THE MARSH QUEEN – Virginia Hartman

Virginia Hartman’s debut The Marsh Queen (Gallery Books 2022) had the potential to be as stunning as its cover.  A bird artist from the Smithsonian returns to the marshes of Florida to face the ghost of her father, the mental decline of her mother, and a mystery that has sullied the town for years; it had the potential to be as vibrant and beautiful as the landscape it takes place in, but it’s a sputtering disappointment.

When Loni’s brother tells her she has to come home because their mother isn’t well, she assures her boss she’ll only be gone for two weeks.  “Home” isn’t a place she likes to be for very long because she’s haunted by memories of her father.  Her father’s memory, some of the sweeter parts of the novel, makes him my favorite character.  He drowned when she was a kid.  Rumors said it was suicide, and that’s the albatross that has hung on Loni since.  When her brother starts looking into her father’s death to see if they are owed more money as survivors since he died while on duty, Loni realizes things aren’t what they seemed.  For one, the investigation says he died on duty.  Loni knows that isn’t true, and she’s afraid her brother’s tinkering around will reveal the truth – that he killed himself.  But maybe he didn’t.  And maybe it wasn’t an accident.

Someone in town wants Loni to stop digging around and leave, and they’re not being quiet about it.

It’s a slow burn of a mystery with a kiss of a romance.  None of the characters are likeable except for Loni’s father through her memories, which is much the same issue I had with a similar novel from 2010 Men with Dogs where another woman returns home to the South to chase the ghost of her father. 

If you’re looking for a fun, fast-paced mystery set in Florida with likeable characters and smart writing, I’d recommend Carl Hiaasen’s middle grade novels – Chomp and Flush in particular.  (Don’t let the fact they’re middle grade stand in your way – they are excellent reads.)

Back to The Marsh Queen – many draw comparisons to Where the Crawdads Sing, which I’ve refused to read for several reasons.  As such, I can’t really speak to that comparison.  I can say I wish the characters were more likable and that more was done with the birds and landscape – the Marsh should have been the loudest and most beautiful character in the novel.

Do I recommend it? Eh.  It’s a book.  It has words.  A beginning. Middle. End.

ANCESTOR APPROVED: Intertribal Stories for Kids

“Your body remembers how to dance.  Your ancestors have been dancing like this for generations.”

Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids (Edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith, Harper Collins 2021) is a collection of eighteen stories that are all connected by the Dance for Mother Earth Powwow, an intertribal event held in Anne Arbor, Michigan.  Much like the authors of the individual stories, the characters are from many nations, and many are a blend of nations: Abenaki, Navajo, Cherokee, Cree, Ojibwe, Tuscarora/Haudenosaunee, Choctaw, Seminole, Lakota, Seneca – and more.  The characters come from various backgrounds.  Some of the children have never been to a powwow before whereas some have danced at this powwow for years.  Some of the children were raised on reservations and others were raised by white foster parents.  Some of the children have fancy regalia hand-made with love by family.  Some are struggling in school and being bullied.  Some are excelling in their studies.  There’s military deployment.  Cancer remission.   A tornado. Poachers. And even a ghost.  But the heart is still the beat of the drum and the sound of dancing, and it thunders throughout these very different stories until you can feel it pulsing, just under your fingertips.

My favorites of the bunch are:

Rebecca Roanhorse’s “Rez Dog Rules”  (POV is from a dog who goes to the powwow with a t-shirt vendor)

Dawn Quigley’s “Joey Reads the Sky”  (Joey struggles with reading English, but he’s found a familiarity and comfort in speaking and feeling Ojibwe)

Joseph Bruchac’s “Bad Dog” (Wendell is going for water for his aunt’s Navajo Taco stand when he meets an elder, Ktsi Mdawela -Big Loon – and Big Loon’s dog, Bad Dog)

Ancestor Approved can and should be enjoyed by any age group, but its sweet spot is 8-12 year old children.  I’d love to see this collection build to include stories about and for teens and young adults.  This is a perfect addition to any child’s bookshelf because much like a welcoming intertribal powwow, this collection embraces everyone.

