Maximum Shelf author interview: Monica Brashears

Following Friday’s review of House of Cotton, here’s Monica Brashears: Feel the Life in the Ghosts.


Monica Brashears is an Affrilachian writer from Tennessee and a graduate of Syracuse University’s MFA program. Her work has appeared in Nashville Review, Split Lip magazine, Appalachian Review, the Masters Review and more. Her debut novel is House of Cotton (Flatiron Books, April 4, 2023), a novel about ghosts, mothers and the struggle to survive, set in Tennessee with its lingering challenges of race and class. Brashears lives in Syracuse, N.Y., where she is at work on her second novel.

What makes Magnolia a compelling protagonist?

photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan

The reason I love her so much, and why she’s my baby, is because of her willingness to create other worlds as a response to trauma. There’s such a tenderness there. It’s an act of hope, that the world can be velvet. It doesn’t have to be so harsh all the time. Even in moments when it’s the harshest, she has an ability to make it velvet, and I think that’s special.

To what do you attribute that ability in her?

That ability is both a method of survival and another sort of haunting. Magnolia’s imagined fairytales stem from coping strategies she turned to as a child and because she’s carried them into adulthood, her trauma still lives in that humor. Additionally, Mama Brown’s laughter and steady shelter taught Magnolia her definition of safety and, because of that, Mama Brown’s life is reflected in the way Magnolia jokes.

Was Magnolia the beginning of this novel coming to you?

House of Cotton began as a short story in undergrad, and it was plot driven. The characters were not-quite-formed-laughing-things. I had no intentions of returning to the story, but three years later, Magnolia returned. I only knew that she had an emotional cavity, and inside that cavity, she claimed there were geodes. Usually, for me, the plot comes first as a way to announce all the ways I’m fed up. But I don’t have anything to work with until the characters show me how and why their yearning stretches beyond their exhaustion.

Does writing a ghost like Mama Brown differ from writing a living character?

I tend to write a lot of ghosts because I was raised hearing these Appalachian folktales. I think I feel the life more in the ghosts in the first draft, because there’s an urgency there. They’re back–why are they back? What do they need? I kind of prefer writing ghosts, strangely.

Is this an allegory about slavery?

Not entirely. I think it’s very much rooted in the present. Although I do understand that reading, because the effects of slavery are in the present. It’s in the fabric of everything that’s happening now. And, of course, the title is House of Cotton, which kind of primes the reader.

How important is setting to this story? Could it happen anywhere else?

The basic plot could happen anywhere. But the setting, the love and the lust and the tenderness, is very much tied to the land–all the plants, the kudzu.

House Mountain is mentioned in the novel, and I move it around. It’s generally always in my writing, but I move it around Tennessee. Knoxville is also, I would say, an Appalachian city, but it doesn’t get viewed that way. The mountains are there. So I like to say hey, remember? Don’t forget! We’re in Appalachia.

What does it mean to be an Affrilachian writer?

I believe Frank X. Walker coined the term. I remember writing, and it was always about the mountains, in undergraduate workshops at the University of Tennessee. And then one day in a poetry workshop my senior year, just before I was getting ready to move to Syracuse for my MFA, I was called Affrilachian. And I was like, what do you mean? Can I claim that? I wasn’t literally living on a mountain, but I was at the feet of them, so I was always on them growing up. So it really felt like coming home in my writing. When people think Appalachia, I don’t think they often think about Black people inhabiting the mountains, so within the genre there’s kind of a pushback against that erasure. This is our land, too.

Is there a special challenge to writing something this strongly based in place while you are elsewhere?

I did write the novel in Syracuse. I carry home within me, always, and nurture that sense through familiar music or food. If anything, Syracuse winters helped me focus on the specifics of all I missed; the book’s infatuation with Tennessean summertime is yet another layer of yearning.

Has your MFA program changed how you work as a writer?

It definitely has. I love the community. When I first came here everyone was name-dropping all of these authors and I felt very out of place. But I took a class that was focused on Ulysses. We spent the entire semester reading Ulysses, and it was full of suffering, and it was bizarre, but I came out of that really uncomfortable semester having definitely improved in seeing all of these fun craft maneuvers available. Permission was gained. I’ve been exposed to so many texts and writers and traditions that otherwise I wouldn’t have, and it’s improved my craft and widened my love for literature.

