Last Call at the Nightingale by Katharine Schellman

With lively and appealing historical detail, this mystery turns a poor factory worker into a sleuth when a murder disrupts the party at her favorite jazz speakeasy.

In Last Call at the Nightingale, Katharine Schellman (The Body in the Garden) serves up Prohibition-era murder and intrigue with style, atmosphere and a side of bootlegged bubbles and gin. The first in a Jazz Age mystery series, this novel will appeal to readers on several levels.

In 1920s New York City, Vivian Kelly is alone in the world but for her stick-in-the-mud older sister, Florence. Vivian works for a pittance and receives less respect in a dressmaker’s factory, but at night she has a space where she can forget her poor pricked fingers and dance ’til last call: the Nightingale, a speakeasy jazz club. “She needed to feel like she belonged somewhere, to feel there was something in her life that actually belonged to her,” and the Nightingale and its staff and patrons give her just that. Vivian is “poor orphan Irish trash”; her best friend Bea is Black; bartender Danny is Chinese; and the bar’s owner, Ms. Honor Huxley (don’t call her Miss), prefers other women as her dance partners. The Nightingale is a place where anything goes, more or less–until one night that includes murder.

When Vivian discovers a body just outside the club’s back door, she finds herself thrown into circumstances beyond her usual daytime drudgery and nighttime frolics. “I grew up in an orphanage. I live in a tenement. People die faster there than on Park Avenue,” she blusters, but she’s in over her head. Arrested in a raid, she owes her bail bond to the intimidating but sexy and intriguing Ms. Huxley. Then a mysterious stranger arrives from Chicago and begins pursuing Vivian. Threatening bruisers are hot on her tail, and Florence is increasingly displeased by the younger sister’s nightlife. Vivian at first feels pressure from others to solve the murder; eventually she may need to do so to save her own life. A poor dressmaker’s apprentice, she creeps into the parlors of the powerful to poke into their secrets, and finds herself pinned between the criminal underworld and the careless menace of the very rich. Time is running out, but this protagonist is as plucky as they come.

Readers will love Last Call at the Nightingale for its twisting plot, its flair for historical detail and its inclusive cast of appealing characters. Schellman’s author’s note on historical accuracy broadens the appeal of this engrossing jaunt into murder and dangerously good times. Don’t look away, as the surprises keep coming until the final page.


This review originally ran in the March 18, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 stitches.

Boys Come First by Aaron Foley

Three gay, Black, millennial men in Detroit face romantic, professional and existential challenges together in this deeply engaging novel about the importance of friendship.

With Boys Come First, Aaron Foley (How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass) offers a delightful novel about romantic and career ambitions, friendship and the particular charms of and challenges faced by gay Black millennial men in Detroit. Chapters alternate perspectives among a lovable trio of friends.

Readers first meet Dominick as he departs New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen in a fluster: the start-up advertising firm he’d taken a chance on has just failed, immediately before he walked in on his boyfriend of eight years with another man. Dom flees home to Detroit to lick his wounds and reconnect with his old friend Troy. Troy teaches sixth grade at a charter school, eschewing his father’s considerable wealth in favor of giving back to the community, but he’s frustrated in his relationship with a domineering boyfriend, and the school’s charter is now under threat. Feeling a little stagnant, Troy has just picked up a mild-to-moderate cocaine habit. Meanwhile, Troy’s college friend Remy has styled himself as “Mr. Detroit,” a real estate prodigy and local celebrity: outwardly successful, but struggling to find meaningful connection with a partner who wants more than sex. (Remy oozes style, so it suits his character that his chapters are the only ones written in first person.) Remy likes sex, no mistake–each of the friends does, but each is also in search of something more meaningful.

Dom and Remy hit it off, and the boys’ club is complete. With group texts and happy hours around town, they support each other through messy hookups via dating app, professional disappointments and workplace microaggressions, heartbreaks and more. That is, until Remy’s latest development opportunity conflicts with Troy’s local advocacy. In Dom’s mind, “when you’re Black, gay, and thirtysomething, time always feels like it’s running out,” and these men feel both in-common and individual pressures to which any reader can relate.

