SHUGGIE BAIN – Douglas Stuart

He wanted to crush her with his secrets the way she had once done him with hers. “What’s wrong with me, Mammy?” He asked quietly.

262

Douglas Stuart’s debut novel, Shuggie Bain (Grove Press, 2020) was recently awarded the highly coveted Booker Prize.  It’s my favorite book award, and I try and read some of the selections from the long list each year.  This year, I gravitated toward the shortlist.  Shuggie Bain is my third from that list, and while I still think The Shadow King should have received the award, I can certainly appreciate why Shuggie Bain won.  This is not a book I will soon forget.

If I call this novel the fictional and Scottish Angela’s Ashes, you will one hundred percent understand how weighty this novel of addiction, family, and sexuality is.  In the same breath, let me tell you this is not just another Angela’s Ashes and it doesn’t deserve any sort of “been there, read that” brush aside.  Set in 1980s Glasgow, Shuggie Bain hits like a punch or a hard kiss under a cold rain.

Stuart did a masterful job creating broken and beautiful characters, particularly in Agnes, and this book rings clear like the bells on Christmas day.  Agnes has dreams, but time and life and men keep getting in the way.  She leaves her first husband, a dependable (boring) Catholic, for Shuggie, a handsome cabbie with promises of a new life and all she’s ever wanted.  In a flashback, we learn that she was supposed to leave Catherine and Leek behind, but she couldn’t do it; Agnes could never walk away from her children.  Big Shug’s promises are empty, but the bottles of booze aren’t.  Agnes attempts to drown her demons and all of her shattered dreams in cans of lager and bottles of vodka.  It works only until the alcohol is out of her system and the weight of her reality comes crashing down.  It’s a heartbreaking portrayal of addiction and despair, worsened by co-dependent and abusive relationships.

Shuggie, the youngest of Agnes’s children, has his own demons.  He is “no right” as everyone likes to say.  As he mothers his mother, he struggles with his secrets and his truths.  He wants so desperately to be “normal,”, but he’s a boy who doesn’t like boy things.  He prefers dollies and fruity scented ponies to footballs and fishing.  Agnes believes it is because his father is a sorry excuse of man who left them all.  She begs a man in the neighborhood to spend time with her son, to take him fishing and do boy things with him.  The man uses her, promising to teach the boy how to fish, but it’s just words to barter for her body.  Each time a man pushed inside Agnes, Shuggie’s heart (and mine) broke a little more.

 This novel is wrapped in bruise, and it smells like day old beer and stale smoke. I’m still not quite sure how I feel about it.  It’s not a book I would recommend to everyone, but I would certainly recommend it. 

I AM NOT YOUR PERFECT MEXICAN DAUGHTER – Erika Sánchez

“But how do we live with these secrets locked within us? How do we tie our shoes, brush our hair, drink coffee, wash the dishes, and go to sleep, pretending everything is fine?”

(284-285)

Once upon a time, I was an immigration attorney.  Many of my clients were “undocumented” or had “undocumented” parents.  The point of that is to say that Erika Sánchez’s I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter hit a little differently for me.  I’ve met Julia and her family.  I’ve represented them in immigration court. While I haven’t lived it, I’ve seen the nervousness and uncertainty of a child thrust between two identities.  I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter should be required reading in every high school across America.

Julia is a mouthy but academically gifted teenager who dreams of being a famous writer in New York.  Unlike her “perfect” sister, Olga, Julia wants to get far away from her family.  Her parents just don’t understand her.  They don’t approve of her friends, the way she dresses, or her dreams.  “You should be more like your sister,” they say.   Neat.  Tidy.  A good cook.  A perfect Mexican daughter ready to step into the role of perfect Mexican wife.  But Olga’s dead, and her family is left broken.

Julia blames herself for her sister’s death.  If she had been a better daughter, her sister wouldn’t have been taking the bus.  The guilt eats at her.  At night, she sneaks into her sister room and sleeps in her sister’s bed.  In her attempts to bring herself closer to her sister and find closure, she discovers that maybe Olga wasn’t as perfect as she appeared.  Julia becomes obsessed with the mystery, obsessed with finding Olga’s secrets and revealing her as less than perfect to her devastated parents.

Depression wraps itself around Julia, filling her head with guilt and thoughts of inadequacy.  Her parents are so consumed with their own grief, they don’t notice their remaining daughter has spiraled to a place many don’t come back from until its almost too late. 