What’s an example of a good craft maneuver you learned?

Approaching revision with an acknowledgement that a writer’s subconscious has the story figured out before the writer helped unlock the process for me. There’s a pleasure in finding hints within a story or novel and toying with them until I find their meaning. My hints usually present themselves as repetition. There’s an urgency that’s accidental and charming and indicative of strong emotion. But what am I really trying to say?

What can you tell us about your next novel?

It is a trailer park noir filled with jewels, and the fear of God, of course, and murder.

What’s your favorite thing about this novel?

I think Magnolia. I often think of her as my child. I was raised an older sibling, so I was kind of assigned motherhood occasionally, and she feels like a younger sibling or a child. Someone I hold close and within me and tend to love every day.


This interview originally ran on January 4, 2023 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: House of Cotton by Monica Brashears

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 January 4, 2023.


Monica Brashears’s House of Cotton is an engrossing coming-of-age novel about ghosts, mothers and the struggle to survive. It is also a novel of the lingering challenges of race and class. Brashears’s prose style is sharp and incisive, and the entrancing, distinctive voice of her protagonist is by turns weary, sardonic and yearning. A haunting story and unusual perspective make this a memorable and thought-provoking debut.

Magnolia Brown is 19 years old when her grandmother, Mama Brown, dies. Her absent mother struggles with substance abuse and an abusive partner, so that leaves Magnolia more or less alone in the world, fending off a lecherous landlord (who is also deacon at her grandmother’s church) and struggling to get by. She works the night shift at a Knoxville, Tenn., gas station, where she tries to care for Cigarette Sammy, the muttering man who goes through the trash outside (“the only other Black person I see on this side of town”), between one-and-done encounters executed by her Tinder persona, Carolina Nettle. It’s a tenuous living, and she misses Mama Brown terribly. One night “a whistling man with blood-smeared hands” walks into the gas station. “Hearing a man whistle when he walks in a place he don’t own ain’t natural. Like finding a chipped tooth on concrete. An omen.” When he returns from the bathroom after cleaning his hands, she sees the man is polished, manicured, smooth-talking, wearing good cologne. Cotton offers Magnolia a modeling job, but she’s wary; Magnolia knows omens. But she’s also broke, and quite possibly pregnant.

At the address he gives her, Magnolia finds the Weeping Willow Parlor, a funeral home run by Cotton and his gleefully friendly, drunk Aunt Eden. The pair is eccentric: Cotton needs to constantly finger a piece of pocketed twine to remain calm; Eden is something of an alcoholic and firmly does not believe in ghosts. They are wealthy, and culturally foreign to Magnolia.

Cotton and Eden Productions offers Magnolia a most unusual modeling job: they provide families with lost or missing loved ones a final contact, a side business something like a séance. With Eden’s uncanny funeral-home makeup skills and Magnolia’s amateur acting, Magnolia will play the part of the dead. She’s used to pretending; it has long been her coping mechanism: “When I get this way, when I feel like kudzu is wrapped tight around my ribcage and I’m bleeding a bright heat, I like to slip inside my head.” She slides smoothly into Cotton and Eden’s world and their comfortable, decadent habits: cocktails at all hours, joyriding in the hearse. She moves into the funeral home, lets Eden apply pale body paint to allow her to become missing white women and men, and begins saving her money. The ghost of Mama Brown checks in with Magnolia: knowing, comforting, but judging as well. Reading a letter Mama Brown left her, Magnolia knows “[S]he ain’t left me. I ain’t seen her, but she sits by me. Unseen but real as humidity.” Soon the ghost will be seen as well.

Magnolia’s life becomes split. At the Weeping Willow, she lives in ease and has money to spare, but feels estranged from the very different world Cotton and Eden come from. The relationship is transactional, and she’s always acting, even when the makeup is off. And then there is Mama Brown’s home, where the garden (the place Magnolia still meets her Tinder dates) grows out of control. By tending the needs of the rich white folks who help support her, Magnolia has literally let her own house get out of order. Her caretaking of Cigarette Sammy has become disrupted. Cotton’s requests get weirder and weirder, and Mama Brown’s ghost expresses concerns about Magnolia’s choices, which have affected Mama Brown in the afterlife. The worldly and otherworldly pressures mount.