Boys Come First is rich in flavor and detail, benefiting from Remy’s comprehensive knowledge of Motor City neighborhoods, Troy’s hyperlocal concerns for his school and Dom’s perspective as he returns from afar. The changing demographics of contemporary Detroit, by class but most pointedly by race, are front and center. Foley’s novel shows range, with its fun, silly and pathos-filled handling of the love-and-sex storylines, serious commentary on social issues and an endearing representation of sincere (if troubled) friendships. Unforgettable characters, madcap fun and mishaps converge in this sweet and, finally, aspirational story.


This review originally ran in the March 15, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 glasses of Lambrusco.

Friend of the Devil by Stephen Lloyd

This singular novel of teenaged hijinks, a mysterious missing book, potentially profound evil and PTSD is wry, shockingly violent, philosophical and laugh-out-loud funny.

Stephen Lloyd’s Friend of the Devil offers a captivating blend of madcap mischief, terrifying and gory malevolence and thoughtful ruminations on humanity. Gruesome, deadly serious and frequently hilarious, this novel is an unusual cocktail.

Sam Gregory works as an inspector for an insurance company, responsible for rooting out fraud or solving cases like this one: a valuable antique book gone missing from the library of Danforth Putnam, a snooty boarding school on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. A war veteran, Sam pops pills to clear his mind of the traumatic memories and bad dreams that haunt him. He feels only a jaded weariness at the privileged antics of the students (and for that matter, the staff), but dutifully searches for the missing volume, sure there’s nothing here but another case of a drug-addled teen or disgruntled employee.

Sam is so wrong. But on his way to shocking, elemental horrors, he (and readers) will meet magnetic characters like the indomitable Harriet (D&D dungeon master, student journalist, extreme nerd and loyal friend) and bitter, acerbic Dale (a charity case at Danforth, which no one will ever let him forget). Despite his initial impressions of the school, Sam will take away unexpected lessons from these and other inhabitants of the island. What haunts Danforth and its very special missing book will turn out to be seriously sinister, and by the time Sam approaches its true nature–supernatural, or simple human evil?–the stakes will be ultimate.

Sam’s sardonic wit and tough-guy demeanor impart a flavor of classic noir. Harriet, who moves swiftly and unstoppably from bullying victim to plucky heroine, is a pure pleasure. Lloyd, who is also a TV writer and producer (Modern Family; How I Met Your Mother), showcases a talent for description and rich sensory detail from the first pages, when readers meet the rarified denizens of Danforth, “a diverse group… in every way but one. They were all filthy rich.” His characters are colorful, lovable or repellant, and the almost casual facility with which he kills them off is impressive.

Lightning-paced and undeniably weird, this is not a tale for everyone, as it bounces around between witch hunting and mythical evils, teenaged betrayals, PTSD, petty crime, bloody violence and delightful dry humor. But for the right reader, Friend of the Devil‘s unusual brand of gore and laughs is wildly, wickedly entertaining and positively unforgettable.


This review originally ran in the March 4, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 Junior Mints.

Sister Stardust by Jane Green

In this captivating coming-of-age novel, a teenager from the English countryside throws herself into life in 1960s Marrakech in a grand adventure that will color the rest of her life.

Sister Stardust is the captivating coming-of-age story of a shop girl from Dorset swept into 1960s Marrakech among the rich and famous. Jane Green (Summer Secrets; The Sunshine Sisters) dazzles readers with the brilliant adventures of Claire, who leaves behind a little Dorset village and a troubled relationship with her stepmother to journey to London. From there she is astonished to achieve a few girlhood dreams: losing baby fat, working in progressively hipper clothing stores and buying cooler clothes, finally meeting real, live rock stars and setting off on a spur-of-the-moment trip that will change her life forever. But even as she embarks on drugs, sex and cultural discoveries, Claire–by now calling herself Cece–finds that fabulous celebrities have their problems, too, and a tabloid-picture-perfect lifestyle is no guarantee of happiness.

This story takes the form of an extended flashback, as an elderly, widowed Claire goes through boxes in the attic and finally tells her daughter, Tally, what the colorful Moroccan artifacts were meant to remind her of. Still in her teens, Claire had jumped into a silver Bentley and been flown away to Marrakech, where she became the houseguest of 1960s icons Paul and Talitha Getty (true historical figures), running with a large group of famous musicians (of the fictional hit band the Wide-Eyed Boys) and an enigmatic chauffeur/bodyguard named Jimmy. The newly minted Cece experiments with hashish, opium, Quaaludes and orgies; she develops a passionate bond with Talitha, “this mysterious woman who lived in a palace and had managed to seduce the son of the richest man in the world,” and a close friendship with Paul, who introduces her to poetry, opera and more. However, a tragedy will change Cece’s course once again.