After a failed suicide attempt and a brief hospitalization, her parents decide to send Julia to Mexico.  She hasn’t visited her family in years, and she’s never gone without Olga.  Her parents are undocumented and it’s too risky for them to leave the US, so she goes on her own.  There, in the warmth of her Mexican family and with the help of the medication she’s been placed on, Julia begins to heal.  While in Mexico, she’s faced with a reality of her parents’ shared history that had long been kept a secret.  She begins to realize that some secrets should never be said out loud.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter isn’t a fairytale.  It’s gritty, but it’s real.  Julia is whiney and ungrateful; in short, she’s every other teenager.  That commonality and Julia’s snarky voice brings levity to rather serious situations.  It’s a relatable and extremely well-done young adult novel.

Read this book.

THE MOUNTAINS SING – Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

It truly has been the season of “women at war” books for this booknerd.  After I left Korea, I went to Vietnam and a family saga that spans decades of turmoil.  The Mountains Sing (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2020) is Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s first novel in English.  A celebrated poet, Mai’s language purrs on each and every page of this beautiful novel.  (I have posted previously about the questionable manner in which I found myself with an ARC of this novel.  For these purposes, I’ll just reiterate that one should not sell ARCs, and I should have paid better attention to my purchase.)

The Mountains Sing is a complicated story set in a complicated country.  Set primarily against a backdrop of the Việt Nam War, the novel of the Trân family also touches on the Japanese invasion of Vietnam, which was followed by the Great Hunger and the Land Reform – a tumultuous history that defined every member of the Trân family.

Despite jumping around in the chronology, the novel centers around young Huong.  Both of Huong’s parents have joined the war effort – her father as a soldier and her mother as a doctor.  She lives with her maternal grandmother, Grandma Dieu Lan, a teacher by trade, in a beautiful house in Ha Noi.  Within pages of the novel opening, the sirens alert the residents that the American bombers are approaching and they must take shelter.  Huong’s grandmother yells at the mothers and children who are trying to find unoccupied bomb shelters to go to the school because they certainly wouldn’t bomb a school.  Huong and her grandmother survive the bombing, but bodies and parts of bodies litter the streets as they hurry home.  After months of quiet and relative peace, war has returned to Ha Noi.

As the story unfolds, we learn more about Huong’s grandmother, the daughter of wealthy landowners, and the deaths of her parents in the wake of the Japanese invasion followed by the Great Hunger.  Through her stories told to Huong, we learn of Wicked Ghost and the horrors he inflicted on her family.  We learn of the difficult choices Dieu Lan makes when she is forced to flee her home with all but one of her children during the Land Reform.  And we see the lasting impacts of those choices on her now grown children.

The Mountains Sing is about mothers and the ties that bind.  It’s about home and family.  The writing is poetic and beautiful, and that gorgeous writing style is what allows the light and hope to glitter in this story that is so full of war, death, and destruction.  I did find the pacing in the last fourth of the novel to be unpleasantly rushed as Mai attempted to tie up any loose ends.  It was a disservice to an otherwise gorgeous novel to vomit out the ending in such a hurried and uncontrolled way; however, I still strongly recommend this novel.  I can’t emphasis enough the importance of books like this and voices like Mai’s.

Read this book.

RIOT BABY – Tochi Onyebuchi

“If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see torches in the woods, keep going.  If there’s shouting after you, keep going. Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.” 

Riot Baby, 124

Tochi Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby (2020) perfectly illustrates how successful science fiction can be at providing social commentary on the injustices of the world.  In this case, it’s the centuries of repeated aggression and violations on black and brown bodies.  Clocking in at under 200 pages, this novella is a light weight that packs one hell of a wallop.

Ella has a Thing, and by Thing, I mean a special power.  She can control the atmosphere.  She can walk through the past and the future.   She can kill with but a look. It’s a destructive, untamed fire that rages within her, and she cannot control it.  She leaves her young brother and her mother to protect them because she’s afraid of what she will do.

Ella’s brother, Kevin, was born during the Rodney King riots.  He’s a smart kid, good with computers and numbers.  Under the protective shield of Ella’s powers, he thrives in a city that eats its youth.  But then she leaves, and he is no longer protected.  Kevin becomes just another boy of the streets just struggling to stay alive.  An attempted robbery lands him at Rikers.  Anger ignites in his soul, his body electric with hate.

