at this part of American history, what’s that experience like? At least as I see it, there’s probably a sense of guardedness, apprehensiveness. I’m not sure what the next day is going to bring me so I have to be on guard. What’s out there waiting for me?

I didn’t want to turn it into a Twilight Zone episode where this is a character who is being punished because she’s bad. What’s her backstory? Where’s she from, what kind of life is she trying to live? I had to move that character development forward while at the same time pressing her from all sides. Every chapter, another bad thing happens. How to create a character who isn’t solely reactive? If it’s not the wall, it’s the bands; if it’s not the bands, it’s what’s going on with her family or with her daughter. She needs to take some control, some agency, but each time she does, there’s something else another step ahead of her. Thinking about the lived experience that all of us have had over the last few years, I think this book is what it was like for me.

And the technology. Oh look, it’s this cool little thing from Silicon Valley, and it’ll track how much garbage you throw away. And very suddenly it becomes this whole other thing altogether. We have a collective embracing of certain technologies, if we feel there’s going to be a benefit, and sometimes there’s a flipside, unintended or intended consequences. Iris has traded away an essential part of her identity for the convenience of being American. Her community has traded away the idea of citizenship because there’s a little thing that can tell them how many steps they take in a day. What does that mean for us? I don’t know. But I don’t know if it means anything good.

Are there heroes or villains in this story?

I don’t think so. If there’s a villain here, it’s just fear. It’s very simple. Fear leads to paranoia leads to a series of decisions… everybody in this universe in this novel is living under a perpetual dark cloud of fear.

Do you feel your readers need knowledge of Spanish to follow this novel?

My goal is not to confuse or alienate anybody. When you write a book, you’re trying to connect with as many readers as possible. What I ask myself is, what’s most important for this character in this situation? English, Spanish, switching back and forth? When she’s with her mom, at the house, having dinner… it flows freely, and I wanted to capture that. I wanted it to be correct for that experience.

So much of the conversational nature of this book was influenced heavily by my family. My biological father left me when I was three, and I found him in my 30s. I was accepted into this family I didn’t know, and all of a sudden, I had three sisters. When I hang out with them the conversation varies based on who I’m talking to, the context, what’s being discussed. My Spanish is not great, but I can get what’s being said if they speak really slowly, like to a child. Part of this is trying to mimic that experience for me. That sense of what would it be like to have a relationship with this language, which is important for communicating with your family, your community–lose it, and then work your way back. I hope that’s one of the themes in the book. Our main character goes through this journey–if I’ve done it correctly–with the Spanish language. If I’m going to take the readers on that journey it has to be correct.


This interview originally ran on May 10, 2023 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.

Maximum Shelf: My Name Is Iris by Brando Skyhorse

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 May 10, 2023.


My Name Is Iris by Brando Skyhorse (The Madonnas of Echo Park; Take This Man) is a chilling near-reality dystopian novel, set in an unnamed state that resembles California (and is called the “Golden State”). Protagonist Iris Prince is a second-generation Mexican American whose parents view her birthright as a gift and use the refrain “you were born here” to shame her whenever they feel her bad behavior shows a lack of gratitude. (“I am a second-generation Mexican-American daughter of Mexican immigrants, meaning that of course I was ungrateful.”) Born Inés Soto, she was glad to have her first name simplified by white schoolteachers, and then to take her husband’s last name. Iris is proud to be a rule follower, her highest ambition to blend in.

When the novel opens, Iris Prince has just left Alex, her husband of 16 years, and is determined to finally build the sanitized, magazine-cover life she’s dreamed of: a new house in a suburban neighborhood on a cul-de-sac, a new school for her nine-year-old daughter, Melanie. She has shunned her parents’ low-income home in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood (where her younger sister still lives, annoying Iris with her activism) and avoids Alex’s overtures at co-parenting or getting back together. Iris feels that her real life–coffee clubs, gardening, and white picket fences–is about to begin.

Then one morning, she looks out of her lovely new bay window to find that a wall has sprung up in her front yard. It seems permanently fixed, and no one but Iris and Melanie can see it. Her realtor and contractors claim the wall must have been there all along, until gaslit Iris wonders, “Who was I to say otherwise?” And, impossible as it is, the wall seems to be growing.

Meanwhile, a new piece of wrist-wearable tech called “the band” is sweeping across the state. Iris herself voted in favor of the proposition that established this technology as a paper-saving, easy identification to “facilitate paying for and receiving state and public services, act as a drivers’ license,… help users regulate a household’s water usage and garbage output, serve as proof of residency for your child’s enrollment in school, and potentially save the state millions of dollars.” But it turns out that, regardless of citizenship, one must have a parent born in the United States to qualify for a band. Iris’s confidence in her place in society is shaken. “Wear your bands and prove you belong here,” says the propaganda. Hatred, bigotry and intolerance quickly swell into violence. “Somehow, in an overnight or two, my social contract had been renegotiated. Politeness vanished.” Iris’s loyalties are challenged: she has long associated herself with law and order and the establishment, but those forces have turned against her, despite all her rule-following. Each morning she drops her daughter off at school, the band’s seductive glow encircling Mel’s slim wrist–due to Alex’s birthright, Mel qualifies for the privileges of the band. But Iris fears for her home and her job; her mother has been fired for her bandless status, and the family is in jeopardy. Under these pressures, Iris will have to consider just what she’ll risk to protect her hard-won sense of identity.

Skyhorse seeds his text with plenty of Spanish-language dialogue, especially with Iris’s parents and sister; non-Spanish-speaking readers will easily use context clues. In addition to this lovely linguistic texture, Skyhorse imbues his all-too-lifelike novel with fine details–Iris’s anti-nostalgia for a defunct supermarket, her love for bland ritual–and judicious use of highly impactful notes of the mysterious or the surreal. These twists of magical realism include a ghost from a childhood trauma who haunts Iris in her vulnerable moments, and of course the wall itself, which grows and morphs overnight. The wall is ever-present, at one point “almost like a co-parent,” even as it literally deprives her home of the sun’s light and heat, as well as her sense of security: “Later, when I would dream, I dreamed of walls.”

