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We Are All Shipwrecks by Kelly Grey Carlisle

An unstable childhood on the harbor in Los Angeles yields a wise, contemplative, forgiving memoir by a likable narrator.

A young mother tucked her three-week-old daughter into a drawer in a Hollywood motel room before leaving for the night. A police detective would lift the baby out again, after the mother was murdered. In the opening scene of Kelly Grey Carlisle’s memoir, We Are All Shipwrecks, an eight-year-old Kelly meets that detective for the first time, having just learned how her mother died. It sounds like a sensational beginning, but Carlisle’s measured, wondering tone allows the reader, like the author’s child self, to meet each disorienting new situation with curiosity rather than a sense of spectacle.

Kelly was raised by her maternal grandfather and his much-younger wife, whom she calls Daddy and Mommy. He likes to be called Sir Richard and boasts of a wild and heroic–increasingly incredible–past; her name is Marilyn, and she carries wounds that Kelly will gradually understand. They own a pornography shop near the Los Angeles airport, and for many of Kelly’s formative years, they live on a boat in a marina. Their neighbors are unglamorous down-and-outs, and Kelly is wracked by how normal her childhood isn’t. But in her reflections on the page, she realizes that the adults who surrounded her in her youth played various parts in her unconventional upbringing; many of them were loving, positive figures. We Are All Shipwrecks is a memoir about being adrift and lost on a boat, but also about discovering that we’re all more or less adrift, that yearning is a universal condition.

As she matures and learns more about her grandfather and Marilyn–the nearest to parents that she’ll ever know–Kelly persists in wondering about the mother she lost. Naturally, then, the book follows her progress: from tracking a bewildering childhood to seeking answers about where she’s come from. By the time Kelly becomes a mother, and for some time thereafter, her understanding of her roots continues to evolve. She explores the roles of trauma, love, resilience and forgiveness in shaping a life. “By now, I’ve realized that my grandfather was wrong when he told me, ‘Where you come from is important; it’s who you are,’ because it was only partly true. ‘Who you are’ also happens after you leave home. You are turning into ‘who you are’ your whole life.”

We Are All Shipwrecks is a personal history, a commentary on the experiences of childhood (uncertainty, pain, possible acceptance) and an investigation into what creates us. Readers who appreciate thoughtful memoirs will be charmed by Carlisle’s generosity and easy, open reflections.


This review originally ran in the August 7, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 cats on a boat.

Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays by Paul Kingsnorth

This disillusioned environmentalist’s thoughtful, poetic call to a different approach to action and way of thinking is both sobering and refreshing.


Paul Kingsnorth (The Wake; Beast), co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project writers’ network, has published impassioned essays, poetry and literature with an environmentalist perspective for decades. That perspective is changing, however, as environmental degradation continues and the green movement tends toward high-tech strategies and “sustainability” that Kingsnorth finds uninspired. Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays is his answer to a changing world. These collected works are nearly all previously published, but together they offer a new outlook. Kingsnorth is grieving, angry and disillusioned, and his essays are by turns reflective and resolute.

“The story winding itself through this book is the breaking of the link between people and places, between the past and the present, between instinct and reason, and all the consequences that have ensued and will ensue.” As a writer, Kingsnorth is concerned with the ability of stories to change how we live, and with the ability to change our stories. “We imagine what it would be like to be this character, to live in this time, to be in this situation, and if we can’t do that well, our books won’t work. If we can do that well, why can’t we make the same imaginative leap and take ourselves out of our humanity?” One theme is a need for humans to see themselves as a single part of a larger system, rather than the controlling or most important factor. “The very fact that we have a word for ‘nature’ is evidence that we do not regard ourselves as part of it,” but, Kingsnorth argues, we should.

