THE WITCHES OF ST. PETERSBURG – Imogen Edwards-Jones

I purchased Imogen Edwards-Jones’s The Witches of St. Petersburg (Harper, 2019) strictly because of the gorgeous, icy blue cover. As stunning as the cover is, it doesn’t begin to do the story justice – this is one of the more captivating premise-wise historical fiction novels I’ve picked up in a while, and I simply couldn’t put it down.

A little history before we get to the review is in order.

The Romanov imperial house ruled Russia from 1613 to 1917.    When Alexander III died in 1894, his son Nicholas became emperor.  Nicholas promptly married Alix of Hesse-Darmstadi, a favorite granddaughter of Queen Victoria.  Nicholas, Alix, and their children were executed in 1918, and while this is mentioned in the epilogue, The Witches of St. Petersburg begins in 1889 and ends in 1916.  It is important to note that while many of the characters and events are based in fact, this is very much a work of fiction.

The Black Sisters (named for their dark eyes), Militza and Anastasia “Stana,” are sent by their father, King of Montenegro, to marry distinguished figures in the Romanov court.  Their objective is to advance their own positions and in doing so, that of their father and Montenegro.  The St. Petersburg elite don’t approve of them.  The sisters come from a poor country, and they are outsiders rumored to practice in the dark arts.  Militza and Stana are the “witches” of St. Petersburg who carry the novel.

When Alexander III dies, the sisters seize the opportunity to make fast friends with the shy tsarina, Alix.  Alix is immediately drawn to the pair, specifically Militza, when she learns of their magical gifts. As the years go by and she keeps having daughters and no sons, she enlists their assistance and talents to ensure she delivers an heir.  After several failed attempts, a son is born; however, he has haemophilia and chances at survival are scarce.  Wanting to further ensure her position within the royal family, Militza turns to some even darker magic to summon a spiritual shaman who can keep the child alive.  From her hands, Rasputin is made and a Pandora’s box she cannot slam shut is opened.

Full of magic, betrayal, passion and privilege, The Witches of St. Petersburg is one romp of a ride.  The basis in fact only makes it more enticing, and it is well written.  

Read this book.

DEATHLESS DIVIDE – Justina Ireland

“It’s a curious thing, to watch a town fall to the dead.”

After being surprisingly pleased with Dread Nation, I couldn’t wait to start Justina Ireland’s   sequel, Deathless Divide (Balzer + Bray, 2020).  It’s got a phenomenal cover, and I was eager to have more Jane and Kate.  I really wish I hadn’t read it so close to my first reading of Dread Nation because I fear I’m having some issues removing my negative experience with Deathless Divide from my positive one of Dread Nation.  It’s not the worst follow-up in a series (coughchildrenofvirtueandvengeancecough), but it comes close.

The things I loved about Dread Nation are gone.  The relationship between Jane and Kate isn’t as effortless as in Dread Nation.  And I’m not talking about the plot, which admittedly drives the pair apart. I feel like Ireland stopped being able to hear the two as she was drafting.  The alternating POVS in the sequel had potential, but she loses their voices.

A little more than halfway through, the novel leaps forward a year and five months. The events that happened during that time are hinted at, but I wanted to see them.  Kate escaping Fort Riley in a wedding dress and heading back home to New Orleans?  Jane becoming a bounty-hunter and earning the new moniker, Devil’s Bitch?  It had so much potential.  There’s a part of me that thinks this was supposed to be books two and three, and the deadline came faster than the muse could finish what happened after the fall of Summerland.  It’s frustrating because the idea is so good, it’s just poorly executed.

There’s also a point in the novel where Ireland seems to have forgotten that one of the characters had their arm amputated. (I’m not going to say which character in case you want to read it.) That character holds out her hands, plural, to show she doesn’t have any money, but that character should only have one hand.  It’s a little slip that probably went unnoticed by most readers, and clearly the entire editorial team, but it has annoyed me immensely.

In short, this is one of my least favorite reads of the year and I don’t recommend it.   It’s set up for a continuation of the series, but I don’t know if that’s Ireland’s immediate intent and I honestly don’t think I’d read any more books in the series.  As far as I’m concerned, the hope, happiness and positivity at the end of Dread Nation survives.