Read this book.

OTHER BIRDS – Sarah Addison Allen

“Maybe I thought that if I just collected enough words, I could totally rewrite myself one day.”

“Stories aren’t fiction. Stories are fabric. They’re the white sheets we drape over our ghosts so we can see them.”

Sarah Addison Allen’s Other Birds (St. Martin’s Press 2022) is full of whimsy and the best kind of magic.  Set in the quaint coastal town of Mallow Island, South Carolina, this found family novel of secrets and shame, love and second chances is as sweet as the confections the town’s fame was built on.  The novel alternates POVs between the living and the ghosts.

Named for the small turquoise birds that flit about the gardens, the Dellawisp is comprised of five condos managed by Frasier, a man with a few secrets of his own.  Estranged and equally tormented sisters, Lucy and Lizbeth Lime, claim two units.  Mac, a local chef haunted by a ghost who sprinkles cornmeal in his sleep, and Charlotte, a local henna artist haunted by her past, claim the other two.  The fifth belongs to Zoey, an 18-year-old who inherited the condo from her mother.  Her mother died when she was a child, and her father and his new family couldn’t wait for her to reach the age of majority so they could continue their picture-perfect existence without her.  Zoey, with an invisible bird named Pigeon, has come to feel closer to the family she’d lost, but she ends up with so much more.  They all do.

After Lizbeth dies, Zoey is hired to clean out the condo.  She reaches out to Lizbeth’s son, but Oliver wants nothing to do with his mother’s items; he’d grieved her years before.  But the more Zoey talks to him, the more he finds himself wanting to come home.  To the Dellawisp.  To Frasier. 

It’s a heart-hug of a novel that reminds us family isn’t just blood, some secrets should stay buried, and that the world is just a bit sweeter with a little magic and a lot of good food.

Read this book.

AS LONG AS THE LEMON TREES GROW – Zoulfa Katouh

“Every lemon will bring forth a child, and the lemons will never die out.”

Zoulfa Katouh’s As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow (Little, Brown & Co 2022) is a love letter to Syria, each page solidifying that the “where” is always so much a part of the “who” when it comes to identity.  The beautifully rendered novel echoes many of the sentiments found in The Map of Salt and Stars, which is also set in Homs, Syria during the revolution that began in 2011 and continues to this day.   Both novels ache with a love and a hope for Syria, but Lemon Trees takes a different approach, showcasing what is happening in Homs and not just the escape.  The blurb indicates it’s perfect for fans of Salt to the Sea and The Book Thief ­– both are easy comparisons, and I readily agree with that assessment.

Salama was a teenager studying to be a pharmacist when the revolution began in full force.  Her brother and father were both captured for being “rebels” who protested and spoke out against the government.  Her mother was killed in a bombing that also injured Salama.  She suffered a blow to the head, which caused a TBI and PTSD that manifests in the form of hallucinations – particularly Khawf, a man who mocks, ridicules and threatens her in the night.  Khawf’s literal translation from Arabic is fear.

With bodies being blown up around her, Salama is quickly enlisted to help at the hospital.  Her limited training to be a pharmacist has elevated her to doctor in a Syria where medical professionals and hospitals treating the so-called rebels are main targets of the government. Salama is a teenager thrust into a world and career she didn’t choose.  Her days are blood-soaked and full of death.  Her nights are dark and nightmare filled.  Her only family is her brother’s pregnant wife, Layla, and Salama is devoted to keeping Layla and the unborn child safe.  Both Layla and Khawf have convinced her that she must flee.  She must buy passage on a boat and seek freedom in Germany.

Salama’s struggle within her head and heart is wrought on her skin, just like the dark circles under her eyes and scars on her hands.  When a young man with brilliant green eyes rushes into the hospital with his sister, her heart opens.  A love story in a ravaged Syria blooms amongst the blood, bombs, and body parts. Salama fights as a healer.  Kenan fights as a storyteller, recording the destruction and attacks and posting them on YouTube.  Their love is the stuff stories are made of.