His writing can be fanciful and joyous as well as tormented. Kingsnorth writes with undeniable love: for the planet, for locations and histories, and for people. Confessions is centered in his native England but voices global concerns. Essays handle the role of technology in culture; the importance of people’s ties to place; the difficulty of embracing immigration and immigrants without losing local cultures; and the reasons for the decline of the environmental movement. While Kingsnorth writes with persuasive logic and authority on a variety of topics, he is perhaps most lyrically impressive when rooted in the local, physical world, for example when scything his hayfields in rural Ireland, or searching for carved green men in ancient Norman churches. Given his passion for place, this is unsurprising.

Neatly organized into three sections–Collapse, Withdrawal and Connection–and with an informing introduction and call-to-action epilogue, this collection serves well as an introduction to Kingsnorth’s philosophy and writing style. It also allows his more seasoned readers to chart his changing views. The overall effect is necessarily grim, but often remarkably uplifting as well. In a world on the brink of collapse, Kingsnorth offers humor, compassion, humility and wisdom.


This review originally ran in the June 30, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 bison.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Kief Hillsbery

Following Wednesday’s review of Empire Made, here’s Kief Hillsbery: Writer as Detective.


Kief Hillsbery is the author of two novels, War Boy and What We Do Is Secret. He is a former contributing editor and columnist for Outside magazine, and a former writer for Rolling Stone. He lives in New York City. His new book is Empire Made: My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India, coming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on July 25, 2017.

photo: Tobin Yelland

In Empire Made, you recount your relative Nigel Halleck’s mid-19th-century experiences with the East India Company. How closely were you able to stick to recorded facts, and how did you navigate points of departure?

In the beginning, I envisioned Nigel’s story as part of an account of my own experiences living and traveling in Nepal, Afghanistan and the former British India. I hesitated to make him the focus because of the scarcity of recorded facts about his life there. Very little of his correspondence survived, and what did was fragmentary. I just didn’t think that I had enough material. My ace in the hole was my taste in popular fiction. When I read for pleasure, more often than not I turn to police procedurals: Harry Bosch, Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers, Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series. And the hand dealt to all these detectives at the beginning of each book is the same one dealt to me at the beginning of mine: not enough material. It’s all about accumulating new material through research and analysis, and paying close attention to seemingly trivial details. Ultimately you have enough of it to feel confident in making assumptions that help advance the case, or the narrative. When I felt stuck trying to figure out what was up with Nigel all those misty years ago in India, I often got unstuck by channeling my inner detective.

For example, when Nigel transferred out west to the Punjab from Patna in the aftermath of the First Anglo-Sikh War, he was posted to a British headquarters at Jalandhar, about 75 miles east of Lahore. But he first went to Lahore, traveling 150 miles out of his way by horse at the height of the Indian “Hot Weather,” on a post road that was bordered every dozen miles with cemeteries for the interment of Europeans who succumbed to heatstroke. In other words, it wasn’t a detour undertaken lightly. I was stymied in trying to establish why he went to Lahore. It clearly had nothing to do with his new job. At the time, it wasn’t even British territory. All I could do was take my cue from Harry Bosch. When he reached a dead end he invariably went back to his “murder book” and reviewed every piece of evidence collected so far. So I re-read all of Nigel’s surviving letters. And there it was, in an aside written several years before about two friends of his who had been posted to the Punjab. He hoped one day to follow in their footsteps, so he might see for himself in Lahore the Shalimar Gardens of Shah Jahan, patron of the Taj Mahal. So even as I lack recorded facts to back me up, I feel confident in saying that I know why Nigel went to Lahore.

You switch chapters between Nigel’s travels and your own. Was that your strategy from the beginning, or did you have to work into it?

It seems entirely sensible with benefit of hindsight, but it took a lengthy false start to persuade me. I originally conceived of the structure as a mosaic of vignettes, along the lines of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. I’ve always admired what he did with that book. And it seemed like an organic approach for mine. Two mosaic tiles, one in Nepal and one in Afghanistan, ultimately provide the key to unlocking the central mystery of Nigel’s life. To my way of thinking there was also something gemlike about a series of highly polished, standalone vignettes, and precious jewels are part of the story, too. (The British publisher has chosen to title the book The Tiger and the Ruby.) The problem, I discovered, was that vignettes worked against creating narrative momentum. Chatwin didn’t have to worry about that because he wasn’t telling a linear story. I was, and I needed a structure that enabled readers to feel they were progressing towards its conclusion.

