GARDENS IN THE DUNES – Leslie Marmon Silko

It is only fitting that I picked up Leslie Marmon Silko’s Gardens in the Dunes (1999) just days after learning of Larry McMurtry’s passing.  The two authors were friends, and the book opens with a special thanks to him for “all the books and encouragement.”  I heard echoes of Gus in Grandma Fleet, particularly in the line “Dying is easy – it’s living that is painful,” which made this quite the special book for me indeed.

Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo) is a prominent author in what is considered the First Wave of the Native American Renaissance.  She has multiple poetry and essay collections, but only three novels.  Ceremony (1977) was required reading in AP English back in 1999, and it was my introduction to this remarkable storyteller.  I fell in love with Almanac of the Dead (1991) after finding it on a syllabus for an upper-level literature class that was full by the time I was able to pick classes at UNC.  (I frequently packed my shelves with books for classes I wasn’t able to take.)  When I saw Gardens in the Dunes (2000) at the used bookstore, there was no hesitation; Leslie Marmon Silko is a Storyteller, and her words dance to a drumbeat until your heart calls out in the same rhythm. 

Set in a particularly interesting time in US history – the Ghost Dance religious movement that began in 1889ish – Gardens in the Dunes is a story of sisters, faith, womanhood and resilience.  

Sister Salt and Indigo are the last of the Sand Lizard people, a unique tribe that has always done things their own way.  Their mother ran off with the Messiah after a spiritual dance was interrupted by the police and the people, including the Mormons cast out from their church after the ban on polygamy, scattered.  Grandma Fleet is arrested but quickly released, and she returns to the dunes and the girls where they wait for word of their mother.

After Grandma Fleet dies, Sister Salt and Indigo are apprehended by the Indian police.  They determine that Sister Salt, who has just started menstruating, is too old, and she is sent to the reservation.  Indigo is sent to an Indian boarding school in California, where she promptly runs away.  While hiding in a flower garden, she sees an unusual creature and quickly befriends it.  The owner of what Indigo soon learns is a monkey, is a wealthy and recently married white woman.  When she learns that the boarding school has closed for the summer, she convinces her husband, Edward, that the child should stay with them and be trained as a maid until the school reopens in the fall.  Indigo joins the couple as they head east to visit their families before they travel to England and Europe.  Edward has plans in Corsica that he intentionally hides from his wife, but Hattie is so full of love for her new charge that she doesn’t notice.  Prior to their overseas journey, Edward’s sister gifts Indigo a beautiful (and unhappy) parrot that Indigo names “Rainbow.”

With her parrot by her side and her white girl’s clothing, Indigo still prefers to sleep on the floor.  She still weeps for her mother and Sister Salt.  She still plots her escape.  She describes the sand dunes to Rainbow.  She never once forgets she is of the Sand Lizard people and the dunes are her home.

Edward is a scholar and researcher, and his knowledge of plants has allowed him to traverse the world.  His very scientific view of plants stands in stark contrast to Indigo’s knowledge, which was passed down to her by Grandma Fleet.  Indigo becomes quite impressed at the gardens they encounter on their journey, and she delights in gathering seeds and bulbs with the hopes of bringing them to the gardens in the sand dunes.

Indigo is resilient and grows where planted, ready to weather the storms until she can get home. 

The novel primarily follows Indigo, but does switch to others, including Hattie, Edward, and especially Sister Salt.  The cards aren’t necessarily as kind to Sister Salt, but she also grows where planted.  She builds a life for herself at the encampment by the river, making money and hoping to hear word of Indigo and their mother.  She befriends a black chef, Big Candy, and soon finds herself pregnant.  As a child born of a Sand Lizard woman is always a Sand Lizard child, Sister Salt knows she’s pleasing her ancestors and hears the call of the dunes urging her to return home. 

Sister Salt makes relationships that will alter the course of her life, and her child’s, forever.  One woman, Delena, is a fortune teller with a dog army and a passionate mission of her own.  Delena’s story is one I wanted more of, and this novel certainly set the scene for a continuation of what is bound to be a stand-off between Delena and her dog army, and Big Candy – both of whom are driven by equally strong forces.  Theirs is a story begging to be told.

Gardens in the Dunes tells the story of two sisters, the last of their kind, during the Ghost Dance, and it is captivating to the very last word – home.

Read this book.

THE MAP OF SALT AND STARS – Zeyn Joukhadar

“A person can be two things at the same time,” Itto says. “The land where your parents were born will always be in you.  Words survive. Borders are nothing to words and blood.”