Set in the grand Weeping Willow Parlor, complete with secret passageways and haunted by Magnolia’s much-loved but literally disintegrating grandmother, House of Cotton pits traditional gothic elements (the haunted castle, women in distress, death and decay) against contemporary questions about race and class and the persistent legacy of slavery. It shares the genre’s sense of suspense and foreboding, but Magnolia’s struggles are very realistic. Her first-person narration brings an immediacy to the events, and an intimacy that’s advanced by her frank voice and turns of phrase. On its face, this is an intriguing ghost story with a compelling, beleaguered protagonist. In its layers, there is much more at stake.

“I am a tattered quilt of all the women before me. I am a broken puzzle,” Magnolia states, but she is clearly a survivor as well. Despite her many fears, she is somehow fearless in pursuing the truest version of herself. Brashears excels in strong characters and deeply felt emotions, and in a robust sense of place: Knoxville shines as both urban and cultural setting and in the details of its natural world. Brashears offers a fresh new perspective on Appalachia and the American South, and Magnolia’s rich voice will echo with readers long after the pages are closed.


Rating: 7 missing fingernails.

Come back Monday for my interview with Brashears.

Brutes by Dizz Tate

A group of 13-year-old girls tries to deal with another teenager’s disappearance alongside their own coming-of-age in an unattractive Florida town beset by increasingly adult threats.

Dizz Tate’s first novel, Brutes, is set in Falls Landing, Fla., a small town formed of theme parks, mall food courts, gated communities and swampland. At its center is the mystery of a missing teenage girl, and the group of younger girls who adored her: the narrative voice is the unusual first-person plural “we,” which perfectly suits a girlhood of conformity and togetherness. The 13-year-old narrators yearn for individual recognition but also fear separation. Their collective voice slips into the singular only when the girls speak from their adult perspectives, looking back. This narrative “we” contributes greatly to the haunting atmosphere of a story about loss, secrets and the costs of growing up.

“Where is she?” the girls imagine Sammy’s parents asking the morning after her disappearance, and this question will echo. They worshipped, followed and watched Sammy on the nights when she climbed over the wall of her exclusive community to meet her boyfriend, Eddie; they share her love for Eddie and, after she’s gone, shift to attach themselves to Sammy’s best friend and rival, Mia. “We wanted to be like them, to become ever louder and brighter, but we could feel their futures slipping through our fingers, because we were not stupid.” Sammy and Mia had both been affiliated with Star Search, the local talent agency, and everyone in town wants to be selected, to be seen as special, to be given a business card or a plane ticket to L.A. “We squashed our faces against the glass of our own lives. Is this it? we asked. Are we having fun like they have fun? Are we in love like they are in love? We filled up our days following them, watching them, waiting to be invited in.” The girls come from the apartment towers of Falls Landing, not the desirable neighborhood behind the white walls that they watch obsessively. Their mothers are harshly portrayed with both love and derision by the daughters they call “brutes” for their childish cruelties.

Brutes offers stark and unlovely characterizations, but with moments of striking beauty. The girls (and their mothers) are grasping, even desperate, but capable of compassion. Tate’s Florida is steamy and thickly rank, with blinding sunlight and shadowy depths, not least in the lake that many residents believe houses a monster–maybe the monster that took Sammy, although the human monsters in this community are plenty sinister. This is a dark coming-of-age tale and meditation on childhood and the cusp of adolescence: authentic, often grim, but with glimmers of hope.


This review originally ran in the December 16, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 fire ants.

The Minuscule Mansion of Myra Malone by Audrey Burges

This captivating novel of miniature furniture and big themes braids strong friendships, romance, family ties and the importance of stepping outside of one’s comfort zone.

Audrey Burges’s The Minuscule Mansion of Myra Malone charmingly combines threads of magic, whimsy, romance, grief and loss in a debut novel of great feeling.