As a girl, Claire naively imagines that becoming skinny and flat-ironing her hair will be the answer to all her problems, as she dreams about pop stars and beautiful dresses. “Of course, I would have settled for Paul McCartney, but Dave Boland was my number one.” As a grandmother, telling these stories to her daughter, she draws different conclusions: the value of friendship, of self-actualization, of seizing the day. This dreamy narrative emphasizes life lessons and revels in the glitter and dazzle of 1960s free love and sex in more or less equal measure. Sister Stardust gathers momentum and achieves the kind of propulsive prose that brings immediacy to its joys and sorrows. Female friendships, the arts and the sensory joys of Morocco combine for a sparkling coming-of-age story of simple adventure and profound experiences.


This review originally ran in the February 8, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 babouches.

author interview: Juneau Black

Following my review of Shady Hollow, here’s Juneau Black: ‘It’ll Be Handled.’


Juneau Black is the pen name of authors Jocelyn Cole and Sharon Nagel. They share a love of excellent bookshops, fine cheeses and good murders (in fictional form only). Though they grew up separately, if you ask either of them a question about their childhood, you are likely to get the same answer. Shady Hollow (out now from Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, originally published in 2015 by Hammer & Birch), is the first in their series by the same name; the next two installments will follow close on its heels: Cold Clay (March 2022) and Mirror Lake (April 2022).

Why the pen name?

Juneau Black, aka Jocelyn Cole (l.) and Sharon Nagel

Sharon Nagel: We were both booksellers for a long time, and the problem with two-author books is that they inevitably get shelved in the wrong place.

Jocelyn Cole: The pseudonym Juneau Black is a nod to Milwaukee and the bookstore where we both spent so much time. Juneau is Solomon Juneau, who is one of the founders of the city, and Black is Schwartz [in German, schwarz means black]–we both worked at Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops for years.

What’s the origin story?

SN: After Schwartz Bookshops closed and [its flagship store] became Boswell Books, on a slow night, we were pricing finger puppets. They were all these adorable little woodland creatures, and so we decided to give them names and occupations, and we said what if they lived here and did this, and so we wrote a story about them.

JC: And because NaNoWriMo was coming up, we had this idea: What if we just trade off days and see if we could get a novel out of it?

How do two people together write a novel?

JC: I imagine it’s different for every team. We were physically at the same bookshop and talking together every day for the first book, so we just sent a Word file back and forth. I would write 1,667 words, because that’s what NaNoWriMo suggests you do, send the file to Sharon, and then she’d write the next day and e-mail it back, until we had what very roughly approximated a draft of a novel.

SN: We seem to have the same snarky sense of humor, so it didn’t seem like two separate people. It melded pretty well.

JC: There was definitely an editing process after, to glue things together. But I think it speaks to the fact that we are on the same wavelength that when I go back now and read passages from Shady Hollow, I have no idea who wrote what.

SN: No idea.

JC: I do freelance editing, so that was already a little bit in my wheelhouse. I edited the first pass, but we did then hire an editor, to be an objective voice and be sure it was really clean.

And now you’re moving from an independent publisher [Hammer & Birch] to a traditional one.

SN: It’s a simple thing. All you have to do is work in bookstores for 10 years and meet people. No, actually we were very fortunate to have a wonderful publishing rep for Penguin Random House who I’ve known for many years, and one day he said, “Hey, I’d like to show your work to my bosses,” and we were like, “Ha, go ahead!” And fortunately for us they were interested.

JC: It’s been a pretty smooth process, because the books were already written and published. We weren’t on the hook to complete a novel after making a deal. It was just getting more polished, copyediting again for house style and cleaning up any last remaining edits. And beautiful new covers! It’s been really nice to see the difference between doing everything ourselves and having a team, which is just amazing.

And they’re publishing all three books!

JC: I think they were excited that they could see what was there already. They weren’t just buying an idea; they had read all three books and liked them.

What are the challenges of animal characters versus human ones?

SN: Not so much in the writing, because we’re fully invested in the idea of our animals. But when you handsell it to a person and try to explain what it is, you either get immediate enchantment or you get the look that says… I don’t want any part of this. Not everybody is really into it, but those that are, are heavily into it.