I still resisted the idea of alternating between Nigel’s travels and my own, because his were so much more extensive and occupied so much more time. The first complete draft of the book consisted of three parts, with the first telling most of his story and the second focused on my initial efforts to uncover it. A briefer third part braided the two threads together and revealed the outcome. Momentum was still a problem. What finally worked was to just accept that there would be more Nigel chapters and establish a rhythm of interspersing them with my own personal chapters. The trick was to get the two parallel narratives to Nepal in consecutive chapters. Once I managed that, everything seemed to fall into place.

Do you feel catharsis for having partly uncovered this family mystery?

My inquiries into Nigel’s life in India spanned a long period of time, and were pretty casual until I started work on the book. So the emotional connection is a little too attenuated to speak of catharsis. I definitely feel some satisfaction. It’s tempered, though, by nagging questions that will probably always remain unanswerable. The theory that Nigel was some sort of deep-cover British agent was based entirely on circumstantial evidence. But it’s hardly outside the realm of possibility. Then there’s the connection to the Koh-i-noor diamond, which played a central role in stories handed down concerning the years of Nigel’s exile. As unlikely as it seems that he was directly involved, part of me will always wonder if all the generations of smoke didn’t originate in a flicker of historical fire.

What was your favorite part of creating this book?

Since I was immersed in the staid and rather stuffy world of colonial Victorians, it was always delightful to discover the exceptions that proved the rule. There was the wife of the governor-general of India, a titled aristocrat who left him to live in a Bedouin harem. There was the chief magistrate of Calcutta, who took every opportunity to don female attire in public. There was the commander of the East India Company army, who took 13 native wives and led them on evening promenades around the walls of the Red Fort at Delhi, each on the back of her own elephant. Stories like these made me fantasize about stealing a page from Lytton Strachey and writing another book, Less Than Eminent Victorians.


This interview originally ran on June 22, 2017 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf: Empire Made: My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India by Kief Hillsbery

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on June 22, 2017.


Kief Hillsbery grew up with the legend of his great-grandfather’s great-uncle Nigel, who had “gone out to India” and never returned to his family’s home in Coventry, England. According to the many stories, he’d left the British East India Company abruptly and gone to live in Kathmandu; he’d been killed by a tiger; he’d been involved with shady dealings regarding a famous diamond. From childhood, Hillsbery always had “a clear sense that [the family] disapproved of Nigel and the vague notion that there was more to his story.”

In Empire Made: My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India, Hillsbery describes his decades-long, on-and-off exploration into Nigel’s life and death. It is an absorbing story, told with an eye for suspense and the odd, engrossing detail. Nigel’s story does not lack for weird and glittery hints; it takes a deft hand to explore them with interest and not sensationalism, but Hillsbery is up to the task. His lovely descriptions bring to life a country that is worlds of difference from Nigel’s English home. Sagar Island offers “houses like palaces, rising in their shining stucco masses from flowerbeds filled with imported English blooms on the undulating riverbank, their verandas spacious, their pillars lofty, their profiles Athenian.” Hillsbery is astonished to find a rhododendron forest just where his family’s stories placed one. “India,” he writes, “is full of surprises.”

Nigel set out for Calcutta in 1841 as a 20-year-old clerk for the East India Company. In 1975, Hillsbery was himself 20, headed for a college year abroad in Nepal, when his mother gifted him a sheaf of papers: all that remained of Uncle Nigel’s letters home, most incomplete and in various stages of decay. She wanted her son to be the first in the family to track down Nigel’s grave and pay his respects. The young man figured he would visit a cemetery or two and do his duty. But in fact he would embark upon years of research and travel through India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal.