My Name Is Iris is terrifying with its proximity to reality. Iris is perhaps preoccupied with labels and appearances (as the book’s title forecasts), and not the most likable protagonist, initially; but her flaw is simply in seeking the American dream as it’s been advertised. Despite her obedience–teaching her child to always trust the police, adhering strictly to HOA rules–the world she’s trusted has turned on her. What can one woman do to fight a state security regime or a magically self-constructing wall?

This gripping dystopia poses difficult but important questions about the world as we know it and the few small steps it takes to slide into horror. Intolerance and xenophobia lurk in the most seemingly benign corners. My Name Is Iris is part social commentary and part thoughtful consideration of themes that include family, identity, transitions, perspectives, and hope. In addition to being an engrossing, discomfiting tale, this will make an excellent book club selection and fuel for tough conversations.


Rating: 6 chanclas.

Come back Monday for my interview with Skyhorse.

Maximum Shelf author interview: S. A. Cosby

Following Friday’s review of All the Sinners Bleed, here’s S. A. Cosby: The Light in the End.


S.A. Cosby is an Anthony Award-winning writer from Southeastern Virginia. He is the author of My Darkest Prayer, Blacktop Wasteland and Razorblade Tears. His fourth novel, All the Sinners Bleed (Flatiron Books, June 6, 2023), introduces Sheriff Titus Crown, who has returned to his Southern hometown and is out to right some wrongs from the inside. When not writing, Cosby is an avid hiker and chess player.

Is Sheriff Titus Crown a hero?

S. A. Cosby

S. A. Cosby (Sam Sauter Photography)

He is, but like all heroes, he’s flawed. Flawless heroes are boring. It’s the reason they had to give Superman kryptonite. A perfect hero is aesthetically something to aspire to, but existentially it’s a bit of a dud. It makes the hero stronger that they’re able to overcome those flaws and still do the right thing.

How well does he fit the classic loner noir detective model?

He is a classic noir detective–even though he’s the elected sheriff, he has more in common with Philip Marlowe than with Wyatt Earp. But he has a strong support system that a lot of those classic heroes didn’t have. He has his dad, his brother–I really love their relationship–his girlfriend and some of his deputies. Even though he’s their boss, he does respect and lean on them. But at the end of the day, he is the lone man standing up for what’s right. He’s the one that has to face the devil, eventually, by himself, and that’s by design. I’m fascinated with what somebody does when they’re faced with a life-changing moment. How do they stand up? And it’s most interesting to me when they stand up in those moments alone. You know, character is what you do when no one is looking. I wanted to firmly put him in that situation.

How important is a character’s backstory?

Incredibly important. When I create characters, I do their full biographies, and a lot of the time none of that makes it into the book. I create long documents about their childhood, their past, their likes and dislikes, intrinsic quirks. Even things that will never be revealed completely still influence the character’s arc, their decisions, their decision-making process. You don’t need to know everything about Titus, but you need to know that the things that have happened to him have shaped him, have defined his morals and his idealism, and his small bit of nihilism.

Titus is part of that tradition of the lone wolf, but he’s also very much in the tradition of the local boy made good. Charon County is so much a part of who he is, whether he’s in the FBI or, now, the sheriff. There is a proprietary sense about him. He cares about this place, and he knows some of the people–most of the people–don’t particularly care for him because he’s the sheriff, but he still feels protective of this place. The roots of Charon are so deep in his psyche.

What makes for a compelling villain or protagonist?

Your protagonist is only as good as your villain. You need a villain that matches the protagonist in drive and intellectually, but also personality-wise. Eminem and Kid Rock were both coming up in Detroit at the same time as rappers, and people would ask him why he would never battle Kid Rock. And he said, because beating him wouldn’t have meant anything, because I don’t respect his skill. He didn’t see him as a worthy opponent. For Titus, I wanted the villain that he has to face to be a genuine threat, not just physically but intellectually, because I wanted his triumph to mean something.

When readers get to the end of the book, they’ll realize that Titus understands some of what the villain has gone through. That creates a pretty interesting dynamic, to show the differences between these two characters. There are elements in their background that are similar, but whereas Titus went the way of wanting to protect people and not giving in to the pain of his past, the villain chose another route.

How important is place to this narrative?

Place is important in all my stories, but I think it’s the most important aspect of this story. In my previous books I’ve written about place as a more general, macro idea. I’ve written about THE SOUTH, all capital letters, what that entails and what that means. I’ve spoken ad nauseum about how proud I am to be from the South but at the same time how much I recognize the flaws that are here. As an artist, I think it’s my duty to examine that. With this book I really wanted to delve into the micro of that, and what’s it’s like in a town like Charon, which has a deep history. It has this sort of mythic quality to it. The citizens experience it in totally different ways. The white citizens experience it differently than the Black citizens. The young citizens experience it differently than the older folks. This town can have a multiplicity of definitions based on who you are and what your background is. I think place gives the story its weight. Charon County is a secondary protagonist and antagonist in the book.

Is this a novel about race?

In Southern fiction four things will always come up: race, class, sex and religion. Those are the four pillars of Southern gothic fiction. All are represented to various degrees in All the Sinners Bleed. As an African American person, I’m always going to write about race, because race is always a part of the conversation for me. People ask, why do you have to bring up race? I didn’t bring it up. This country brought it up; my life brings it up. Race is important, because Titus is a Black man, the first Black sheriff in this town. But religion is also on the forefront, maybe even more so, because in the rural South, there is an incredible hypocrisy that comes up with religion. Small towns with 25, 30 churches talk about Christianity as a concept but not as a practice. Flannery O’Conner said she doesn’t believe the South is Christ-centered, but Christ-haunted. And I believe that’s emblematic of the hypocrisy of the modern Christian evangelical movement, that you purport to love your sisters and brothers in Christ, but you vote against helping people, you vote against empathy. You live in a world where you thump a Bible and worry about the lives of children, so to speak, but once those children are out of the womb you could not care less about them. I wanted to talk about all of that. Religion can be a hammer to break down doors or it can be a cudgel to beat you down, and I think it’s represented in both ways in the book.

