The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickels

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rating: 10 photographs.

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

What a glorious book. N.K. Jemisin is a wonder.

I loved the fantasy/sci fi version of our world presented in The City We Became. When cities have achieved something like a critical mass of culture or soul, they sort of come to life in the form of a human avatar, a preexisting person who best possesses or encapsulates the qualities of that city. It takes a long time, a lot of history and life, for a city to become. There have only been a few in the Americas to get this far. New Orleans and Port-au-Prince were stillborn. Sao Paolo, as the newest city in the worldwide community, is on hand to help with the next birth to take place: that of New York.

New York is unique in that it has multiple souls, one for each of the boroughs as well as one for the city as a whole. Like London; except that something went wrong in London. So New York’s becoming is unprecedented and fraught. The novel opens with the perspective of the unnamed man who will, hopefully, be New York: “too slim, too young, and entirely too vulnerable,” Black, talented, homeless. His voice blew me away in these first pages, before I had any idea what was going on. (It also reminded me of the voice of a friend of mine, a talented young writer. You’re in good company, B.) Here’s the thing: in the birth moment of every city, the Enemy is near at hand, threatening. This is why some cities don’t come to life at all. It’s why some are killed: Pompeii, Tenochtitl├ín, Atlantis. Oh, yes: it’s not that Atlantis wasn’t real. It just isn’t real anymore.

Something is different about New York: the city’s main avatar may be precocious, but the Enemy (“squamous eldritch bullshit”) is much stronger here, too. The risk seems greater than ever. Luckily, New York (and his helper, Paolo) has the boroughs to rely on. Or does he? Manhattan has never set foot in the city before. He can’t remember his name–the name from before–or what he did, but he thinks it wasn’t good. Brooklyn grumbles that she is “too goddamn old to fight transdimensional rap battles in the middle of the night,” but she’ll do it anyway. The Bronx is always ready to rumble; her people have been here since before there was a New York. Queens would rather return to her studies (she hates financial engineering, “which of course is why she’s getting a master’s degree in it”). Staten Island is a real mess, downright antagonistic to her fellows. And what is Jersey City doing here?

As you may have realized, the idea of a place being personified in an individual is right up my alley; I bought into this concept immediately and whole-heartedly. I love the challenges it presents the author. To choose an individual means choosing a gender, a race, personality traits. It means committing: Brooklyn to be contained within one woman? If she’s a rapper, or a city councilwoman, that’s a commitment to one way of expressing all of Brooklyn: it sounds like a losing proposition from the start, but Jemisin knows her stuff. Here’s where I say that I know little of New York and the personalities of its boroughs; but I know how tricky it is to try and sum up a place, and I respect the complexities of The City We Became. (Also, I can attest that this story works even for the reader unfamiliar with New York.)

This book introduces a rich panoply of fascinating characters, with backstories, histories, cultural and ethnic heritages, professions, personalities, sexualities and gender expressions, to represent a richly varied New York. It is completely absorbing. The science and fantasy of the world in which cities become struck the right balance, for me, between sufficient explanation and satisfying mystery. (I don’t show up to sci fi for the science.) The whole thing is fully-fleshed, compelling, the kind of story to lose yourself in, both clearly related to the one I live in and weird enough to take me out of this one. Jemisin gives each character their own compelling voice, and plenty of sensory lushness to her settings–which are, pretty literally here, characters unto themselves. They are all, in their own ways, so smart. “There’s a lot to consider: particle-wave theory, meson decay processes, the ethics of quantum colonialism, and more.” Lovecraft is often present, “equal-opportunity hater” though he was. I had a fabulous time. And this is just the first in a trilogy! I’m so excited.

Unqualified recommendation: if you appreciate imagination, or a person’s connection to place, or cities, or cultures, or fine writing, get to know The City We Became.


Rating: 10 brigadeiro.

The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey

A single discovery touches three siblings’ lives in surprising ways in this poignant, gleaming story.

The Boy in the Field is a stunning novel of tenderness, interconnectedness, cause and effect by Margot Livesey (The Flight of Gemma Hardy; Mercury). Matthew, Zoe and Duncan are walking home from school one day when they find him, in a field with cows, swallows, bluebottles: a beautiful young man, really just a boy, bloodied and unconscious. He speaks one word: “Cowrie,” Zoe reports to the police. “Cowslip,” says Duncan. “Coward,” says Matthew. With their discovery, they save his life.