Readers first meets 30-something Myra in 2015 in the Arizona mountains, where she lives in the attic of her late grandfather’s cabin. She is regularly visited by her best friend Gwen, who forms Myra’s main link with the outside world–along with the website by which hundreds of thousands of followers know the Mansion, Myra’s life’s work and greatest love. She inherited the large, highly detailed, finely wrought miniature (don’t call it a dollhouse!) from her beloved step-grandmother, Trixie, who, along with Grampa Lou, taught her sewing, woodworking, painting and sculpting. “I know what gemstones look like water and what pen can draw the most convincing chain stitch on a washcloth that’s too small to sew. I can be eclectic or traditional, modern or romantic, and the Mansion absorbs those dreams into its walls.” In flashbacks, the novel also reveals a very young Myra in her loving relationship with Trixie, until the older woman’s tragic death on Myra’s fifth birthday. Other chapters introduce a woman returning to her stately home in Virginia in the 1930s. And in 2015 Virginia, a young man named Alex discovers Myra’s website, “The Minuscule Mansion of Myra Malone,” and the miniature Mansion itself, which is, shockingly, a perfect match to the riverside family estate where he lives alone.

Interspersed with chapters alternating between Arizona and Virginia are short essays that Myra posts on her blog: “I’ll set out with the simplest plans, a minor tweak, and wind up with a choice between full-scale renovations and a shift of perspective. An attitude adjustment or a gut job.” These many threads form a rich portrait of several easy-to-like characters.

Myra still grieves the loss of her Grandpa Lou and especially Trixie, whose skills in making miniatures she honors in continuing to curate the Mansion, painstakingly redecorating room by room. She is a recluse, but the Mansion’s website offers a rare and rich connection to the outside world; her followers view the Mansion as both escape and refuge. Then Myra is threatened with eviction, and her carefully guarded small world tilts. Things begin moving around in Alex’s home and in Myra’s miniature version–piano music emanating from a room without a piano; things that go bump in the night. The keepers of both houses must reassess their relationships to their homes and to the larger world, and it may take more than Gwen’s prodigious business savvy to save the Mansion.

Burges carefully constructs her plot with as much quirkiness and love as any of Myra’s miniatures. With sympathetic characters, high stakes and winning miniature chifforobes, The Minuscule Mansion of Myra Malone is dreamy, sweet and satisfying.


This review originally ran in the November 29, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 hairpin legs.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Costanza Casati

Following Monday’s review of Clytemnestra, here’s Costanza Casati: ‘Now Is the Time to Retell Their Stories.’


Costanza Casati (photo: Arianna Genghini)

Costanza Casati was born in Texas and has lived in Italy and the U.K. Before moving to London, she attended a classical liceo in Italy, where she studied ancient Greek and ancient Greek literature for five years. She is a graduate of the Warwick Writing MA program and currently works as a freelance journalist and screenwriter. Her debut novel, Clytemnestra (Sourcebooks Landmark, March 7, 2023), is a striking retelling of the story of Greek myth’s queen of Mycenae and murderer of Agamemnon.

Why Clytemnestra? What made her story the one you needed to tell?

So many reasons! She is powerful, clever, fierce, obstinate. In the ancient texts, she comes across as a truly unforgettable character: she is feared and respected for the power she holds and, most of all, she doesn’t let the men around her belittle her. And then there are all the myths surrounding her, which I wanted to explore from her perspective. Clytemnestra is connected to some of the most fascinating characters from the myth: she is sister to Helen, cousin of Penelope, lover to Aegisthus, daughter of Leda.

Even her very first mention, which is in the Odyssey, is such an unforgettable one. When Odysseus meets Agamemnon in the Underworld, they speak of their wives, Penelope and Clytemnestra, and Agamemnon says, “Happy Odysseus, what a fine, faithful wife you won! The immortal gods will lift a glorious song in praise of self-possessed Penelope./ A far cry from the daughter of Tyndareus, Clytemnestra/ the song men sing of her will ring with loathing./ She brands with a foul name the breed of womankind.”

Cast as a murderess and the archetypally “bad wife” for centuries, Clytemnestra is actually an incredibly modern character: a powerful woman who refuses to know her place. Once you know her story, her entire story, you can’t help falling in love with her.

Did writing this novel involve research on top of your academic background?