Is it difficult or draining to write bleak stories? Or is there catharsis there?

It’s never as draining as you might think. I’m a pessimistic optimist; I write these bleak characters in these bleak situations, but my characters triumph in the end. Not without some difficulty, some wounds and some scars, but they triumph. I was raised Southern Baptist, and I have this Old Testament philosophy that “I’ve never seen the righteous forsaken,” to quote Titus’s father. I write these really dark, morally complex characters and situations because I want the good guys to win, because that doesn’t really happen in real life. If it’s going to happen anywhere, it should happen in my book; I’m the one writing it. So as dark as my characters and their situations can be, they come through with the light in the end.


This interview originally ran on February 13, 2023 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.

Maximum Shelf: All the Sinners Bleed by S. A. Cosby

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 February 13, 2023.


From S.A. Cosby, author of Blacktop Wasteland and Razorblade Tears, All the Sinners Bleed is a lushly dark mystery set in fictional Charon County in Southeastern Virginia and starring a Black sheriff in a town that’s not at all sure it’s ready for one. Recently elected Sheriff Titus Crown is out to right some wrongs from the inside: police corruption, racism and profiling, law enforcers living above the law. He’s also dodging a few traumas of his own. Having come home to Charon County means he gets to live with and help his aging father, but it also means he’s reminded of his beloved late mother. His brother lives in town but rarely comes around. Titus has a local girlfriend who’s very sweet and good for him, but sort of unremarkable; he has a sense he should love her more. He’s haunted by the events that ended his FBI career in Indiana. Running a small staff of deputies in a small Southern town has its own challenges, mostly manageable ones; he hopes to redeem himself in this way from wrongs only hinted at.

But then there’s a call about an active gunman at the high school in town. In minutes, Titus is looking at a popular teacher of decades shot to death in his classroom, and a young Black man killed by deputies while the school–and via their cell phone videos, the entire Internet–watched. Before Latrell Macdonald died, “with a wolf’s snout in his left hand and cradling a .30-30 like a newborn in the crook of his right arm,” he spoke of crimes that make Titus’s blood run cold. The ensuing investigation will crack Charon County wide open, and challenge to the core Titus’s plans to clean up his hometown and make amends for things that happened in Indiana.

Titus is no investigative slouch. “His instructors at the Academy had their own version of String Theory. The way they explained it, there were invisible strings that vibrated unseen in the liminal spaces between sunrise and secrets, between rumor, shadows, and lies. Strings that pulled all this together. All you had to do was find the seam and unravel it. Or rip it apart.” His years with the Bureau and training under his friend and mentor there give him an edge on profiling and pursuing an enemy who seems determined to toy with him. He finds the remains of badly tortured and murdered Black boys and girls; as he investigates, the body count only rises. An old girlfriend from his FBI years appears, asking to interview him for her crime podcast; his father pleads with him to come back to church. The Sons of the Confederacy are planning a march at the upcoming Fall Fest, and a strange story surfaces about a reclusive fire-and-brimstone snake-handling preacher. Increasingly distressed at his inability to keep his county safe, Titus is plagued by memories and the present evil attacking his home. On less and less sleep, he doggedly puts in work. “He went over a few other emails, reviewed the gas expense reports, checked the arrest log from last night, updated the Sheriff department’s social media page…. It felt strange to attend to the mundane and the profane at the same time but that was a defining aspect of the job.”

All the Sinners Bleed is noir with a particular American Southern twist. Place figures heavily. “The soil of Charon County, like most towns and counties in the South, was sown with generations of tears…. Blood and tears. Violence and mayhem. Love and hate. These were the rocks upon which the South was built.” Cosby deals in timely themes: returning home and reckoning with old wounds and crimes; the unsavory histories of the places we love; the legacies of Confederate statues, of slavery and racism; the darkness within all of us, even those playing the good guys; the role of police and policing. His prose is gruff, poetic but stark: “The clouds gathered like young men on a corner getting ready for a fight.” Titus has a code like that of Michael Connelly’s Detective Harry Bosch: “Either we all matter or no one matters. Everyone deserves to have someone speak for them.” He believes that something hard and mean dwells in every heart–and in a few, true evil. What has beset Charon County is not supernatural. It is merely the wages of sin (as his churchgoing neighbors might say), or the county’s bloody past coming back around. There is something of the lone gunslinger–damaged but virtuous–in Titus Crown, who stands against the worst elements of human nature. Like Cosby’s previous novels, All the Sinners Bleed is often grim, but it lands on a surprisingly hopeful, even joyful ending.

For fans of gritty, dark mysteries with an interest in the very real and contemporary demons of United States culture and history, Cosby’s work offers a sinister but satisfying voyage into the best and worst of returning home and starting fresh.


Rating: 7 sheep.

Come back Monday for my interview with Cosby.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Monica Brashears

Following Friday’s review of House of Cotton, here’s Monica Brashears: Feel the Life in the Ghosts.


Monica Brashears is an Affrilachian writer from Tennessee and a graduate of Syracuse University’s MFA program. Her work has appeared in Nashville Review, Split Lip magazine, Appalachian Review, the Masters Review and more. Her debut novel is House of Cotton (Flatiron Books, April 4, 2023), a novel about ghosts, mothers and the struggle to survive, set in Tennessee with its lingering challenges of race and class. Brashears lives in Syracuse, N.Y., where she is at work on her second novel.

