Book – In a remote castle somewhere in Eastern Europe, a young man joins the crew that’s working on turning the castle into an unplugged resort, a place you can go to really escape from everything. The crew is led by his cousin, who our narrator once abandoned in a cave when they were both children. In prison, a convict begins to write a story, trying desperately to impress the pretty young writing instructor he’s falling in love with. Which one of these stories is real, which one is true? Better not to try to figure it out, but just to go along for the ride – and what a ride it is.
I always enjoy stories with unreliable narrators, and this one has two, which is pretty terrific. The story in the castle is a little surreal and more than a little Gothic; the story in the prison is emotionally complex and exciting – not your usual writing-about-a-writer scenario. And I loved both of them, which is unusual for me; usually in a book with two parallel narratives I strongly prefer one or the other. Jennifer Egan is a strong, compelling writer, and I look forward to exploring more of her books. I’d recommend this to fans of Claire Messud and Haruki Murakami.
Book – Onyesonwu is a child of rape, a child of war. Her mother named her “Who fears death?” because after being attacked and impregnated, she didn’t any more. Onyesonwu is Ewu, the light-skinned offspring of a dark Okeke woman and a pale Nuru man, and she encounters disrespect and fear wherever she goes. But she’s also a sorcerer, thanks to her mother’s fervent prayers, and the older she grows, the more powerful her sorcery becomes. And then she learns of a prophecy, about someone who will turn the whole order of the world upside down…
It took me a little while to get into this book, because it’s got some pretty rough going – Onyesonwu’s mother’s rape; the genocide of the Okeke by the Nuru; and Onye’s Eleventh Year Rite, with an explicit description of female genital mutilation, all feature heavily in the first hundred or so pages. But Onye is such a strong character, so full of promise and determination, that I had to see where she was going to go. Your reward for making it through the brutality of her early years, like hers, is an amazing story of love, female friendship, solidarity, and the pursuit of justice. Onyesonwu isn’t perfect – she frequently loses her temper, and sometimes does irreversible things as a result – but she loves life and she loves her people and her world, and is determined to make all of them better. By the end of the book, I couldn’t put it down.
Book – Nancy’s parents don’t know what to do with her. She’s changed – she won’t wear colors any more, only shades of black and white; she doesn’t eat much, and sometimes, when no one’s looking, she goes very, very still. So they send her to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, where they hope she will become more like her old self. But Nancy’s parents don’t know what Eleanor West’s real business is. She counsels children who, like her, like Alice and Dorothy and the Pevensies, once stepped through a doorway into another world. And then they came home, to a world much less interesting than the one they’d visited (a different world for almost everyone), and more than anything they long to go back.
This briskly-paced little novella is an idea wrapped in a murder mystery: what would that kind of adventure, the portal-fantasy adventures that so many of us grew up on and dreamed about, really do to a person? What would they be like when they came back? The mystery is just something to keep things moving along, to give us an excuse to hear about all these kids (many of them teenagers, but some younger) and the worlds they visited. Anyone who’s ever dreamed about falling into a fantasy world will relish this story (and its sequel, due out in June).
Book – Lane Roanoke only lived in Roanoke House, a sprawling Kansas estate, for one summer, but it’s shaped her entire life. Her mother ran away from there, and her cousin Allegra refused to leave. Allegra was who was the one who told Lane, “Roanoke girls never last long around here. In the end, we either run or we die.” When Allegra goes missing, eleven years later, Lane forgets the promise she made to herself to never go back and goes to look for Allegra, and hopefully to lay to rest some of her own ghosts.
I love a good Gothic novel, and this has all the elements: an isolated house too weird for its own good, terrible family secrets, codependency, hidden messages. Lane is a fascinating character in the vein of Gillian Flynn’s Libby Day: broken by the secrets she’s had to keep, but unable to fully break free of them. The difference between a traditional Gothic novel and a modern one is that the unthinkable comes much more easily to mind nowadays; it’s pretty clear early on what’s been going on in Roanoke House, and the tension is in waiting for Lane to come to terms with it and, finally do something about it. This book doesn’t quite have the sharp edges I was expecting it to, but it was so compelling that I read it all in a day.
Book – Miranda is a troubled young woman; she has pica, the compulsion to eat things that are not food, and rejects her pastry-chef father’s attempts to get her to eat normally. Her mother, a photographer, died while on a trip to Haiti, and Miri hasn’t been the same since. Her twin brother wants to help but doesn’t know how, especially when she’s accepted to Cambridge and he’s not. The house they live in, their great-grandmother’s house, wants to keep Miranda at any cost, which is not the same as protecting her. When Miranda brings home her Black girlfriend from college, the thin barrier separating the reality of the house from the reality of the rest of their lives starts to slip.
Although this was a short book, it took me a while to read; there’s a lot to digest (pardon the pun). It has a lot to say about the prejudices we inherit, and how hard it is to shed them; and the things we’ll do to keep ourselves in (what we perceive to be) safety. Try this if you like The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, another story about insane houses and troubled women.
Book – Lizzie lives alone with her invalid sister Emma in Maplecroft, a big old house in Fall River, Massachusetts. Everybody knows what she did. (You know what she did.) But what they don’t know is the reason why, the thing that keeps Lizzie up at nights, the thing that her sister writes to a scholar at Arkham University about, the thing that they don’t know about because Lizzie has been protecting them: There are monsters coming up out of the sea. And there is, so far as she can tell, very little that can stop them.
Fortunately, Lizzie is still very good with an axe.
