Maximum Shelf: We Are the Brennans by Tracey Lange

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 12, 2021.


Tracey Lange’s We Are the Brennans is an utterly riveting debut novel of family ties, secrets and the depths of love. Beware the unintended single-sitting read: this magnetic story has the power to draw its reader from cover to cover in one gulp.

The Brennans are an extremely tight-knit Irish American family living in West Manor, N.Y., just north of Manhattan and “leaning upper middle class.” Mickey Brennan is now widowed, but the memory of his wife, Maura, casts a shadow. They have four children. The eldest, Denny, has a large frame and a large personality. He is half owner of a pub called Brennan’s (or Ó’Braonáin’s, in the Gaelic), begun on a loan from Mickey and Maura and very much the family business. Next in age is Sunday, the only child to have left the neighborhood, much to the family’s chagrin. Jackie is her Irish twin, at just 14 months younger: recently in trouble with the law, he’s moved back home to save money and help out. Shane is the youngest, genial and developmentally disabled, around whom all the Brennans rally. And then there is Kale: Denny’s business partner, a neighbor since childhood, an honorary Brennan–and Sunday’s former fiancé. Aunts and cousins cycle through as well; the charismatic Brennans have a large, comfortable household with a strong center of gravity.

As exceptionally close as they are, the Brennans also specialize in secrets. Denny has not been honest with his wife or Kale about the pub’s poor financial situation. Jackie is the only one who knows why Sunday really left town.

Chapters alternate perspective among these characters, chiefly the four siblings but also the other Brennans and Brennan-adjacents. There is an argument to be made for Sunday as main character; she was the glue that held this clan together, and it is her homecoming that sets the novel’s events in motion. But the book’s title points toward the family unit as central; their inextricability is compelling, unique and apparently infallible. Each chapter ends with a line of dialogue that also opens the next chapter, but from a different point of view, which contributes to the momentum that will keep you up all night to finish this book in one go. The effect is nearly cinematic, as if the camera shifts to show the same scene from another angle. This technique also highlights the impact of a deeply bonded family insisting on keeping secrets.

The Brennans are captivating, even hypnotic, for readers as well as for those who enter their orbit in the world of West Manor. In her debut novel, Lange shows a sure hand with characters both flawed and complex: Jackie loves bartending and is a talented painter, although only Sunday supports his art. Kale’s devotion is complete, even when he’s had to navigate the relationship of his best friend (Denny) and his childhood sweetheart (Sunday). Kale’s wife is challenging, but nuanced. Denny’s daughter Molly is sweet and spirited: she embraces her new Aunt Sunday wholly (after sitting her down for a serious talk about the preexisting plan for her to inherit Sunday’s room when Molly turns five). These damaged, fierce, loyal Brennans and their intricate problems will capture readers’ hearts entirely and not let go. Their story has everything: intrigue, crime, heartbreak, therapeutic awakenings and a romance that feels both impossible and inevitable.


Rating: 9 broken glasses.

Come back Wednesday for my interview with Lange.

Nervous System by Lina Meruane, trans. by Megan McDowell

This complex novel moves between outer space and private torments to embrace bonds forged in pain.

Lina Meruane’s Nervous System is a novel both fanciful and visceral, pairing the study of the cosmos with medical mysteries and wounds on earth. It is set dually in “the country of the present” and “the country of the past,” the latter swimming with political violence and trauma, and bearing a resemblance to Meruane’s native Chile. Megan McDowell’s translation from the Spanish establishes an eerie tone, both emotional and detached.

The protagonist is Ella. Her partner is El: Are these names, or the Spanish pronouns She and He? El is also known as “the bone guy,” a forensic scientist combing through mass graves, “more migrant bodies made to disappear piece by piece,” to determine cause of death. Ella’s father is simply the Father, her stepmother the Mother; only gradually the reader becomes aware of the Firstborn and the Twins (Boy Twin and Girl Twin), completing a family filled with holes and secrets. Ella is supposed to be writing her doctoral dissertation in astrophysics, but she has stalled. “This final attempt would be spent on stars that had already lost their light and collapsed in on themselves, forming dense black holes.” Instead, she winds up tracking not solar systems but the systems of her own body, as an undiagnosed condition contributes to her long, slow downfall.

