THE BONE SHARD DAUGHTER – Andrea Stewart

Orbit Books recently sent me Andrea Stewart’s The Drowning Empire trilogy in anticipation of the release of book three in April.  (A huge thanks for the gifted books!)  The first of the trilogy, The Bone Shard Daughter was released in 2020 and is Stewart’s debut. 

Holy smokes, what a debut.

The Bone Shard Daughter is Frankenstein meets Sir Kazuo Ishiguro meets epic fantasy – and the result is unique, delightful and all Stewart.  Where this novel excels is not only in its distinctiveness and world building, but in character development; there is so much heart and humanness to Stewart’s cast of players that they write themselves on your skin like family.

The novel follows Lin, the Emperor’s daughter, Jovis, a smuggler, Phalue, the Governor’s daughter, and Sand, a woman who lives her days on an island collecting mangoes and trying to remember life before the island. 

“Father told me I’m broken,” is the first line of the book.  Lin has lost her memories following a sickness.  She is to inherit the empire, but she must remember first.  Her father has brought in a foster son, Bayan, who he is training to take over the empire should Lin fail to recover.  The empire that is her legacy is one of bone shard magic and constructs.  In order to protect the citizens from the return of the Alanga, every child is forced to “tithe” a shard of bone from their skull at an annual festival.  Some don’t survive.  Those who do survive wait in dread for the day their shard is placed in a construct, and they become “shard sick” as their life drains unnaturally away to power the construct.  Constructs are crafted from parts of animals and sometimes humans.  Commands are etched on the shards and implanted in them.  Through the constructs, the Emperor rules his kingdom.  They do all the work while he stays behind locked doors, tinkering on private projects in rooms Lin cannot access.  Lin is the most artfully developed of characters.  From feeding nuts to the constructs to craving her father’s approval, Lin is a beautiful character.

Jovis is a smuggler and wanted by the Emperor, among others.  While on an island to engage in some illegal trading, he finds himself agreeing to save a child from the Tithing Festival. It’s good money, and he needs money to fund his quest to find out what happened to his wife.  While fleeing the island with the boy in tow, he saves a creature from the water.  The boy names it Mephisolou, after a sea serpent from folklore.  Jovis calls it Mephi.  Despite all his attempts not to care for the creature, it claims him.  For better or worse, the two become parts of each other, and Mephi joins him on his quest for information.  I absolutely love bad boy Jovis and Mephi.

Phalue is a daughter of privilege, but she’s more comfortable in armor than in the fancy clothes her father wants her to wear.  She used to be a bit a playboy, loving women and easily discarding them.  Then she fell for Ranami, a commoner who loathes Phalue’s father and how he rules his island.  While I appreciate the sapphism, Phalue’s sections are the weakest in the novel, and the relationship with Ranami is told not built.

Sand collects mangoes every day.  She doesn’t know why anymore than the others on the island know why they do what they do.  Memories are lost in a fog.  But one day, she falls while collecting mangoes.  She cuts her arm, and the fog lifts – if just for a moment.  Then everything changes.  Sand’s sections are brief, each building on the last.  As her memories become more than quickly forgotten flashes, Sand takes shape.

How the lives of these four connect is what drives the novel, and what makes it soar.  While I’ve seen some reviews that said the novel lagged, I couldn’t put it down.  Mephi, mystery, magic, and a healthy dose of revolution – what more could one ask for?

Read this book.

THE HOUSE OF EVE – Sadeqa Johnson

Some of y’all may remember that Sadeqa Johnson’s Yellow Wife was one of my top reads of 2021. (If you haven’t read it yet, you really should.) Johnson’s follow-up novel, The House of Eve (Simon & Schuster 2023) is just as poignant.  The novel will be out 7 Feb 2023, and I highly recommend you get your pre-order in.  (A huge thanks to the publisher for sending me this advanced copy!)

Set in the 1950s, the novel explores the two very different (but rather similar) lives of Eleanor and Ruby, two women whose journeys cross tracks in unexpected ways.