The teenaged siblings are close, loving and very different from one another. Matthew, the eldest, is thoughtful. He hopes to become a detective one day, and becomes obsessed with solving the mystery of who hurt the boy in the field, and why. He puzzles over motivations. Zoe has “a gift for finding things: birds’ nests, their mother’s calculator, a missing book, a secret.” She worries over her parents’ relationship and explores her own first sexual experiences; she is drawn to the ways in which people come together and apart. Duncan, the youngest, is observant, almost preternaturally sensitive and a gifted painter. Finding the boy will start him toward a discovery about his own life that might be destructive.

The novel unfolds through alternating chapters from the perspectives of Matthew, Zoe and Duncan. Their parents, Betsy and Hal, are compelling characters as well, less known than the children but multi-faceted, imperfect and endearing. Livesey’s deceptively simple prose renders each sibling as both sweet and complicated. Their shared experience, finding the injured young man, begins for each of them a different kind of acceleration: into adulthood, out of innocence, into reconfigured connections. Matthew gets to know the police detective assigned to the case; his relationships with his girlfriend and his best friends irrevocably change; he notices for the first time that he’s drawing away from his younger siblings. Zoe has out-of-body experiences, breaks up with her boyfriend and meets a young philosopher, and it is Zoe who discovers the chink in their parents’ marriage. Duncan sinks into the paintings of Morandi, gets a new dog and launches an investigation of his own. By book’s end, the three will grow both closer and apart through this shared experience.

The Boy in the Field is a coming-of-age story, a mystery, a sharp-eyed examination of individual lives and relationships. Despite the violent crime related to its title and the insecurities that arise for various characters along the way, this brilliant novel offers a sense of beauty and safety in its quiet ruminations.


This review originally ran in the July 21, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 brushstrokes.

Luster by Raven Leilani

Race, sex, shifting social rules, art, inspiration and digestive troubles plague the compelling protagonist of this debut novel.

Raven Leilani’s first novel, Luster, is a rocket-paced, sensual fever dream of sex, trauma, relationships and conflicting perceptions.

Edie is in her 20s and struggling, with her crappy shared Bushwick apartment, her low-level position in children’s publishing, her uninspired sexual choices and her irritable bowel syndrome. Her parents are dead, but the psychic wounds they inflicted are not. Her painting is not going well, and she is a Black woman in New York City. “Racism is often so mundane it leaves your head spinning, the hand of the ordinary in your slow, psychic death so sly and absurd you begin to distrust your own eyes.” Early on, her affair with Eric seems different, refreshing, in spite of, or because of, the 23-year age gap. Then Edie gets fired and evicted, and she spirals, landing, weirdly, in the middle of someone else’s marriage. She knew from the start that Eric was in an open marriage–his wife set a lot of rules for his relationship with Edie. But suddenly she finds herself taken in, literally, by Rebecca, living in their guest room in New Jersey, asked to mentor this white couple’s adopted Black daughter, Akila. Surreality seems to be Edie’s default, but now the funhouse mirror tilts again.

Edie’s first-person narration is nearly stream-of-consciousness, long sentences overflowing with imaginative visual impressions and self-deprecation: “as the car is pulling away he is standing there on the porch in a floral silk robe that is clearly his wife’s, looking like he has not so much had an orgasm as experienced an arduous exorcism, and a cat is sitting at his feet, utterly bemused by the white clapboard and verdant lawn, which makes me hate this cat as the city rises around me in a bouquet of dust, industrial soot, and overripe squash, insisting upon its own enormity like some big-dick postmodernist fiction and still beautiful despite its knowledge of itself, even as the last merciless days of July leave large swaths of the city wilted and blank.” Edie’s particular blend of despair, panic and self-destruction is spellbinding. As she hesitatingly helps Akila with her hair and accompanies Rebecca to work (conducting autopsies at the VA) and to a midnight mosh pit, Edie begins to paint again. She is inspired by the minutiae of this family home: lightbulb, dinner plate, Rebecca’s body.

Luster is intoxicating and surprising, never letting readers settle into recognizable patterns. Leilani has crafted an unforgettable novel about a young woman making her own way.