The narrative unfolds in a bit of a fever dream, as Ella’s thought process combines words in lyric but not-quite-literal forms, and chronology moves backward and forward. Chapters are set in “future time,” “restless present,” “between times” and “past imperfect.” “The universe has never known harmony, has never been a perfect mechanism, it’s no good for measuring time precisely.” Ella’s “voice is many voices, her question is nervous nebulous shooting short circuit of stars.”

The novel is narrated in a third-person perspective close to Ella’s own consciousness, and characterized by a dreamy, distant way of describing even horrendous events, “women hacked to pieces and children lost in arid lands.” Eventually readers understand that illness, injury and all sorts of damage manifest in the body and in the memory, and great love and animosity can and frequently do exist side by side. Amid these personal and political traumas, family and history, lies commentary on the modern world, relationships, grief and connection. “Maybe with time everything would be restored, but maybe not, because there in the night the stupid stars still hung and sprinkled calcium over the universe.” Nervous System is filled with anguish and unease, but also starlight, which touches Ella at its close.


This review originally ran in the April 27, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 treacherous rats.

Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi’s reputation is stellar, and her backlist is healthy: six novels besides this one and a story collection, and she’s just 36. (Wow.) With this, my first of her books, I’m adding my voice to the chorus. Oyeyemi is a prodigious talent.

Gingerbread is under 300 pages, but I’m still a little intimidated by the task of saying what all is in it. There are three generations of women in our story from the start, and they remain our focus. Margot Lee, her daughter Harriet, and Harriet’s daughter Perdita make up a very close family, and the titular gingerbread is a family recipe with magical powers, apparently – but literally, or figuratively speaking? They live in London, but Margot and Harriet come originally from a country called Druhástrana, where Perdita has never visited. [I was immediately intrigued by the name Perdita: this word in Latin means lost; it is the name of a moon of Uranus; and it is the name of the heroine of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Which of these undertones is intended or instructive here? Maybe all of them.] “Several prominent thinkers have proposed reclassifying Druhástrana as a purely notional/mythical land”; at any rate, it is unclear how one would get there, or from there to here.

There are magical elements sprinkled throughout, in a book that is mostly realistic; just enough magic, then, to keep me a bit off balance in my reading of this world. Perdita has four dolls that speak (and not just to her); they are like her chorus, in the classical Greek sense. The Lee family gingerbread has powers, certainly. Druhástrana is a land of rather more magic: “She’d seen some plant-vertebrate combinations in the clearings, glassy gazing dormice and owls that earth had risen up around; the ground was growing them, and they looked uncomfortable, as if they’d been stretched and stuffed with straw. There was a leaf that people chewed for relief from pain, and the girl brought this leaf to the plant-vertebrate combinations when she had time; it seemed to make things a bit better for them.” Another girl “had two pupils in each eye; that’s why her eyes looked like bottomless lakes in the torchlight.”

Perdita, being a remarkable 17-year-old, manages a rather extreme act in search of her motherland. As she lays in bed recuperating from this adventure, Harriet sits with her (and her four speaking dolls) and tells the story of her own – Harriet’s – childhood and coming of age. This is the story of growing up in Druhástrana, the legacy of the gingerbread, and Perdita’s heretofore unknown paternity; it’s a story of families and class distinctions, and it takes up the bulk of the novel, right up until the story told at Perdita’s bedside moves into the present, when they get up and go continue to live it.

I love these characters: strong women with strong senses of humor and independence, and wise one-liners. “Everybody around her was living out a different story in which events had different causes and motivations according to how they were perceived.” “Life isn’t ill-natured; it’s just dirt poor, like any other public resource.” Harriet’s anxieties about the intimidating, insular Parental Power Association (what Perdita’s school has in place of a Parent Teacher Association) and its social structure are priceless, hilarious, and relatable.

I’m a sucker for a blend of realism with a few key points of wild unreality, which we find here, and I fell hard for Margot, Harriet, and Perdita. There is a real satisfaction to this novel’s ending, even if it doesn’t tie up all loose ends. I’m definitely in for more from Oyeyemi.


Rating: 8 powders.

Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau

In this heartwarming, hilarious novel, a dutiful child from a conservative household becomes nanny to a family of riotous hippies, and her world beautifully explodes.

“I had just turned fourteen, it was 1975, and my ideas about home, furniture, and cleanliness ran straight into me like an umbilical cord from my mother.” In the upper-crust Baltimore neighborhood of Roland Park, Mary Jane’s emotionally distant father thanks God every night at the dinner table for giving him an obedient child. Her world is exceedingly neat and regimented, until she begins working as a summer nanny for the Cone family down the street. This is the summer that will change everything for the protagonist of Jessica Anya Blau’s Mary Jane.