The power of storytelling is something that will forever unite us.  Regardless of where on the map you call home, regardless of the languages you speak and the language of your heart, regardless of the color of your skin and the faith that brings you peace, stories are universal. We are more alike than we will ever be different, and stories remind me of that. 

*Zeyn Joukhadar’s The Map of Salt and Stars marvelously captures the unifying role of storytelling in The Map of Salt and Stars with a dual timeline where the story of  young girl fleeing Syria in 2011 is juxtaposed against one of the “old stories” of Rawiya and the mapmaker from the 1100s.  (While Rawiya was crafted from Joukhadar’s brilliant mind, the mapmaker she joins and The Book of Roger are very much real.)

Nour’s world is one of color, each sound having a different shade, and Baba’s voice creates the most beautiful shades for her stories.   The story of Rawiya, a brave young woman who pretends to be a boy so that she can apprentice under renowned mapmaker Al-Idrisi, is her favorite.  Born to Syrian parents living in New York, Nour’s knowledge of Syria is built on the words of her father and the maps of her beautiful mother.  When her beloved Baba loses his fight with cancer, her mother, craving an anchor and home, returns the family to Syria.

Nour struggles in a country that feels like a stranger.  Her Arabic is rudimentary, and her grief is immeasurable.  She recites the stories her father had fed her as she grieves in a land he’d loved but she doesn’t know.  The family is tossed into further turmoil when a shell destroys their home and they are forced to flee, their refugee journey mirroring Rawiya’s as she helped chart the world.  After Nour’s sister Huda’s injuries from the bombing become infected, Nour’s mother sends Nour and her other sister, Zahra, to continue the journey to safety without them.  Nour’s mother, a mapmaker, gives her a special map with hidden messages painted in the colors Nour sees with sounds.  The map will take them to safety.  

Each section of the novel opens with a love letter, printed in the shape of the country Nour (and Rawiya) are making their way through.  The concrete poetry is not only a beautiful way to open each new part of the journey, it also captures the grief and heartache of people who are forced to flee their homes due to political unrest and bloodshed.  “I carry the memory of borders in my skin.”

We are forever more alike than we are different, and stories like Nour’s and Rawiya’s have the ability to open hearts and minds to a very serious refugee crisis that too many would rather turn a blind eye to. Joukhadar’s writing is full of heart and home and the stories that make us – it’s a beautiful novel.

Diversify your shelves.  Open your hearts.

Read this book.

*The author was formerly known as Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar, and I don’t have a reprint of the book. He now is known as Zeyn.*

EVERYWHERE, ALWAYS – Jennifer Ann Shore

Everywhere, Always (2021) is the first non-vampire novel by Jennifer Ann Shore that I’ve read.  Admittedly, romance isn’t my genre of choice as I prefer it to be more of a subplot.  When I do read a novel where the love story is the central plot, I want it to be quick and sweet with non-cookie cutter characters.  Everywhere, Always certainly delivers.

Despite having zero vampires, a lot of the aspects I enjoyed from Metallic Red show up in these pages as well.  It’s partly Shore’s writing style, but it’s more so in her characters; Shore writes extremely likable and unique young adults who are consistent in their actions and whose growth organically happens.

Everywhere, Always quickly sets up a Gilmore-Girls-esque relationship between Avery and her mother. Within the first ten pages, the reader is presented this beautiful relationship that has defined Avery’s existence.  That quick insight is necessary to further emphasize the fish-out-water experience Avery has when her mother dies and she finds herself in her extremely wealthy (and until now unknown to her) father’s home.  Avery is thrust into a world that is so foreign to her, but she adapts with relative ease because her mother has taught her how to adjust her stance when life switches up the pitches.

The romance is sweet, but the relationships Avery creates with her brother and his friends are even sweeter.  From Scrubs references to Shakespeare quotes to bags of candy and crossword puzzles, she opens herself to love and be loved and finally allows herself to heal.

If you’re looking for a sweet, YA romance, look no further.  Everywhere, Always is certainly sweet, but not cloyingly so.

Read this book.

MY GRANDMOTHER ASKED ME TO TELL YOU SHE’S SORRY – Fredrik Backman

“But they do what they can.  They construct words of forgiveness from the ruins of fighting words.”

I’ve read countless books over the years.  Countless. There have been books I loved, books I hated, books I enjoyed, and books that were entirely forgettable.  I am a reader, and every reader knows that once in a while, there is a book that finds you when you need it most.  A book that gets in your blood, your heartbeat finding the cadence of the words as if they were intended just for you. A book that soars with the power of storytelling. Readers forever seek these gems out, each one fondly etched in a memory.