This review originally ran in the July 20, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 Captain Planet mugs.

Maximum Shelf: Cuyahoga by Paul Beatty

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 13, 2020.



Pete Beatty’s Cuyahoga is a wild romp, a colorful tall tale and a tender-hearted revisionist history. In the early days of Ohio City and Cleveland, the two cities at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River struggle for primacy, peopled by larger-than-life heroes and classical fools.
The year is 1837, and the narrator of this farfetched story is Meed (short for Medium Son). He promises “wholesome tales, without too many fricasseed widows. True mostly–I will not lie any more than is wanted for decency.” His own protagonist is his brother, Big Son, part superhero and part town mascot, a “foremost spirit of the times,” with “shoulders wide as ox yokes… waist trim as a sleek lake schooner.” In the opening pages, Big must subdue a forest before Ohio City can be founded. “I imagine you are accustomed to meek and mild trees that do not want correcting,” Meed tells readers in a confidential tone, but “you do not know the manners of our trees.” Big’s feats are the stuff of legend, and the crafting of that legend is Meed’s work:

“Stories will go to rot without puttingup. You must salt them into Egyptian mummies, or drown them in lying sugar. Bury them in winter and freeze their blood.

But you would hide the honest stink, the moschito bites, the wounds, the living glory.

Let you and me do without salt and sugar. Taste matters true–even if the truth is half rotten.”

Cuyahoga often appears to be Big’s story, but like many of the best narrators, Meed must eventually step forward and reveal himself. Along the way he will profile the conjoined cities and a number of their livelier inhabitants. The fate of the brothers is inextricable from the drama of the towns’ rivalry.

Big’s problem, which launches this picaresque tale, is that his fabled feats inspire the admiration of the townspeople, but rarely pay in currency. He wishes to marry the beautiful, strong, quick-witted and thoroughly independent Cloe Inches, “somewhat-sister” to Meed and Big (all three are adopted). Readers understand early on that Cloe does not wish to marry at all, but the protest she makes over Big’s lack of funds is the message he hears most clearly. Much of Cuyahoga tracks his attempts to earn a living that will let him “make an honest man of myself,” as Big puts it, and win her hand.

Big’s attempts to better himself merge with Ohio City’s bid for greatness. The towns’ rivalry comes to a head with the question of a bridge across the Cuyahoga: Who will pay for it? Where will it be located (and therefore who will get the business of the tradespeople who use it)? When a location is chosen that puts Cleveland at an advantage, a chant rises up in Ohio City: “Two bridges or none.” This is the kernel of conflict that will put Big at odds with his town, unsettle Meed’s established loyalties and threaten the peace of the Cuyahoga’s twin cities.

Cuyahoga is seasoned liberally with other memorable characters: the prickly Cloe is joined by “Elijah Frewly, the worst rastler in Ohio, who wore black eyes regular as whiskers” and the grimly nurturing Mrs Tabitha, who “ambuscades” her children (adopted and natural) with corncakes each morning. (One of Meed’s poetic traits is the coining of words: “To ABSQUATULATE were a general term for departing with haste.”) Even among such a cast, grocer (read: barkeeper) August “Dog” Dogstadter stands out. Dog’s bar brims with uncouth characters and bristles with weaponry: “Hoes, plows, rakes, scythes. Mattocks and sledges. Pokers and tongs. Mammoth laundry spoons and rusted cleavers. Implements for encouraging people. Pikes, clubs, a spear….” Dog himself embodies and leads this menagerie, not necessarily a force for good. After the first attack on the hated bridge, Dog and his motley crew are immediate suspects. Meed is always on hand to record the drama, including horse and boat races, midnight graveyard hauntings, threatening nocturnal pigs and the finer points of the frontier coffin-making business.

For all its vivid spirits and outsize feats, Cuyahoga‘s greatest achievement is Meed’s unorthodox voice, unpolished but often piercingly wise, and peppered with surprising allusions. “FIVE DOLLARS SHERIFF’S FINE FOR ANY PIG TO WONDER IN THESE PREMISES,” the graveyard sign reads; “I believe the sign maker meant WANDER and only spelled badly. But the mistake had a poem to it.” Meed is given to poetry in his own cockeyed way. Early morning events take place “before dawn put a rosy finger on Ohio,” in reference to ancient Greek classics. His voice and perspective are by turns simple, philosophical, silly and serious. Readers are entirely on his side by the time the loveable, hapless Meed must eventually balance his devotion to his hero brother with his own desires, and ask: “If I were a spirit, how would I go?”