Mary Jane’s first-person narration and extremely limited experience of the world make this story both poignant and tremendously funny. While her own family oozes Stepford-style 1950s values, the Cones are consistently barefoot and scantily clad, and their home is a shock. “I’d never before been in a house where every space was crammed with things to look at or think about (could it be that all messes weren’t evil and didn’t need to be banished with such efficiency?).” Mary Jane’s charge, Izzy Cone, is a completely delightful five-year-old girl with untamed curls, copious energy and few boundaries. And then Dr. Cone (a psychiatrist) moves a patient and his wife into the guest quarters. They turn out to be a heroin-addicted rock star and a movie star, respectively–even Mary Jane has heard of them. She finds herself newly enfolded in boundless affection, acceptance, good humor and nonstop (mostly harmless) shenanigans. How will she reconcile this wild, disruptive, noisy new world with the life she’s known?

Mary Jane is unendingly charming and fun. The lovable Izzy; the messy but endearing details of the Cones’ home life; the surprisingly kind, down-to-earth pair of stars; and Mary Jane’s own earnest, bewildered narration combine for a romping good time. Music is an important thread: Mary Jane enjoys Broadway show tunes (from the shows her mother finds appropriate) and singing in the church choir. Her new “family” at the Cones’ teaches her about rock, soul and blues, encouraging her to sing along, and takes her to visit “Night Train Music: The Greatest Record Store in America.” There is of course a lesson to be learned in this coming-of-age story: “that adults weren’t always right and could be just as confused and make just as many mistakes as kids,” among other things. But Blau’s appealingly naïve narrator is at her best when she leaves such conclusions to speak for themselves and simply wonders at the colorful world just emerging, in this enchanting novel about personal growth and changing times.


This review originally ran in the April 20, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 silverware drawers.

guest review: Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta, from Pops

My father wrote this up to convince me to read the book; but I liked it enough to share it here. He worried about spoilers: “There is also much to say about the story itself, but I didn’t take the time to puzzle over how to do it without spoiling such an unusual book.” But I think it’s a good review, and a good handling of that problem. Some book reviews are definitely harder to write than others! I think he’s talked me into this one, but not sure how soon it will come to the top of my considerable list. Here’s Pops.

First published in Finland in 2012, Wiki says she wrote it simultaneously in her native Finnish language and English; it is now out in English too (2014); she lives in England.

Set in the far off future: China rules Europe, including the Scandinavian Union, which is occupied by the police State of New Qian. Earth has been devastated by severe climate crisis and oil wars, coastal cities completely flooded, infrastructure destroyed by war and accessible fossil fuels depleted. From clever reuse, this impoverished future retains some basic technology like primitive solar power and handheld ‘pods’ that serve as both information source and text communication. Weapons are knives and sabers, with guns seldom used.

Water is an obsession; fresh sources are limited and controlled by the State; water is a form of currency in local barter economy, held and transferred in plastic ‘skins’ in constant need of repair since plastic is no longer produced. Plastic is the common form of reuse, as it has still not degraded; only its usage changes.

Noria Kaitio is the 17 year old daughter and apprentice of a master of tea ceremony, an ancient practice of orchestrated tea serving and contemplation intended for all comers, but in fact an indulgence of the affluent and powerful. Events and thoughts of the Masters of each teahouse have been recorded for centuries in old books. She has inherited her mother’s quest for knowledge; she’s an avid reader of the rare paper books her mother collects, in a world where the State seeks to control all knowledge, especially history.

Her close friend is Sanja Vanamo, same age, who lives in the village and cares for her mother and little sister Minja, who is sickly. Their friendship is very close, but with tension over status difference. Sanja’s family is poor and must scrounge for water; scarcity contributes to Minja’s illness. Sanja is clever and mechanically skilled; she scavenges in the ‘plastic grave’, the landfill of junk, and makes use of it in many ways.

Itäranta is a master of restrained, sensual language and contemplative narrative. The tea ceremony itself sets the tone for the book’s voice, told with Noria in close third person. As readers we are not hurried, and encouraged to savor what we have before us, in the moment. Water is a constant object and metaphor, often depicted as a force in itself, a bottomless well in Noria’s life. For her, water is a complete source of life-giving sustenance: physical, emotional, spiritual. Such passages are brief and concise, scattered amidst narrative that moves along at a deliberate pace, consistent with the leisurely pace of a tea ceremony.