JC: A lot of people do assume it’s for kids, because it’s animals, which I understand, but on the other hand it’s also murder. They’re very anthropomorphic animals, so we’re writing them just as we would any character. You occasionally stumble over a word like handkerchief in draft–oh, they don’t have hands, they wouldn’t have that word. You realize certain terms are so human-centric; you have to work around that.

How did your bookseller careers help you write a successful novel?

SN: I think we can appreciate how important indie bookstores are to a writer’s journey. When booksellers love a book, they will sell it to anyone who will stand still long enough. Our biggest cheerleader is Daniel Goldin, the owner of Boswell Books, and we always said, if we just had Daniels all over the country… and now we sort of do. Daniel tirelessly promotes us and other writers–it’s what he does all the time, and he does it so well.

JC: It comes from our history of being booksellers and loving books. We’ve both been through library school. When you’re among books for so long, you can see what appeals to people, what takes off, what resonates. When I talk about the books, I often use the high-concept explanations: it’s like Knives Out meets Animal Crossing. It’s like Redwall meets Agatha Christie. We have all these references that people understand because they’re all book people.

What do you love about the world of Shady Hollow?

SN: I like the level of comfort in the surroundings. You feel at home; you know you can go down to Joe’s Mug and have a cup of coffee. The murders are there, and they matter, but they’re secondary to the characters and the atmosphere.

JC: The fact that it is animals kind of allows people to let go and just relax and enjoy it. You’re already accepting this level of fantasy and you can just roll with it. That’s very appealing to people, particularly in pandemic times, that there is this little world where the weather is usually beautiful; there’s always coffee. There’s an occasional murder, but it’s fine.

SN: It’ll be handled.


This review originally ran in the January 28, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Shady Hollow by Juneau Black

This whimsical cozy mystery set in a town of animal characters will tickle and amuse alongside its whodunit plot.

Previously published in 2015 by Hammer & Birch, Shady Hollow is the first in a series of cozy mysteries starring sweet, lovable animal characters. Juneau Black (pen name of a two-author team) will please lovers of both woodland creatures and whodunits with this gentle, plot-twisting exploration of small-town life.

The community of Shady Hollow is home to a typical cast of amiable eccentrics, including a gossip-hungry hummingbird; a good-natured, coffee-slinging moose; a timid mouse accountant; and a family of upper-crusty beavers. When a cantankerous toad turns up dead in the mill pond, however, the town’s policebears turn out to be underprepared to investigate, and it falls to local reporter Vera Vixen to uncover the murderer. Vera the fox is “an old-school journalist, despite her youth,” and though new to town, her friendship with Lenore Lee (a wise raven well-read in murder and, naturally, owner of Nevermore Books) provides a solid base for her inquiries. The more she learns about the inhabitants of Shady Hollow, however, the more complicated the case becomes, and Vera herself may be in danger.

With its charming and affable characters, Shady Hollow nonetheless serves up plenty of intrigue and danger, ending with teasing hints of what’s to come in the next installment (Cold Clay is slated for March 2022). The nonhuman cast offers an extra note of humor: accused of cynicism, Lenore responds, “I’m a raven…. If you want sunshine and melodies, go find a swallow.” This captivating tale offers sunshine and murder in perfect proportion to keep readers entertained and engrossed in deceptively placid Shady Hollow.


This review originally ran in the January 28, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 cups of coffee.

Come back Friday for my interview with Juneau Black!

Ocean State by Stewart O’Nan

In this unforgettable novel–disturbing, gorgeously written and poignant–working-class women and girls are pushed to extremes.

“When I was in eighth grade my sister helped kill another girl. She was in love, my mother said, like it was an excuse.” So opens Ocean State by Stewart O’Nan (West of Sunset; City of Secrets; The Odds: A Love Story). If this were a murder mystery, the killer’s identity is immediately known. But it’s not the crime itself that occupies the novel’s spotlight so much as the challenges faced by its four central characters.

They are four women, closely connected but very different. Angel is a popular high school student. Carol, her mother, is a nurse and stressed-out single mother, a bit preoccupied by her dating woes. Marie is Angel’s younger sister, forever watching other people’s lives as if they were movies and waiting for hers to begin. Birdy is Angel’s classmate. They both want the same boy, a rich kid who inevitably will leave their small town behind. Angel is his girlfriend of three years, Birdy his secret. The way these lives converge will change all of them forever. O’Nan presents the four women’s perspectives in turn, so that readers watch them build and crescendo to a violent crime and then tumble through its aftermath. The events are horrifying, and not only in terms of that final violence, the writing is lovely, glimmering. O’Nan evokes Ocean State‘s setting, the blue-collar Rhode Island town of Ashaway, with equal care: perhaps unbeautiful, but rendered with detail and tenderness.