Ruby is a high school student in Philadelphia, clawing her way through the We Rise program and praying she’s one of the ones selected for a scholarship. Born to a teenager, Ruby didn’t know her grandmother wasn’t her actual mother until her grandmother becomes unable to care for her anymore and sends her to her mother.  Ruby never fully connects with her mother, who sees her as a rival, and she ends up living with her aunt, a woman who dresses like a man, loves who she wants, and takes no shit from anyone; and a woman who loves her fiercely. Ruby falls in love with a local Jewish boy.  And then Ruby becomes pregnant.

Eleanor is studying to be an archivist at Howard University.  She grew up just outside of Cleveland to hardworking parents who pinched and saved to get her to college.  While there, she falls in love with William, a light-skinned med student from a very affluent DC family. William’s mother, Rose, is not too keen on her son’s love interest – Rose thinks Eleanor is too dark and “from the wrong side of the tracks.”  And then Eleanor becomes pregnant.

The choices these two women make and the options available to them based on affluence and privilege does echo with some themes found in Yellow Wife.  I wrote the following in my review of Yellow Wife:

Based loosely on historical events, Yellow Wife is about the parts of life that are neither black nor white, neither right nor wrong. It’s about a shared history and the contradictions of human nature. More importantly, it’s about survival, family, and the choices we make.” 

This also rings true of The House of Eve, and Pheby, the heroine of Yellow Wife, even gets a mention in this work.

Read this book.

SPARE – Prince Harry

When I was a sophomore in high school, I watched two young boys walk behind their mother’s coffin. Theirs was a posh world of opulence, royalty and history.  These were young princes, the heir and the spare, to the Crown that had dominated the world, but in that moment, they were two brothers struggling with grief, confusion, and anger.  When I was a senior in high school, I’d taste the grief and anger of having a parent stolen from you – perhaps the only thing I shared with the two princes.  I followed the family with a slight interest after that – always wondering how their lives would be different if Princess Diana hadn’t died.  Harry was my favorite.  He was unpredictable, ran wild, and bucked against tradition – even through the media lens, you could see that 12 year old boy trying to find happiness, trying to find his spark again.  And he did.  In Meghan. As their relationship grew, and the media scrutiny became rabid and hateful, I began to pay closer attention.  And I fell in love with not only their love story, but with how Harry found his voice.

Spare (Random House 2023) is the story of a young prince, born to never be more than second-best or replacement parts, who found the love and family he thought had been buried with his mother.  And it’s the story of how he would give up the aristocratic world he was born in to protect what is precious to him.  To Harry, family is more important than the Institution, and that’s the legacy his mother left him.

Reviews of Spare are all over the place right now. Some people hate him with a passion that I will never understand other than to believe that the hatred is laced in centuries of colonialism and racism. Some people just don’t care.  Some people are fiercely devoted to the Crown and see this as a betrayal. And some people, like me, feel a connection to Harry and want to see him happy.  Read the reviews accordingly.  

I’m just going to touch briefly on the actual book itself. Divided into three sections (childhood, military service, Meg), it reads at times like a fever dream or a drunken stranger spilling his guts at a bar after too many pints. But there’s something endearing about this form of storytelling.  How he speeds through and glosses over painful sections, how emotions are hiding in every detailed description of a room, how he repeatedly wants to hug his Gran, how memories of his mother consistently flit about the pages.  (People are latching on to the Elizabeth Arden cream with reckless abandon and delight.  Me? I saw shaking honesty – grief and memory are powerful and uncontrollable monsters – you don’t get to choose when they show up.)

Harry delicately approaches making negative statements about his family, and the lion’s share of his hatred is for the media.  Where his family gets painted in a rather unfavorable shade is somewhat in the sibling rivalry with William and in Camilla’s questionable actions, but more so in how the family feeds the beast, sacrificing the spare for the sake of the Crown. Harry’s realization of it is there, but like many of the more painful sections, he glosses over it. To him, the villain is and always was the media.  (There is a heartbreaking recollection of looking at the police file from his mother’s accident and realizing that the bright spots in the photo are the flashes from all the cameras feasting on her body.)

Some key take aways? Harry has done a lot of work on himself.  He’s healed some generational traumas and found a healthy and happy relationship with himself. He’s set boundaries that preserve that happiness.  He can’t change the centuries of colonialism and stolen fortunes that built his family’s empire, but unlike other members of the royal family, he’s open to learning, open to listening, and open to change.

