Maximum Shelf: Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez

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 September 15, 2021.


Xochitl Gonzalez’s Olga Dies Dreaming is a scintillating, eye-opening story of family, legacies, and political and individual struggles, set in contemporary New York City and Puerto Rico. Readers will be entirely captured by Olga and her family, friends and associates as this spellbinding narrative twists, turns and unfolds over the years and miles. Gonzalez’s stunning first novel feels far more expansive than its not-quite-400 pages.

Olga Isabel Acevedo, Brooklyn-born child of Puerto Rican parents, is an ambitious, status-conscious wedding planner to New York City’s upper echelon. “Using a traditional American metric for measuring success,” she is winning: she left the family home for a fancy New England college, has her own business and enjoys a certain amount of fame via glossy magazine and television appearances. She has a large, close-knit family still based in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, but with several holes in it: her loving and beloved father, once a proud political activist and member of the Young Lords, now dead from drug addiction and AIDS; her late grandmother who raised her; and most troublingly, Olga’s mother, Blanca, a militant radical who left the family when Olga was not quite 13. “Achieving liberation will require sacrifice,” Blanca wrote to her young daughter. Olga’s involuntary sacrifice in service of Puerto Rican liberation was to give up her mother to the cause.

Crucially, Olga still has her older brother, Prieto, with whom she is very close. If Olga is a star as wedding planner to Manhattan’s upper crust, Prieto is a supernova, the handsome, popular young congressman representing their neighborhood in Washington: “He wasn’t quite code-switching so much as he managed, miraculously, to speak several languages simultaneously, creating a linguistic creole of hip-hop, academia, contemporary slang and high-level policy points that made Olga marvel…. Olga herself had never learned this linguistic mezcla that her brother had perfected; this ability to be all facets of herself at once. She always had to choose which Olga she would be in any given situation, in any given moment.”

However well her career is going, Olga feels a void. Blanca writes to her frequently (via go-betweens, from an undisclosed location) to excoriate Olga for pursuing the meaningless, superficial goals of white society rather than working toward liberation for la raza. Prieto, apparently fighting the good fight (if only, their mother writes to him in turn, from inside a broken system), has his own demons and secrets as well.

The plot of Olga Dies Dreaming sees several delicate balances begin to upset. Olga’s surface-level achievements show cracks as she questions what she’s actually working toward. She meets a man she may truly like, which exposes a weakness: her people skills, so polished at work, don’t hold up to a situation with real stakes. Prieto’s carefully maintained façade falters, one of his secret insecurities threatened. When Puerto Rico is gutted by the one-two punch of Hurricanes Irma and then Maria, Olga takes a few hits herself. Can she navigate a romantic relationship? Will her brother withstand the latest storm in his private life–and is their bond up to the challenge? Perhaps most significantly: what does Olga have to gain–or lose–if her long-absent mother chooses these turbulent times to make a reappearance?

The masterful Olga Dies Dreaming roams far and wide, encompassing the most obnoxiously petty, overindulged weddings of the 1% and the dire straits of rural Puerto Ricans lacking clean drinking water, food or electricity. Such range could get unwieldy in less capable hands, but Gonzalez has a firm grasp of her plot threads. With lively, clever prose and adept political commentary, this novel asks questions about race and assimilation, about government corruption and capitalism, about gentrification and family duty. Olga, Prieto, their aunts and uncles and cousins, Olga’s work associates, casual sexual partners and her new bae: likeable, appalling and everything in between, these characters sparkle with authentic detail. While this is Olga’s story, the point of view does sometimes shift to offer Prieto’s perspective and a few others. Readers (uncomfortably) get inside the head of a deeply unpleasant man of great privilege, for example–aptly named Dick–as well as that of our heroine. Gonzalez is also expert with setting, as her novel travels from the peculiarly organized hoarder apartment of Olga’s love interest to an impressively high-tech rebel compound in the Puerto Rican jungle, an opulent Easthampton beach house and more.

