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.

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray

Once there was a family. The mother died when her children were young; the father, a traveling preacher, remained mostly absent. The eldest sister, Althea, raised her younger siblings. They are Viola, Joe, and the baby, Lillian. A generation later, Althea and her husband Proctor have twin girls, Kim and Baby Viola. Until recently, they also had a successful restaurant in a struggling Michigan town following a devastating flood (locally called the Great Flood). The couple was trusted in town; they ran fundraisers and charity events for those who lost everything. But then it came out that they’d been skimming off the charity donations. Now, Althea and Proctor are facing a trial and possibly serious time for this transgression. The townspeople have turned against them (Althea’s lawyer says, “the community probably wants to see a public hanging”). Lillian has care of the disgruntled teenaged girls; Viola is en route home from Chicago to lend a hand, although she is beset by problems of her own. And Joe turns up, which is not necessarily a good thing.

Althea refuses to let her daughters visit her. Lillian is losing control, particularly of Kim, the difficult child to Baby Vi’s obedient one. Viola is breaking down mid-road-trip. Joe’s past sins remain unresolved. The legacies of their parents do not rest easy. They come together in the family home, which Lillian has renovated to remove some – but not all – its painful stains; she’s also moved in her former-grandmother-in-law, just to enliven this mess of relationships.

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls is an emphatically character-driven novel, and these characters are wonderfully formed: a mess in all the best ways. Viola is a practicing therapist plagued by her own eating disorder and her failing marriage to a rather saintly, patient woman whom the reader really wants to see her with. Lillian’s childhood trauma has left her obsessive-compulsive and guilt-ridden – it is in part this guilt that causes her to care for the elderly Chinese woman with broken English whose grandson she’s wronged, but the friendship that results is in fact a gift. Althea’s mood is foul enough to keep her somewhat opaque, but she is also the heart of this family; just because she was the responsible eldest does not mean she’s escaped her own wounds. The novel follows the three sisters most closely, with chapters moving among their points of view. The title refers to Viola’s eating disorder, to the various literal and figurative hungers of the sisters, and beyond.

Proctor, whom we see less of – in flashbacks to the time before the arrests; in emails to his wife as they are both incarcerated – is still a lovely character, whose love of music has been a gift to his daughters, and who sends punny musical hints to Althea as a game they used to play. He at one point quotes the lyrics of Jason Isbell (whom he leaves unnamed, but I am the reader for this moment, y’all, so you know that gave me a thrill). There are other still more minor characters who make a real impact on the world Anissa Gray builds here, including Viola’s and Lillian’s respective childhood friends, Kim’s goofy stoner boyfriend, and the women Althea serves times with.

There are a few plot-level details that never especially coalesced for me. The Great Flood this small town has experienced feels like a looming matter of importance that never quite comes to life, although the long-dead mother had some comments to make about women, water, and rivers that should have connected a bit more strongly there. The crimes Althea and Proctor committed – fleecing their neighbors – are sort of neither here nor there; the plot needed them incarcerated, but it never matters much what they did. I spent some time considering this: Gray had to define their crime, of course, couldn’t just leave it unnamed; but this feels like an odd choice. It’s ethically quite off-putting, while in the grand scheme of things (murder, for example) also relatively minor (embezzlement?), and we’re left with a vague sense of the agency with which the crime was committed. It felt a little bit like Chekhov’s gun never went off. These are minor concerns, and it’s not unusual that a novel so gorgeously and richly character-driven might have some plot weaknesses, but I noticed.

The timeline of Care and Feeding is pretty tight, mostly contained within a few weeks as Althea and Proctor’s trial approaches, their sentences are set, and the immediate fallout occurs. There are flashbacks to earlier times (all the way back to the four siblings’ youth), and a final epilogue-style section set after the dust has settled. But chiefly, this novel is concerned with the quasi-locked-room situation when Lillian and Viola come together to sort out family histories and unhealed wounds. It’s about relationships, the pull of the past, the question of cycles broken or continued, and love.