What makes Magnolia a compelling protagonist?

photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan

The reason I love her so much, and why she’s my baby, is because of her willingness to create other worlds as a response to trauma. There’s such a tenderness there. It’s an act of hope, that the world can be velvet. It doesn’t have to be so harsh all the time. Even in moments when it’s the harshest, she has an ability to make it velvet, and I think that’s special.

To what do you attribute that ability in her?

That ability is both a method of survival and another sort of haunting. Magnolia’s imagined fairytales stem from coping strategies she turned to as a child and because she’s carried them into adulthood, her trauma still lives in that humor. Additionally, Mama Brown’s laughter and steady shelter taught Magnolia her definition of safety and, because of that, Mama Brown’s life is reflected in the way Magnolia jokes.

Was Magnolia the beginning of this novel coming to you?

House of Cotton began as a short story in undergrad, and it was plot driven. The characters were not-quite-formed-laughing-things. I had no intentions of returning to the story, but three years later, Magnolia returned. I only knew that she had an emotional cavity, and inside that cavity, she claimed there were geodes. Usually, for me, the plot comes first as a way to announce all the ways I’m fed up. But I don’t have anything to work with until the characters show me how and why their yearning stretches beyond their exhaustion.

Does writing a ghost like Mama Brown differ from writing a living character?

I tend to write a lot of ghosts because I was raised hearing these Appalachian folktales. I think I feel the life more in the ghosts in the first draft, because there’s an urgency there. They’re back–why are they back? What do they need? I kind of prefer writing ghosts, strangely.

Is this an allegory about slavery?

Not entirely. I think it’s very much rooted in the present. Although I do understand that reading, because the effects of slavery are in the present. It’s in the fabric of everything that’s happening now. And, of course, the title is House of Cotton, which kind of primes the reader.

How important is setting to this story? Could it happen anywhere else?

The basic plot could happen anywhere. But the setting, the love and the lust and the tenderness, is very much tied to the land–all the plants, the kudzu.

House Mountain is mentioned in the novel, and I move it around. It’s generally always in my writing, but I move it around Tennessee. Knoxville is also, I would say, an Appalachian city, but it doesn’t get viewed that way. The mountains are there. So I like to say hey, remember? Don’t forget! We’re in Appalachia.

What does it mean to be an Affrilachian writer?

I believe Frank X. Walker coined the term. I remember writing, and it was always about the mountains, in undergraduate workshops at the University of Tennessee. And then one day in a poetry workshop my senior year, just before I was getting ready to move to Syracuse for my MFA, I was called Affrilachian. And I was like, what do you mean? Can I claim that? I wasn’t literally living on a mountain, but I was at the feet of them, so I was always on them growing up. So it really felt like coming home in my writing. When people think Appalachia, I don’t think they often think about Black people inhabiting the mountains, so within the genre there’s kind of a pushback against that erasure. This is our land, too.

Is there a special challenge to writing something this strongly based in place while you are elsewhere?

I did write the novel in Syracuse. I carry home within me, always, and nurture that sense through familiar music or food. If anything, Syracuse winters helped me focus on the specifics of all I missed; the book’s infatuation with Tennessean summertime is yet another layer of yearning.

Has your MFA program changed how you work as a writer?

It definitely has. I love the community. When I first came here everyone was name-dropping all of these authors and I felt very out of place. But I took a class that was focused on Ulysses. We spent the entire semester reading Ulysses, and it was full of suffering, and it was bizarre, but I came out of that really uncomfortable semester having definitely improved in seeing all of these fun craft maneuvers available. Permission was gained. I’ve been exposed to so many texts and writers and traditions that otherwise I wouldn’t have, and it’s improved my craft and widened my love for literature.

What’s an example of a good craft maneuver you learned?

Approaching revision with an acknowledgement that a writer’s subconscious has the story figured out before the writer helped unlock the process for me. There’s a pleasure in finding hints within a story or novel and toying with them until I find their meaning. My hints usually present themselves as repetition. There’s an urgency that’s accidental and charming and indicative of strong emotion. But what am I really trying to say?

What can you tell us about your next novel?

It is a trailer park noir filled with jewels, and the fear of God, of course, and murder.

What’s your favorite thing about this novel?

I think Magnolia. I often think of her as my child. I was raised an older sibling, so I was kind of assigned motherhood occasionally, and she feels like a younger sibling or a child. Someone I hold close and within me and tend to love every day.


This interview originally ran on January 4, 2023 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.

Maximum Shelf: House of Cotton by Monica Brashears

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 January 4, 2023.


Monica Brashears’s House of Cotton is an engrossing coming-of-age novel about ghosts, mothers and the struggle to survive. It is also a novel of the lingering challenges of race and class. Brashears’s prose style is sharp and incisive, and the entrancing, distinctive voice of her protagonist is by turns weary, sardonic and yearning. A haunting story and unusual perspective make this a memorable and thought-provoking debut.

Magnolia Brown is 19 years old when her grandmother, Mama Brown, dies. Her absent mother struggles with substance abuse and an abusive partner, so that leaves Magnolia more or less alone in the world, fending off a lecherous landlord (who is also deacon at her grandmother’s church) and struggling to get by. She works the night shift at a Knoxville, Tenn., gas station, where she tries to care for Cigarette Sammy, the muttering man who goes through the trash outside (“the only other Black person I see on this side of town”), between one-and-done encounters executed by her Tinder persona, Carolina Nettle. It’s a tenuous living, and she misses Mama Brown terribly. One night “a whistling man with blood-smeared hands” walks into the gas station. “Hearing a man whistle when he walks in a place he don’t own ain’t natural. Like finding a chipped tooth on concrete. An omen.” When he returns from the bathroom after cleaning his hands, she sees the man is polished, manicured, smooth-talking, wearing good cologne. Cotton offers Magnolia a modeling job, but she’s wary; Magnolia knows omens. But she’s also broke, and quite possibly pregnant.