This is a tremendous mashup of the real-life Lizzie Borden and the Lovecraftian mythos, and Priest doesn’t stint on either the historical flourishes (from Emma’s illness to the precarious social position that puts the two spinster sisters in) or the horror (lots of creepy-crawlies, monstrous fish-people, and the slow corruption of intellectuals studying things that Man Was Not Meant To Know). While this novel has its scares, it’s also got an action-movie quality about it. Or maybe it’s just so darn fun to imagine Lizzie Borden sinking her infamous axe into a Lovecraftian fish-monster. You have to admit, that’s a great image, and it happens plenty in this book.
Maplecroft has a sequel, Chapelwood, about a Lovecraftian cult in the rural Deep South. Or, if you prefer modern horror, try Priest’s new standalone horror novel, The Family Plot, about a salvage crew that runs afoul of an old ghost.
Book – What kind of pot is best for slow cooking on an electric stove? How often should you rotate your linens? What kind of fabric should you get on a couch to make sure it lasts as long as possible? How often do you need to dust, sweep, wash, and deep-clean? What kind of lighting should you have in which rooms? What kind of insurance should you have on your home, and how do you buy it? These are all things that go into making a house a home, and most of us know a little bit about some of them, but I’d venture to say that most of us don’t know a lot about all of them. Which is only fair: keeping house used to be a full-time job, after all, and now most of us work outside the home, so we don’t have the deep knowledge of someone who’s made it their career. Cheryl Mendelson brings a perfectionist’s eye for detail to homemaking.
This isn’t a high-color guide to Easy Tips For Your Home: it’s an in-depth examination of every single part of keeping a house. Mendelson is forgiving – she doesn’t scold you for not learning how to do things properly, nor does she insist that you need to have, for example, fine china that’s difficult to care for. She only insists that if you do have fine china, you treat it well. This book can certainly seem overwhelming at times, but it’s more of a reference book than the kind of thing you read cover-to-cover: pick it up when you have a question about the best way to do something, and you can be confident that you will at least know where you’re cutting corners.
Book – Lauren has hyperempathy, a disorder born from a drug her mother took while she was pregnant; it means that Lauren feels other people’s pain like it’s her own. When she was a kid, her brothers would cut themselves to watch her bleed. It’s a tough disorder to live with in a world like hers, where everyone lives close to the edge all the time. Her dad tells stories about the good old days, when his professor’s salary was enough to live well, when people didn’t live in walled neighborhoods just to keep the looters out, when you could buy your food at the grocery store instead of growing and trading for what you need to survive – but Lauren knows better than to listen too close to those stories, because she’s pretty sure it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Which means that when, one day, it does, she’s one of the only people from her old neighborhood who’s prepared for what comes next.
This is one of those books that people have been telling me to read for years, and I only just got around to it. It’s a classic of science fiction, and for good reason: Lauren is one of the most real characters I’ve ever seen. She’s afraid, she’s hurt, she’s brave, she’s stubborn, she’s uncertain, she’s a leader not because she knows better than anyone else but because she’s thoughtful, and has thought about things that most people are too afraid to consider. This is a quieter dystopia than most of the current run of dystopian fiction. There’s no Hunger Games here, just people fighting for their own survival. But it’s even more inspiring because of that, because while we can’t all be Katniss, it’s much easier to imagine ourselves being Lauren — someone who, when faced with the loss of everything she’s ever known and loved, does her best to help others build a future.
Book – Redwood is a girl with music in her bones and magic in her fingers, a born performer with a gift for hoodoo and witchcraft. She was never going to be the kind of girl who stayed home on the farm, but rural Georgia in the early 20th century is a dangerous place for a black girl in love with an Irish-Seminole man. So she and her lover Aidan strike out for the big city to get into the movies — Chicago, the birthplace of American filmmaking.
This is a poetic kind of book, full of enchanting twists and turns, beautiful vignettes of what life was and could have been like for people usually ignored by history, although it’s not strong on plot; if you want a strong story to carry you through, you might want to skip this one. But like a mosaic, the scenes in Redwood & Wildfire add up to more than the sum of their parts. If you love magic, romance, Blues music, movies, Chicago, and glimpses of joy that emerge from the struggle for survival, give this book a try, I think you’ll like it. (And if you do, don’t miss its science-fiction sequel, Will Do Magic for Small Change.)
Movie – Bessie Smith was one of the greatest jazz singers of the 1920s and 30s, a major influence on other jazz musicians, and as such one of the originators of all modern popular music. She was born in poverty in Chattanooga, toured with the legendary Ma Rainey, and after signing a record deal with Columbia, became the highest-paid Black entertainer of her time. They called her the Empress of the Blues, and you can still hear why in her recordings — Bessie Smith could rock. Really, the only surprise about her biopic is that it took them until 2015 to make one.
My favorite part of the movie they made of Chicago was Queen Latifah’s single number as the women’s prison warden, so I was thrilled to see her cast as Bessie Smith. She’s outstanding in it, not just in the musical numbers (which look like such a great time) but in portraying the drama of Bessie’s life – a bisexual woman, one who worked hard and partied hard, who struggled with her upbringing and her desire to build a family, who loved being on stage and loved her career. Other standouts in the cast include Michael Kenneth Williams (of Boardwalk Empire fame) as Jack Gee, Bessie’s volatile husband, and Mo’Nique as Ma Rainey, Bessie’s mentor.
If you’re fond of movies from the 1920s and 30s, be aware that this is not sanitized Hollywood fare; there’s plenty of drinking, fighting, sex, and the kind of raunchy music the Hayes Code would never permit (including one of Ma Rainey’s famous drag numbers). But this is a terrific look at what the 20s and 30s were really like, and a wonderful portrait of an amazing Black woman who deserves more recognition than she gets.