Zany Midwestern history, oddball superhero story, poignant tale of brotherhood and self-discovery: this is an utterly fresh debut novel. Cuyahoga is ever surprising.


Rating: 7 shinplasters.

Come back Wednesday for my interview with Beatty.

Things You Would Know If You Grew Up Around Here by Nancy Wayson Dinan

Forces of nature and preternatural human empathy come together in an extraordinary novel about relationships, love and place.

Set against the true events of Memorial Day weekend 2015 in central Texas, Things You Would Know if You Grew Up Around Here explores empathy, history, local lore, fantastical happenings and simple humanity. Amid catastrophic flooding, Nancy Wayson Dinan’s protagonist offers a compelling balance between the weird and the ordinary. Eighteen-year-old Boyd has always been unusually perceptive. Her best friend Isaac is the only one who never asked anything of her, in the unspoken way that people do. “Hurt children trailed Boyd… the forked stick of a dowser… tuned not to water, but to pain.”

It’s the fourth year of the drought, the beginning of summer, and Isaac is camped on the edge of the lake below Boyd’s house, panning for gold: “You can pay a semester of tuition at UT with a tiny sack of that gold dust.” After the first night’s rain, landscapes are rearranged, people scattered, and the rain still falls. Boyd can feel Isaac lost somewhere, “the copper fear in his mouth… the shivering of his chilled limbs.” Bridges out and all roads blocked, she sets out cross-country, on foot. “She had no doubt she could find Isaac; she was drawn to him like a magnetic pole, reading his distress like a Geiger counter.”

So begins a chain of events and searches: Isaac in mortal danger; Boyd following instinct alone into uncharted territories; her neighbor Carla, a retired hippie recluse from Austin, following her own instincts after Boyd. Boyd’s mother, Lucy Maud, accompanied by a motley crew of aging family members and Boyd’s father. Isaac’s father, also missing, gone treasure-hunting just as the rains began.

Dinan’s narrative shifts among these quests: Carla slipping through the mud in her yoga slides. Lucy Maud, alternately drawn to her estranged husband and annoyed by his ineptness. Isaac in one predicament after another. And Boyd, whose unlikely understanding has expanded until she must navigate both time and space, lost children and Texas history, wandering through the same sodden world where she looks for Isaac.

Things You Would Know If You Grew Up Around Here is fabulous and engrossing, both faithful to the real-world details of central Texas and wildly imaginative, peopled with treasure hunters, prehistoric beasts, distracted professors and one improbable young woman facing a momentous decision. Dinan’s storytelling flows as forcefully as a flash flood in this spellbinding first novel in which a handsome young man, refreshingly, awaits rescue by a powerful woman.


This review originally ran in the April 27, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 glyptodonts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Rating: 6 sandwiches.

Sin Eater by Megan Campisi

In this enchanting alternate history, a Sin Eater consumes the misdeeds of others, and may have a chance to right some wrongs.

Megan Campisi’s Sin Eater opens with a 14-year-old girl named May being arrested for stealing a loaf of bread, in an alternate version of Elizabethan England. The royal family of Angland is entangled in court intrigue and murders, including of babes, to secure favored heirs to the throne, even considering marriage to the hated Northern lords. Common people work hard for a meager living; some starve unless given special permission from the queen to beg in the street. The penalties for petty crimes are high: vagrants have a hole “burned through the gristle of [the] ear with a hot iron as thick as a man’s thumb.” The penalty for a second offense is death.

In this cruel world, below even dung men and woad dyers in the social order, lies a cursed role: that of the Sin Eater. “It’s always women who eat sins, since it was Eve who first ate a sin: the Forbidden Fruit.” Marked by the iron collar locked around her neck and her tattooed tongue, she may be neither seen nor heard. She is called to deathbeds to hear the Recitation, a confession of sins; she translates these sins into foods, which the family will prepare for the Eating. By taking the sins of others into herself, the Sin Eater absolves the deceased. Every child in the street knows the basics. “Salt for pride. Mustard seed for lies. Barley for curses.” When a deer’s heart appears on a noblewoman’s coffin, the city’s older Sin Eater will not eat it, for the terrible sin it refers to was never confessed. She is tortured and killed, leaving May on her own to wrestle with a deadly royal plot.