Halfway through this novel, an unease settled upon me; I knew what was coming.  With each page, I begged to be wrong, but I wasn’t.  I knew what was coming, and it still sucked the air out of me. I won’t spoil it because it is tragically and beautifully done, but it will break you.

Lemon Trees is a heartbreak.  It’s bloody and broken.  It’s loud and scary.  It’s real fear and Khawf. But it’s also sunsets and lemons.  It’s love.  Above all, it’s hope.

Read this book.

*And be sure to read the author’s note and acknowledgements; they’ll make you love Katouh even more.

BLOODMARKED – Tracy Deonn

“That dragons are fiercely loyal, and never forget what was taken from us. That eventually, we decide to protect what is ours… and burn the rest.”

The second installment of a series tends to be the biggest let down.  Not so for the highly anticipated second novel in Tracy Deonn’s The Legendborn Cycle.  Bloodmarked (Simon & Schuster 2022) is soaked in grief and anger, with legends and lore at the crossroads where history tends to be remembered by those with the most power and a different history rests in the roots and blood-soaked soil.  I stated the following in my review of Legendborn:

“Deonn boldly stares down the traditional fantasy canon while giving the reader an Arthurian legend unlike anything Tennyson or Malory could have imagined.  She gives her reader Merlin and the magic expected from the likes of a kingsmage.  But she also gives us rootcraft and generational power.  She gives us Bree.”

These words ring just as true with Bloodmarked.  Deonn gives us more Arthur and more Camelot while showing us how Bree, a black girl turned King of a predominantly all-white Order, has created such a ripple in the preserved and protected bloodlines of that order.  Bree knows the Order of the Round Table, this legacy she did not choose, is one of violence.  But the Order has brought some of the most devoted and loyal people into her life, people who will fight to the death at her side and for her – and not just because she’s king.  And with them at her side, and with the magic of her ancestors, she’s about to flip this whole Table over and set it ablaze.

I can’t recommend this series enough. How Deonn handles grief, how it can have one sobbing on the bathroom floor to raging with a burning from within, is the lifeblood of this series.  The love triangle, because again, it’s an Arthurian tale and there must be a love triangle, is painful and delicate and potent. As for me, I’m Team Sel; the tortured Kingsmage forever has my heart – but in this intimate triangle, so often their hearts beat as one.  And that ending… my heart was not prepared.  I’m not sure if a release date for book three has been announced (I don’t think it has), but I have a strong feeling it will bring us more of the descendants of Morgaine and I’m here for it.

Read this book.

PURPLE HIBISCUS -Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“She had not learned the art of silent crying. She had not needed to.”

I finally got around to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2003 debut Purple Hibiscus (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill).  While Americanah gave me White Teeth vibes, this reminded me more of The God of Small Things with hints of The Poisonwood Bible and Burger’s Daughter.  I’m really surprised it’s taken me this long to read it considering I interned at Algonquin in 2003 and my concentration for my Masters was in African literature.  I’m about twenty years too late in saying it’s a wonderful novel.  It’s very different from Americanah, which I also loved, but that’s largely due to the age of our narrator.  They are both very powerful reads.

Kambili is a sheltered and privileged 15-year-old.  Her father is a wealthy businessman in Enugu, Nigeria and while many within the country are struggling, Kambili has plenty.  Her and older brother, Jaja, attend a private missionary school where their performance is closely monitored by their father.  Their every waking moment is planned and monitored by him. Their father converted to Catholicism and raises the family in the faith, shunning the old ways and the old beliefs.  He has turned his back on his own father because he refuses to convert, and Kambili knows little of her grandfather or her aunt and cousins.

Kambili’s father is not just an overbearing and intolerant figure, he’s abusive, and his family suffers in silence as their community sings his praises. Jaja finally stands up to their father after he and Kambili spend time with their Aunty Ifeoma and her children in Nsukka, where they learn what it’s like to wake up in a house of a laughter.

Nigeria is in political turmoil.  Kambili’s family is in turmoil.  And Kambili is torn between a woman and a child, a faith she was raised under and a family she’s been denied,  her father and her brother. Everything changes following their trip to Nsukka.  As the purple hibiscus Jaja brought back with them blooms like a bruise, life will change forever for all of them.