At the address he gives her, Magnolia finds the Weeping Willow Parlor, a funeral home run by Cotton and his gleefully friendly, drunk Aunt Eden. The pair is eccentric: Cotton needs to constantly finger a piece of pocketed twine to remain calm; Eden is something of an alcoholic and firmly does not believe in ghosts. They are wealthy, and culturally foreign to Magnolia.

Cotton and Eden Productions offers Magnolia a most unusual modeling job: they provide families with lost or missing loved ones a final contact, a side business something like a séance. With Eden’s uncanny funeral-home makeup skills and Magnolia’s amateur acting, Magnolia will play the part of the dead. She’s used to pretending; it has long been her coping mechanism: “When I get this way, when I feel like kudzu is wrapped tight around my ribcage and I’m bleeding a bright heat, I like to slip inside my head.” She slides smoothly into Cotton and Eden’s world and their comfortable, decadent habits: cocktails at all hours, joyriding in the hearse. She moves into the funeral home, lets Eden apply pale body paint to allow her to become missing white women and men, and begins saving her money. The ghost of Mama Brown checks in with Magnolia: knowing, comforting, but judging as well. Reading a letter Mama Brown left her, Magnolia knows “[S]he ain’t left me. I ain’t seen her, but she sits by me. Unseen but real as humidity.” Soon the ghost will be seen as well.

Magnolia’s life becomes split. At the Weeping Willow, she lives in ease and has money to spare, but feels estranged from the very different world Cotton and Eden come from. The relationship is transactional, and she’s always acting, even when the makeup is off. And then there is Mama Brown’s home, where the garden (the place Magnolia still meets her Tinder dates) grows out of control. By tending the needs of the rich white folks who help support her, Magnolia has literally let her own house get out of order. Her caretaking of Cigarette Sammy has become disrupted. Cotton’s requests get weirder and weirder, and Mama Brown’s ghost expresses concerns about Magnolia’s choices, which have affected Mama Brown in the afterlife. The worldly and otherworldly pressures mount.

Set in the grand Weeping Willow Parlor, complete with secret passageways and haunted by Magnolia’s much-loved but literally disintegrating grandmother, House of Cotton pits traditional gothic elements (the haunted castle, women in distress, death and decay) against contemporary questions about race and class and the persistent legacy of slavery. It shares the genre’s sense of suspense and foreboding, but Magnolia’s struggles are very realistic. Her first-person narration brings an immediacy to the events, and an intimacy that’s advanced by her frank voice and turns of phrase. On its face, this is an intriguing ghost story with a compelling, beleaguered protagonist. In its layers, there is much more at stake.

“I am a tattered quilt of all the women before me. I am a broken puzzle,” Magnolia states, but she is clearly a survivor as well. Despite her many fears, she is somehow fearless in pursuing the truest version of herself. Brashears excels in strong characters and deeply felt emotions, and in a robust sense of place: Knoxville shines as both urban and cultural setting and in the details of its natural world. Brashears offers a fresh new perspective on Appalachia and the American South, and Magnolia’s rich voice will echo with readers long after the pages are closed.


Rating: 7 missing fingernails.

Come back Monday for my interview with Brashears.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Costanza Casati

Following Monday’s review of Clytemnestra, here’s Costanza Casati: ‘Now Is the Time to Retell Their Stories.’


Costanza Casati (photo: Arianna Genghini)

Costanza Casati was born in Texas and has lived in Italy and the U.K. Before moving to London, she attended a classical liceo in Italy, where she studied ancient Greek and ancient Greek literature for five years. She is a graduate of the Warwick Writing MA program and currently works as a freelance journalist and screenwriter. Her debut novel, Clytemnestra (Sourcebooks Landmark, March 7, 2023), is a striking retelling of the story of Greek myth’s queen of Mycenae and murderer of Agamemnon.

Why Clytemnestra? What made her story the one you needed to tell?

So many reasons! She is powerful, clever, fierce, obstinate. In the ancient texts, she comes across as a truly unforgettable character: she is feared and respected for the power she holds and, most of all, she doesn’t let the men around her belittle her. And then there are all the myths surrounding her, which I wanted to explore from her perspective. Clytemnestra is connected to some of the most fascinating characters from the myth: she is sister to Helen, cousin of Penelope, lover to Aegisthus, daughter of Leda.

Even her very first mention, which is in the Odyssey, is such an unforgettable one. When Odysseus meets Agamemnon in the Underworld, they speak of their wives, Penelope and Clytemnestra, and Agamemnon says, “Happy Odysseus, what a fine, faithful wife you won! The immortal gods will lift a glorious song in praise of self-possessed Penelope./ A far cry from the daughter of Tyndareus, Clytemnestra/ the song men sing of her will ring with loathing./ She brands with a foul name the breed of womankind.”

Cast as a murderess and the archetypally “bad wife” for centuries, Clytemnestra is actually an incredibly modern character: a powerful woman who refuses to know her place. Once you know her story, her entire story, you can’t help falling in love with her.

Did writing this novel involve research on top of your academic background?

There are two kinds of research I like to do. There is the more practical, specific kind, which I do in parallel with writing a scene–Which towels did they use? Was soap a thing? Which frescoes were common in Mycenae? What did a typical meal look like in Sparta?–and then there is the “cultural” research, which you must do before writing a novel, and which, in my opinion, is essential for writing historical/mythical fiction. It was very important for me to truly live inside my characters’ heads, experience the world through their eyes. So, for instance, a more broad, “cultural” research question would involve things such as: How was guilt perceived in Mycenaean Greece? Did the Greeks fear death? How were women treated in Sparta? Did forgiveness exist for these people? Those are things that must be woven seamlessly into the narrative, but they also must be clear to a contemporary reader. That balance, between re-creating the way in which ancient people thought, and making it accessible to contemporary readers, is the most important thing for me.

It feels like modern retellings of the Greek myths are a genre of their own. Do you have any favorites?