DREAD NATION – Justina Ireland

“And I suppose I might have grown up better, might have become a proper house girl or even taken Aunt Aggie’s place as House Negro. I might have been a good girl if it had been in the cards.  But all of that was dashed to hell two days after I was born, when the dead rose up and started to walk on a battlefield in a small town in Pennsylvania called Gettysburg.”

Civil war era United States?  Zombies? Schools with the sole purpose of training Black people and Native Americans to kill zombies?  Sharp-tongued and quick-witted young women who certainly don’t need a man to rescue them?  When I read the premise of Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation (Balzer + Bray, 2018) I was hooked.  Rise up indeed.

Jane McKeene is at the top of her class at the prestigious Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore. She’s mastered weaponry (except for firearms), but she’s having some difficulty with etiquette – unlike the stunning Katherine Deveraux, who is light enough to pass as white and can wield her weapons (including firearms) while wearing a corset.  Beautiful, delicate and dangerous, everyone thinks Katherine won’t have any issues being selected to serve as an Attendant for some wealthy white family.  Jane loathes her.

Jane prefers folks, including Katherine, under-estimating her.  She is well-read but lets most think she’s illiterate because that’s what they expect of her.  She utilizes code switching, adopting a simple-minded and uneducated way of speaking among certain white folks because she knows from experience an educated black girl will set them on edge.  It’s effective for the plot, but not executed consistently.  (The inconsistencies are far more apparent in the sequel, however.)

Jane isn’t keen on following rules and she often sneaks out at night, killing shamblers and protecting travelers. Her exploits have earned her the moniker Angel of the Crossroads, and her reputation has reached those in high places.  Despite excelling at killing, she’s far too stubborn and insubordinate to make a good Attendant.  When she stumbles upon the mayor’s dark secret and threatens to unravel the political lie that is holding Baltimore together, she is sent to a new settlement and forced to protect the wealthy parts of the fledging town.  After the wives of the affluent men see Katherine, they determine she is far too pretty to serve as an Attendant and she is sent along with Jane to Summerland where the two must learn to not only work together, but to trust each other.

The relationship between Jane and Katherine, the enemies to friends plotline that carries both novels, is at times infuriating, but largely endearing and easily my favorite aspect of Dread Nation.    The treatment of race and colorism, the code-switching, the historical truths of scientists and doctors experimenting on Black people as well as the “forced education” of Native American youth make this novel a bit more than just your average zombie story.

I do not recommend the sequel, which I will review separately, but I certainly recommend Dread Nation.

Read this book.

GREAT CIRCLE – Maggie Shipstead

“I was born to be a wanderer.”

Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle (Alfred A. Knopf 2021) is likely my pick for the 2021 Booker Prize.  (And it has nothing to do with the fact a coonhound makes an appearance.)  I love the uniqueness of Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This and it’s still my dark horse favorite, but Shipstead’s epic historical saga is damn near perfect once you get to about page 73.  There were early sections that gave me pause, glitches in the storytelling that just missed the mark or overshot it, but when she gets off the ground… chef’s kiss.  This is what historical literary fiction should look like.

Marian and Jamie Graves are raised by their uncle in Montana after nearly being lost at sea.  Their father, a ship’s captain, is arrested and convicted of criminal negligence after abandoning the ship in order to save the twins.  Their mother, a lost soul already, plunged into the depths in the hopes of a better life or at least a better death.  The twins grow wild in Montana, left largely to their own devices by their artistic uncle who can’t hold his liquor or his money.  Marian is bold, brave and rash.  Jamie is softer with a quieter bravery.  Marian is bitten by the flying bug and starts saving money for lessons.  She disguises herself as a boy and begins making deliveries for the local bakery.  As this is during the time of prohibition, her deliveries aren’t exactly always legal.  She saves her money and bides her time.  While working as a delivery boy, she catches the eye of Barclay Macqueen, a powerful and dangerous bootlegger who isn’t accustomed to being told no.  She makes her deals with the devil and begins taking flight lessons.