Read this book.

THE HOUSE IN THE ORCHARD – Elizabeth Brooks

“On closer inspection it’s obvious that every single one of the apples is rotten, whether they’re brown and speckled with mould, or green-gold and riddled with holes.”

October is the perfect month for a slow burning gothic, and Elizabeth Brooks’s The House in the Orchard (Tin House 2022) is a quick read that hits the spot.  While I would like to have seen Peggy’s 1945 timeline have a bit more meat on its bones, the sweetly rendered (can a gothic be sweet) 1876 timeline told through 13-year-old Maude’s diary entries reminded me of a dark Anne of Green Gables and I loved it.

Widowed by the war, Peggy inherits Orchard House, which had been left to her husband by his Aunt Maude.  Her father-in-law is horrified and adamant it be sold, but the quaintness of the rustic home speaks to her, and she easily imagines raising her son there. That first night sleep eludes her, and she finds herself reading Aunt Maude’s diary, beginning in January of 1876, when Maude is 13.  After both of her parents die, Maude is sent to live with Miss Kitty Greenaway as per her father’s wishes.  Her relatives, especially her beloved older brother (Peggy’s crusty father-in-law), are horrified – Miss Greenaway is not well like by the family, but it takes Maude time to put the pieces together as to why.

Despite being told not to trust Miss Greenaway, Maude quickly finds herself charmed by the mysterious woman, her house full of books, and the beautiful grounds.  Torn between what she’s being told and what she experiences at Orchard House, Maude is determined to learn the truth.

The gothic unfolds slowly, initially barely brushing the pages with secrets and whispers, ghosts on the stairs and spooky cellars, but the strokes get darker and darker as we spiral toward the conclusion.  It’s a satisfying gothic with an ending that leaves you wondering, even after all those years, who to trust and how much can depend on the translation of a Latin phrase inscribed on a bracelet.

Read this book.

THISTLEFOOT – GennaRose Nethercott

“May there always be wine, may there always be smokes, may the jesters be kings and the kings become jokes.”

“I do not want you to think that what comes after is your fault. I do not want you to think that the ending could have been changed. It is not your fault. It is not your fault. It is not mine, nor Baba Yaga’s, nor her daughters’, nor Haim’s, nor any of the market sellers’ faults.  It is not our fault. Please, please remember, when the time for remembering comes.  The fault, I beg you, I beg you, the fault is not our own.”

GennaRose Nethercott is a folklorist and poet.  Thistlefoot (Anchor Books 2022) is her first novel, and oh what a beauty of a debut it is. I love the art and tradition of storytelling, and Thistlefoot is love letter to tradition, to the folktales, legends, and lore that are wrapped in history and memory and ghosts that still thrum in our bones even if we only remember them in nursery rhymes.  Our blood sings with stories – it always has – and this novel is so clever, beautiful, and powerful.

A modern Baba Yaga retelling, the novel centers around the Yaga siblings and a surprising inheritance from Ukraine.  Before receiving their inheritance, both siblings are struggling.  Isaac, the Chameleon King, is living life as a vagabond, trading faces and conning his way across the US, his only companion a black cat named Hubcap that he cannot shake.  Bellatine lives a rigid and structured existence – it’s the only way to control the “Embering,” a magic that courses through her blood, burning and tingling her fingers. They’re both broken people, wrapped up in grief and guilt, and both so alone.  When their inheritance arrives, a walking house on legs that they call Thistlefoot, they are thrown back together. 

Bellatine wants the house.  Isaac agrees to give it to her provided she agree to take the house on tour, resurrecting the family tradition of puppetry and conducting shows across the US for a year.  And so the siblings sets off.  But they’re not alone.  The Longshadow Man, a terrifying man of mayhem and destruction, has following the house from Eastern Europe and he continues to pursue it and the Yaga siblings.  He wants the house, and he wants it and its stories and history to burn.

The novel is a wonderfully crafted folktale within a folktale that reminds the reader how important stories are.  “An ember to lead you through the dark.”

