The Book Eaters, by Sunyi Dean

Devon, the protagonist of Sunyi Dean’s unsettling novel, The Book Eaters, is caught between a rock and a hard place. In her case, the rock is her family and the hard place is her child. Devon’s family is special. They sustain themselves by eating books and not in a metaphorical way. The family keeps to themselves as much as possible. By the time we meet Devon, however, she has managed to break free somehow. Well, sort of. Her rock and her hard place keep her from being truly free. The hope that she might be keeps Devon putting one foot in front of the other as the rock and hard place collide, catching her in the middle.

The Book Eaters jumps back and forth from Devon’s present to her past and it takes several chapters to learn what on earth is going on with Devon and her son, Cai. All we know at first is that Cai is very sick. There’s a drug that can make him well, but the only people who make it have gone off even the secretive book eater grid. Unlike his mother, who draws nourishment from books (the older the better), Cai eats minds. At this point, I realized that, instead of a bookish flavored fantasy, this book is actually a horror novel. This book gets very bloody (or inky, as the case may be) very quickly.

The chapters set in Devon’s past explain why and do absolutely nothing to relieve the creepy atmosphere. Devon, we learn, was the treasured girl-child of a family in decline. The book eaters are struggling to reproduce. As soon as they are of age, girls are entered into arranged marriages in the hope that they will have children before their ovaries shut down. The girls have no choice in the matter. Sometimes, the marriages go well, while they last. Unfortunately for Devon, her first marriage was not good and her second was much worse.

I understood Devon’s motivations. She loves her son and would do anything to keep him alive. On the other hand, I didn’t understand the motivations of her brother, Ramsey, who sets himself up as her antagonist. Where Devon just wants an escape for herself and her son, Ramsey wants to restore the old way of things, with himself bossing everyone around. He’s given a background full of the kind of abuse meant to make him loyal to the “knights” who are tasked with controlling people like Cai and with arranging the marriages that produce the next generations of book eaters. It works too well for me to find it plausible. I found Ramsey’s monologing and stubbornness weirdly one-dimensional, especially in comparison to Devon and Cai’s characterization.

I try not to fault books for not being what I hoped they would be after reading the early publisher blurbs. I wish there had been more about the history of the book eaters. Some of the characters hint at their origins, but we only ever get hints. Instead, the book takes its premise and the wonderful character of Devon and insists on steering the plot into horror and thriller territory. The Book Eaters is an interesting book, sure, but I wouldn’t recommend it to fans of fantasy or dark academia. This book is for readers who like original scenarios along with flying bullets.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Nuclear Family, by Joseph Han

It’s easy to mistake stability for coasting and it’s pretty clear from the beginning of Joseph Han’s Nuclear Family that the Cho family is coasting. The elder Chos plan to expand their small Korean delicatessen but that dream has stalled in the face of competition. Neither of the younger Chos really want to carry on the family business. They don’t know what they want, really; they just know they don’t want to do that. When Jacob inexplicably decides to take a job in South Korea and even more inexplicably tries to run across the demilitarized zone to the North, everything falls apart for the family. This book, then, is a slow burn of directionless decline in which we can only hope that the four Chos can somehow find their paths forward.

Most of Nuclear Family is narrated by daughter Grace and son Jacob. There are brief passages narrated by their parents and grandparents that add a little more context to the family’s struggles in Korea during and after the war and, later, in Hawai’i. Of the two, Jacob’s story is much more interesting (to me, at least). His disorienting fall has a clear cause. You see, he’s being haunted (and sometimes possessed) by his long-lost grandfather, whose unfinished business has turned his spirit into a gwisin. His sister, on the other hand, is possessed by marijuana. The drug seems to be the only thing that keeps her from completely losing her grip, at the cost of detaching her from reality. I find reading from the point of view of inebriated characters difficult. It often strikes me as so much blather. This might be because I ran with a nerdy crowd in high school and college; we were all too busy reading to experiment with mind-altering substances.