Marian is most at home in the skies and as much as she grows to hate Barclay, that’s the gift he’s given her.  When war breaks out, she goes to London to fly with the ATA.  Jamie joins as a war artist, a tortured role for the peaceful artist.  After the war, Marian is determined to circumnavigate the globe – the mission funded by the widow of her father’s former business partner.  The widow is trying to right some wrongs – things can come full circle, right?

The novel easily slips from Marian and the early 1900s to Hadley Baxter, a young actress tapped to play Marian in an upcoming low budget film based on Marian’s final flight and subsequent disappearance.  In this role, Hadley learns a bit about truth in storytelling, about how some things just aren’t meant to be known, how there isn’t always a clear right or a clear wrong, and how we can rewrite our narratives. 

From New York to Montana to Alaska to London to California, this novel travels the globe and spans a century.  Starting with the waters and ending in the skies, Great Circle is magnificent. 

**I personally do not do trigger/content warnings, but for those who do, please read some other reviews prior to picking up this novel.

CHRONICLES FROM THE LAND OF THE HAPPIEST PEOPLE ON EARTH – Wole Soyinka

Wole Soyinka is arguably the best writer to come out of Nigeria.  In addition to being an author, playwright, and poet, he’s a political activist.  Openly critical of Nigeria (which resulted in his imprisonment) and the US (he destroyed his green card when Trump was elected), he’s never held back or sugar coated his words.  His works are political, satirical, and expertly crafted.  He is the first Black person to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the recently published Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth (Pantheon Books, 2021) is his first novel in nearly fifty years.  I am very grateful to have received an advanced copy of the work, and I hate that I didn’t get to it before its pub date.  But here we are.

Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth is sharp and witty and disjointed and broken.  It’s not an “easy” read by any stretch, but it is phenomenally crafted.  Soyinka is no better than when he is exposing guilt, greed, corruption, and the seedy side of things, and Chronicles lets him paint with both broad and nuanced strokes.

At the heart of the novel is Dr. Menka, who has recently learned that someone is selling body parts stolen from his hospital.  He tells one of his oldest friends, Duyole Pitan-Payne. Duyole has accepted a position at the United Nations and will soon be leaving Nigeria, but they both work to solve the mystery of who is behind the black-market body parts and who is behind the fire that destroyed Dr. Menka’s home and club.

Can they get to the bottom of it before it’s too late? And how far up does the corruption and exploitation go?

The whodunit aspect of the novel stumbles along, at times nearly losing its reader, but it always brings you back.  The novel is worth the struggle.  More importantly, the current that runs between the lines, the one that weeps for the country Soyinka so desperately loves, keeps you grounded and reminds you that literature can change the world.

Be the change.

Let them read.

A PLAY FOR THE END OF THE WORLD – Jai Chakrabarti

In 1942, a prominent Polish Jewish children’s author, Janusz Korczak or Pan Doktor,staged a performance of Rabindranath Tagore’s play The Post Office. The Indian play is about a very sick boy who will die.  Korczak, consistently refusing sanctuary and insisting he stay with the nearly 200 orphans in his care, wanted to prepare the children (and himself) for what was likely to come.  In August of that year, the entire orphanage, including Pan Doktor, was sent from the Ghetto to the Treblinka extermination camp.  Pan Doktor, the children, and the nurses were all gassed – the children dressed in their finest to meet death.  This story is true.  Pan Doktor, the orphanage, the performance of the play… this is all true.  Jai Chakrabarti imagines what would happen if two of these children survived in A Play for the End of the World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2021).

A Play for the End of the World centers on Jaryk, a survivor from the Warsaw Ghetto, and Lucy, a free spirit from Mebane, North Carolina.  (As a North Carolinian, I was a bit surprised and delighted to see Mebane show up as Lucy’s hometown.)  The novel is a love story between Jaryk and Lucy, but it’s also a love story between Jaryk and his best friend, Misha.  Misha is ten years older than Jaryk and had taken the young boy under his wing when Jaryk showed up at the orphanage.  Like Jaryk, he escaped the fate of the other children.  Both deal with their past and their survivor’s guilt in different ways.  Misha is loud and open.  Jaryk bottles the past deep inside, and the fractures seen in his relationship with Lucy are centered around the secrets and his guilt.