There are two kinds of research I like to do. There is the more practical, specific kind, which I do in parallel with writing a scene–Which towels did they use? Was soap a thing? Which frescoes were common in Mycenae? What did a typical meal look like in Sparta?–and then there is the “cultural” research, which you must do before writing a novel, and which, in my opinion, is essential for writing historical/mythical fiction. It was very important for me to truly live inside my characters’ heads, experience the world through their eyes. So, for instance, a more broad, “cultural” research question would involve things such as: How was guilt perceived in Mycenaean Greece? Did the Greeks fear death? How were women treated in Sparta? Did forgiveness exist for these people? Those are things that must be woven seamlessly into the narrative, but they also must be clear to a contemporary reader. That balance, between re-creating the way in which ancient people thought, and making it accessible to contemporary readers, is the most important thing for me.

It feels like modern retellings of the Greek myths are a genre of their own. Do you have any favorites?

There are so many! The first retellings I fell in love with are The Song of Achilles and The Children of Jocasta. Both take extremely famous characters from the myth–Achilles and Oedipus–and tell their story from the perspectives of lesser-known figures: the shy Patroclus in Miller’s novel and Oedipus’ wife and daughter in Haynes’s book. What I love the most about Miller’s and Haynes’s writing is the way in which they re-create the mindset of Ancient Greece: concealing impeccable research behind smooth and lyrical prose.

Other favorites of mine include Ariadne, The Silence of the Girls and Circe.

Which characters are yours?

Some of the characters are my own creations: Clytemnestra’s guard in Mycenae, Leon, and her faithful servant, Aileen. The elders obviously feature in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon but as a chorus, while I gave them names and more specific motives. Then a character that is mine entirely is Cynisca. To write her, I drew on a woman who truly existed (though many years later, and with no connections to Clytemnestra’s story): the Spartan woman famous for being the first to win at the Olympic games in 392 BC.

Then there are Timandra, Clytemnestra’s sister, and Tantalus, Clytemnestra’s first husband, who exist in the sources, but just as passing names. Timandra is mentioned in fragments by poets Stesichorus and Hesiod. They say that Timandra was unfaithful to her husband, just like her sisters, because of a sin their father Tyndareus had committed when forgetting to sacrifice to Aphrodite. I found these fragments incredibly fascinating and wanted to explore Timandra further.

Tantalus of Maeonia (or Lydia) was another character I was drawn to because he is so important to Clytemnestra’s story. His name appears in Euripides’s Iphigenia in Aulis.

What was the writing process like?

One of the things I loved the most about writing Clytemnestra was bringing to life a female character who is ambitious and loyal, powerful and beloved. I fell in love with this character 10 years ago and wanted others to fall in love with her too. Clytemnestra has been portrayed as an adulteress, a jealous, power-hungry ruler and murderess for centuries, so I really enjoyed playing with these stereotypes and peeling them away to show the woman under them.

One of the hardest parts (which was also incredibly fascinating) was writing the more well-known characters from the myth in a way that felt both fresh and true to the sources. Helen and Odysseus, for instance, are incredibly famous, but I felt like I needed to write them in a way that felt familiar but also unexpected. The same challenge obviously came with the plot. For the people who know the myth, they already know how Clytemnestra’s story plays out, so how do you make it interesting and surprising? I tried to bring to light elements and details that were already hidden in the sources and play with them a little bit. Finally, one of the things I loved the most while writing was exploring Clytemnestra’s family dynamics.

Is this a feminist retelling?

I would absolutely call this a feminist retelling. “Feminist” because I wanted to write the story of a woman who took part in the action, whose narrative is as epic as the ones of the men and heroes. Besides, Clytemnestra isn’t the only powerful woman in my novel: it was essential to me that I wrote a story with a cast of female characters that were clever and complex, flawed and unforgettable.

The women of the Greek myths are incredibly heroic–think Alcestis, Antigone, Ariadne, Circe–and yet throughout the centuries they have been burdened with cultural and ethical codes that make them helpless victims, or, in the case of Clytemnestra and Helen, misogynist archetypes: murderesses and lustful whores. Now is the time to retell their stories.


This interview originally ran on November 15, 2022 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: Clytemnestra by Costanza Casati

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 November 15, 2022.