Recently orphaned and terribly talkative, May is now forbidden to speak. Her apprenticeship as Sin Eater was both silent and short; she’s still learning which foods match the more esoteric crimes. In her favor, May discovers the strange power of the Sin Eater: afraid to touch her, people move out of her way, granting her access to prison cells and royal bedchambers. Chance introduces her to a group of fellow misfits, including a disfigured man, a leper and a roguish theater player. But she must solve the royal mystery alone and, just maybe, create a new fate for herself.

Sin Eater is a fully fleshed work of speculative fiction, abundant with the fine details of Elizabethan life and, of course, food. May is a damaged and sympathetic heroine, at once intelligent and innocent. This is an opulently imagined debut, horrific and weirdly beautiful, filled with earnest feeling as well as cruelty. Set aside time to read this engrossing novel in one go.


This review originally ran in the March 16, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 small loaves of bread.

Maximum Shelf: Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn

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 March 4, 2020.


Kawai Strong Washburn’s entrancing first novel, Sharks in the Time of Saviors, spans years and crosses over to the mainland and back again, following the Flores family–Malia and her husband, Augie; their sons, Dean and Nainoa; their daughter, Kaui–and the myths and gods of Hawai’i.

In Honoka’a in 1995, Malia remembers, “The kingdom of Hawai’i had long been broken–the hot rain forests and breathing green reefs crushed under the haole commerce of beach resorts, skyscrapers–and that was when the land had begun calling.” She addresses one of her children: “When I close my eyes we’re all still alive…” and she thinks back to the night “when your father and I were naked in his pickup truck, Waipi’o Valley, and we witnessed the night marchers.”

The night marchers are the first sign of magic in a story that plays with the concept throughout. What is magic and what is imagination; what is myth and what truth; which are the forces for good? Where does modern medicine meet the inexplicable, and what alchemy results?

When middle child Nainoa (“Noa”) is seven years old, he falls overboard in the waters off Kona and is surrounded by sharks. But instead of attacking, they carry him carefully back to the boat unharmed. This event is hailed as legend, a miracle, mark of the gods; in the years that follow, Noa’s strangeness will help to bring his family partly out of the economic depression brought on by the fall of the sugarcane industry, but his gifts are dubious and unreliable. His siblings have talents of their own to offer, but are alienated by the obvious specialness of Noa, the chosen one.

The novel’s perspective shifts, chapter by chapter, from Malia’s to each of her children; Augie’s voice will be heard only at the very end of this astonishing debut. Noa’s chapters are precise and observant, Kaui’s and Dean’s variously disgruntled and colorful and more vernacular, Malia’s reveal a close attention to larger meanings. Washburn’s prose style shifts with these voices, but throughout he showcases lush description and stark contrasts. In Kaui’s voice, “We set our toes and fingertips on razored bits of stone and slipped ourselves into the veined cracks of sheer walls of limestone or granite or basalt, all of it ceilinged by a thunder-brained sky.”

All three children travel to the mainland in search of education and opportunity. In Spokane, basketball star Dean has earned a full scholarship but grapples with the pressures of school and sport. In San Diego, Kaui discovers drugs and free climbing and falls in love with a woman who does not want what Kaui wants. After Stanford, Noa moves to Portland, where he saves lives as an EMT. He has a good partner and loves her daughter, but still struggles with his gift. Perhaps his lifesaving ability is not what it seems. Despite the family’s constant focus on Noa, the chapters that cover their separate lives offer refreshing views of Kaui and Dean, who are intriguing, flawed, engaging characters unto themselves. Their parents may center on Noa, but the novel resists doing so.

Amid various crises, each adult child will cycle back to the islands they call home. Noa, as always, leads the way, but Dean and Kaui have roles to fulfill within the family and on the islands, too. Their parents’ needs are both burden and gift. Malia continues to question the apparent favor bestowed upon her middle child: “If you were more of the gods than of us–if you were something new, if you were supposed to remake the islands, if you were all the old kings moving through the body of one small boy–then of course I could not be the one to guide you to your full potential. My time as a mother was the same as those last gasping breaths of the owl.” Each character is torn by the need to belong to a place and a people, the need to rescue and be rescued, to persist.