A professor from India connects with Misha and invites him and Jaryk to stage the same play they’d both been a part of in Pan Doktor’s production.  He wants them to direct the play in a rural Indian town, Gopalpur.  There’s a lot of unrest in India, particularly in rural areas, and he wants to use the play as a political message.

Jaryk doesn’t want to go, so Misha goes without him.  While there, he dies.  Jaryk flies to India to collect his friend’s ashes, and to finish what Misha had started.  There, he finds himself on another political stage where normal people are driven to do bad things.  Torn between his love for Lucy and the guilt that continues to consume him, he makes decisions that he will later regret.

A Play for the End of the World is a solid debut with moments of genius.  The correspondence between young Jaryk and Pan Doktor through a dream journal is heartbreaking.  Lucy’s relationship with her father, which we don’t get too much of, had me rooting for her to leave New York for good.  The unbreakable bond between Misha and Jaryk, forged as only tragedy can do, is the preferred “love story” of the novel.

I did find some sections too rushed and incomplete – as if in the editing process, something important or introductory was removed and it not addressed elsewhere.  Also, the editor screwed up the dates in the chapter headings; the scenes in India did not take place in 1942.  All in all, I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical fiction and appreciates the impact of the arts in political theater.

Read this book.

LOBIZONA – Romina Garber

There’s a comforting familiarity to Romina Garber’s Lobizona (Wednesday Books, 2020) – there is an elite school for magical beings and a sporting event, and these magical beings walk the world unbeknownst to but a few humans.  But the world Garber created, the way she blends Argentinian folklore with the realities of the undocumented in the US, breathes a new life and has new layers – it just hits differently.

Manu is an undocumented teen from Argentina.  She’s lived in Miami for most of her life with her mother.  She’s been told that her father’s family are not good people, and they are looking for her.  As she has distinctive eyes, she wears sunglasses any time she exits her home to help make herself invisible from those who would do her harm.  In addition to being on the run from her father’s dangerous family, Manu and her mother are in the United States illegally.  As such, they live in constant fear of ICE and raids.

But Manu isn’t just some undocumented kid from Argentina.  She’s a halfling; half of her being belongs in a world that she’s only dreamed about.  After her mother is picked up by ICE and she’s left to her own devices, she learns that her mom wasn’t hiding her from some Argentinian drug lord – she was hiding her from a world where women are brujas and men are lobizones.  A magical world full of wonder that would want her dead if they knew with certainty of her existence.  The penalty for mating with a human?  Death.  Any child born of such a union also faces the same sentence.  That is why her mother had run.  That is why her father had disappeared.

In a twist, Manu finds herself at the elite school.  She’s undocumented in America and undocumented there, and a plan is hatched to purchase falsified documents to help hide her true identity as half-human.  She makes friends who risk everything for her.  She falls in love.  She joins a sporting team. She’d been denied friends for so long because of a life lived in the shadows that she flourishes among people her own age.  Manu is finally able to embrace the side of her that had been kept dormant with a special drug for so long.

But Manu isn’t a bruja – she’s a Lobizona, making her even more of an oddity in the magical world as women are witches and men are the werewolves. 

Lobizona is the first of the Wolves of No World series, and I’ve already placed a library hold on Cazadora (Wednesday Books, 2021) because I must find out what happens to Manu.

Read this book.

THE SWEETNESS OF WATER – Nathan Harris

Nathan Harris’s debut The Sweetness of Water (Little, Brown and Company 2021) was a highly anticipated novel that was immediately met with applause.  An instant bestseller, it is an Oprah’s Book Club Pick and it made President Obama’s summer reading list.  Additionally, it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. 

Everyone loves this book.

Everyone but me.

I have mixed feelings.  Don’t get me wrong – it’s beautifully written, and I am very excited to see what comes next from Nathan Harris.  My issues are due to the hollowness that echoed toward the latter half of the book as related to both Caleb and Prentiss, and the delayed development of Isabelle’s character.  I also would have liked to have seen more of Landry and Prentiss’s relationship, as well as the relationship between Landry and Isabelle that we’re only given snippets of, and much of that through Isabelle’s lens looking backward.