I found it absorbing; I enjoyed sinking in to the lives of these women and girls, getting to know them, accompanying them. I cared, and they felt very real and immediate. If I cocked my head at the odd and somewhat unresolved crimes Althea and Proctor have committed, so be it; life is sometimes confusing in this way. As a story of regular, imperfect, but good people dealing with life’s confusions, The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls was more than satisfying. Gray’s brief “Beyond the Book” essay at the back of my paperback edition tells us that Viola was a fictional character who just wouldn’t go away, who demanded her story be told. And that makes perfect sense to me; I too would follow Viola wherever she wants to take me, narratively speaking. I would read more.


Rating: 7 1/2 Snickers bars.

Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett

Thanks to blog reader Annie Long for the excellent recommendation.

This is a sad, sweet book with an accurately written first-person child protagonist struggling with loss and grief, and with a decidedly odd view of the world, possibly reflecting neurodivergence. (Someone at school calls her ‘retarded.’) If this sounds a lot like the mad originality of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I thought so too. That earlier novel was so unprecedented it blew readers’ minds; and while this one has a lot in common with that one, I don’t think that makes it a bit unoriginal. It’s still a pretty wild (and wildly unusual) model; there’s plenty of room for more surprises in this area.

“On my tenth birthday, six months before she sleepwalked into the river, Mom burned the rabbit cake.” It was one of the wonderful things about her mother Eva that she made rabbit cakes for all occasions – believed in celebrating all the small events of life. Elvis is ten-and-a-half when her mother dies, and she has questions. For one thing, how could such a good swimmer have drowned? Her mother was a frequent if not constant sleepwalker, and “she was an excellent swimmer in her sleep.” Her mother was a gifted scientist. And besides, her mother’s psychic had always been very clear that Eva would die by suicide.

Elvis is clearly a young person who craves control, and so she sets out to take care of things around the house, because her father surely isn’t; he’s taken to wearing Eva’s lipstick and her bathrobe around the house, and mostly ignoring his daughters. Elvis’s fifteen-year-old sister Lizzie has moved on from beer drinking and breaking her best friend’s jaw (in three places) to a particularly self-destructive sort of sleepwalking (although no sleepswimming). Elvis dutifully sees the counselor at school once a week during recess, until she says something especially disturbing and gets upgraded to daily sessions. Ms. Bernstein instructs her that the grieving process generally takes eighteen months, and so dutiful Elvis marks her chart counting down the days until she will not grieve her mother any more. She also works on finishing her mother’s massive book (working title: The Sleep Habits of Animals and What They Tell Us about Our Own Slumber). Elvis knows a lot about animals – enough to annoy everyone around her, until she gets a volunteer posting at the zoo. She comes across an entry in The Reference Guide to Porcupine Anatomy and Behavior in the zoo’s library that mistakenly relates the echidna to the porcupine when it is closer to the platypus. She makes a note to write to the publisher.

You get the picture: this is a child precocious in some areas and a bit hopeless in others. She indulges in magical thinking, but what child doesn’t? and for that matter, who in the throes of grief? Despite Elvis’s story being completely heartbreaking at every turn (warning, friends: this family also has an old dog. Will it never cease? Don’t ask what happens to the giraffe), it’s also frequently hilarious. There is a strong current of absurdism running through it. Lizzie the sleepwalker and breaker of jaws is institutionalized, and returns home with a pathological liar who the distant and negligent father allows to move in. Lizzie decides what she needs is to set the Guinness World Record for most number of rabbit cakes baked. Most, but not all of them, will need to be decorated. Elvis is driven mad by the delicious smell of baking cakes – which she associates with happy memories of their mother – but she is not allowed to eat any of the cakes, which Lizzie must preserve for her world record. I won’t even tell you about the troubles Elvis gets into at the zoo. Or what she discovers about her mother’s sex life.

Delightful, absurdist, ridiculous, heartbreaking; laugh-out-loud funny in the most morbid ways, if you’re into that sort of thing. (Case in point: the reason Elvis’s school counseling gets upped to daily sessions.) I was frequently quite angry at the adults in this child’s life who consistently, near-criminally fail her; I usually keep my cool with fictional characters better than this. In other words, it’s a deeply involving story, with some very wise points to make about grief in the end. That ending is surprisingly upbeat – or maybe it’s not surprising at all.