Alternating chapters detail the author’s own travels and Nigel’s, the latter re-created using personal correspondence and official records from the 1840s. Necessarily, Empire Made also delves into British and Indian politics, and the nuanced racial and class-based prejudices and pressures that characterized the British East India Company for centuries. The background history that contextualizes this story can be convoluted, but Hillsbery wrestles this “historical quicksand” gamely, and his digressions enrich the sense of strange wonderment that characterizes this historical investigation. Readers will come away with a general sense of British-Indian relations, while focusing on the mystery of Nigel’s fate.

Hillsbery’s narrative neatly braids the threads of the two protagonists’ parallel travels. Nigel Halleck’s family background and education links into the narrator’s interest in mountaineering, and in Nepalese culture and language. With a distant idea about the enigma of a lost great-uncle, the young Hillsbery takes one and then another detour from his own travels to investigate a cemetery, a shrine, a memorial. He listens to the tales told by locals “with Chaucerian relish” of past visitors, and he learns to check Nigel’s letters as he travels, searching for references to each stop along his own way so that he can follow leads as they arise. This research on the move begins to yield new information, if only in hints.

Over the years and miles, Hillsbery uncovers a theory that Nigel was a deep-cover British secret agent; that he was connected to an important family, the Saddozais, by his close friendship with the Afghan prince Sa’adat ul-Mulk; that he was involved in some under-the-table dealings with the famous Koh-i-noor diamond. But beyond these dramatic stories, Hillsbery finds quieter details that link his own life story more closely to Nigel’s than he could have ever expected.

Empire Made nears its end when Hillsbery visits a seeress. Stumped by Nigel’s unexplained movements and his inexplicable retreat to a Hindu palace in Kathmandu, he submits to a friend’s recommendation to supernatural assistance: “Her rates were reasonable, and I could always write about it.” This woman’s cryptic statements, and Hillsbery’s later realizations about two pieces of information he’d uncovered, eventually help him to reach certain conclusions about Nigel’s life. These conclusions are not supernatural, but worldly. In the end, this epic story of travel, research, family mystery and centuries-long colonial effort ends with uncertainty; but Hillsbery’s voice in closing does find satisfaction in what he’s learned.


Rating: 7 rhododendrons.

Come back Friday for my interview with Kief Hillsbery.

The Goddesses by Swan Huntley

This psychological thriller takes a pleasantly average woman to lovely Hawaii, where she is charmed, then devastated.

“We came here to escape.” From the outside, it might look like a dream: moving the family to Hawaii, career advancement, surf and sand for the kids. Nancy and Chuck and their teenaged twin sons, Cam and Jed, set up house in Kona. The boys are “stoked” at the opportunity, but Nancy isn’t. She is furious that Chuck cheated on her back in San Diego, and exasperated with her boring, predictable self. She hopes that Hawaii will be a new beginning. She starts eating healthier, sits in a different bleacher row at the boys’ water polo games, switches the towels around, puts the mugs in the cabinet facing up instead of down. She starts going to morning yoga classes on the beach, and that’s where she meets Ana.

In The Goddesses, Swan Huntley (We Could Be Beautiful) builds a complete inner world for Nancy. She narrates the story, sharing her feelings and reactions with the reader: her fascination with the beautiful, confident, charismatic Ana; her frustration with bumbling Chuck; her pride in her developing shoulder muscles and newfound strength. Yoga and Kona, the farmer’s market and the freedom of knowing no one, and especially her growing friendship with Ana, make Nancy optimistic about the future and her ability to reinvent herself. Even her marriage with Chuck sees some healthy rejuvenation. But the Nancy relating this story has the wisdom of hindsight, and can’t help but sneak in the odd, sinister comment about what that future holds.