There are so many! The first retellings I fell in love with are The Song of Achilles and The Children of Jocasta. Both take extremely famous characters from the myth–Achilles and Oedipus–and tell their story from the perspectives of lesser-known figures: the shy Patroclus in Miller’s novel and Oedipus’ wife and daughter in Haynes’s book. What I love the most about Miller’s and Haynes’s writing is the way in which they re-create the mindset of Ancient Greece: concealing impeccable research behind smooth and lyrical prose.

Other favorites of mine include Ariadne, The Silence of the Girls and Circe.

Which characters are yours?

Some of the characters are my own creations: Clytemnestra’s guard in Mycenae, Leon, and her faithful servant, Aileen. The elders obviously feature in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon but as a chorus, while I gave them names and more specific motives. Then a character that is mine entirely is Cynisca. To write her, I drew on a woman who truly existed (though many years later, and with no connections to Clytemnestra’s story): the Spartan woman famous for being the first to win at the Olympic games in 392 BC.

Then there are Timandra, Clytemnestra’s sister, and Tantalus, Clytemnestra’s first husband, who exist in the sources, but just as passing names. Timandra is mentioned in fragments by poets Stesichorus and Hesiod. They say that Timandra was unfaithful to her husband, just like her sisters, because of a sin their father Tyndareus had committed when forgetting to sacrifice to Aphrodite. I found these fragments incredibly fascinating and wanted to explore Timandra further.

Tantalus of Maeonia (or Lydia) was another character I was drawn to because he is so important to Clytemnestra’s story. His name appears in Euripides’s Iphigenia in Aulis.

What was the writing process like?

One of the things I loved the most about writing Clytemnestra was bringing to life a female character who is ambitious and loyal, powerful and beloved. I fell in love with this character 10 years ago and wanted others to fall in love with her too. Clytemnestra has been portrayed as an adulteress, a jealous, power-hungry ruler and murderess for centuries, so I really enjoyed playing with these stereotypes and peeling them away to show the woman under them.

One of the hardest parts (which was also incredibly fascinating) was writing the more well-known characters from the myth in a way that felt both fresh and true to the sources. Helen and Odysseus, for instance, are incredibly famous, but I felt like I needed to write them in a way that felt familiar but also unexpected. The same challenge obviously came with the plot. For the people who know the myth, they already know how Clytemnestra’s story plays out, so how do you make it interesting and surprising? I tried to bring to light elements and details that were already hidden in the sources and play with them a little bit. Finally, one of the things I loved the most while writing was exploring Clytemnestra’s family dynamics.

Is this a feminist retelling?

I would absolutely call this a feminist retelling. “Feminist” because I wanted to write the story of a woman who took part in the action, whose narrative is as epic as the ones of the men and heroes. Besides, Clytemnestra isn’t the only powerful woman in my novel: it was essential to me that I wrote a story with a cast of female characters that were clever and complex, flawed and unforgettable.

The women of the Greek myths are incredibly heroic–think Alcestis, Antigone, Ariadne, Circe–and yet throughout the centuries they have been burdened with cultural and ethical codes that make them helpless victims, or, in the case of Clytemnestra and Helen, misogynist archetypes: murderesses and lustful whores. Now is the time to retell their stories.


This interview originally ran on November 15, 2022 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.

Maximum Shelf: Clytemnestra by Costanza Casati

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 November 15, 2022.


“Kings are brilliant / mighty / godlike // Queens are deadly / shameless / accursed.” Such has been the literary fate of Clytemnestra–adulteress, wife and murderer of Agamemnon in the Ancient Greek canon. Costanza Casati’s debut, Clytemnestra, is a dynamic retelling of the story of the much-maligned Spartan princess, sister of Helen, queen of Mycenae, mother of Iphigenia, Electra and Orestes (and others). Aeschylus, Homer and Euripides generally portray Clytemnestra in a negative light, but Casati’s reframing–from her title character’s point of view–emphasizes the difficult circumstances that challenged a strong-willed woman in a time and place that did not reward such a quality. Clytemnestra is a masterpiece of justified rage on the protagonist’s part, and a subtly subversive revision of a story many readers know from a different perspective. She will be called ruthless, merciless, “cruel queen and unfaithful wife,” but viewed from another angle, Clytemnestra fights honorably for her own well-being and for that of the people she loves.

The events of Clytemnestra’s life are not much rearranged here. As a princess in the Spartan court, she is trained as a warrior and huntress, surrounded by violence and death even in her privilege to sit in the megaron with her father, King Tyndareus, where they hear the villagers’ requests. This upbringing emphasizes martial training, physical skill, obedience and the ability to suffer. Her first marriage, to Tantalus, was for love and was a meeting of minds, but it ended in murder and betrayal, and with a forced second marriage to the Mycenaean king, Agamemnon, whose brother Menelaus in parallel marries Helen. Clytemnestra’s later lover, the traitor Aegisthus, is a complicated, enigmatic character in his own right. This proud queen, treated as a pawn in political power struggles, wrestles to keep her dignity in the Mycenaean court under the brutalities of her husband, but never loses her sense of herself as a warrior and a survivor. The events of this novel close where Aeschylus’s Agamemnon opens, thereby gifting a complex backstory to a woman often portrayed as villain.

Clytemnestra dips its toes as well into the stories of the queen’s famous family members: her brothers Castor and Polydeuces, boxers and horsebreakers; her sister, Helen, whose legendary beauty led to the Trojan War; her mother, Leda, who was seduced by Zeus in the form of a swan (or was she raped?). Her children include Tantalus’s unnamed infant son; Iphigenia, sacrificed at Aulis to summon wind for the Greek ships on their way to Troy; and Electra and Orestes, whose stories expand only after these pages close. This Clytemnestra is very close and loyal to her siblings; family ties for better and for worse shape her decisions all her life, even at great distances. For instance, meeting a new face, she thinks of her siblings: “Helen would have charmed him with her beauty and subtle cleverness, softening him until he opened like a peach. Castor would have mocked him, pricked him with words like needles, until he talked.” Clytemnestra’s cousin is Penelope, eventually famous as Odysseus’s queen and faithful wife, in marked contrast to the Clytemnestra in traditional representations; here, again, the reader sees a new and complex side of a familiar character, as she is courted by the cunning Ithacan king.