Ella’s powers allow her to visit with her brother, and some of the power sticks to his skin – allowing him to see the things she’s seen, to walk through history and see the burning crosses, white faces contorted in hate, the broken and bloated brown and black bodies tossed in rivers, dragged behind trucks, and hung from trees.  It’s enough to suck all hope from a person.  It also allows him to walk in the shoes of his fellow inmates and prison guards.  Neither is an ability he wants.

Kevin is eventually paroled to Watts, a self-contained community of people just like him.  (And a place history remembers for its own riots.) A chip is implanted in his thumb that monitors his location as well as his vitals.  It also operates a key card to allow him access to his home.  He is happy here.  Or so he thinks.  But things aren’t always what they seem.  The fire still rages in Ella, fully under control and command, and he is the Riot Baby.

I have never read something quite so angry and full of despair as Riot Baby, but what is most striking is the hope that sparks just beneath the surface like a recently lit match.  Keep going.

Read this book.

A GOOD NEIGHBORHOOD – Therese Anne Fowler

I seldom say that I hated a book because I can usually find something redeeming about it, but I hated Therese Anne Fowler’s A Good Neighborhood (2020).  This review will be quite brief and in a slightly different format because I don’t want to launch into a tirade about my visceral reaction to this novel.

Things I liked

  • The writing isn’t awful – it’s quite strong.  Fowler knows how to tell a story.
  • The novel is told from multiple narrators, and one narrator is the “neighborhood” – I’ve always enjoyed place as a character and collective voices as one.  It works well in this novel and probably should have been used exclusively.
  • The civil lawsuit based on the builder and homeowner getting a variance that should never have been approved based on the proximity of Valerie’s ancient and glorious tree.  (This really should have been the plot.)
  • The cover.

Things I disliked

  • The attempt to provide POVs of Valerie and Zay.  I’m not saying a white person cannot write the POV of black person, I just don’t think Fowler was successful.  She addresses this criticism in the author’s note, which, unlike most novels, appears at the beginning of the novel.  Fowler attempts to justify writing those POVs, which leads me to believe she knew it was bad idea and not properly executed. 
  • The character development was severely hampered by Fowler’s attempts to make this novel something that it’s just not. Valerie and Zay never seemly fully developed or well-thought out.
  • Valerie is a kick-ass and wicked smart ecologist.  Her fight for the tree should have triggered her to compare herself to other wicked smart ecologists – Rachel Carson quickly springs to mind – however, Fowler has Valerie compare her fight for the tree to Rosa Parks and MLK.  The constant dropping of names like Parks and King and John Lewis seem more like the author attempting to let the reader know she knows who they are.
  • The stepdaughter/stepfather trope.  This could have been done quite differently if Juniper’s POV is anti-Brad.  Instead, Fowler nods to Lolita and paints her the temptress.  This is supported by Juniper’s own sections, not just Brad’s sections.  This should never be a plot point used to propel the narrative.  Never.  Fowler attempts to walk it back after putting it out there, but it’s too late.
  • The ending is one of the worst endings I’ve ever read.  It’s not just unsatisfying because of how it ends, it’s disappointing in that Zay’s and Valerie’s actions are entirely uncharacteristic based on the development, however limited, Fowler gives them.

There are a lot of people who love this book.  People who think that it perfectly captures the plight of Black Americans in the South and that by reading it, they’ve broadened their horizons. While I applaud Therese Anne Fowler’s attempt at casting a light on racial disparities in North Carolina, this book will not diversify your shelves and I cannot recommend it.

THE MERMAID FROM JEJU – Sumi Hahn

From the battle torn France of World War II, to the women warriors of Ethiopia during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, and now to the haenyeo in post-WWII Korea, I’ve been on a bit of a “women at war” kick.  The Nightingale, The Shadow King, and The Mermaid from Jeju are all three written by women and primarily about women during armed conflicts in their homelands.

The Mermaid from Jeju (December 2020) is Sumi Hahn’s first novel, and what a brilliant first novel it is.  It is a love story of family, heart, and home.  It is a story of resistance and choices.  It is a story of magic and appeasing the Sea King, because he will always take back what is his.  It is a story of mermaids.

The haenyeo are deep-sea divers, exclusively women since the 1600s, from the island of Jeju.  While there are only a few thousand left today, these mermaids have been diving to feed their families for centuries.  Many of the divers that caught the attention of the American soldiers following World War II were grandmothers, their bent bodies barely able to move on land but are like fish in the water.  These women passed their knowledge to their children and their children’s children – a matriarchal tradition born of necessity that is dying; the majority of the divers today are over fifty. 