I’ll be thinking about Elvis for a long time, and about this singular, weird, troubled, endearing little family. I’m remembering Have You Seen Marie?, another gorgeous meditation on grief in fictional form. Cisneros said about that book that she did not conceive of it as being for children. And even though Rabbit Cake‘s star is a child, I don’t think this is a children’s or YA book, except to the extent that any book is right for the reader who’s ready for it. (Tin House, who does not publish children’s books, has marketed it as simply fiction. Although these labels may be worth less than we think they are.) It’s quite a deep-thinking novel, with nuances to satisfy readers of all levels of maturity, especially those who may need to laugh and cry in the same sitting.


Rating: 9 librarians aptly named Reasoner.

Forget Me Not by Alexandra Oliva

A woman with a strange past struggles with a near-future reality in this riveting, moving masterpiece of both character and plot.

In Forget Me Not, Alexandra Oliva (The Last One) introduces a strong, damaged protagonist in a near-future world very similar to our own. Captivating characters carry this absorbing cautionary tale.

It’s been six years since the pandemic. Everyone wears a Sheath around their forearm that links them into social networks, maps, business reviews and details about the people they pass on the street. But Linda didn’t grow up in this world: she was 12 years old when she climbed over the walls that circumscribed the only world she’d ever known. Twelve years old when she was thrust into a never-ending spotlight, because of where she’s come from and who she is.

Now, as an adult, she lives alone in an apartment in Seattle, terrified to step outside, to make eye contact, to interact. “People bemoan the inhumanity of her childhood, but the outside world is so much worse.” That childhood remains an enigma for much of the book, but Linda remembers running barefoot and relying on herself, a life that seems more natural and straightforward than the one she knows now. “She was limber and determined and not once in her life had someone ever asked her, Are you okay? She knew no other way but to keep going.”

Then an unusual woman moves in down the hall. Anvi seems open, forthright; Linda knows better than to trust anyone, but Anvi captivates her. She’s persistent. And she introduces Linda to a virtual reality gaming world where she feels, perhaps paradoxically, a bit more real. Reality itself begins to look less certain: “Could her whole existence simply be someone else’s side quest? She can feel the urgency with which she wants some version of this to be true. To wipe herself of responsibility–to claim it wasn’t fear but an algorithm that made her run….” When Linda’s past resurfaces, Anvi accompanies her back to the place where she grew up, to search for answers she may regret finding. Linda’s shaky understanding of her very existence is thrown into question.

Forget Me Not explores humans’ relationships with the natural world, with technology and with each other. It is far from polemic, however, with affecting characters, a real sense of urgency for their various plights and a thriller’s racing plot. Linda is deeply troubled and deeply sympathetic; Anvi is a dear, quirky young woman with insecurities of her own. This is a poignant novel of isolation, terror, misperceptions and, ultimately, empathy.


This review originally ran in the February 19, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 buzzes of the Sheath.

How to Order the Universe by María José Ferrada, trans. by Elizabeth Bryer

Through a child’s clever but innocent point of view, this inventive debut novel considers family, hope and the harsher realities of 1980s Chile.

María José Ferrada’s How to Order the Universe offers an imaginative view of Pinochet-era Chile through a child’s eyes, as she assists her father in his work as a traveling salesman of Kramp brand hardware items. The world appears complex, fascinating and a little magical to M, the narrator. Elizabeth Bryer’s whimsical translation from the Spanish feels appropriate to M’s exceptional perspective.

Ferrada’s playful, poignant novel opens with the story of a young man named D, whose “first sales attempt happened the same day a man took a step on the moon.” He meets a beautiful woman. They marry and have a child, M, and so the narrator enters her own story. She begins accompanying D on his sales calls when she is seven. M’s school attendance is sporadic; her work as D’s assistant is important to both of them, and M’s mother is a bit detached. Father and daughter are close, in their dreamy interactions with each other and with a small community of salesmen and shopkeepers. She is treated as a small adult: “in recognition, I think, of the fact that I had grasped the complexities of human beings at such a young age, D showed me how to blow smoke rings. Small rings that crossed the city, expanding and dissolving in the distance.”