From Blanca’s mysterious and blistering missives come political and ideological rhetoric and intellectual challenges. Olga was named for Olga Garriga, activist for Puerto Rican nationalism, but also hanging over her is the story of Olga from poet Pedro Pietri’s “Puerto Rican Obituary,” who “died waiting dreaming and hating.” These are the extreme options she’s been offered: Blanca’s rigid revolutionary ideal or the unattainable, swank American dream. Instead, in the end, Olga must chart her own path to a third option, one where she might finally find peace.

This novel positively glitters with truth, wit, humor, pathos, trauma, love and pain. Gonzalez’s narrative operates with consummate skill on the level of the individual, the family and the political system. There is much to learn and ponder here about colonialism, corruption and policy. And on a more personal level, Olga casts a spell that will linger with readers long after these pages are closed. Olga Dies Dreaming is simply unforgettable.


Rating: 10 songs.

Come back Monday for my interview with Gonzalez.

I’m Possible: A Story of Survival, a Tuba, and the Small Miracle of a Big Dream by Richard Antoine White

After a childhood of homelessness and few options, the narrator of this rousing memoir becomes a professional orchestra musician and an inspiration.

Richard Antoine White’s memoir I’m Possible: A Story of Survival, a Tuba, and the Small Miracle of a Big Dream begins onstage, with a professional orchestra performance facing “the plumage of red seats,” then flashes back to the narrator’s childhood, homeless on the streets of the Sandtown neighborhood in Baltimore, Md. The tension between these two scenes outlines his story. White is the first African American to earn a doctorate of music in tuba performance; his family and community background has included addiction, violence, poverty, instability and racism. In his prologue, he sets the upbeat tone he’ll hold throughout this memoir. “I want you to read this story and feel like you are a superhero,” he writes. “I am possible. You are possible. Everything is possible.”

White recounts how he survived his mother’s addiction, childhood homelessness, unforgiving Baltimore winters and much more. He was lucky to find family in more senses than the biological, and lucky to find the trumpet (in fourth grade) and, later, the tuba. He journey takes him from Sandtown to the suburbs to the Baltimore School for the Arts, then to the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins, graduate school at Indiana University and eventually the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. He enjoys strong friendships and excellent mentorships, and becomes a hard worker. Music is an escape, “a light going on in the dark. Like seeing a star for the first time.”

White writes passionately about his studies and relationships, his tone disarmingly direct, with flashes of lyric brilliance: “The look on her face was flint and it struck against the steel in me and sparked.” I’m Possible is both a life story and a series of character sketches; White conveys his love for his biological mother and then for the couple who raised him, whom he calls Mom and Dad, and his many friends, mentors and students shine as well. (Look for a cameo by “a skinny upperclassman with a raspy voice named Tupac Shakur, who schooled me.”) White’s message is tirelessly uplifting: he is no genius, he insists, “although I do possess a profound belief in what is possible and a deep gratitude for how I came to be here,” and he reliably credits those who helped him along the way.

This is a story of perseverance, hard work and a little luck; of love of music and the importance of community and both built and biological families. White also comments throughout on the role of racism in his experience and in that of so many in the United States. His casual, earnest storytelling style beautifully suits this moving narrative, and admirably achieves a tone that is stirring but not saccharine. Readers will find his account touching and inspirational.


This review originally ran in the September 7, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 Cup Noodles.

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut, trans. by Adrian Nathan West

Wide-ranging, mystical, crazed and inspired, this singular novel explores theoretical physics through a series of weird, engrossing human stories.

Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World is an astonishing historical novel of physics, war, human weakness and quantum physics. In a lovely translation from the Spanish by Adrian Nathan West, the fictionalized histories of Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger and more come alive to disquiet and intrigue readers.

The book opens with Hermann Göring’s addiction to dihydrocodeine and the suicides of many Nazi leaders by cyanide in the final months of World War II. It gets only a little less grim from there. But even with such bleak subject matter, Labatut’s imaginative evocations of disturbed minds from the rarified ranks of mathematics and physics are thoroughly captivating and strangely lovely, joining science with mysticism in surprising ways. “In the deepest substrate of all things, physics had not found the solid, unassailable reality Schrödinger and Einstein had dreamt of, ruled over by a rational God pulling the threads of the world, but a domain of wonders and rarities, borne of the whims of a many-armed goddess toying with chance.”