“Kings are brilliant / mighty / godlike // Queens are deadly / shameless / accursed.” Such has been the literary fate of Clytemnestra–adulteress, wife and murderer of Agamemnon in the Ancient Greek canon. Costanza Casati’s debut, Clytemnestra, is a dynamic retelling of the story of the much-maligned Spartan princess, sister of Helen, queen of Mycenae, mother of Iphigenia, Electra and Orestes (and others). Aeschylus, Homer and Euripides generally portray Clytemnestra in a negative light, but Casati’s reframing–from her title character’s point of view–emphasizes the difficult circumstances that challenged a strong-willed woman in a time and place that did not reward such a quality. Clytemnestra is a masterpiece of justified rage on the protagonist’s part, and a subtly subversive revision of a story many readers know from a different perspective. She will be called ruthless, merciless, “cruel queen and unfaithful wife,” but viewed from another angle, Clytemnestra fights honorably for her own well-being and for that of the people she loves.

The events of Clytemnestra’s life are not much rearranged here. As a princess in the Spartan court, she is trained as a warrior and huntress, surrounded by violence and death even in her privilege to sit in the megaron with her father, King Tyndareus, where they hear the villagers’ requests. This upbringing emphasizes martial training, physical skill, obedience and the ability to suffer. Her first marriage, to Tantalus, was for love and was a meeting of minds, but it ended in murder and betrayal, and with a forced second marriage to the Mycenaean king, Agamemnon, whose brother Menelaus in parallel marries Helen. Clytemnestra’s later lover, the traitor Aegisthus, is a complicated, enigmatic character in his own right. This proud queen, treated as a pawn in political power struggles, wrestles to keep her dignity in the Mycenaean court under the brutalities of her husband, but never loses her sense of herself as a warrior and a survivor. The events of this novel close where Aeschylus’s Agamemnon opens, thereby gifting a complex backstory to a woman often portrayed as villain.

Clytemnestra dips its toes as well into the stories of the queen’s famous family members: her brothers Castor and Polydeuces, boxers and horsebreakers; her sister, Helen, whose legendary beauty led to the Trojan War; her mother, Leda, who was seduced by Zeus in the form of a swan (or was she raped?). Her children include Tantalus’s unnamed infant son; Iphigenia, sacrificed at Aulis to summon wind for the Greek ships on their way to Troy; and Electra and Orestes, whose stories expand only after these pages close. This Clytemnestra is very close and loyal to her siblings; family ties for better and for worse shape her decisions all her life, even at great distances. For instance, meeting a new face, she thinks of her siblings: “Helen would have charmed him with her beauty and subtle cleverness, softening him until he opened like a peach. Castor would have mocked him, pricked him with words like needles, until he talked.” Clytemnestra’s cousin is Penelope, eventually famous as Odysseus’s queen and faithful wife, in marked contrast to the Clytemnestra in traditional representations; here, again, the reader sees a new and complex side of a familiar character, as she is courted by the cunning Ithacan king.

The gods in this version are mere myth, not actors in real events; Clytemnestra, like her mother, is skeptical, even scornful of the gods and their followers. She understands that kings and not queens rule in her world, but she continues to demand the respect she deserves even when it’s unlikely she will get it, and consistently calls out the rapes and attempted rapes that often go unmarked in the courts and villages of both Sparta and Mycenae. This retelling is a deepening of Clytemnestra’s story and her character. Helen, her beloved sister, likewise grows more multifaceted in Casati’s nuanced novel, but the beautiful one is not gifted with physical prowess or the confidence of the fierier Clytemnestra: “Clytemnestra dances for herself; Helen dances for others.” Timandra, one of their younger sisters, is fierce like Clytemnestra, but with a different burden in their strict society. These female leads are glittering, glowering, admirable and sympathetic, and the result will reignite (or ignite) readers’ interest in the stories of ancient Greece and emphasize their relevance in any time.

Clytemnestra is a stunning, standout contribution to the growing genre of modern treatments of the Greek myths. Casati brings both a solid grounding in the canon and imaginative venturing into the inner workings of a woman who has long been famous but little understood. Her writing is gorgeously descriptive and emotive: “She thinks of those white flowers blooming against the rocks of the Ceadas. For years she wondered how they survived down there, among the corpses and darkness. But maybe this is how broken people keep living…. Outside the light is golden. It shines on them as if they were gods.” Casati’s Clytemnestra is modern in her staunch demands for dignity and respect, but believably rooted in ancient times. This is a necessary novel for fans of mythology, strong women, the pushing of boundaries and epic dramas of family, power and love.


Rating: 8 cuts.

Come back Friday for my interview with Casati.