Spare is Harry’s successful attempt to reclaim his own narrative.  I applaud him for it, and I think his mother would as well.

*I intentionally took this photo with my amaryllis, a flower that has long stood for pride, strength and determination.  Stand tall, Harry. 

BOMB SHELTER – Mary Laura Philpott

I purchased this for the cover.  I know it.  I could say otherwise, but the cover of Mary Laura Philpott’s Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and Other Explosives (Atria 2022) had me hit “select” without further consideration.  I knew it was a collection of nonfiction, slice of life essays and that Philpott was known for her humor and readability, but it was the title and that turtle on the pink cover that sold me.

I probably should have looked into the collection a bit more.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s a very palatable collection.  It’s just not for me.  While I fall within the correct age group to be part of the target audience, being childless makes the collection largely unrelatable.  While I could appreciate her anxiety and fear when her son was diagnosed with epilepsy as a teen, I couldn’t fully commit to the collection as a whole.

Some of the essays are fantastic, but it’s more of a hodge-podged grouping than a cohesive collection.  (There are a few essays I would have pulled completely.  She could have easily focused on her kids, her husband, and her parents to center the fragility of life and love (fragile like a bomb).  But the collection flitted about almost carelessly.)  As a whole, I was unable to connect.  If I were to explore that deeper, I could say that my “mehness” is really more about me at the point I am in my life and being childless.  I also know I don’t gravitate toward nonfiction unless I really enjoy the voice or the storytelling aspect.  These snippets, while palatable and well-written, don’t have the storytelling spark.  (I loved Brianna Madia’s Nowhere for Very Long because she has that spark.)

I recognize that some of you will find a kindred spirit in Philpott, and that her words will spark for you.  It’s just not for me.

If only the contents had lived up to the title and cover.

BABEL – R.F. Kuang

My first read of 2023 was Babel by R. F. Kuang (Harper Collins 2022). Before I get into the review, I must mention the Harper Collins strike.  Employees with the company have been on a strike since November, and they are striking for fair wages, stronger diversity commitments, and union rights. To read more about the strike, visit @hcpunion on Instagram.  This reviewer and booklover supports their efforts.

This review will be structured a bit differently. This is due, in part, to the sheer volume of reviews the book has received. I’m also trying very hard to avoid spoilers.

Babel or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution (I’m just going to call it Babel) was not a five star read for me.  And man, does it pain me to say that.  I like the duality of fantasy and historical fiction, and I absolutely dorked out over Kuang’s magic system that relies on the diversity of languages and the exploitation of others for the benefit of the Crown.

I studied Shakespeare at Oxford – Teddy Hall, which does get a little shoutout in the novel.  (You know I had to fit that in here.) How Kuang describes Oxford and how Robin feels about it, are so beautifully rendered and perfect.  Oxford always felt like magic to me.  From the grounds, to the old turnstiles that were still used, to the invisible scout who cleaned my room – it smelled of history and magic.  And this novel captures that perfectly. 

I also loved how the plot of this historical fantasy was framed in very real aspects of colonialization and exploitation as well as classicism. (Some folks have bemoaned that they didn’t “get’ the novel because they’re white. That’s a BS racist and xenophobic take.)  There is a lot to love and appreciate in this novel.

So why wasn’t it a five-star read?

The storytelling itself.  It is at times redundant and repetitive, with a heavy focus on telling not showing.  Additionally, this is not a history of the translators’ revolution – it’s the history of one translator, Robin.  It might attempt to encompass more, but it is not successful.  The failing to put flesh on the bones of the other major characters is my biggest complaint about the novel.  Robin is fully and beautifully developed, but Ramy, Victoire, Griffin, and even Letty deserved more.  (The brief “interludes” served only to annoy me.)  Even the secondary characters needed more life breathed into them.  Instead, they’re flat pawns pulled out to fill a gap and advance the plot.  And there was so much potential with all of them.

Would I recommend this novel to everyone?  No.  The writing style isn’t something that everyone would appreciate, and not everyone likes fantasy.  But refusing to read works like this because you don’t want to “feel guilty” or don’t think you can relate because you’re white is doing yourself a great disservice.

I liked Babel.  I didn’t love it, but I liked it.