M’s narrative voice is solemn, serious. She is a little obsessed with categories and classification. D’s understanding of the world, and therefore M’s as well, involves hammer, nails, the moon and stars. “Every person tries to explain the inner workings of things with whatever is at hand. I, at seven years of age, had reached out my hand, and had grasped a Kramp catalogue.” She studies the organization of items for sale in shops: “I thought that discovering the sequence would bring me a little closer to comprehending the classifications used by the Great Carpenter to order the universe.” M is a precocious philosopher, but also a child, for whom certain realities eventually come as a surprise. When the family circumstances unexpectedly change, “There were two possibilities: A. Precariousness had always been with us, and I’d never noticed. B. Something had changed. Whichever it was, my childhood memories fractured: crack.”

How to Order the Universe is fanciful, sweet and moving, as M gradually registers and questions the changing world she inhabits, wrestling with violence, absence, the ability to make one’s own luck “with well-shined shoes and the right outfit.” Much of this evolution is filtered through her irrevocably changed relationship with D. “We had been deeply united by a catalogue of hardware store products: nails, hammers, door viewers, screws. But that catalogue no longer existed.” This is a beautifully translated, thought-provoking novel of profound themes and childlike wonder.


This review originally ran in the February 8, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 door viewers.

We Run the Tides by Vendela Vida

An uncertain adolescent girl narrates a heart-aching tale of coming of age in a city in transition.

We Run the Tides by Vendela Vida (The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty) is a dreamy, tricky tale of girlhood, secrets and the shifting sands of truth set in mid-1980s San Francisco. This captivating coming-of-age novel asks readers to consider friendship, cruelty, deception and consequences.

Narrator Eulabee begins her story with the first-person plural point of view. “When I say ‘we,’ I sometimes mean the four of us Sea Cliff girls who are in the eighth grade at the Spragg School for Girls. But when I say ‘we,’ I always mean Maria Fabiola and me.” The foursome is close, but it is beautiful Maria Fabiola who enraptures Eulabee and, apparently, everyone else–children as well as adults–in their rarified world. Theirs is a neighborhood of au pairs, chauffeurs and views of the Golden Gate Bridge. “Sea Cliff is for solitude, for when you want to protect yourself from people.” Bad things still happen here, but the community handles them in whispers, while looking away.

Earnest, awkward, devoted Eulabee is perhaps less polished than her friends, or perhaps it only seems so because readers are privy to her insecurities. The trouble begins when she and Maria Fabiola fail to see a minor event in the same way, literally. Did Eulabee miss a small, important detail? Or did Maria Fabiola make it up? The truth almost doesn’t matter; what matters is that the girls are equally firm in their divergent truths. An insignificant moment snowballs until Eulabee’s world is shattered. Lives may be endangered; the foursome disintegrates; nothing will ever be the same again. “I stand there, on the cusp of the ocean and listen to its loud inhale. And then it recedes and takes everything from my childhood with it–the porcelain dolls, the tap-dancing shoes, the concert ticket stubs, the tiny trophies, and the long, long swing.”

We Run the Tides is an enchanting, literary novel, realistic but a little unreal. Vida gives a tender, incisive portrayal of adolescence. The girls’ cruelties are visceral and impermanent, the stressors of Sea Cliff somehow both superficial and profound. Decades later, the events of 1984-85 remain “part of the lore. The newspapers called what happened the Sea Cliff Seizures,” and in adulthood, Eulabee both has and has not outgrown them. Her friends and classmates have moved on; San Francisco has changed. “Symphonies of tiny violins play themselves to shreds.” And Vida’s readers will be changed, too, by this cleverly woven story about honesty, betrayal, charm and illusion, about what matters in youth and what matters always.


This review originally ran in the January 26, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 text messages.