Labatut’s narrative travels in time and space, covering the development of pesticides, chemical weapons and Prussian blue pigment; painting, literature and opera; the existential angst of particle and quantum physics; eroticism and fever dreams. A young Heisenberg interrupts Schrödinger’s lecture to argue about the nature of subatomic particles. Later the reader sees Heisenberg feverish, ill, madly dreaming of spectral lines and harmonically bound electrons while reading Goethe’s poems inspired by the Persian mystic Hafez. Schrödinger also raves, theorizing and obsessing over the adolescent daughter of his physician. Lesser-known scientific figures include Karl Schwarzschild, the soldier who first exactly solved Einstein’s equation of general relativity and died shortly after; Shinichi Mochizuki, who revolutionized mathematics and then withdrew from the field; Alexander Grothendieck, who fled society to live as a hermit and also gave up mathematics entirely; and the seventh duc de Broglie, a “timid prince” whose Nobel Prize did not help him stomach the infighting among scholars of theoretical physics. These are the figures and the stories that have shaped major advances in science in the modern era; they also verge on insanity.

This astonishing novel blends forms: lyrical, inventive and also rooted in history, concerned with the overlaps of genius and madness, innovation and destruction. “The physicist–like the poet–should not describe the facts of the world, but rather generate metaphors and mental connections…. That aspect of nature required a completely new language,” writes Labatut, and likewise he offers a new way of writing about science and history. The vision of reality painted by When We Cease to Understand the World is terrifying but finely wrought, and will live long in readers’ minds.


This review originally ran in the August 30, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 cats.

Maximum Shelf: in the words of Richard Powers

Following Monday’s review of Bewilderment, here’s Richard Powers: ‘Homesick for a Place They Never Knew.’


Richard Powers’s novels include The Echo Maker (winner of the National Book Award for Fiction, 2006) and The Overstory (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2019). His work often explores the connections between human lives, the natural world, science and technology. He has received a MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Historical Fiction, among many others, and he has taught at Stanford University and the University of Illinois. Bewilderment (coming from Norton on September 21) is his 13th novel.

Powers wrote a special “Note from the Author” for the advanced reader copies of Bewilderment that explores the meaning of his novel’s title and inspiration, reprinted here.

A Note from the Author

Richard Powers (photo: Dean D. Dixon)

I read the classic “Flowers for Algernon” in sixth grade, when I was eleven years old. Written the year I was born, the story lit up my imagination and settled into that permanent place children reserve for those fables that capture the mystery of life.

In my early sixties, when I came across an account of a remarkable new therapeutic technique called decoded neurofeedback, Daniel Keyes’s story returned to me, every bit as vivid as it had been half a century earlier. “Algernon” told of a cognitively challenged man who is granted intelligence far beyond ordinary human limits. Decoded neurofeedback raised the prospect of a similar fable. Suppose researchers perfected an empathy machine that could greatly magnify emotional intelligence? What might we humans learn to become?

Children possess enormous emotional intelligence, but adult illogic can defeat it. While finishing my previous novel, The Overstory, I kept reading accounts of the toll our growing environmental catastrophe is taking on the young. A new word, solastalgia, seemed to take hold overnight. I began to see how we were raising a generation of troubled kids born homesick for a place they never knew. And we adults were relying more and more on a single response for treating the epidemic ravaging our children’s mental health: medication.

All children are natural scientists. At the same time, they’re also pantheists who know that God is crawling over every inch of the backyard. I had a fierce niece who loved butterflies, and for a long time couldn’t stop drawing them. I had a deeply affectionate nephew who talked to “critters,” but who flew into violent rages at the stupidity of humans. The little girl managed to grow into an accomplished and mostly happy young adult. The little boy did not. Could another kind of emotional therapy have made a difference?

Bewilderment was, in part, my way of remembering those two, along with so many other troubled children whom I loved without being able to reassure. The reward of writing this story lay in the daily chance to recover my own childhood joy in the endless replenishment of the living world. The word bewilder means to perplex or confuse. But in its origin, it also means to head back into wildness. A childlike love for our wild, entangled home is the only thing large enough to cure what is wrong with us. As Thoreau puts it, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

Copyright (c) 2021 by Richard Powers. Bewilderment to be published by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. September 21, 2021.