The narrative follows Noria’s life as she is disrupted by constant change. She is sensitive but wise; she is unswerving in upholding her independence when gender roles threaten.

Sounds compelling, and with some unusual literary elements. Thanks for sharing, Pops.

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (audio)

Following on Ward’s excellent (nonfiction) Men We Reaped, I found her earlier novel Salvage the Bones, read by the same narrator, Cherise Boothe. This one I loved less for a while in the middle, but I loved it at the end. And I’m afraid my one real criticism of this novel is my fault and not Ward’s. I’ve read 14 and a half books since I started listening to this audiobook – the shape of my life involves so little listening time these days. The long middle of the book dragged for me; I felt the pacing was off, but it might be the pace at which I took the story in, and not the pace at which the story is told.

Esch is fifteen years old, the only girl in the family. She has three brothers. Skeetah, sixteen, is entirely consumed by his love for his fighting pit bull, the china-white China. Randall, seventeen, is a gifted basketball player, whose friends occupy much of Esch’s attention – especially Manny, who she can’t keep her eyes off of. Then there’s Junior, seven, fed and diapered by Esch and Randall after their mother died giving birth. They live in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and their father is present, but only physically. He is drunk and a bully, and more concerned with hurricane season than his four children. Only halfway into these pages do we hear the name Katrina for the first time.

The novel opens with China giving birth in a poorly lit shed to her first litter of puppies. The whole family gathers round. Skeetah is rapt; his dog and her puppies are his whole world. Esch watches him watching them. He is the brother she is closest to, but China’s motherhood also holds new meaning for the girl, who is just realizing she is pregnant. In the novel’s twelve day span, from the birth of China’s puppies to the aftermath of Katrina’s devastation of their coastal town, that pregnancy feels like the subtext of every other story: Daddy’s obsession with the approaching storm; Skeetah’s obsession with his dogs; Randall’s focus on his sport; Junior’s low-level whining and neediness; Manny’s distance from the girl he treats as sex toy and not human; Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, which Esch is reading for school. This thread makes a significant contribution, even though its screen time (if you will) is brief. Esch is captivated by the strength and singlemindedness of Medea, the crooked model of motherhood she presents. In the world of Bois Sauvage – poverty, lack of parenting, the closeness of siblings who care for each other when no one else does – Medea offers a surprising outside point of reference. Also, I read the same book for school at the same age (under very different personal circumstances), and I found the parallel striking.

There is a stagnant time in the novel’s middle, again, where I got a little adrift. And again, it may have been my slow reading (listening) pace. But Esch takes her time acknowledging her pregnancy; she vomits and can’t get enough to eat; China’s puppies begin to die one by one; Daddy behaves badly; the weather hangs heavy and humid. Actually, the weather and restiveness feel a lot like the time before a hurricane hits. Also, Manny is such a terrible guy that I got sick of him very quickly and was forced to spend more time considering his awfulness than I’d have liked. So there was a hard bit for me in the middle.

But once Manny’s betrayal becomes clear, and the storm begins its approach, things pick back up. The stakes rise before the water does; there is a dog fight, and a human one (or several). In the end, this novel considers the profound effects of Katrina and the fierce love of kids who look out for each other. The account of the storm itself is striking and impactful. Esch is a hero, not a victim.

Katrina: the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive. Left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sunstarved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and saltburned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is a mother we’ll remember, until the next mother with large merciless hands committed to blood comes.

Motherhood is bloody when it is taught by Medea, and by China, the mother who fights and rips, whose white coat is streaked with blood in her victories. Her own mother is gone, so Esch learns this fierceness. It’s not romantic or pretty, perhaps, but it is something to marvel at.

There is no question that this story is beautifully told and I think masterfully told, my problems with pacing notwithstanding (again, perhaps mea culpa). Ward continues to impress. I am hypnotized by the storm, and the storm in Esch. I do recommend this novel, and Boothe’s narration here.


Rating: 8 shoes.

Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley

Within a London apartment building in some disrepair, diverse lives intertwine in an absorbing story of connections and change.

On a nondescript block in London’s Soho district stands a 17th-century building with a decades-old French restaurant on the ground floor. The specialty of the house is snails in garlic butter. On the rooftop, two women bicker and smoke. In the cellar, an encampment of squatters scrapes out a home. On the middle floors, sex workers entertain clients in apartments where some of them also live. Myriad and motley, these characters and their sordid and sympathetic lives form Hot Stew, a compelling, compassionate novel by Fiona Mozley (Elmet).