The novel is set just after the Emancipation Proclamation in Georgia.  Prentiss and Landry have left the plantation where they’d been enslaved are heading North when they encounter George Walker.  The older man has found himself lost on his property and seeks their assistance, and the two brothers lead him home.  George offers them both a job with fair wages.  George has never worked a day in his life but has decided he wants to leave a legacy on the land left to him by his father.  As such, he’s determined to build a peanut farm and he enlists Prentiss and Landry to help him.  This does not sit well with the former slave owner or the townsfolks who don’t like that he’s paying them fair wages while their sons are returning from war and need work.  George, a very easy to love character, doesn’t give a shit what they think.

Landry is the heart of the novel – he is the sweetness in the water.  He’d been severely beaten on a regular basis as a child and doesn’t speak.  He can, but he stammers and stutters so much that he prefers not to.  He loves water and that love of water has been his undoing his entire life.

George’s son, Caleb, is in love with his childhood friend, August.  I hated August and I hated the abusive and toxic relationship.  The reader is told early in the novel how August had brutally beaten Caleb when they were children while playing a game called “master and slave.”  When their relationship becomes physical, it is equally as violent and disturbing.

And then there is Isabelle, George’s wife.  She is the silent one, nearly invisible and most certainly not seen.  At least that is how she feels, and it is how she is written for the first part of the novel. Landry sees her, though.  And through him, she finds her voice and purpose.  My issue is how immediate her development is – and perhaps it is intentional; remove the men, and suddenly she can be seen.  However, her character could have been treated a bit better to build to that moment, and this would not have lessened the impact of her relationship with Landry.

In short, The Sweetness of Water is both sweet and bitter.  While there are some flaws, it’s an easy read that is beautifully written.  I would recommend it, but I do think it leaves a hollowness in its wake.

I don’t love it, but I most decidedly do not hate it. 

Read this book.

THE BATHING WOMEN – Tie Ning

Tie Ning’s The Bathing Women (2000, 2012 – English translation by Hongling Zhang and Jason Sommer) was an unexpected read.  The translation received mixed reviews, and I initially found it a bit “off” – but I realized it wasn’t the translation so much as the style of storytelling.  It was a bit frustrating, especially early on, because reading the book was like putting together a puzzle.  When I put together a puzzle, I do edges first and separate the pieces by color to work on sections.  Sometimes you find a piece that clearly goes in another section.  It disrupts the process just a tad, but at the end you have a completed puzzle.  The Bathing Women is a lot like that with random bits showing up in unexpected sections.

I haven’t read many, if any, books by Chinese authors who currently live in China.  That’s largely because the vast majority don’t get translated into English.  For example, Tie Ning was an extremely prominent Chinese author prior to The Bathing Women, yet this was her first novel to be translated into English and that took 12 years. 

Much like the artwork for which it is named, The Bathing Women offers a rare glimpse into the very private and intimate world of Chinese women. 

The novel follows two sisters, Tiao and Fan, and one of Tiao’s friends, Fei.  (Another friend, YouYou, is a prominent character, but she doesn’t have her own sections and she’s not connected to the secret that binds the other three.)  The novel spans from Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, where Tiao and Fan are left to their own devices as their parents have been sent to Reed River Farm for “concentrated labor and thought reform”) to the economic boom of the 1990s, where Tiao and Fan are still struggling with their identities and their past.

After Tiao’s mother feigns an illness to return home from the farm,she finds herself in an adulterous relationship with the doctor who assisted her in the deception.  Tiao hates her mother for this and rebels against her.  When Quan is born, Tiao suspects the doctor is her father.  Tiao and Fan both hate their little sister, and in a moment of gross negligence that will forever haunt the two sisters, Quan dies.

Tiao, forever marked by her mother’s affair and Quan’s death, grows into a woman with romantic ideals but an inability to be truly happy. She goes to college and gets a dream job with a publishing company.  Her life is very fulfilling in many respects, but something is always missing.  A true romantic, she has passionate relationships, but they never fully satisfy her.