This beautifully crafted tale is set just following the Japanese occupation of Korea during World War II, and it follows Junja, a young girl who dives along side her mother and her grandmother.  Her mother is considered one of it not the best diver on the island.  Junja is the oldest of three children, and she’s trained her whole life to be a haenyeo.  Her father, a mainlander who’d been unable to come to terms with his beautiful wife being the breadwinner, had abandoned them all years ago.

Desperate to prove herself and show independence, Junja begs her mother to let her take the annual trip to the mountains to trade the gifts from the sea for a piglet.  Her mother relents, and the young girl begins the trip that will forever change her life.  She’s enchanted by the mountains almost as much as she is by Yan Suwol, the wealthy pig farmer’s firstborn son who is equally smitten by her.

Junja has been warned to keep her wits about her and watch for any trouble, be it wild animals or soldiers on the road.  She’s also been warned never to talk politics, to remain always neutral.  But no one has told her that her country remains in a tenuous position; the Japanese may have left, but what is coming may be worse.

She returns home from the journey with the flushed cheeks of someone who breathed mountain air and love for the first time.  She just in time to see her mother succumb to injuries Junja been told were from a diving expedition, despite her mother being an excellent diver.  Junja blames herself.  If she hadn’t begged her mother to let her take the trip, her mother wouldn’t have been near the water that day.  Junja’s grandmother blames herself because she knows the truth.  She knows the secrets that must remain buried.

As the conflict intensifies, Junja finds herself and her grandmother in the thick of it.  Suwol, the poet and scholar who has her heart, is hellbent on fighting the Nationalists.  Her grandmother has taken to cooking for a Nationalist soldier, speaking in hushed tones to him over the meals he praises.  Junja does not trust him, and neither does Suwol.  But Junja quickly learns that things are not what they appear, and people aren’t always who they pretend to be.  A carefully orchestrated ruse to rescue her beloved Suwol starts a series of events that Junja’s grandmother would insist were always meant to be – a series of events that will shatter you.

I wanted more of the haenyeo.  Hahn hints the ways in which they protected their families and homes, from whoring to spying, but those stories are just quick little teases.  I also wanted more of Junja’s grandmother, a woman who, unlike Junja’s mother, refused to stay neutral.  The things she did and the ways she fought during the Japanese occupation deserved more than a passing glance.  But this is the story of one mermaid, a mermaid who is forced to become a woman during a volatile time for her country, and like a mermaid, the novel is absolutely enchanting.

Sumi Hahn’s lovely debut, The Mermaid from Jeju, will be released on 08 December 2020.  Thank you to Alcove Press and Crooked Lane Books for getting this gorgeous ARC in my hands.  For those still doing their Christmas shopping, if you’ve a bookworm on your list who loves historical women’s fiction or women’s fiction in general, this will be published just in time and will look lovely under a tree.

THE SHADOW KING – Maaza Mengiste

But tell me who you are, she says.  Tell me slowly and repeat it three times, and I will make sure you are known. I will make a remembrance worthy of this fall. Say your name to me now. Say your name as you are photographed. Say it as you leap into the air and learn to fly. Do not let them forget who they have killed.”

(290)

The Shadow King (2019) by Maaza Mengiste deserves every bit of praise that has been bestowed upon it.   This lyrical work of historical fiction is bold and beautiful, fierce and fantastic, weighty and wonderful.  The second Italian invasion of Ethiopia is not a conflict that’s made my history books, and if it has, it was little more than a footnote.  As such, I want to give the briefest of history lesson.

Ethiopia was one of the few independent countries in a heavily European-controlled Africa, and Italy wanted to claim it for Italy and Italian landowners.  Following a failed attempt in the 1890s, Mussolini spearheaded the second invasion on October 3, 1935.  The children during the first attempt became the warriors in the second, following in their parents’ footsteps in fighting for their home.  Despite their best efforts, the Ethiopian army suffered blow after blow.  Emperor Haile Selassie fled the country and abandoned his people, going into exile.  Mussolini proclaimed Italy’s king emperor of Ethiopia.  Italy’s tentative control lasted until 1941.  Despite the Italian occupation, Ethiopia is largely considered to be one of two African countries that were never colonized.

That little taste of history provides just a hint of the setting for this remarkable novel that showcases the role of women during the conflict.