Precious is an immigrant mother and grandmother. “Everyone assumes ‘Precious’ is the name she adopted on entering the trade,” but it’s her real name. She shares her apartment with her maid and life partner, Tabitha, retired from the trade. One of the brothel’s customers, Robert, an older man retired from a life of crime, drinks at a nearby pub with his friend Lorenzo, a young actor. The pub is also frequented by two of the cellar squatters: a man who does magic tricks and a woman with a heroin problem and a mysterious past. A young man of wealth and privilege reconsiders old connections as he explores the Soho building that ties them all together. Looming dangerously over all their lives is the formidable Agatha Howard, born of a Russian teenager and a fabulously wealthy crime boss septuagenarian. Agatha owns the building where these lives intersect, and she wants to gut it for renovations to increase her profits. But Precious and Tabitha are disinclined to leave, and once the thread of gentrification is tugged, it becomes clear how complex is the weave of an unassuming building in Soho.

Hot Stew is concerned with class, history, legacies, how each person ends up where they do and the degree to which they hold agency over their futures. Mozley’s character sketches are delightful and engaging: detailed, complicated, flawed and beautiful. As the stakes rise for each and as their apparently disparate stories come together, a sense of menace threatens the interconnected human stew. “The men behind the masks aren’t men. They are a natural disaster: a hurricane, a flood.” Just a few of these variously disreputable but lovable characters feel the tremors that have begun to tease at Soho’s underbelly, until it seems that the fates of the building, its inhabitants and all of Soho are one fate. This is a novel of empathy, shared histories and hope in the most unlikely of places.


This review originally ran in the April 6, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 sighs.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The only difference between lying and acting was whether your audience was in on it, but it was all a performance just the same.

I’m on a roll: here’s yet another book that threatened to keep me up all night. When I finished reading this novel, I went immediately to buy Brit Bennett’s first book, The Mothers. So far there are just the two; I hope she’s writing right this minute.

The Vanishing Half begins in a curious town called Mallard in Louisiana, just two hours west of New Orleans, founded by a man whose father once owned him and whose mother hated his lightness. “He’d married a mulatto even lighter than himself. She was pregnant then [1848, when he thought up the town] with their first child, and he imagined his children’s children’s children, lighter still, like a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream. A more perfect Negro. Each generation lighter than the once before.” And so Mallard, “a town for men like him, who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes. A third place.”

This colorism suffuses the novel, which is about family and secrets and the identities we inherit and choose for ourselves and those we cannot, and so much more, but always about race and color too. From that founder, generations later, are descended a pair of girl twins who watch their daddy get lynched and then run away from Mallard to New Orleans, where they part ways. One lives her life as a Black woman, and eventually returns to Mallard with a child “blueblack… like she flown direct from Africa.” The other crosses over, and becomes White.

You could drown in two inches of water. Maybe grief was the same.

Usually I get nervous when I read about ‘multigenerational sagas’ that I’m looking at a 500+ page book. This one is just 343 in my hardback edition, but does span generations – chiefly the twins and their daughters – and the country, from Louisiana to Hollywood to New York City, with other brief stopovers. It went by quickly (again, I had to force myself to sleep and finish it on day two). And yet it feels enormous. I’ve traveled so far, I feel like, with these women (centrally) and men. The plot centers on problems of race and of colorism within the Black community, but it also handles gender, sexuality, class, art, personal agency, and especially and in several forms, questions about family and love and hurting those we love, keeping secrets (as a form of love and wounding), and those questions about chosen identities (gender as well as race). I do love these Big Questions. But Bennett is also astonishing at plot, scene, and character – there are so many characters here whose stories, even briefly, captivate. I mourn closing this book (which is why I instantly ordered Bennett’s other one). Don’t even wait: do yourself a favor and get into The Vanishing Half, if you haven’t already. I wish I could read it again for the first time.


Rating: 9 worn calculus textbooks.

The Memory Collectors by Kim Neville

A poignant exploration of relationships offers a deep dive into the strong bonds that can form between people and everyday objects.

Kim Neville’s first novel The Memory Collectors is a feat of character and plot, as well as an intriguing consideration of the enormous significance objects and places can hold for different people.