Fan, the younger sister, is also haunted by her involvement in Quan’s death.  She masters English because she understands the doors fluency will open and she wants to escape. She ultimately marries an American.  While her pathway to citizenship is a blip in the novel, it should be mentioned that there wasn’t a pathway at all; a US birth certificate was falsified.  American Fan took significant steps to erase her past.

Fei is the adulterous doctor’s niece.   She doesn’t know who her father is, and her mother committed suicide after being exposed as an unwed mother – or a “hooligan.”  A gorgeous girl with limited means and no parents, Fei learns very early how to use her sex to get ahead in life.  She uses sex not only for her own benefit, but also to help her friends. She uses sex to get ingredients for a meal that YouYou wants to make when they’re teens.  She uses sex to get Tiao a foot in the publishing door.  She uses sex to get her ex-husband’s family member into college.  Time and time again, she sells her body, but she never allows anyone to touch her mouth.  This small detail is one of the reasons the beautiful and broken Fei was my favorite of the three.

The Bathing Women is not without its flaws.  The writing is a bit unraveled and clunky in parts, and there are some extremely awkward scenes and phrasings that I attribute to the fact it’s a translation; but Tie Ning is a Chinese woman writing about Chinese women, and I would recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys reading intimate portrayals of women and who like diverse shelves.

THE STATIONERY SHOP – Marjan Kamali

Marjan Kamali’s The Stationery Shop (Gallery Books 2019) is a heartbreaking novel of first love and lost love – a novel of how fate is a fickle mistress.

The novel opens in 2013 in New England.  Roya is an old woman, “nearly American,” who first left Iran over fifty years ago.  Walter, her steadfast and sure husband, is still with her and she is happy.  She’s all but forgotten about Bahman, the young man who stole her heart with his pretty eyes and prettier words, and left her standing in a square, in the midst of a political coup, on the day they were to wed.  But a little nostalgia and a trip to local stationery store bring him and all the memories back.

The novel shifts to 1953 Tehran and Mr. Fakhri’s stationery shop.  Roya is a teenager in love with words, especially words about love.  In his shop, she surrounds herself with poetry.  Her father wants her to be a scientist, but she’s a romantic at heart.  One Tuesday, she meets Bahman in the stationery shop and the world stands still.  He is a political activist, an idealist who believes in the fragile democracy his country is building, and his passion ignites her fire.

Against his mother’s wishes, they become engaged.  The political turmoil in Iran becomes violent as the attempts to overthrow the democratically elected Prime Minister increase.  The country is divided, bleeding around them, when Bahman disappears.  They begin exchanging letters through books that Mr. Fakhri provides.  One letter tells her to meet him at the square, that he wants to marry her immediately and not wait.  There are violent demonstrations all around when she goes to meet her love, but she will walk through gunfire for this man.  Only he doesn’t show.

A letter comes later telling her that he was sorry for leading her on, and that he is going to marry the woman his mother had chosen for him when they were children.  Roya is devastated. Her father, seeing her heartbreak but also seeing what is happening in his country, encourages Roya and her sister to go to America to study.  They go, and both build lives in the States.

Decades later, Bahman is suddenly back in her life, and Roya wants answers.  She wants to know why he didn’t show up that day.  Why he broke her heart.  And to tell him she forgives him   Roya’s mother always told her that fate was written on one’s forehead, and she knew Bahman was her fate.  But fate is fickle, and she didn’t understand that perhaps everything happened according to plan.

I’ve always found stories of someone “finding” their “first” and “true” love again later in life the most heartbreaking because it’s often done in such a way to invalidate the lives the couple lived while apart.  Kamali avoids this by showing how full and complete Roya’s life was, how her biggest heartbreak was not Bahman, and how much she does love Walter and the life they’ve built.

The resolution and the answer as to why Bahman didn’t show up initially seems contrived and dissatisfying, but it is fitting that a letter is how Roya would find out the truth.

This story of a young love during Iran’s coup d’état in 1953 is just as much the story of Bahman’s mother – after all, it started in 1916 with the sweetest of melons and a young man who did unspeakable things. 

Fate… she has a slow burn.

Read this book. 

For the romance.  For the history.  For the culture.  For the food. 

For the fact that we are forever more alike than we are different. Read this book