This book was that.

Swedish author Fredrik Backman is a talent who remained unknown to me until a little over a year ago when A Man Called Ove found its way to my shelves.  It was absolutely brilliant, and I made a mental note to add more Backman to my TBR.  I finally got around to My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry (2013, translated 2015) and can confirm that Backman is firmly rooted in this reader’s heart. 

Elsa is 7, and a bit different.  Her grandmother is 70 years older and quite crazy.  Elsa’s granny has shattered gender norms and societal norms, as well as the patience of numerous doctors, nurses, and police officers.  (The novel opens after Elsa’s granny threw “turds” at police officers following a B&E at the zoo.  I’d explain why, but it’s complicated, as Elsa would say – and it would break your heart.)

Elsa has been raised on a steady diet of absurd and fantastical, with her granny giving her the stories that define her young life.  When her grandmother dies, Elsa finds herself cast as a character in her grandmother’s most heartbreaking and courageous of fairytales.  In the role of protector, she begins a treasure hunt to find and deliver the letters that contain her grandmother’s apologies.  With each letter, more of the fairytale and Elsa’s role in it is unveiled.

It’s a beautiful book about life and death, mothers and daughters, love and forgiveness, and the power of stories.

Read this book.

AMERICAN ROYALS – Katharine McGee

What if America was a monarchy? What would our royal family look like?

Katharine McGee’s American Royals (Random House 2019) is a lukewarm, soapy YA novel that reads like a PG-13 Bridgerton without the sizzle.  One blurb referred to it as Crazy Rich Asians meets The Crown, but I didn’t get either.  The short-lived The Royals may have been a better comparison, but this didn’t have the opulence – the sex, drugs, delicious decadence – that I expected.  It may have been written for a much younger audience than I anticipated.

Expectations aside, the prologue was the best part of the entire novel and it was only a page a half.  I wish that cheeky narrator had interjected at more parts throughout the work as I think that would have brightened certain spots and provided a continual thread of levity that would have worked well with these overly dramatic tropy-soapy romances.

Beatrice, heir apparent, is in love with her bodyguard.  Torn between duty to country and her heart, her sections had potential to have significantly more heat than they did.

Samantha, the spare heir, is in love with the man the Crown has earmarked for Beatrice.  She’s the wild child, never feeling good enough for her parents or for America.  I expected more drinking and bad decisions from her.

Nina, a commoner, is Samantha’s best friend and in love with Jeffrey – the golden only male child of the throne.  She’s grown up with Samantha and Jeffrey, and she knows what the family is really like.  She loathes the spotlight and tries to blend into the background as much as possible.  I wanted to like her, but she was written to be as mousy a character as she’s described.

Daphne has been groomed her entire life by power hungry parents to take her seat next to Jeffrey.  She is polished and everything America thinks Jeffrey should be with, and she will not let anything or anyone stand in her way.  The villain of the book, her sections were some of the more interesting.  I wish, however, that the line between “mean girl” and “criminal mastermind” had been a bit more firmly crossed.

I recognize that I was not the intended audience and that the trope-filled soap opera was the intent, but I wish it had been a little more nuanced.  I doubt I’ll read the second one, but it’s an okay cutesy read.

CREATURES OF PASSAGE – Morowa Yejidé

“Nepthys listened to the frightened calls of creatures of passage, their fearsome tales of happenings in the darkest of dark, unaware that she held the light of the path in her hand…”

(261)

Creatures of Passage (Akashic Books, available 3/16/2021) by Morowa Yejidé is unlike any book I’ve encountered before.  There are echoes of other authors and other works; early praise draws a comparison to Toni Morrison. (I heard Morrison, particularly in Rosetta’s sections, and I also found the entire novel a bit Faulknerian.)  But those echoes are nods to what came before, evidence of a solid foundation upon which an author is nurtured, a foundation of traditional canonical literature, but more importantly, a foundation that includes the voices that were largely silenced by an industry that did not wish to hear them.

  Creatures of Passage is inherently unique in both construct and execution.  It is a lyrical magical realism work with mystical fog, twins born conjoined at the knuckle, mythological elements, talking animals, and Frankenstein’s monster of vegetables.  It’s a ghost story with a dead white girl in the trunk of car, a young Vietnamese girl killed in the war, and a black man murdered because a white woman said he touched her.  It is a crime drama with murder, pedophilia, sexual assault, drug dealers and druggies, and an incident involving the police and a mentally ill young black man.  It is beautiful and brutal, terrific and terrifying, all in the same breath.