In an opening prologue, the reader meets Evelyn, a child who loves working with her father in his antiques and restorations shop; it is a glimpse of idyllic family life. The novel then flashes forward to its central timeline: Ev is a young adult in Vancouver, socially isolated, making a living by picking through recycle bins and alley discards for items to sell at the Chinatown Night Market. Her relationship with her little sister Noemi is fractured. Their family experienced a tragedy that for much of the book remains unclear.

And then there is Harriet, an older woman with a hoarding problem and a mysterious connection to Ev. They share an ability to read an object’s emotional associations by touch or proximity, but they have very different feelings about this gift, or curse. Ev hides from things she thinks of as “stained,” living in new and undecorated spaces, and moving often as her own feelings settle in. Harriet collects the things she thinks of as “bright,” filling the spaces around her with borrowed emotions until she makes her neighbors ill with “the soft, scrambled buzz of thousands of stains.” Harriet hopes to use her collection to heal, with Ev’s help. But Ev may know better just how dangerous a brooch or a balsawood glider can be.

Ev is a heart-rending protagonist, paralyzed by her oversensitivity to the accrued memories and emotions of others. Because of her ability and her shadowed past, she keeps to herself, but still yearns for connection. Harriet’s isolation is different but parallel, as “the grubby, greedy, Gollum part of her” threatens to take over. A perceptive artist named Owen has something to offer each of them; he doesn’t feel objects as they do, but he might be better with people than either one. Ev’s sister is a troubled and troubling youth with secrets of her own. These characters form the rich heart of this tender, electric novel, which is also expertly plotted, with rising tension and danger, and carefully dispensed details from Ev’s murky family history.

The Memory Collectors is a remarkable piece of magical realism, imaginative and vivid in its specificity. Seemingly trivial items offer enormous symbolic opportunities. Thoughtful and thought-provoking, this story and its vibrant characters will stay with the reader long after the pages have closed.


This review originally ran in an abbreviated form as a *starred review* in the March 19, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.


Rating: 8 jade elephants.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Readers of this blog might by now know that I am capable of calling a book about a serial killer light-hearted. Here it is. This is a fun romp about a serial killer.

First-person narrator Korede is a competent nurse at a hospital, where she has a serious crush on a doctor named Tade. He considers her a friend, but nothing more. She is also the responsible sister, and good thing, because her younger sister Ayoola needs one. Their mother is a bit flighty and detached; Korede’s one ally at home is the house girl, otherwise unnamed, another competent but invisible type. Korede and Ayoola’s abusive father, thank goodness, is dead.

Ayoola is a very different sort: stunningly beautiful, she attracts attention everywhere she goes. Men court her and buy her things; women want to be her. She is utterly spoiled, possibly a sociopath, and she has a bad habit of stabbing her boyfriends to death. Thank goodness for Korede’s (perhaps unhealthy) obsession with cleaning products. She knows just how to get the blood out, cover up smells, and where to dispose of the bodies. Her conscience is beginning to nag, however, and so she does what any invisible hospital worker would do: she confides at great length to a kindly-seeming man deep in a coma. You might guess how that winds up.

The delicate arrangement Korede and Ayoola have established to deal with Ayoola’s violent habit is beginning to fray for several reasons, but one event that pushes it to a head is when Tade, Korede’s beloved doctor, asks for Ayoola’s number. The long-overlooked elder sister is forced to decide: is she really willing to protect Ayoola in all scenarios? At all costs?

Chapters are very short, at most a few pages, which is part of what contributes to My Sister, the Serial Killer‘s sense of momentum. I had to force myself to put this one down and get to bed on a school night; it rather demands a single-sitting read. As the present-tense story of Tade’s infatuation with Ayoola unfolds, we also get flashbacks, in chapters titled “Father,” to the story of that patriarch. Braithwaite in no way answers all the reader’s curiosities about this dysfunctional family, but there are surprises along the way, nonetheless.

This novel is set in Lagos, with some Yoruba language sprinkled in, and the family’s foods were often foreign (and interesting) to me. The Lagos police are woefully corrupt and/or incompetent, but other than these details for flavor, if you will, the setting didn’t have an enormous effect on the story.

Despite Ayoola’s murderous tendencies (and generally annoying personality), there is, again, a sense of fun about Korede’s situation: the antics of the women she works with, and Ayoola’s completely ridiculous nonchalance. I felt like the story could keep going, and I would definitely read another installment about Korede’s hapless existence.


Rating: 7 shoes.
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