AFTERLIFE – Julia Alvarez

“It tells a story. That it has been broken.”

My last read of 2022 was by an author that fits in a special place in my booklover’s heart.  I haven’t read Julia Alvarez in years, but you don’t forget How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents or In the Time of the Butterflies that easily.  Occasionally you read a book by a wondrous storyteller at the perfect time, in the perfect place, and it sticks to your bones.  Alvarez is like that.

Afterlife (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 2020) is a pocket-sized novel.  I found the size a little bit off-putting, but I realize the dimensions of a typical hardback would not work with this short novel.  It’s a story that is short on words, but big on heart.  Stylistically, it’s quite different from the two early works that I adore, but it still showcases her mastery at writing about sisters.

It’s a novel of grief and loss.  Antonia, an author and professor, is on her way to meet her husband to celebrate her retirement when he has a heart attack and crashes.  What follows is an unmoored woman grieving her husband and trying to regain her footing.  Her sisters are scattered but form a support system over the phoneline.  But it’s her neighbor’s undocumented employee who gives her purpose.  Mario initially comes to help her around the house, but he quickly asks for her help with getting his young girlfriend to him.  There are coyotes and money is owed. 

While Antonia is dealing with young love and issues with ICE, her sister Izzy disappears.  Antonia tries to help in their search to find her, but you can’t pour from an empty cup.  Antonia travels to help, but she believes her husband sent her the situation with Mario, and it’s not far from her mind.  When she returns, Izzy is still missing and there is a pregnant teen in her garage.

SPOILERS.

Izzy dies by suicide, and Antonia’s heartbreak grows.  But there’s Mario and Estella, and they need her. 

There are two scenes that are expertly crafted.  In one, Antonia is searching missing person profiles as they consider posting Izzy.  “Antonia catches herself lingering among the entries. Maybe she’ll spot a familiar face, Samuel Sawyer, 71, last seen on the way to his favorite restaurant one evening in late June to celebrate his wife’s retirement.”

The other is brief.  Izzy had a birthmark on her wrist that looked like plane.  While trying to get Mario, Estella and the baby to the airport, Antonia is stopped by the police.  Knowing she has two undocumented individuals and a USC baby in the car, she begins to worry ICE will be called and the young family broken.  The baby is crying, and Mario is trying to calm her down when a plane flies overhead.  The baby falls silent.  “Antonia watches as the speck in the air crosses her windshield and disappears into a bank of clouds.” 

Tension is lifted.  The first officer leaves.  And a friend in uniform sends them on their way.  Antonia spent so much of the book looking for signs of an afterlife, and they were all around her.  Antonia finally begins to heal.

Read this book.

BETTY – Tiffany McDaniel

“Then I buried the story alive, making sure it was deep enough, a wolf wouldn’t smell blood on it and dig it up.”

I don’t really know what to say about this book, and I keep oscillating between a poor rating and a middle range rating.  Part of the flipflopping is because I know this is a very popular, much loved, much praised book.  The other part is that I’m just disappointed because this is a book I should have loved – I really thought it would be my last five star read of the year.  The book?  Tiffany McDaniel’s Betty (Knopf 2020).

The long and short of it? Betty is trauma porn that relies on visceral reactions from the reader to carry the plot – it’s not character driven, it’s trauma driven.  And I don’t like that.  I think it is gimmicky.  And Betty is 465 pages of horribly traumatic events.  If you’ve followed me for a bit, you know I don’t do trigger warnings; there’s nothing wrong with them, I’m just not the source to go to for that.  But buckle up, buttercup. 

*** Spoilers ahead***

Racism
Discrimination
Child Abuse
Domestic Violence
Suicide discussions
Multiple attempted suicides
Murder
Incest – repeated instances
Child molestation – repeated instances
Rape – repeated instances – including a very vivid depiction of a 9-year-old and her father
Assault
Animal Abuse
Infanticide
Attempted infanticide
Abortion
Alcoholism
Drug Abuse
Sexual harassment

I’m sure I’ve forgotten something, but if it’s a trigger, it’s probably in this book.  (Note: Just because there are triggers, doesn’t mean the book is so-called trauma/misery porn.  That is determined by how the trauma is used in the work.)