Liar, Dreamer, Thief by Maria Dong

A young woman relies on ritual and fantasy to navigate her daily life–until the real world turns as bizarre as her worst fears.

Maria Dong’s debut novel, Liar, Dreamer, Thief, is a masterfully harrowing adventure for both reader and narrator. Katrina Kim is 24 years old and struggling to keep it together. She’s not great at her temp job at an insurance company; she has no real friends other than her mostly absent roommate; she relies on rituals involving geometry and prime numbers to feel safe from her shapeless, apparently irrational fears; she frequently imagines herself into the magical world of her favorite children’s book or the classical works of music she once performed. She argues that she is not stalking her coworker Kurt, but readers will suspect this may be semantics. She has $45 in her bank account and her parents haven’t spoken to her in years. Readers may assume Katrina is struggling with an undiagnosed mental illness, drawing endekagrams (a star polygon with 11 points) to help her get through the days–until she happens to watch Kurt jump off her favorite bridge, while shouting that it is all her fault.

Liar, Dreamer, Thief is punctuated with geometry lessons (the four stellations of the endekagram) and passages from the fantasy book that provides Katrina with her other, safer-feeling life, emphasizing these coping mechanisms as she embarks on an amateur (and poorly funded) investigation into Kurt’s disappearance. Her barely functional life goes further to pieces. Just as readers begin to worry that this narrator is not only unreliable but completely unstable, the clues shift slightly, and suddenly it appears that some of Katrina’s nastiest and most fantastical fears may be all too real.

This is a completely absorbing novel, both a terrifying whodunit thriller and a heart-wrenching drama about mental health, family, loneliness and moral relativism. Dong’s pacing and revelation of secrets is expert; beware staying up late to finish Katrina’s story in one go (and, perhaps, beware nightmares of the Mirror Man). Katrina makes some cringe-worthy choices while facing challenges both existential and mundane (clocking in on time in the cubical farm); she is an imperfect protagonist but disturbingly accessible, and indomitable even in her lowest moments. Liar, Dreamer, Thief excels at empathy and conveying the frustration of one’s own limitations, as Katrina wonders, “Does everyone in my orbit have a secret tragedy, just crawling underneath the surface?” Its mysteries swell toward a denouement that feels simultaneously unwieldy and inevitable. Probing those secrets may be mortally dangerous–or may be Katrina’s salvation.

This exceptional debut novel showcases relentless momentum, horrors, compassion and an unforgettable protagonist: not to be missed.


This review originally ran in the November 11, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 minutes.

Spirits in the Sky: Northern Lights Photography by Paul Zizka

Nature and adventure photographer Paul Zizka offers stunning images and narrative in Spirits in the Sky: Northern Lights Photography. Photos with brief, descriptive captions take center stage. They are accompanied by a few concise sections of text, which provide an overview of what the northern lights (or aurora borealis) are; some of the myths used to explain them; and the stories behind Zizka’s work in capturing these breathtaking images. Wildlife, human models, outdoor sports and self-portraits appear among the images, but it is the wildly colorful lights themselves–in the striking landscapes of Canada, Greenland, Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands–that make these photos unforgettable. Spectacular scenery and an elusive natural phenomenon combine in special ways in this gorgeous collection of art photography.


This review originally ran in the November 4, 2022 gift issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.


Rating: 7 moments.

Factory Girls by Michelle Gallen

Amid the Troubles in Northern Ireland, a scrappy young woman comes of age in this inspiring, humorous and moving novel.

With Factory Girls, Michelle Gallen (Big Girl, Small Town) delivers a heartrending, funny, blistering and beautiful novel of foreboding and hope. In the summer of 1994, Maeve Murray and her two best friends are on the cusp of escaping their small Northern Irish town for bigger, better and safer things. Maeve is a child of the Troubles: “neighbours shooting neighbours was just the way things had always been for her.” She comes from a poor Catholic family and has been taught to expect little, but she has hopes that her exam results will move her beyond the background that, in her world, defines her. “Nobody as poor as Maeve could afford to have notions about herself. Which was why she treasured them.” Maeve and her friends Caroline and Aoife find summer jobs at a shirt factory in town, hoping to save a bit before going away to college. Exam results loom all summer, in this novel organized by a countdown beginning “74 days until results.”