The novel is set in 1977 in Anacostia – an area of DC called the “capital’s wild child east of the river that bore its name.”  In the eastern most quadrant, where “anything was possible,” Nepthys Kinwell tries her damnedest to drown her losses and guilt in booze, avoid her niece, and ferry those who need her most to their desired destinations. Nephthys is a special type of taxicab driver, her 1967 Plymouth Belvedere travels with the fog and comes when summoned, the dead white girl in the trunk a constant but harmless passenger.  When Nepthys’s niece’s son, Dash, shows up at her door with a note from school, everything changes. 

It’s a novel of things that are lost and things that are found -things that are freely given and things that are stolen.  And sometimes what is lost, found, given and stolen are the people who end up in the back seat of that Belvedere, eating candy from a sack handed to them by a woman who lives up to her goddess namesake, just as her brother, Osiris, lives up to his.

Read this book.

THE FOUR WINDS – Kristin Hannah

“Hope is a coin I carry, given to me by a woman I will always love, and I hold it now as I journey west, part of a new generation of seekers.”  (The Four Winds 448).

Kristin Hannah’s The Four Winds (St. Martin’s Press, 2021) was one of the year’s most anticipated releases.  Hype for the historical fiction novel set during the Great Depression is what prompted me to read my first Hannah novel, The Nightingale, last fall.  I wanted to get a feel for her writing style before The Four Winds was published; I suppose I’m a couple decades late to the Kristin Hannah party, but here I am.

I stated in my review of The Nightingale that the writing was “simple and comforting” and that the “familiar simplicity” is how Hannah is able to destroy her readers.  The Four Winds is written in that same style, making it a quick and easy read that toys with those heart strings.  This novel did not sucker punch me like The Nightingale did, but the last sentence, that beautiful full circle, brought me to my knees – I can’t speak as to the rest of her catalogue, but this was my favorite of the two I’ve read.

It is the most depressing book about the Great Depression.  Elsa is tragically broken -constantly told she’s not good enough, pretty enough, worthy enough.  She only wants to be loved.  Rafe is a young man who sees a willing a girl.  A choice is made.  A choice that manages to give Elsa all the things she’s ever wanted.  Readily discarded by her family, Elsa is taken in by Rafe’s and she finally feels love.

The bond between Elsa and her mother-in-law, Rose, with the backdrop of the wheat field, easily calls to mind Naomi and Ruth.  It’s a beautifully depicted relationship.  The strongest writing in both The Nightingale and The Four Winds comes from these gorgeously nuanced relationships between women.  In this novel, that’s Elsa and Rose, Elsa and Jean, and Elsa and Loreda.

The first half of the novel is set in Texas during the Dust Bowl, and the despair settles on the reader like silica in the lungs; there is no romanticizing this time in American history that destroyed so many and so much.  The second half of the novel follows Elsa and her two children as they head west to California, and this section vibrates with a sense of urgency that is absent in the first.  The despair and hopelessness continue in this section, but there are more sparks of joy and sparks of life – particularly in Elsa.  My main criticism is that I wish her awakening had happened earlier.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. I liked the history, but I particularly enjoyed the relationships.  I thought it got a little rushed and glitchy toward the end, and there are certain plot bunnies I wish were allowed to hop around a bit more, but it’s a solidly good read.

Read this book.

THE SCENT KEEPER – Erica Bauermeister

“We are the unwitting carriers of our parents’ secrets, the ripples made by the stones we never saw.” 

And so begins Erica Bauermeister’s The Scent Keeper (St. Martin’s Press, 2019), one of the most tender and magical bildungsroman tales I’ve ever read.  Elements of this coming-of-age story reminded me of Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish, or rather reading the novel made me feel as I did the first time I read Big Fish – it’s a feeling you don’t forget.  There’s something about the magic and the sweetness and the sorrow in a book like this that settles on the reader, an unassuming delight.

The novel opens and ends with the narrator, Emmeline, speaking to her unborn child, and the story sandwiched between the prologue and epilogue is one we imagine will be the child’s most favorite of fairytales; it is certainly one of mine.

Emmeline grew up on a remote island with her father.  She doesn’t remember a time before the island.  Her father teaches her how to use her senses, especially scent, to survive and thrive on their little island.  She remembers the joy.  The forager’s feasts. The mermaid parties. Cleo. The smell of the cabin and the air as the first violets bloomed.

And she remembers the magic.  The Nightingale.  The scent paper.  The memories trapped in bottles.  The moment she learned her father had lied.  The moment she betrayed him.  The madness.  The loss.