The gods in this version are mere myth, not actors in real events; Clytemnestra, like her mother, is skeptical, even scornful of the gods and their followers. She understands that kings and not queens rule in her world, but she continues to demand the respect she deserves even when it’s unlikely she will get it, and consistently calls out the rapes and attempted rapes that often go unmarked in the courts and villages of both Sparta and Mycenae. This retelling is a deepening of Clytemnestra’s story and her character. Helen, her beloved sister, likewise grows more multifaceted in Casati’s nuanced novel, but the beautiful one is not gifted with physical prowess or the confidence of the fierier Clytemnestra: “Clytemnestra dances for herself; Helen dances for others.” Timandra, one of their younger sisters, is fierce like Clytemnestra, but with a different burden in their strict society. These female leads are glittering, glowering, admirable and sympathetic, and the result will reignite (or ignite) readers’ interest in the stories of ancient Greece and emphasize their relevance in any time.

Clytemnestra is a stunning, standout contribution to the growing genre of modern treatments of the Greek myths. Casati brings both a solid grounding in the canon and imaginative venturing into the inner workings of a woman who has long been famous but little understood. Her writing is gorgeously descriptive and emotive: “She thinks of those white flowers blooming against the rocks of the Ceadas. For years she wondered how they survived down there, among the corpses and darkness. But maybe this is how broken people keep living…. Outside the light is golden. It shines on them as if they were gods.” Casati’s Clytemnestra is modern in her staunch demands for dignity and respect, but believably rooted in ancient times. This is a necessary novel for fans of mythology, strong women, the pushing of boundaries and epic dramas of family, power and love.


Rating: 8 cuts.

Come back Friday for my interview with Casati.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Claire North

Following Friday’s review of Ithaca, here’s Claire North: ‘Celebrate All Books as Much as Possible.’


Claire North is a pseudonym for Catherine Webb, who wrote her first novel at 14 years old. She also writes under the name Kate Griffin. North’s earlier novels include The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August; Touch; and The Pursuit of William Abbey. She lives in London. On September 6, 2022, Redhook will publish North’s novel Ithaca, which fills in the long expanse between the events of The Iliad and The Odyssey, while Odysseus is away and his queen, Penelope, is in charge.

How do you reimagine something so familiar?

photo credit: Siobhan Watts

It depends what you mean by reimagining–because Penelope’s story is not really told. In The Odyssey, there’s a lot of weeping and being sent to her room, and that’s kind of it. I’ve gone out of my way to stay not very close to the mainline Homeric narrative. I’m cherry-picking a world. In that sense it’s just like historical fiction: you cherry-pick a time and a place, and then you have a whale of a time with it. That’s my ambition, to have picked a “historical” bit that I find geopolitically fascinating, and to tell the story in that context, rather than to attempt to retell Homer.

Beyond The Iliad and The Odyssey, what kind of research did this project involve? Did you find other retellings helpful?

I read The Oresteia as well, because Orestes features a lot. I have not deliberately sought out other retellings. I think that potentially risks disrespect to your fellow writers, which sounds weird, but I think it’s quite easy to feed on other writers, whether [one means to] or not. When you enjoy something, it’s going to influence you. It is respectful to know what your fellow writers are doing, and make sure you’re not shitting on that thing, but at the same time your job is to tell something that is original and true to you.

I did read The Penelopiad, years and years ago, because… Margaret Atwood. And since writing the trilogy I have read Elektra by Jennifer Saint, which I quite enjoyed. I was relieved, though, to find out that we’re doing very different things. I was like, oh thank goodness. We’re all different.

What inspired Hera’s voice?

When I pitched this idea to my editor, I was like, I want to write a geopolitical drama, and she was like, are you aware this is a fantasy imprint? Bringing in the goddesses as narrators was a conscious attempt to engage with the mythology instead of just politics.

Throughout human history, in almost every culture, there will be a worshipped woman image, a mother earth, a fertility goddess, etc. And there is some evidence that Mycenean Greece did still worship the concept of this powerful woman. There’s an argument that the Homeric epics and that era of storytelling sees a shift in our narratives from powerful women to powerful men. After Homer, The Oresteia, you don’t really think of Greek myths, legends and indeed stories as being about women. You have your three archetypal females: Helen, the whore; Penelope, the chaste one who stayed behind; and Clytemnestra, the murderess. Those are the three female archetypes you’re left with. We stop telling stories about Ariadne and Medea; we shift power from the women to the men. I found that very interesting, the idea of taking away women’s power through storytelling. Hera was the right voice to narrate this story from that point of view. Someone you can imagine tens of thousands of years ago as this embodied figure of powerful womanhood, of motherhood, of earth, fertility, being twisted and turned over centuries of storytelling into a vindictive wife who’s just locked up at home.

You call yourself a fantasy writer.

Obviously I think genre is a lie. It’s a very useful lie, a useful algorithm which allows you to walk into a bookshop and I say, I enjoyed this so I might enjoy that. But on the other hand, if it allows you to say Margaret Atwood or David Mitchell or Mary Shelley doesn’t write science fiction, then I’ve got news for you. I’ve seen Douglas Adams shelved as literature! Guys! This is a lie! It’s a lie that is fueled to a certain extent by the language of academic criticism and of what genre is. That is finally starting to change, but it’s a long, slow road. So the reason I call myself a fantasy writer and a sci-fi writer is, there is pride to be had in that genre. It would be easy for me to say I write literature, but if you’ve written words in a book, then it’s literature. Challenging the exclusivity of that is important. I think we should celebrate all books as much as possible, and part of the way I feel I can contribute to that is by very proudly standing up and saying, hey, genre. It rocks.