The Hare by Melanie Finn

A totally captivating novel to read in as few sittings as possible (beware!), often a bit disturbing or discomfiting, but always engrossing.

We first meet Rosie and Bennett in 1983. They’re on a date, which doesn’t go very smoothly, and highlights their differences. He’s older, far more sophisticated; he comes from money, while she’s a little awkward. (Or maybe just young.) She dutifully takes his cues, but the reader is immediately uncomfortable. Rosie’s perhaps not as uncomfortable as she should be.

We rewind just a bit to gather up her backstory. A childhood of privation in Lowell, Massachusetts; an art scholarship at Parsons School of Design in New York City. She’s a student there when she meets Bennett at MoMA, and is excited and flattered at his attention. And they’re off and running.

Somewhere inside, Rosie had the idea, like a stone buried deep in the Presbyterian loam of her soul, this pregnancy was punishment for being greedy. Her orgasms were rich as chocolate cake or red velvet. Layers of sweetness and dripping icing.

What lovely lines, hm? And a good example of Finn’s expressive writing, and Rosie’s rich interiority. We follow her from here over decades, eventually to rural Vermont; and I don’t think I’ll tell you much of what happens, but she grows and changes and learns so much. She’s a riveting character. While I empathize deeply with Rosie (eventually, Rose) throughout the book, there are times I disagree with or feel disturbed by her perspectives. This perhaps only deepens the connection, though, and my need to see her through.

The Hare is told in close third person, meaning Rosie is ‘she’ rather than ‘I’ but we still see what she sees, which allows for the question of whether she is really a reliable narrator. There are a few types of unreliable ones: there’s the narrator who is being deceitful and lying on purpose, and then there are other kinds, who maybe can’t see their own worlds clearly. Do I see myself the same way that you see me? Can I reliably narrate myself? Tiny spoiler here: Rosie consistently tells us she’s not much of an artist. But some others around her think she might be gifted. Who do you believe?

The visual-arts frame is a neat one – I love this stuff when it’s done right. A certain Van Eyck painting plays a small but pivotal role. And a little more subtly, Rosie’s eye for image, color, line, and perspective have an enormous impact on how we see what she sees. This is a novel with layers to it in a way that I love; I think I’ll be thinking of it for some time.

Gender is central to this book. Rosie’s position in her life, her situation in several senses, and her feelings of powerlessness are attributed to her being a woman. Her gender, and those of other characters, are always and unavoidably related to their roles and relationships. The novel itself is a commentary on gender roles; Rose eventually make explicit commentary, but she was always make implicit observations, too. The back-of-book blurb calls her “an authentic, tarnished feminist heroine,” and I think that’s about right. In some ways this is a coming-of-age story, but lasting far beyond the time in her life that we tend to think of as the coming-of-age time. She’s still growing up, as we all are (I have come to see), and I really appreciated noting that here.

Finn is absolutely expert at mood and atmosphere. We are with Rosie when she feels dread on a Connecticut (I think) back road; luxuriates in a boathouse on a fancy estate on the coast; works in fear, numb and bone-tired, in the snowy Vermont mountains. This is a book to take you out of your own life.

This review has included almost no plot summary. That’s on purpose. I want you to read this work of suspense and be as surprised by events as I was. It’s beautifully thought-provoking, often lovely, and occasionally frustrating (in that Rosie sometimes frustrated me – as I feel sure Finn intends). Haunting. The hare of the title does extraordinarily broad and deep work. I am enchanted.


Rating: 8 duck decoys.

Sophomores by Sean Desmond

A boy begins to find himself as his parents face private battles of their own in this poignant and searching novel.

With Sophomores, Sean Desmond (Adam’s Fall) evokes late-1980s Dallas and its suburbs with eerie precision. A nuclear family–father, mother, son–and the worlds they navigate are full of anxieties, choices and possibilities. Spanning just one school year, this is a novel to get lost in.