This author’s note originally ran on August 23, 2021 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: Bewilderment by Richard Powers

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 August 23, 2021.


Bewilderment by Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Powers (The Echo Maker; Orfeo; The Overstory) is a novel of great pain and empathy. Focusing on a nuclear family but also concerned with ecological collapse and the possibilities of distant space, this is a heart-wrenching story with an important message to convey.

Theo Byrne is an astrobiologist: he writes programs to explore, hypothetically, distant planets that may host life. His work is at the nexus of science, coding and imagination. But readers meet him first in a still more important role: that of single parent to Robin, who is just turning nine. Robin is a special child: artistic, caring, intelligent. “So far the votes are two Asperger’s, one probable OCD, and one possible ADHD,” but Theo resolutely resists the push to medicate him. Bewilderment begins with father and son in the Smoky Mountains on a camping trip, intended as alternative therapy following yet another outburst at school. It helps Robin immensely, but the larger world awaits. “The cars, the asphalt, the sign listing all the regulations: after a night in the woods, the trailhead parking lot felt like death. I did my best not to show Robin. He was probably protecting me, too.” Robin will not tolerate lies. But how can Theo tell the truth about just how vicious our world really is?

Theo’s wife, Robin’s mother, is absent. Aly was a tireless animal rights lawyer-activist, fierce and indomitable and loving; both man and boy are daily devastated by her loss, which readers slowly piece together: a car accident, swerving to avoid an opossum. “I didn’t know how to be a parent. Most of what I did, I remembered from what she used to do.” The novel is told in Theo’s first-person voice, in constant interaction with Robin; but Aly is ever present, too, as a voice in Theo’s head and to whom he turns for advice. On leaving the Smokies, he appeals to her: “We’re fine together, in the woods. But I’m afraid to take him home.”

Indeed, back in Madison, Wisc., Robin struggles at school and Theo, trying to care for him, falls behind at work. Planetary exploration and the sciences in general are underfunded and under attack by a government administration that blusters and crows on social media. Theo’s research partner refers to Robin as “the boy.” The school pushes harder to medicate him. Many evenings, Theo and Robin travel together in imagination to distant, dreamed-up planets that just might support life. These interludes are gorgeously rendered demonstrations of love and inventiveness. But the real world continues to rattle.

Another colleague makes an unusual offer. Decoded Neurofeedback, or DecNef, allows patients, or “trainees,” to mimic the moods of “target” subjects using real-time, AI-mediated feedback: emotional training via carefully monitored neural states. At nine, Robin is an unusually young subject, but he also has a unique opportunity. Before her death, his mother Aly allowed her own neural activity to be recorded. Now the precocious, troubled, earnest Robin has access to her mental state.

Theo and Robin share an appreciation for the Daniel Keyes story “Flowers for Algernon,” and its implications are not lost in Robin’s own unprecedented experience. Theo continues to agonize over his parenting, life on Earth and life in the beyond: “Decoded Neurofeedback was changing [Robin], as surely as Ritalin would have. But then, everything on Earth was changing him.” Robin sees enormous improvement in his ability to handle his rages and his blues, enjoying learning widely about the natural world, with a switch to home-schooling. He shows an uncanny harmony with and knowledge of his mother’s mind, enough to unnerve his father. But there will come a reckoning. Theo and Robin live in a recognizable version of the contemporary United States, beset by climate disasters, political upheaval and hate, wildfires, ignorance. Even as Robin makes his way as an increasingly well-adjusted young activist, bad news bombards their family from all sides, until disaster strikes. Bewilderment circles back to the Smoky Mountains for a gut-wrenching finish in the same place where it began. “From behind us, upstream, the future flowed over our backs into the sun-spattered past.”