How was Ithaca different?

Ithaca is my 23rd novel. This is going to sound dreadful, but I feel pretty confident in what I’m doing at this point (touch wood, spin five times). But also, I don’t want to just be repeating the same thing each time. I like being challenged and learning something new. I’m not a classicist. I have massive imposter syndrome. I reread The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Oresteia, and that’s kind of it. There’s this huge world of classical scholarship that I deliberately avoided. I’m speaking to a story about womanhood and power and politics for a modern audience in a modern way. But I am mortally terrified of having got it wrong and having offended the many excellent people who have dedicated their lives to the scholarship. Wading into something that has been so studied and so beloved by so many people for millennia, you don’t want to screw it up; but also you don’t want to be bound by the idea of something sacred. The sacred should always be questioned and challenged, because we’re an evolving culture and we have a job to look at how and why we keep telling these stories and what they reinforce.

Another challenge was integrating the geopolitical and the mythological. We have a queen who can’t say yes and she can’t say no to any marriage proposal. This is a familiar geopolitical situation for queens. But to weave in mythology, you have to ask the question: How do I ground this quite solid political story… and also there’s a minotaur?


This interview originally ran on June 22, 2022 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.

Maximum Shelf: Ithaca by Claire 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 June 22, 2022.


Claire North (The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August; The Pursuit of William Abbey) offers a new take on a familiar tale with Ithaca, a richly imagined, thought-provoking novel of Penelope’s trials during the Trojan War and its aftermath. The forgotten or misrepresented women and goddesses of ancient Greece bring joy, sorrow, humor and wit.

A lengthy space of time falls between The Iliad‘s story of the Trojan War’s conclusion and The Odyssey‘s story of Odysseus’s protracted homecoming. On the island of Ithaca while its king, Odysseus, is absent, Penelope, his queen, rules uncertainly, beset by unruly suitors wishing to become king, and the hopes and ambitions of her son, Telemachus, an infant when his father went to war and a young adult by the time he returns. Into this gap comes Ithaca, which follows the challenges faced by Penelope and the other women–queens, wives, mothers, goddesses, slaves–who surround her and fight their own often overlooked battles.

The Homeric myths are well-known and familiar territories for many readers and indeed many writers, who have reimagined and retold these stories in abundance. But despite the richness of such retellings, Penelope remains an enigma, and North’s contribution to the genre is unique and welcome. While the Ithacan queen is in some respects its protagonist, Ithaca is narrated by the goddess Hera, wife (and sister) to Zeus, and frequently represented as bitter, jealous and vengeful. Hera’s interest in Penelope is self-serving: as the goddess of women, wives, queens and motherhood, she resents the ways in which Penelope is disregarded by her male counselors, her absent husband, her suitors and her son. While Hera’s stepdaughter, Athena, is chiefly concerned with the hero Odysseus, Hera is entirely here for the women. In fact, it is not Penelope whose fate concerns her first: “No one ever said the gods did not have favourites, and it is Clytemnestra I love best, my queen above all, the one who would be free.”

Clytemnestra’s crime of husband-murder is reframed by the recounted sins of Agamemnon, and when the murderess-queen hides on Ithaca, readers are reminded that she and Penelope are cousins. Next arrive Orestes and Elektra, who seek to avenge their father’s death; Orestes is near-mute and disengaged, while his sister is a magnetic, powerful force, barely remembering that she must at least seem to defer to the will of a man: “aware that she has been perhaps a little too forceful… [she] adds, ‘My brother will issue his commands shortly.’ ” Clever Penelope is more practiced at the trick of subtly sliding her wise points into conversations while seeming to demur. Telemachus is a bit silly, a boy hoping to be a man. Odysseus is entirely off-screen, “groan[ing] in the nymph’s pearly bed.” Both Artemis and Athena make appearances, annoying their stepmother with their own agendas.

Penelope is of course harassed by the unwelcome suitors who place the queen in a sort of stalemate, as she can neither accept their offers of marriage (both because Odysseus may still be living, and because to accept one would be to provoke the others quite possibly to war) nor send them away (because of the culturally sacred host’s obligation). In this version, Penelope is additionally beset by pirates attacking her island nation–pirates dressed as Illyrians but wielding the short swords of Greeks. There seems to be intrigue afoot, offering a whodunit mystery subplot for Penelope and her subtle female counselors (in contrast to her blustering male ones) to investigate. Women warriors lurk in the shadows of this Ithaca. And North does not forget the maids, who are also slaves, and also in some cases Trojans: “Death to all the Greeks,” one of them repeatedly mutters under her breath. The maids are frequently bedmates of the suitors; but to what end, and with what choice in the matter?

Thus is Ithaca the story not only of Penelope, Hera and other queens and goddesses, but of less famed women as well, down to the teenaged village huntress who opens these pages. Hera is quick to remind her audience that the stories that get passed down are written by poets, whose narratives may be purchased, and who rarely notice the contributions of women: “That girl is not remembered now”; “No poet will ever do her homage.” “Freedom only increased the efficacy of her work, though there is not a single poet in all of Greece who would dare breathe of such an outcome.” Hera’s voice is humorous, whimsical, imperious, frequently scornful. But she is also surprisingly easily cowed by the other Olympians, knowing that Zeus holds power over her. “I was a queen of women once, before my husband bound me with chains and made me a queen of wives.” While this story is on its face about Penelope, Clytemnestra, Elektra and the rest, Hera is an engrossing and masterful character in her narration.

North’s prose is clever, funny and as wise as Penelope herself, with an eye for pleasing images as well as deeper meanings. In her capable hands, this ancient landscape is both fresh and timely. Ithaca is the first in a trilogy, and having come to know this three-dimensional Penelope, North’s readers will eagerly await the next two installments.


Rating: 8 dreams.

Come back Monday for my interview with North.

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