Sharks in the Time of Saviors is a gorgeous, rich, multifaceted novel. As it shifts between the mindsets of Malia and her three children, it poses questions behind their stories, interrogates joy and love and faith and loss, rage and redemption, the price and reward of returning home. This is a story about a small number of central characters and their often sad and painful daily lives, and also about more universal struggles. It’s about past, present and future Hawai’i, including the racial tensions between native Hawai’ians and the haoles that have changed their world so much. It’s about family, hope and risk.

Memorable characters, richly evoked settings, heartbreaking realism and alluring myth combine in a magical, expertly plotted, completely absorbing novel. Washburn takes his readers into a world that is both known and entirely new.


Rating: 8 owl feathers.

Come back Monday for my interview with Kawai.

reread: Martin Marten by Brian Doyle (audio)

By coincidence, this book review was next in line when today’s date came up. But it feels perfectly appropriate for this gift-giving holiday, because Brian Doyle is a gift, and I think this novel is my favorite of his.

I have returned to my very first Brian Doyle experience with Martin Marten (originally reviewed here), because I miss him and love his work. Having enjoyed a few other audiobooks of his, I thought I’d try Travis Baldree’s narration.

It’s very good; I enjoyed the different voices for each character, from Maria to Dave to each of Dave’s parents, to Moon and Emma Jackson and Miss Moss and Mr. Douglas the trapper. I thought he preserved the sense of wonder and boundlessness that characterizes Doyle’s work. I found myself not thinking of the narration much, actually, and just living in the world of Martin Marten, and I think the disappearance of an art form’s container is often the highest compliment.

And the book is everything I remembered. As is said early in The Princess Bride, this book has everything it. “Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…” Well, there’s no fencing here, but there is death and birth and love and fighting and beginnings and endings and the easy connection of the two, and an un-wedding, and blizzards and springtimes and basketball and running and maps and trees and all the animals and plants and beings… Brian Doyle inspires lists like these; he writes in lists like these. He is all-encompassing, in the best and least pretentious way. For example, here is a paragraph that caught my eye this time around.

And deep mysteries too, things that no one could ever explain and in most cases no one ever knew or apprehended or discovered–a new species of snow flea mutating in a dark crevasse on Joel Palmer’s glacier; a blue bear born to two black ones but alive only for a day; a place where trees and bushes and ferns decided to intertwine and make a small green cottage complete with walls and a roof and a door; a cave with the bones of a creature eight feet tall inside; a pencil lost by Joel Palmer at nine thousand feet of elevation on the south side of the mountain, long ago encased in ice and now some twenty feet beneath the surface, waiting to be found in the year 2109 by a young woman named Yvon, who would be amazed that the pencil never wore out no matter how much she used it, as if it had patiently stored up words for two centuries; and much else, more than we could account even if this book never ended and its pages and pulses went on forever, and it was the longest book in the history of the world. Even then, it couldn’t catch more than scraps and shards of the uncountable stories on the mountain, of bird and beast, tree and thicket, fish and flea, biome and zygote. And this is not even to consider the ancient slow stories of the rocks and their long argument with the lava inside the mountain and the seething and roiling miles beneath the mountain, all the way to the innermost core of the sphere, which might be a story of metallic heat so intense that to perceive it would be your final act in this form; another mystery.

A dear friend of mine, nearing the end of her MFA study, read this book on my recommendation and sent me a message that said simply, “my prose is lifeless.” Well, it’s not, but I know what she meant: Doyle’s just jangles with life. I know he is not for everyone. The above paragraph includes a single sentence fragment that is 198 words long. He gushes. But for those of us it works for, I think it works very well.

I wish I could go to live in one of Brian Doyle’s fictional towns. Although it does snow a lot there.

If you love the natural world and are charmed by the idea of not privileging any one species (ahem, humans) over all the rest; if you are excited by the many possibilities for joy in the world, big and small; if you love life, words, all kinds of critters, and even humans; if knowledge for its own sake thrills you; if you are prone to being pleased by lists and wonder–do give the novels of Brian Doyle a try. He has made this world a far better place.


Rating: there is no reason to amend my original 10 tomatoes.
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