That said, the fact Betty is trauma porn isn’t the sole reason for a low rating; there’s an inconsistency in Betty’s voice that drove me bananas.  Parts are very retrospective and show the maturity of an adult looking back, while in those same paragraphs, there are parts that are very “in the moment” and reflect her age at that time.  There’s also a ridiculous amount of flowery language and metaphor stacking, and it’s simply off-putting.  (I think this is common with trauma porn because it helps build that reaction in the reader.)  It could have used a more cutthroat editor; she needed to “kill some darlings.”


Now for the positives.  Betty reminds me of a bloodier and grittier The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Little Altars Everywhere, and that’s a favorable comparison.  Landon Carpenter is one of my favorite literary fathers, and the relationships he has with his children are the heartbeats in this novel.  Betty’s mother is one of the worst literary mothers.  I know she’s dealing with a tormented past and mental health issues, but she’s awful.  But in the last few pages of the novel, I forgave her.  When they’re taking Landon to the hospital, and she becomes focused on making biscuit dough – she was never more human than in that moment.  And when she began to untie his shoes laces before the nurses closed the curtain, her grief was never more real.  The last section of the novel redeemed the entire work a bit because the trauma wasn’t the driving force.  And if you weed through the flowery language, you’ll find some beautifully crafted sentences.

Betty isn’t a novel I would recommend unless you’re a reader who enjoys trauma porn.  For some people, the intense reaction to traumatic events in a novel is ideal.  Personally, I prefer having a reaction to the characters and how they react to the trauma.

But that’s the great thing about storytelling – there are stories for all of us.

Never stop reading.

THE WILDERWOMEN – Ruth Emmie Lang

I’ve heard such good things about Ruth Emmie Lang, and I recently picked up both Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance and The Wilderwomen.  I love magical realism, found families, and broken familial relationships.  I was certain I would love The Wilderwomen (St. Martin’s Press 2022).  And I tried.  Oh, how I tried.  But I wanted to love it more than I actually did; it was one of my bigger disappointments of 2022.

The premise of the novel held such promise: five years ago, Nora Wilder disappeared without a trace, leaving her two daughters behind.  Zadie was 18 when her mother disappeared, but Finn was a tweenager and put in foster care with a loving family.  When Finn graduates, the sisters are supposed to go on a beach trip together.  But Finn has other plans – Finn wants to look for their mother.  Finn can hear echoes, memories of people who came before.  Zadie is psychic but hasn’t practiced the ability in years.  Finn thinks with their combined gifts, they can find their mother.  Zadie, full of hurt, anger and guilt, isn’t sure she wants to find their mother, but she agrees because she loves Finn.  Following the scantest breadcrumbs of clues in the memories Finn picks up, they set out.  They meet other people like them as they follow their mother’s journey that had led her away from them.

The novel lacks a warmth that connects the reader to Zadie, Finn, and Nora.  The characters were either unlikeable or not fully developed.  (Why was Joel written that way?!?!)  The characters at Constellation Camp as well as Myron’s family had such potential, but seemed sketches not fully rendered or colored in.  The relationship between Finn and Zadie, as well as the shift in Zadie wanting to find her mom, needed more tenderness and fleshing out.  The magic needed more spark.  And speaking of things not fully realized, what sort of ending was that?  It squawked with disappointment.

Based on reviews, I’m in the minority here.  Maybe my expectations were simply too high, but this was an entirely forgettable story that was a chore to finish.  If I was a person who DNF’d, I would have.  I still intend to read Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance because I’ve heard it is much better.  Perhaps The Wilderwomen simply suffered from a deadline and that sophomore curse.

Should you read this book?  Eh.  If you do, I hope you enjoy it more than I did.

PACHINKO – Min Jin Lee

“History has failed us, but no matter.”

Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (Grand Central Publishing 2017) is a novel that has been on my physical TBR pile/cart for years. (It’s not the longest resident on that list, but it comes close.)   I love family sagas, the chunkier the better, and this is a ridiculously well-done chunky family saga; I devoured it in two days.  Now I’ve seen some folks complain about the number of characters and the length of this story that spans from 1910 to 1989, but I think those people just don’t read a lot of family sagas because  Pachinko is one of the best.