“Raise the lantern.”

“Kill the ghost.”

Read this book.

THE INHERTIANCE OF ORQUIDEA DIVINA – Zoraida Córdova

“She was the mouth of an ancient god who would swallow the world.  She was an ocean of stories, memories, thousands of little moments that made up her whole being.”

Zoraida Córdova’s The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina (Atria Books 2021) is an absolute delight of a novel.  It’s House of Spirits meets Practical Magic meets Big Fish meets Encanto. There’s magic and mystery, family drama and secrets, ghosts and monsters.  Steeped in magical realism and biting with sharp and witty dialogue, the novel was not at all what I expected.  The cover, while gorgeous and expected with magical realism, doesn’t show the humor and heart that made this work so brilliant.

Orquídea, the Montoya family matriarch (and yes, The Princess Bride is referenced) has never left her home in Four Rivers since she appeared there.  She married and buried multiple husbands, and raised several children and grandchildren in the house she built.  The house is full of magic, protected with spells and enchantments.  But the children outgrow their belief in magic and began to see her not as a powerful witch, but just a bitter old lady.  Those that survived, scattered – leaving her alone.  But Orquídea sends them an invitation to her death, urging them to come collect their inheritance.  And they come.  Only she doesn’t die, she turns into a tree after leaving the house to her granddaughter, Mari.  The house promptly burns down after a family fight.

Marimar never knew her father and her mother drowned when she was a teen.  She blamed Orquídea for not protecting her mother, and she fled to New York and lived with an aunt and her cousin Rey.  While there are numerous cousins, Mari, Rey, and Tatinelly carry the present-day story.  They are marked with magic when Orquídea dies/transforms.  Tatinelly gives birth in the house while chaos ensues, and the child is marked as well.

Seven years pass, and something is hunting the family.  Mari, Rey, Tati and her daughter, Rhiannon, set out to Ecuador to find out Orquídea’s secrets so that they can stop whatever is hellbent on killing them all.

The novel is told in dual timelines, slipping into Orquídea’s childhood and her running away to join a sideshow circus where one of the exhibits is an actual Living Star, having fallen from the sky and been captured. The Star, and his magic, are controlled by Orquídea’s first husband.  A toxic love story unfolds, and a plan is hatched for both of their escapes.

This novel thrums with the sound of grasshoppers and hummingbird wings.  It smells like fresh dirt and roses, and it tastes like salt from the sea.  It sings with love and magic, the blood the binds, and the family we choose.

Read this book.

BRONZE DRUM – Phong Nguyen

“Gather around, children of Chu Diên, and be brave.  For even to listen to the story of the Tru’ng Sisters is, in these troubled times, a dangerous act.”

The bones of Phong Nguyen’s Bronze Drum (Grand Central Publishing 2022) were exhilarating; it was an easy BOTM pick for me.  Historical fiction, cloaked in myth and lore, of two sisters in 40 CE ancient Việt Nam, who sparked a revolution – an army of women who rose up against the Hán Chinese in a battle for independence – the bronze drum, the sound of their battle cry and the symbol of their victory, that was banned following their fall.  I was so excited to start this one, and I tried so hard to like it.  But I’m going to need someone else to give the Tru’ng Sisters a voice; this was poorly executed, and the sisters, the glorious She-Kings, were poorly developed.  The novel cannot decide what it wants to be and not settling down one path, ends up clumsy and frustrating.  (There’s also a typo where “battle” is spelled “batttle,” and it’s driving me bonkers.)

I am grateful this novel introduced me to the Tru’ng Sisters and their army of women, including the badass archers from the mountains.  The image of the sisters riding into battle on elephants while bronze drums are played to alert the soldiers as to formation and attack strategy is extremely powerful.  The women joining forces to kill the tiger that has ravaged their village for years and writing their declaration on its hide is the kind of scene that will stick with the reader long after the last page.  But these powerful moments are very rare, and the novel doesn’t breathe with the beat of the drum or the heartbeat of the women who fought so hard.

The sisters deserved better.