Hirut, a young servant, is at the heart of this novel. Following the deaths of her beloved parents, she is “taken in” by Kidane and his wife, Aster.  Her mother had served Kidane’s father, and she was violated repeatedly by him. While not stated with any certainty, it is hinted that Hirut is possibly Kidane’s half-sister.  Like her mother before her, Hirut is expected to serve the family.  Her only memento from her father is an old rifle, a Wujigra, and a single bullet. The Italians aren’t the only monsters who inflict pain upon her, and she grows hard and hellbent on vengeance – a warrior who understands the Italians aren’t the only enemy.

Aster is beautiful but broken.  After being forced into a marriage she tried so desperately to escape and losing her infant son, she has gone quite mad. She is filled with a rage that she redirects as jealousy toward Hirut.  When the Italians invade, she finds a new way to channel her rage and find herself.  She becomes the face of a movement.

The unnamed cook is a part of the land, and her knowledge of how to use plants to heal and kill, to make life and to expel it, are her weapons. The maternal role she played for not only Aster and Hirut, but Fifi and so many other unnamed women, men and children showcased is indicative of yet another way women found to fight the Italians as well as the enemy within.

Fifi is a woman of many names.  A true chameleon, she is a whore and a spy, a lover and a fighter.  Like women have done for centuries in conflicts all across the world, she feigns illiteracy and ignorance while taking top dollar from the Italian officers.  All the while, she’s taking note of telegrams and maps, orders and plans, and passing the information to Kidane’s army.

The women feed the men, heal the sick, and weld their weapons with certainty.  They stand tall, as their mothers did before them, and fight for their home.  They are the mothers and daughters, the sisters and wives, of a country that refused to submit.  The ground is soaked with their blood just as frequently as it is their tears.  History would have you forget them, would have you focus on the men who led charges, who became shadow kings for a coward emperor, who roared in battle.  While the novel gives a lot of insight into Ettore, the Jewish Italian soldier who photographed the war and the prisoners as commanded, and the Colonello Fucelli, who is Kidane’s perfect foil, it always comes back to the women, the true shadow kings of war.

Read this novel.

THE NIGHTINGALE – Kristin Hannah

It always surprises people that I’ve never read anything by attorney-turned-author Kristin Hannah before now.  It’s even more surprising that she only seriously crossed my radar when I read a blurb for her 2021 release, The Four Winds.  I decided I needed to read something by her before this anticipated  release, and here we are.  While I currently have three Hannah novels on my shelves, I selected her highly lauded and “soon to be a major motion picture” novel, The Nightingale (2015), as my introduction to the author.

Hello, indeed.

The writing style of this novel is simple and comforting; it’s not trying too hard to be something it’s not.  And it’s in this familiar simplicity that Hannah has the ability to destroy her reader.  I was positively gutted a couple of times in this novel.  (If you’ve read it, you’re likely equally haunted by one heartbreaking scene in particular involving a young girl.)

The novel, set primarily in France, opens just as WWII is beginning and tells the story of two very different sisters, Vianne and Isabelle.  The sisters have a rather tortured relationship, marred by a dead mother and an absent (and bitter and broken when not absent) father.  After their father sends them away, Vianne quickly abandons her younger sister for the handsome young man who holds her heart.  She marries young after becoming pregnant, but their love story is a true one.  Isabelle spent much of her childhood struggling with being abandoned and longing to be loved.  She’s grown up to be a wild one, with an untamed spirit.  In her heart beats the constant fear that no one has loved her and no one ever will.

Vianne’s buried more babies than she’s nursed, but Sophie is her bright light and Antoine the love of her life.  Her life is near perfect, but then her beloved gets called to war.  Vianne is naïve and afraid; she remembers what the war did to her own father, how it broke him and left him empty with nothing more to give.  Surely war wouldn’t come to sleepy Carriveau.  Surely the line would hold.  In the blink of an eye, the Germans arrive.  A young (and handsome) captain chooses her home as his.  He is kind to her, which proves both a blessing and a curse.

Their father sends Isabelle to Carriveau under the guise that Paris is no longer safe.  She arrives, battered and dehydrated, having been forced to join the throngs of those fleeing Paris on foot and running from attacks.  It is during this journey that she meets Gaetan, the man who will change the course of her destiny.

The sisters are night and day.  Vianne pleads with Isabelle not to be so hot headed, to do as she is told and keep her head down.  But Isabelle is untamed; she will cause ripples.  She will cause waves.  She will be a tsunami upon them. 