Powers deserves his reputation as a consummately talented writer. His careful, lyrical prose conveys precisely the intended emotion and tone at the right time, and weaves meanings and significances in complex layers. This superlative novel invites readers to meditate on the natural world, human and animal rights, the potentialities of deep space, the role of science and technology in human societies, the challenges of modern childhood and more. “Maybe humanity was a nine-year-old, not yet grown up, not a little kid anymore. Seemingly in control, but always on the verge of rage.” Robin is a delightful character, a bright, sincere, intense child, lovable and challenging. Theo is deeply sympathetic in his dual tendencies toward far-thinking astrobiology and the care of his child (“They share a lot, astronomy and childhood”), and in his fear that he will fail his son. Powers pulls no punches: he portrays a brutal world that will damage Robin, Theo and all humanity in profound and irreparable ways. Bewilderment is a beautifully told story, but one that hurts, too.


Rating: 8 opossums.

Come back Friday for a follow-up in Powers’s own words.

Snowflake by Louise Nealon

Coming of age from an oddball Irish country family in the chaos and snobbery of Dublin’s Trinity College has never been so sweet, funny, moody and real.

Louise Nealon’s Snowflake is a novel that keeps readers guessing, a madcap family drama and coming-of-age saga for Debbie, who has grown up on a dairy farm outside Dublin in an eccentric household. “My uncle Billy lives in a caravan in a field at the back of my house,” it begins. Billy is a bit of a drunk with an unusual interest in constellations and Greek mythology; he keeps the farm running and is devoted to his niece. His sister, Maeve, Debbie’s mother, is less stable. She considers herself a writer and a prophet, fanatically recording and interpreting her dreams. Maeve’s much younger lover, James, “was stitched into his John Deere overalls when he came out of the womb and was born into a family without any land.”

Debbie is now off to Trinity College as a commuter student to study English, but she is deeply self-conscious and without city skills; she spends “half the day scoping out toilets to squat in and take a break” and cry. Her first friend on campus is Xanthe, a young woman of greater experience and privilege but, to Debbie’s surprise, with problems of her own as well. The idea that everyone is suffering something, even unseen, is not a new one, but it is refreshingly presented by this cast of wonky, wonderful, traumatized characters in a chaotic, beautiful, flawed world.

Debbie’s first-person narrative is self-deprecating and endearingly messy. Her life is constantly off-kilter, one wrench thrown after another, and this quality could be too much, but Nealon’s earnestly wacky protagonist pulls it off. Sometimes life is too much, but Billy will have another pint and Maeve will take to her bed and Debbie will muddle through–at least until tragedy strikes. An Irish country farm (with side trips to Dublin and to a dubious beach house) provides backdrop to an unlikely list of themes: mental illness, social awkwardness, art, class, guilt and different kinds of love.

The title offers layers of meaning: a little fun at the expense of millennials like Debbie? A fascinating shape worthy of study and analogous to the stars Billy so loves? Something precious, unique, ephemeral? Snowflake is that sort of novel: twisty-turning, multifaceted, smart, funny even when it is at its most serious. Nealon’s debut shows an expert eye for detail and pitch, and an appreciation for the absurd, the profound and the ridiculous–especially when they converge.


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


Rating: 7 pink dressing gowns.

L.A. Weather by María Amparo Escandón

In a novel alternating between fun and heartbreak, a prosperous, big-hearted, messy family struggles to weather literal and metaphoric disaster in 2016 Los Angeles.

L.A. Weather is a lovely, compelling and occasionally brutal novel by María Amparo Escandón (Esperanza’s Box of Saints) about a family on the brink of disaster, in a city similarly on edge. Captivating, sympathetic, funny characters and never-ending surprises (that even those involved compare to a telenovela) form a world for readers to get lost in.

Patriarch Oscar Alvarado has become a shell of his formerly assertive self; his wife, Keila, a sculptor, is losing patience. Their daughters are Claudia, an author and television chef; Olivia, an architect and mother of twin girls; and social-media maven Patricia. The Alvarados are a close-knit family of successful, high-powered professionals, bridging Oscar’s Catholicism, Keila’s Judaism and their shared Mexican-American heritage in Los Angeles, a vibrant city beautifully evoked by Escandón’s loving descriptions of food, traffic and culture.