Ana helps Nancy trade in her minivan for a BMW convertible. They spend their days lolling in Ana’s Jacuzzi, at her little pink house on the beach. Nancy–or Nan, as Ana calls her, the same three letters forming both names–starts to stay out some evenings, leaving her husband and sons to prepare their own dinners, because her new friend needs her. The reader, prodded by the warning tone in Nancy’s narrative voice, can’t tell what’s coming, only that “Nan” is a bit too easily taken in, Ana a bit too needy.

The Goddesses is a novel of lush green foliage, brightly colored hibiscus, new beginnings and old mistakes: hope and betrayal twined together. Huntley’s prose is clipped, declarative: “Our cars arrived. We’d had them shipped.” Her characters are adequately developed, her setting evocative, but it is the stealthily twisting plot that makes this novel sparkle. She offers an earnest, likable protagonist in Nancy, then plunges her into psychological challenges she never saw coming. Even in paradise, beautiful exteriors are not necessarily to be trusted.


This review originally ran in the June 16, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 Buddhas.

Flesh and Bone and Water by Luiza Sauma

Luiza Sauma’s first novel features an upper-class family using indulgence and dishonesty to deal with loss. Flesh and Bone and Water opens with a letter addressed to the narrator, André Cabral, a doctor in his late 40s living in London, separated from his wife and long estranged from his home country of Brazil. The novel then shifts to tell much of André’s story through flashbacks, from his childhood in Rio de Janeiro through his now-failing marriage in “o primeiro mundo, the mythic first world” of Europe.

André was a member of Rio’s privileged class, his family served by empregadas (maids) and guarded from “undesirables” in a fortress-like apartment building with spiked walls, CCTV and porteiros (caretakers). But unlike his friends, he wonders about the differences between his life and that of his family’s empregadas, Rita and her daughter, Luana. The death of André’s mother rocks the household: his younger brother, Thiago, clings harder to Rita, while their workaholic father makes clumsy attempts to parent his two sons. André withdraws from school and social goings-on, and feels increasingly drawn to Luana, a girl his own age who has always been present; he finds her new curves alluring. Though he’s dating an appropriately upper-class schoolmate, André becomes obsessed with his maid. And now, all these years later, middle-aged André is feeling adrift in a country not his own, when he gets a letter from Luana.

Flesh and Bone and Water is André’s story. But it is also about race and class in 1980s Brazil, the struggles of a family torn by grief and the uprootedness of expatriates. Sauma’s prose is lush with sensory detail, emphasizing the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of a Brazil that is far from André’s daily reality, yet close to his heart: trickling sweat; the comforting coconut milk, peppers and lime smells of moqueca (fish stew); hot beach sand underfoot; mother’s perfume; “a white plastic jug covered in condensation, full to the brim with cold, sweet mate.” When André opens Luana’s first letter, “the paper smelled woody, humid, faintly tropical. The past has a certain scent, don’t you think?” Deeply atmospheric, this literary novel emphasizes people’s ties to place and to one another, and the deceptions they resort to, for better or worse. Sauma subtly offers the observation that memory can be every bit as tricky as an outright intention to deceive.

Ranging across time and place, richly detailed and thick with emotion, Flesh and Bone and Water is an impressive debut. Strong characters, a twisting plot and compelling settings make this a pleasurable and memorable read.


This review originally ran in the May 16, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 glasses of cold, sweet mate.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Danya Kukafka

Following Wednesday’s review of Girl in Snow, here’s Danya Kukafka: Choosing Favorites.


Danya Kukafka is a graduate of New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. She currently works as an assistant editor at Riverhead Books. Girl in Snow is her first novel.

You began writing novels when you were just 16. What is different about this, your first to be published?

photo: Elliot Ross

I was writing pretty straight YA before. I wrote my first full novel–it was very bad–for a 10th grade project, and I gave it to my mom for Mother’s Day. And she said, “Honey, this is about a dead girl!” And after that I dabbled in some Peter Pan fan fiction, and then I wrote a paranormal YA novel when I was in college that was rejected by about a billion agents. And then after that I decided to go a little bit older. When I first wrote this book, I thought it was a YA novel until someone told me that it was not. So, I think as I got older my writing sort of naturally got older, too.

