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.


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***

Child Abuse
Domestic Violence
Suicide discussions
Multiple attempted suicides
Incest – repeated instances
Child molestation – repeated instances
Rape – repeated instances – including a very vivid depiction of a 9-year-old and her father
Animal Abuse
Attempted infanticide
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.


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.

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.


“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.