The novel opens in 1910 in Busan, Korea. Hoonie is the only one of three sons to survive.  Despite his cleft lip and twisted foot, he’s a hard worker.  When the matchmaker makes the match, folks are surprised but not too much; times are hard, and Hoonie can offer a young woman stability.  Yangjin finds more than stability with Hoonie, she finds love.  Yangjin suffers through several miscarriages before delivering Sunja, who claims nearly all Hoonie’s heart before he dies when she’s 13. 

Sunja was brought up to be a hard-worker and she toiled without complaint next to her mother to run a successful boardinghouse.  She meets Hansu when she’s sixteen.  The handsome older man delicately and diligently pursues her, taking her innocence and her heart.  Only after he learns she’s pregnant does he tell her of his wife and children in Japan.  And the secret that started on the forest floor will forever change Sunja’s life. 

Not long after Sunja sends Hansu away, a sickly preacher arrives at the boarding house.  He believes God wants him to marry Sunja and give her unborn child his name.  Together, they travel to Japan where her son is born.  She thinks Hansu is removed from her life even if not from her heart, but Sunja is wrong; Hansu is a powerful man and is never far.  Sometimes lurking, sometimes longing, sometimes lingering – he is a constant.

The novel sings with family and loyalty and survival while beneath the surface, the political climate, a war, and the nervous condition of having one foot in Japan and one in Korea thrums.  It’s a novel of immigrants, of comfort food, and finding home while bouncing about like a ball in a machine.

Pachinko was as addictive as Sunja’s sugar candy and the gambling game that came to define her family.

Read this book.

THE STARDUST THIEF – Chelsea Abdullah

“To him, stories were truths painted over in gold.”

“The Sandsea is a rip in the world, made from a fire so fierce it has never stopped burning. That kind of magic – you must stay away from it. Do you understand, Sweet Fire?”

Most of us are familiar with the classic One Thousand and One Arabian Nights – or at least familiar with the concept and some of the stories that make up this collection of Persian and Arabian folktales.  The collection is framed through the voice of the fictional Scheherazade, a woman who survives death night after night by telling a story to the sultan.  Chelsea Abdullah’s The Stardust Thief (Orbit Books, 2022) uses that collection as the framework for her beautifully rendered and intensely captivating fantasy that is the first of a trilogy.

Scheherazade is Shafia in the novel.  The sultan has never fully recovered from her murder.  Her son, Mazen, with stars in his eyes and stories on his lips, is easily the sultan’s favorite child.  As such, he is kept confined, almost as a prisoner, within the palace walls.  But there’s a wanderlust that has him donning commoner’s clothes and sneaking out, hungry for stories that feed his soul.  Through a series of unexpected (and unknowingly orchestrated) events, Mazen finds himself on the biggest adventure of his life with Loulie, the enigmatic Midnight Merchant, Qadir, her stoic and equally mysterious bodyguard, and Aisha, one of his brother’s jinn-killing forty thieves. The four are on a quest to find the lamp that contains a powerful jinn.

Loulie is a relic hunter who is led to relics with the help of Qadir, a jinn, and an enchanted compass.  Loulie is the best, and even though dealing in magical items is strictly forbidden, the sultan has her captured not to be punished, but to serve him. This may prove a fate worse than punishment.  She’s ordered to find a most prized relic – the lamp lost to the Sandsea.  The sultan sends his son to ensure Loulie does as instructed.  Qadir, in human form, is never far from her side.  No one save Loulie knows he’s a jinn; they’d kill him on sight if they did.

Aisha is devoted to Prince Omar, and prides herself on being one of his forty thieves.  When Omar concocts a plan to deceive his father by having Mazen join the Merchant in his place, Aisha begrudgingly agrees to keep watch on the weak and younger brother.  Thanks to a little jinn magic, only Aisha and Mazen know that the prince isn’t Omar.

As the small band of adventurers travel over a dangerous land of sand and magic, they find themselves the heroes and sometimes villains in the stories Mazen so loves.  While I do wish there’d been more with Loulie and Ahmed, this was a solid debut that has set the scene for the The Ashfire King, which is set for publication in fall of 2023.  Book two will undoubtedly bring us more magic, more jinn stories, and hopefully a bit more Hakim.

Read this book.