Following an unspeakable tragedy, Emmeline is forced to leave the island.  She is taken in by an older couple at Secret Cove, and Colette’s warmth and Henry’s gruff tenderness are exactly what the fragile girl needs.  As she emerges from her grief and settles into a routine, she becomes haunted by her father’s secrets.  Who was he?  Who is she?

In her quest to find answers, she falls in love.  But neither the answers nor the love are easy, and both lead her into the city.  There, memories and the secrets collide.  Emmeline is reminded that “people lie, but smells never do” and she knows the smells, the cedar, the sea salt, the cinnamon, will take her home.

The Scent Keeper is a quick and easy read that is full of warmth and heart.

Read this book.

AMERICANAH – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“Love was a kind of grief. This was what the novelists meant by suffering.” (Americanah, 583)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (Originally published in the US by Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) has been around a bit but only recently made its way to the top of my TBR.  The novel puts forth some Zadie Smith White Teeth and On Beauty vibes simply due to plotlines of immigration, multiracial relationships, and relationships in academia, and much like both of those novels, I would readily recommend it. Well, I’d recommend it to the booklovers like me who have a DTM TBR (difficult to manage to be read pile) and haven’t gotten to it yet.

Americanah is about love.  Romantic love.  Lust masquerading as love.  Love of country.  Fragile and fleeting love.  Love of family. Forever love. Love of self.  It’s a hard-hitting love story, and one of the best I’ve read.

The relationship between Ifemelu and Obinze is the heart of the novel, but they spend the majority of the 588 pages disconnected and oceans apart.  Their story shows the strength of the ties that bind, and how some love can go dormant while other types of love simply die.

Obinze’s love story with America is one of longing, an unrealized obsession akin to a high school crush.  He grows up and the American dream loses its luster and appeal; when he can have it, he doesn’t want it anymore.  He fails in England and is deported back to Nigeria, a crushing experience that laid the groundwork for the powerful and corrupt man he becomes.

Ifemelu loses a part of herself when she arrives in America, but she carves out an identity and a voice as a Non-American Black.  When she returns to Nigeria, she does so having been marked by her years abroad – the good, the bad, and the ugly. She struggles with reconciling who she became in America with who she was growing up in Nigeria and who she’s supposed to be now that she’s back.  Her love story for Nigeria is a tortured one, but one she romanticizes the further removed she is from her home. 

Ifemelu was never fully happy in America, never fully happy with Curt or Blaine, because something was always missing – like eating a banana without peanuts. That something may have been Obinze or it may have been Nigeria, but it was most certainly love.

Read this book.

THE MASK FALLING – Samantha Shannon

Samantha Shannon’s The Mask Falling (2021 Bloomsbury Publishing), the highly anticipated fourth book of the Bone Season series, is without question my favorite of the series.  The series is now more than half-way complete (there will be seven books), and we’re getting the thump! thump! of its heart in this novel.  I have said since the first of the series that Shannon is an extremely talented writer, and each book is better than the one before it.  Her writing was already noteworthy back in 2013, but how she’s grown as an adult and as an author is noticeable evident in this fourth installment.

Shannon is a master at world building, but what pulls me to her writing has always been how she writes her flawed and brilliantly broken characters – especially her women.  Paige Mahoney turns a mere twenty in this book, but Scion was never a place to be a child or a teen and she’s wrapped in the brittle hardness and distrust common of a forced early adulthood.  The Mask Falling starts to show the chinks in her mask as the reader sees just how fragile she is both physically and mentally. 

Paige was tortured in The Song Rising, and she’s suffering both from pneumonia due to the water aspiration and from PTSD.  The Mask Falling affords her some brief time to rest and heal in France, where she falls further in love with Arcturus and that flame continues its slow burn.  But she’s not on a romantic holiday, and she knows she is expected to assist the Domino Program to earn her keep.  She also knows that their financial assistance would be crucial to the success of the Mime Order and she must convince them that their two causes can fluidly coexist.  Driven by a sense of duty and a rashness of youth, she sets out before she is ready.

It’s reckless, and Paige’s emotional fragility results in her doubting something she’d always believed to be true.  By the time she remembers the red drapes, the wheels are already in motion.  It would seem a bit out of character had Shannon not done such an excellent job of character development – by the time Paige makes that particular misstep, we know she’s physically and mentally spent.

The Mask Falling is both the warmest and the most chilling of the series.  As with the other three, I’m avoiding too much detail as these books deserve to be devoured without spoilers.

Read this book.