O’Nan’s greatest accomplishment is in the compassionate portrayal of characters who are each guilty of smaller and larger wrongs, but whose motivations, concerns and battles always feel of real concern. Marie desperately wants to connect, with anyone. Carol wants the best for her daughters but can scarcely keep her head above water. Birdy has strong family ties but has succumbed to a dangerous infatuation. Angel is gripped by a version of love that contains a large dose of possessive rage. Interestingly, the boy that these girls focus on does not have his perspective revealed; readers meet him only as Birdy and Angel see him.

Because of how the book begins, readers always see the crime coming. Somehow, this does not reduce the suspense, as tension builds toward the unavoidable climax. Ocean State is a compelling, propulsive read: easy to inhale but difficult in some ways to stomach. This is a story less about love than about obsession and family connections and disconnections, and about the devastations of hardscrabble lives. The ugly turns beautiful in O’Nan’s scintillating prose, and his four main characters will linger with readers long after their stories end.


This review originally ran in the January 21, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 coffee cabinets.

Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths by Natalie Haynes

This classicist’s reconsideration of famous Greek myths from various female perspectives combines cultural and literary criticism, humor and wit.

Classicist Natalie Haynes (The Furies; A Thousand Ships) brings her prodigious expertise to Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths, a thorough consideration of the perspectives, reputations and visibility of some of ancient Greece’s most famous female characters. The title refers to the first correction Haynes offers: rather than the mythic Pandora’s box, Pandora in the original Greek opened a jar, which is only the first of several misconceptions. Not that there will ever be an authoritative version: even Homer, Haynes reminds us, drew on earlier sources. Myths “operate in at least two timelines: the one in which they are ostensibly set, and the one in which any particular version is written,” and Haynes has a firm grasp of numerous iterations. In her capable hands, Pandora and others appear as multifaceted, complex characters, even across conflicting accounts. Best of all, despite its impressive depth of research, Pandora’s Jar is never dry, and frequently great fun.

After the opening chapter’s title character, Haynes introduces readers to Jocasta, Helen, Medusa, the Amazons, Clytemnestra, Eurydice, Phaedra, Medea and finally Penelope. Readers unfamiliar with their stories are guided through the relevant versions. These myths involve traumas of marriage, motherhood, rape and betrayal; their themes are serious and unforgiving. Perhaps surprisingly, some of the misogyny and erasure that Pandora, the Amazons, Eurydice and others have experienced have surprisingly modern origins. “Not for the first time, we see that an accurate translation has been sacrificed in the pursuit of making women less alarming (and less impressive) in English than they were in Greek.” Among Haynes’s subjects, “some have been painted as villains (Clytemnestra, Medea), some as victims (Eurydice, Penelope), some have been literally monstered (Medusa),” but each contains depths: “Medusa is–and always has been–the monster who would save us.”

Haynes’s authorial voice is remarkable: expressive, nuanced, impassioned. Her tone is absolutely accessible, even conversational, and often laugh-out-loud hilarious. Haynes (also a stand-up comic) is as well versed in the modern world and its concerns as in the ancients. The book opens with 1981’s Clash of the Titans, and refers to Beyonce and Wonder Woman with the same ease and mastery as it does Homer, Ovid, Euripides, Aristotle, Aeschylus and many more ancients and more recent writers. Haynes’s assessments of the visual arts (from ancient pottery through Renaissance paintings to modern television and movies) offer another dimension in this meticulous study.

The classics are as relevant, subversive and entertaining as ever in this brilliant piece of work. Clever, moving, expert, Pandora’s Jar is a gem, equally for the serious fan or scholar of Greek myth, for the feminist or for the reader simply absorbed by fine storytelling across time and geography.


This review originally ran in the January 18, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 gazes.

Sundial by Catriona Ward

This unnerving novel of family history and impossible choices is part ghost story, part terrifying reality.