I had read a lot of straight YA when I was in high school, and a lot of it deals in the paranormal. One of my favorite series is Meg Cabot’s Mediator series. It’s about a girl who can talk to a ghost. I loved those books, and I took a lot of what I thought paranormal books could do from that. But I’ve definitely moved away from that, probably for good. I’m happy that this is the one that caught. Looking back, I’m glad it wasn’t those earlier ones that published.

How did you choose this setting in (fictional) small-town Colorado?

I grew up in Fort Collins, Colorado. It’s actually not a small town, it’s a pretty large city; but surrounding it are all these really small suburban enclaves, and I think they’re really interesting. They’re so insular. And the landscape of that part of Colorado is also really interesting to me. It’s the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, so you have these huge mountains looming over you, and to the other side you have open plains. You’re just kind of tucked into the base right there.

Why three characters’ voices? Did they all come to you at once, or did one come later than the others?

Oh, this is a good one. No, they did not. The first character that I had was Cameron, and I thought the book was only Cameron’s book, when I started it. I wrote an entire draft of only Cameron, but I could not get to the end. None of the endings made sense, and I couldn’t figure out what to do. I was taking a writing class at NYU with Colson Whitehead, and there was a story that I had written, that had a very, very early version of Jade’s voice. It came out really naturally, and everyone in the class really liked it, and I sort of thought, well, what if there’s a way to fit her into the story? So I had this draft, a full draft of the novel, and I went back and I wrote all of Jade’s chapters into that draft in about six months. And I had what I thought was a YA novel in my hands. But then I signed with my agent, Dana Murphy at the Book Group, and she said, this is not a YA book. This is adult writing and about adult themes, so let’s write in an adult perspective. (It was also very short.) So that was where Russ came in. We sort of thought up Russ together. And it was amazing how much he opened up the book for me: it felt so much bigger and richer and more expansive. But… I wouldn’t do it that way again.

Why not?

Since I had basically fleshed out the whole plot from one perspective, it was actually pretty easy to go in and add these people in terms of structure, because I already had the opening and the middle and the end. I knew generally what needed to happen. So it was actually really fun to go in and find out the little ways I could put these characters into the world that I had built. It was definitely messy for a while, but at the same time I always knew that it was making this world bigger, which I really liked. But it was very accidental and–well, maybe I will end up doing it this way again! But I hope to go into it with a little more intention and a little more knowledge next time.

Do you have a favorite among the three protagonists?

Cameron has to be my favorite. He’s the little dude of my heart, my little brain child. I love Jade for many other reasons–I loved writing Jade because she’s so angsty and such a teenager, and that was really fun to write. And as Russ came along I got to be more of a grown-up, which I also really enjoyed. But yeah, my favorite’s Cameron and I won’t hesitate to say it. Sorry, guys.

How has your day job (as an assistant editor at Riverhead Books) affected your writing?

I think I’ve become much harder on myself, which is a good thing. Also, I’m reading all the time, which is really good for my muscles, I guess. Just being able to read other people’s work as it’s coming in, and see how even really successful and amazing authors need revision–that’s been really inspiring for me, because I realize that everyone goes through this kind of horrible process of writing a book. But I’ve also had a really great experience learning to discern what stories I find necessary and interesting. Working for an editor and as an editor has helped me become pickier as a reader and a writer. Of course, I also find it a little bit scary sometimes, just seeing the volume of amazing work that is out there and knowing that you’re going to have to fit into it somewhere.

And what’s next?

I’m working on a new novel. I can’t say much about it yet but I will say it’s going to be set in upstate New York, about a family. I’m working on a draft, it’s messy right now, but it’s been really freeing to start something new and be out of the story I’ve been with for so long. I can play around now. I can do something totally different.


This interview originally ran on April 26, 2017 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

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