In the two sisters, Hannah captures a woman’s war.  Vianne fights as she can, her priorities are to family and home.  She will do anything for her daughter.  Anything.  Vianne is the mother, and her rebellions have the quiet strength of a woman who has loved and lost and who knows she’ll do both for the rest of her days.  Isabelle is daring and fearless.  Emboldened by years of being treated like a pretty, empty thing, she is hellbent on proving herself to her sister, her father, Gaet, and even herself.  She joins the fight – her code name is “Nightingale.”  Isabelle may be a fictional character, but her heroic efforts in shepherding shot-down pilots safely across the Pyrenees are well-rooted in history.

While the novel flowed with relative ease, I did take issue with the inconsistent and unnecessary usage of French; the reader knows the dialogue is taking place in French even though written in English, so constantly throwing a “oui” or a “Mon Dieu” just seemed unwarranted and a bit annoying.  That said, this tale of two sisters, the choices they made and the secrets they buried, was simply and exquisitely told.    

BESTIARY – K-Ming Chang

Jie says she once saw two girl ghosts kissing in the creek. I mishear her and think she means they were cleaning the creek. Why? I say.  Jie says, Because a god made them want but didn’t give them a word for it.

Bestiary (One World, a Random House imprint, 2020)is K-Ming Chang’s gritty and magical debut novel.  It’s ugly and foul.  It’s vulgar and disgusting. It’s covered in mud and bodily fluids.  Blood.  Sweat.  Tears. Semen.  It breathes.  It pulses.  It snarls.  It’s one of the most remarkable things I’ve read this year.

If you’ve followed me for any amount of time, you’ve likely realized that I have a special place in my booklovin’ heart for magical realism and the cultural significance of storytelling.  As such, it doesn’t come as a shock that I’d pick up this novel of three generations of Taiwanese American mothers and daughters.  Wrapped in Taiwanese folklore and mythology, Bestiary embraces and exposes family secrets, childhood scars, blatant discrimination, and queer desires with no apologies and no warnings.

It’s difficult to formulate a review of a book like this, because it’s so different.  I heard echoes of Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” that can’t be denied, but this novel is more raw, more crude, more visceral.  It may not find its way on my list of favorites and it’s not one I would recommend to everyone, but it certainly is a remarkable piece of literature, history, and storytelling.

THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT -Rachel Mans McKenny

The Butterfly Effect, Rachel Mans McKenney (Alcove Press, Dec 08, 2020)

I recently received an advanced reader’s edition of Rachel Mans McKenney’s upcoming release The Butterfly Effect.  This debut novel is quite remarkable, settling about the reader like a comforting hug or a blanket made by your grandmother.  It’s not artificially sweet, but rather naturally sweet, like the nectar the butterflies that flit about the novel feed upon.

Greta Oto prefers bugs to people, data to drama, and Lepidoptera to love.  In her world, things are black and white – there is no room for any grey.  The only person she’s really let in is her twin, Danny, and they’re not exactly on the best of terms.  With nothing holding her back, she heads to Costa Rica to research her beloved butterflies and avoid an Iowan winter.  But somewhere, a butterfly alighted on a flower, and Danny suffered an aneurysm.  And Danny, the good twin, the popular twin, the twin who could see colors in sound, was in serious condition.  Greta, full of regrets from past decisions, hurries to his side.

Socially awkward and matter of fact, Greta makes no attempt to play nice with Danny’s fiancée, Meg.  She is growly and disagreeable, showing her teeth whenever Meg tries to get too close.  Her ex-boyfriend Brandon is a different story entirely.  She had let him in.  His passion for butterflies had become her passion, and now she had to beg him for a job at the butterfly conservatory so she can get off Meg’s couch and keep her academic career from derailing after being removed from the Costa Rica research project.  It’s easy with him, easy to remind her how easy it was.  And with his pretty new girlfriend, being easy is dangerous.  Max is different.    One of Greta’s closest friends, Max understands her better than most.  Things with him are nice and uncomplicated, until they aren’t.  Add a mother who abandoned Greta and Danny after falling for a man other than their father, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a research project into families and what ‘home’ actually means.

Greta Oto’s prickly personality and the warmth of the novel make it a rather easy comparison to A Man Called Ove, but it has a distinct heartbeat as fragile and powerful as the wings of glasswing or a swallowtail.  This well-written and feel-good story of science, facts, family, and healing should certainly find a home on your shelves, because we all need a hug, whether we realize it or not.