In the fall of 1987, Dan Malone is a sophomore at the Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas. He belongs to a tight foursome of boys who support each other at school and in their forays with the girls of Ursuline Academy. A bit tortured by his shyness in both areas, Dan’s interior workings are self-consciously earnest but endearingly real. “Dan felt a sudden awareness, a shimmering sense of discovery, that his journal, the newspaper, music, writing, reading, it was all connected with some hidden purpose… The hour when he would take part in the life of the world seemed to be drawing closer, and Dan wanted to think and write and listen to his heart and find out what it felt.”

Dan’s father, Pat, is an airline executive facing a serious industry downturn, culturally Irish Catholic and miserably estranged by his displacement (for work) from his native Bronx. He drinks too much and hides it poorly from his family. He struggles with a recent diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.

Mother and wife Anne provides an essential counterpoint to Dan and Pat’s heavily male worlds. As a devout young woman, Anne had been a novice at Sisters of Charity, but she grew into a worldly, quietly feminist woman, inclined to be contrary in her internal monologues. Still a serious Catholic, Anne argues with the pastor both in her head and via anonymous phone calls.

These three perspectives triangulate to offer a rich, subtle story of family grief and love, teenaged seeking and adult angst. Desmond places crises in the classroom, where Dan strives for growth and recognition from a teacher “legendary for rigor and Socratic curveballs,” on equal footing with the murder trial where Anne serves as juror. Flashbacks to Anne’s and Pat’s pasts illuminate their characters and provide nuance and empathy. Events vary from the absurd (an ill-fated swim team trip) to the profane (one particularly colorful episode in Pat’s fall from grace), but throughout this narrative there is a sense that all of this is somehow serious, important, holy.

Sophomores is a sharp, crystalline look at a few months in the lives of a “regular” family. With a keen gaze, it captures a city in transition and a boy just coming of age. Dan and his parents will stay with the reader long after the story is finished.


This review originally ran in the January 8, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 sticks.

Copperhead by Alexi Zentner (audio)

I was quite entranced by Touch and so I jumped into Copperhead with nothing but the author to go on. It’s quite a different book, ambitious, and good, but flawed. This novel takes on the timely – not to say trendy – topic of race and racism in contemporary America. I don’t question Zentner’s earnest commitment to the topic, but it’s a tricky thing to execute seriously in fiction without getting a little overwrought.

Our protagonist is 17-year-old Jessup, a high school senior in Cortaca, New York (a thinly disguised Ithaca, with Cortaca University obviously Cornell). He’s a talented football player and excellent student, but still wrong-side-of-the-tracks because of his family’s hand-to-mouth existence, the trailer they live in, and the fact that his brother and step-father are serving prison sentences for the deaths of two Black college students in what was either self defense or a hate crime, depending on who’s telling the story. Jessup’s mother and sister still attend the Blessed Church of the White America. Jessup would tell you he’s not a racist; his girlfriend is Black. He resents that people judge him for his family history and their association with the white supremacist church.

This is all background information; the novel’s action takes place over four days, Friday night’s football game through Monday night’s protests, but it is action-packed. What might be called a series of unfortunate events explodes into increasing posturing, grandstanding, violence. Jessup is pressured to choose sides. Zentner’s greatest accomplishment is the empathy his reader feels for this kid. We don’t like to spend much of our compassion on white supremacists, but this novel ticks boxes for two intellectual puzzles I’ve long been interested in: 1, the concept that bigots are made or taught, not born, and there’s somebody there, at some early-enough point, that I do feel for. And 2, the question of when we begin to hold a person responsible for his own crimes – the abused child we feel for, but when he grows up to be an abuser we don’t; at what age or stage is the cut-off? I feel like Jessup’s character begs both these questions. He is in some ways a good kid. And while he’s far more fair-minded than some of his family and church, he’s also a white supremacist, by default rather than by hate. The puzzle of Jessup himself I think is well-expressed; we stay with his close third-person perspective throughout the novel, and I find it easy to like and sympathize with him, even though he’s problematic too. I find it realistic that (especially) a 17-year-old boy with such a troubled past would have the kinds of blind spots that Jessup has. That doesn’t mean I think it’s all okay, but I think it’s realistic.