Caroline has a loving family, and Aoife is downright privileged compared to Maeve’s rather stark upbringing, not only in poverty but with the death of her sister (unexplained for much of the novel) shadowing all her family’s interactions. “Maeve sometimes wondered if [her sister]’d still be alive if she’d failed and stayed in the town.” Factory work is a bit of a miracle in this depressed town, but it comes with unforeseen challenges, like working alongside Protestants, while outside the gates a never-ending war of retaliation is played out by paramilitary groups on both sides. Maeve worries about losing her kneecaps or her life before she ever makes it to London. “The news reports had said the children were ‘lucky,’ for despite being packed together in the parish hall, they’d received only minor injuries…. She didn’t feel lucky when she felt the slap of the explosion.” Alongside wrestling with grueling work making shirts that nobody she knows can afford and fending off her slimy English boss, Maeve will find still greater challenges spring from the factory floor. “It was the factory workers–both Prods and Taigs–who were at the bottom of a very long and merciless food chain.”

Factory Girls takes on class, corruption and the Catholic/Protestant and English/Irish divides; gender and labor rights; female friendships; family disappointments; the specter of opportunity and the puzzle of how to transcend one’s roots without leaving part of oneself behind. This may sound like a heavy, ambitious group of subjects, but Gallen draws delightful, richly rendered characters and imbues her narrative with a vernacular voice that will charm readers and keep them firmly rooted in time and place. This novel is as hilarious as it is heartbreaking: not to be missed.


This review originally ran in the October 25, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 crisp sandwiches.

They’re Going to Love You by Meg Howrey

This gorgeous, heartbreaking novel movingly evokes family ties and betrayal, love and forgiveness against a backdrop of professional ballet.

They’re Going to Love You by Meg Howrey (Blind Sight; The Cranes Dance) is an unforgettable novel of scintillating beauty and heart-buckling pain about ballet, loyalty, forgiveness and the many forms of love.

Carlisle grows up feeling distant from her mother, with whom she lives most of the time in Ohio, and with a deep and yearning love for her father and, even more, for her father’s partner, James. When she stays with Robert and James at their Bank Street apartment in Greenwich Village, Carlisle basks in the arts education James shares with her. She’s been born into ballet: her mother a former professional dancer, her father briefly the same before managing ballet companies and festivals. James still teaches ballet. Carlisle loves dance and works hard, but tops six feet tall in high school, “the height that–for a woman–is rarely allowed to pass without comment in the outside world, let alone the ballet one.” (There may be other shortcomings as well.) By her early 40s, she is one of the first women to make it as a successful-but-struggling choreographer. She’s been estranged from Robert and James for 19 years when she gets the call that her father is dying.

The estrangement began with a betrayal that takes most of the novel to reveal. Carlisle’s first-person narrative bounces between the present, as she delays and eventually travels back to Bank Street to her father’s deathbed, and the past, her coming-of-age years as a visitor to Bank Street during the 1980s AIDS crisis. James is a mentor and a hero. “My father, I love, and James I sort of want to be. Maybe I mean: have?” It is a young person’s love, pure, ardent and jealous, wrecked by a mysterious episode that shapes the rest of Carlisle’s life–absolutely including her choreography career. Naturally, along with James’s news about Robert’s pending death comes a big opportunity to compose a modern version of the classical ballet Firebird. Carlisle both knows this is a big chance (maybe the big chance) and resists it. The reader will understand before Carlisle does that Firebird and her relationship with her father are part of the same wound.

Meg Howrey’s writing is dazzlingly, mind-bendingly good, and so true it hurts. She considers ballet, music, the artist’s drive to create, being a woman in a man’s world, desire and betrayal, family and the bottomless, haunting hunger to belong (“Are any of these questions danceable?”; “Emotions have a way of collecting and hardening inside us, like neglected grease. We are all smoking stoves”; “There might be undanceable truths.”) Her prose can be as funny and pithy as it is poignant and grand. They’re Going to Love You tackles a broad range of themes, but Howrey is superlatively up to the task. As Carlisle grows from longing, awkward youth to lonely, gifted working artist, Howrey conjures “all this gorgeous, unrepeatable wreckage” in spectacular fashion. Readers will laugh and cry and be changed.


This review originally ran in the October 13, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 gorgon pearls.
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