In L.A. Weather‘s opening pages, a horrifying accident befalls Olivia’s daughters (parents beware), prompting various responses to trauma and launching the story directly into the Alvarados’ family dynamic and cascading failures. Oscar’s obsession with drought and wildfire may at first seem random, if not nonsensical, but it reflects a secret he’s been keeping from his family, and serves as symbol for their shared concerns. When Keila announces she wants to divorce him, their daughters protest vehemently, although it is soon their own respective marriages that threaten to catch fire. The city crackles with heat as one crisis or shenanigan after another ensues.

“[The] family’s stories were never neatly wrapped up at the end of the year. They just went on, and it felt good, this continuum.” The novel is defined by time, however: Escandón chronicles events from January through December of 2016. Her story is a feat of both plot and character. Each member of the extended Alvarado clan is intriguing and flawed but deserving of empathy; even when they make questionable decisions, they are both convincing and entertaining. Climate change serves as a clever way to monitor the metaphoric fire risk to a family that loves fiercely but stumbles in the execution of that love. L.A. is richly portrayed: “the wildland-urban interface, that zone where nature and city cohabited (or collided?), where your surveillance camera could spot a mountain lion roaming in your backyard while you slept…. [Oscar] could not stop thinking that it was this unashamed human encroachment into nature that was causing so much destruction.” This is a story of people, place and connection. Absorbing, moving, comic and tragic, L.A. Weather will capture readers and never let them go.


This review originally ran in the August 9, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 squash-flower mini tamales.

In the Field by Rachel Pastan

A Nobel-winning scientist holds the focus of this lovely, contemplative, completely absorbing novel.

“What if Cinderella had asked her mother’s tree to give her a microscope instead of a ballgown?” With In the Field, Rachel Pastan (Alena) offers a compassionate, clear-eyed story of self-determination, love and science. The novel begins in 1982, when Dr. Kate Croft receives a phone call from the Nobel committee, then rewinds to 1923, when Kate is a first-year student at Cornell University, to the disapproval of her family, male professors and classmates.

Kate is entranced by biology, if not obsessed: “The cell was an uncharted country, and she was an explorer newly landed on shore… that was part of the joy of it: the promise of richness that lay ahead. The sense she had of undreamed-of discoveries–unimagined systems and structures–waiting there in the dark to be found.” Socially challenged and estranged from her family, she grows up with a single-minded devotion to her work, despite the struggles of being a woman in a male-dominated field and her difficulties in love.

An author’s note acknowledges that Kate Croft is based on Barbara McClintock, but Pastan makes clear that this is a heavily fictionalized account of the geneticist’s personal life, while remaining accurate to the science. Kate is a “corn man,” in the parlance of the day, studying maize genes at Cornell’s College of Agriculture. Her colleagues accept and respect her to varying degrees: one reports, “People say either you’re a genius, or else you’re off your rocker.” Kate’s greatest joy is in carefully tending her corn, her slides and her data. Other scientists profit off her discoveries (she is a gifted researcher) and deny her credit; she has difficulty accepting help. Meanwhile, she wrestles with her secret love affair with a woman, and maintains a lifelong friendship with a fellow corn man.

The curiosity that drives Kate’s research fuels her love for humanity, too. “Couldn’t people change their natures? Couldn’t they change, the way her corn had changed in the middle of the growing season, suddenly producing leaves with different frequencies of streaks? Something switched on, something else switched off, deep inside the cells.” These questions of free will are as important as those of heredity or meiosis. In the Field excels in its multifaceted view of a complex woman: scientist, lover, friend, student of life in both biology and philosophy. Readers will be better for time spent with this patient, tender, loving examination of a life devoted to examination of life. Kate will stay with readers for a long time.


This review originally ran in the July 15, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 chocolate walnut cookies.

Songbirds by Christy Lefteri

Set in the old capital city of Cyprus, this is a beautiful, sad novel about human relationships and hard choices, who is seen and unseen.

With Songbirds, Christy Lefteri (The Beekeeper of Aleppo) shines a light on social issues through the story of one woman’s disappearance. The central character is absent from the beginning and remains a mystery until the novel’s final pages.