Catriona Ward (The Last House on Needless Street) places mundane, everyday frustrations alongside profound chills in a novel of family, tough choices, secrets and terror. “It’s the chicken pox that makes me sure–my husband is having another affair.” At the beginning of Sundial, readers wonder what feels just a little off about the suburban household where Rob and her husband, Irving, bicker and feud and raise their two daughters, Callie and Annie. Irving has a nasty temper; Rob is bitterly frustrated: “These days I don’t understand why anyone bothers to watch soap operas or go to movies. Living is enough. It is so intense and painful.” Annie is a sweet, docile child; Callie has a discomfiting fascination with murder and death. When the bones of small mammals begin to show up in Callie’s room, Rob feels that things have gone far enough, and takes her elder daughter away for a spell–to Sundial, Rob’s family home in California’s Mojave desert, an abandoned hippie commune and site of terrible unnamed wrongs.

Through flashback-style stories Rob tells Callie, readers learn of Rob’s past: she had a twin sister named Jack, and the sisters shared an unusual upbringing, surrounded by half-wild dogs, scientific experiments, wayward graduate students and shadowy, evil acts. Something dark lived or lives in Rob, or Jack, or Callie, or possibly all of them, and it gradually dawns on readers that Rob is mulling the unthinkable choice to save one daughter or the other. Her secrets come out only slowly and in fits and starts, and it’s often unclear what is imagined, what is paranormal and what is plain human malice. “It’s possible to feel the horror of something and to accept it all at the same time. How else could we cope with being alive?” The novel’s perspective shifts between Rob then, Rob now and Callie, so a character may appear innocent in one chapter and dangerous in the next. At least one of these narrators is surely unreliable, but it takes until the final pages to piece together the unsettling enigma of Rob’s family history and the possible futures for her girls.

With the special horror of creepy children and the very real torture of abusive adults, Sundial serves up a deeply, deliciously disturbing family mystery, populated by ghost dogs and misguided scientists as well as apparently nonthreatening neighbors. A slow burn leads into a quick ratcheting up as this psychological horror deals its final blows.


This review originally ran in the January 6, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 cinnamon candies.

The Stone World by Joel Agee

Immediately following World War II, an intuitive boy from the U.S. in Mexico carefully observes his changing world in this scintillating work of literary fiction.

Following his memoirs (Twelve Years; In the House of My Fear) and translations, Joel Agee’s first novel, The Stone World, is a dreamy, haunting immersion in the mind of a child in a gravely serious adult world. The story spans mere months in the life of six-and-a-half-year-old Peter, who prefers to go by Pira, as his Mexican friends pronounce his name. (Pira wishes he was Mexican; he has learned that gringo is not a compliment.) This is a quietly profound study of boyhood, in some ways almost humdrum: Pira writes a poem, borrows a significant item from a parent and breaks it (and lies about it), falls out with a friend, learns about the world. But the backdrop is late-1940s Mexico, where Pira lives with his American mother and German communist “second father” (his biological father lives in New York), and they rub shoulders with a range of characters: American, Hungarian, Mexican, rich, poor, activists and organizers and artists, including Frida Kahlo.

Pira is prone to involved imaginings, including dreams but also waking visions, as when he lies on the cold stone floors of the family’s small patio and feels himself sinking into another world. There is a literal fever dream as well (brought on by a serious allergic reaction), but even the half-sleep of the afternoon siesta can transport the boy–a very serious thinker–into realms of fantasy, where he decides that a nearby decaying bull’s carcass is the famous bull that has just killed a beloved Spanish bullfighter. Through the eyes of this curious, philosophical, sensitive child, the whole world is fresh and new, colorful, beautiful and dangerous.

Joel Agee is the son of celebrated novelist James Agee, and Pira’s life resembles his creator’s, who likewise lived in Mexico with his mother and German stepfather in the late 1940s. The Stone World is concerned with relationships, interpersonal and political: Pira is friends with boys his own age, as well as his pet dog and parrot and the family’s cherished maid, Zita. The politics of his parents and their friends (with their talk of parties–but not in the usual sense) are initially boring to young Pira, but real-life risks and even arrests bring the issues home to him: “He didn’t understand, but there was an explanation.”

In the hands of such a skilled and nuanced writer, this material glistens and tilts with both beauty and menace. Pira is captivating, and The Stone World is completely absorbing. Readers should clear their calendars until the final page has been turned, and then leave time for the contemplation this novel deserves.


This review originally ran in the December 21, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 marbles.
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