The events that kick off (no pun intended) the weekend’s action are a bit contrived, in terms of narrative: a perfect-storm sequence. Sometimes life really does work in such strange ways, but it is also clearly a novelistic device to get the issues moving that Zentner needs to address. That’s more or less okay with me, but the mechanics of plot here are showing a bit more than some might like. Characters other than Jessup are less well developed than he is (also understandable; a lot has been put into this protagonist, and there’s less left over for everybody else). Things get a little ham-fisted with the stepfather, David John, who is just such a great guy aside from the white supremacist business… and this allows Jessup to wonder how it’s possible for a racist to be such a deeply decent dude? (The answer, staggeringly obvious to everyone but Jessup, is that he’s deeply decent to white people. But honestly, I do buy Jessup’s blindness on this account – again, as one of those believable blind spots. Seventeen years old!) Where the novel goes most wrong is in the final events and epilogue: wrapping up this complicated and fraught story is a challenge, and Zentner was maybe a little overcommitted to a redemption narrative. Only in the final pages (minutes, in my audiobook) does the novel, which excels in drawing out my sympathies, descend into morality tale. It gets a little graceless. Again, Zenter’s earnest good intentions are not in question, and it’s a pretty good morality tale, one that will yield good discussions in classrooms and book clubs. But as a novel, the last bit is a bit cringey.

There are some beautiful, moving, thoughtful moments, and absolutely memorable images, and I think Jessup’s character is all win. The complexities of family, legacy, and the taught-and-learned nature of hate are well illustrated. Copperhead took on an ambitious mission, and as a novel, doesn’t quite stand up to that tall order, but it gives us plenty to think about. I think its greatest accomplishment was in how much I empathized with Jessup, and how uncomfortable I felt with my own empathy – not always a pleasurable experience, but an instructive one. I was certainly engaged throughout, and I do recommend this read, with a few caveats. I respect Zentner’s work here, and I’ll look for more from him.


Rating: 7 text messages.

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

At just under 200 pages, Red at the Bone is a brief novel, but rich. I read most of it in a single day and finished it the following, but that doesn’t mean it’s not full of feeling. In fact, it has the kind of multigenerational sweep that we usually find in big, fat novels of 500+ pages, the kind that require lots of time and rest to take in. I appreciated the compressed depth.

Each chapter takes a close third-person perspective (sometimes first person) of a different person in the family, beginning with sixteen-year-old Melody, on the night of her presentation to society in a formal ceremony in her grandparents’ Brooklyn brownstone. The first word of this novel is ‘but,’ which you don’t see very often: “But that afternoon there was an orchestra playing.” They’re playing Prince’s “Darling Nikki,” but without the lyrics, naturally.

In other words, the novel begins in media res. Gradually we move through the perspectives of Melody’s mother Iris and father Aubrey, and Iris’s parents Sabe and Po-Boy; in their memories, especially Sabe’s, we learn of earlier generations. This family has come from all over – Aubrey from cities up and down the Gulf Coast, his mother from Santa Cruz and Berkeley; Sabe’s family stretches back to Tulsa and, crucially, the massacre of 1921. When Iris gets pregnant as a teenager, Aubrey is all in, but she wants to get out, and eventually goes away to college at Oberlin where her world widens while Aubrey and baby Melody make a family with Sabe and Po-Boy in the brownstone of the opening scene. The “fire and gold” remembered from Tulsa reaches forward in time to 9/11, and beyond.

This is a story about family and legacy, about what does and doesn’t carry from one generation to the next, about love and changing cultures and also about class. It has tragedy and comedy and love and heartbreak and love – again, that large and sweeping scope, but in a compact form, easy to take in practically in a single sitting. This is some very fine storytelling, especially because each chapter inhabits a different voice. And I appreciate all the markers of culture and time, like music, literature and fashion. In other words, Red at the Bone checks a lot of fine-fiction boxes in a really accessible package (no small feat). Woodson makes it look effortless. I enjoyed Another Brooklyn, but I think this one is better still. I’ll look for more from this author.


Rating: 8 drops of milk.
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