“One day, Nisha vanished and turned to gold.” Nisha is a Sri Lankan immigrant to Cyprus, where she works in the capital city of Nicosia as maid to Petra, a widow, and her nine-year-old daughter, Aliki. Petra’s upstairs tenant Yiannis is Nisha’s secret lover (maids are not permitted lovers). This absorbing novel opens after Nisha has gone missing, and is told in chapters that alternate between Petra’s and Yiannis’s points of view as they mourn and search for Nisha.

Nisha is representative of numerous migrant worker women in Cyprus, largely from Vietnam, Nepal, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. Petra observes, “The maids here did everything–they were hired and paid (lower than the minimum wage) to clean the house, but ended up being child-carers, shop assistants, waitresses.” Also: “I had started to see the rhythm of these women with new eyes–how the whole neighborhood pulsed with their activity. They had been invisible to me before Nisha had gone missing.”

Although her neighbors are quick to write off the disappearance as abandonment, with the assumptions of casual racism, Petra knows this is out of character. Nisha is devoted to Aliki, and besides she’s left behind her passport and most precious possessions, relics of her late husband and her own daughter in Sri Lanka. The police won’t help. Petra mounts her own investigation, eventually teaming up with a distraught Yiannis, who is facing challenges of his own. He feels trapped by his involvement in the criminal poaching of songbirds, and especially conflicted because he’d grown up feeling so close to nature.

Lefteri deftly weaves Yiannis’s pain at his illegal work and the loss of his love with Petra’s growing realizations about her own culture and Aliki’s attachment to her missing caretaker. Nisha, “a dark and beautiful shadow, who rattled around in old sandals and with fire in her eyes,” is the center of this story, but an absence; the two speaking characters triangulate the third, and readers don’t hear Nisha’s own voice until the very end. Moving human characters and careful depiction of natural spaces contribute to a contemplative tone. Songbirds is quietly urgent in its treatment of Nicosia’s maids, lyrical in its descriptions, and thoughtful, compassionate and important.


This review originally ran in the July 12, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 makeshift oars.

The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams

A shared reading list improves the lives of two lonely individuals in this charming novel about the power of a good book.

In Sara Nisha Adams’s sweet, pleasing debut, The Reading List, two lonely characters in contemporary London–and a host of friends and family–learn just how much books, and other people, have to offer.

Mukesh is grieving after his wife’s death: “Now here he was, alone, still without any clue as to what he should do now she was gone, left in a lifeless, soulless, bookless house that had once been their home.” He wishes he were as close to his granddaughter, Priya, as she was to her grandmother, but he does not share their love of reading. Then he finds an unreturned library book his late wife loved and gives it a chance.

Aleisha, 17, works at the library, but begrudgingly. Her older brother is the reader in the family. Both are slowly being crushed by their mother’s oppressive depression; they’ve lost touch with their friends and even each other, leaving Aleisha alone in the world, traveling between work and home until even the boring local library begins to feel like a sanctuary. In a returned book, she finds a handwritten note that begins, “Just in case you need it,” with a list of book titles. Not knowing why, she tucks it away.

Following a prologue introducing the titular reading list, sections of the novel are named for books (The Time Traveler’s Wife, Rebecca and more); most chapters follow either Aleisha or Mukesh. In interstitial chapters labeled “The Reading List,” other characters interact with the same mysterious document in their own ways–a crime thriller fan grieving a break-up; a lonely divorcé; a young woman who collects lists.

Out of guilt and boredom, Aleisha begins reading the books on the found list and recommending them to the elderly Hindu man who has tentatively begun to visit her library. Together, Mukesh and his teenaged librarian share what they read. Both are unpracticed, but each has much to gain from the developing friendship and the fictional worlds that transport them away from their daily struggles. When tragedy strikes, the friendship and the reading list may help them get through: “‘Aleisha,’ Mukesh said softly. ‘Please try to remember that books aren’t always an escape; sometimes books teach us things. They show us the world; they don’t hide it.'”

The Reading List is a tender novel about human connection and community and the healing power of reading, about the support and compassion that all people need at one time or another. This book is a soothing salve.


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


Rating: 8 cups of chai.
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