While Jacob struggles to ditch his supernatural pest of a grandfather and Grace barely pauses between puffs from her vape pen, their parents find that their community—especially their fellow Korean emigrants—has turned on them. Their son’s bizarre run marks the Chos as traitors. The main branch of their delicatessen is the target of a thrown brick. The snubs and gossip are even worse. I felt for the elder Chos. To see their dream of financial independence and a future for their children evaporate in the face of public disapproval is heartbreaking. What was all that work for if it can disappear in an instant?

The ending of Nuclear Family offers some hope for the future but, like so many other works of literary fiction, there is still the possibility that something else will happen to send the family off the rails. It might not be a happily ever after and I appreciate that. The conclusion of this novel feels honest and satisfyingly hard-won.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

How to Be Eaten, by Maria Adelmann

Trigger warnings for references to trauma and child abuse.

I have a fascination with books that look at what happens after—after the Big Bad has been taken down and the lovers have gotten together and all that. I especially love it when authors take the metafictional route and put characters into group therapy to talk through their issues (as in The Final Girls Support Group and Lost in a Good Book). When I saw reviews for Maria Adelmann’s How to Be Eaten I jumped at the chance to read it. I just couldn’t resist a book in which five women who lived through traumatic events that strangely resemble fairy tales are invited to participate in group therapy. Readers, I inhaled this book.

Five women receive a series of emails that invite them to private group therapy. It takes several emails to get them to attend since, for the most part, these women don’t want to talk about what happened and prefer to keep the lowest of profiles. The emails eventually wear them down and, in short order, we meet Bernice, who went into the one room her rich boyfriend told her not to; Ruby, who wears a wolfskin coat almost as heavy as her attitude; brittle-bright Ashlee, who won a Bachelor-style reality show called The One; Gretel, whose brother has very different memories of what happened when their impoverished parents abandoned them; and the mysterious Raina, a motherly woman nursing secret regrets in spite of her apparently perfect life. All of these women are barely maintaining the appearance of normalcy. It doesn’t take much to crack their facades.

Group therapy is a chance for all of these women to finally get their stories heard, if only by their therapist Will (who we learn has his own secrets). They are all heartily sick (or constantly retraumatized) by having the public at large telling simplified—and mostly wrong—versions of events. Like so many real women who appear in the news, the public question their choices, blame victims, or speculate about ulterior motives. The fact that their sometimes very traumatic pasts have been turned into entertainment just adds insult to injury. That these women’s stories have elements of the fantastic, it’s little wonder that they either hide from or rail against the injustice of it all.

Adelmann has crafted a brilliant narrative that explored how women are portrayed in the media and gossiped about by society in a way that stays grounded in a cast of fascinating characters. I was completely engaged with those characters, even as I tried to match them with fairy tales and wondered about what Will was really up to. Everything about this book was incredible.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Dead Collections, by Isaac Fellman

Isaac Fellman’s Dead Collections held a lot of promise for me when I first read the reviews. How could I not love a book about a vampire who works as an archivist who falls in love? I adore a good love story about weirdos finding each other. The fact that it took place at least partly in an archive was just gravy. That said…this was not the right book for me. Instead, this is a book for people who want to know what it’s like to feel uneasy about one’s body, out of place in the gender binary, or distressed by not feeling attracted by the same things as everyone else.

Sol Katz has some, but not all, of what he wants out of his unlife. He works in an archive (and squats there during the day). His coworkers don’t seem to like him that much, but they tolerate his vampiric quirks. The happy status quo changes when Elsie drops the archive of Sol’s favorite TV writer in his lap. Even though Elsie is recently bereaved, she and Sol have an instant connection. The two share long calls in which they reveal their desires and fretful thoughts about themselves. Those conversations are a lot, especially when what I really wanted was vampiric archival adventures and shenanigans.

I can’t fault Dead Collections for not being what I wanted it to be. There’s at least a little of archival shenanigans sprinkled here and there for those of us who wanted more books and fewer feelings. For readers who do want feelings, Dead Collections is a delightful and unusual love story about weirdos finding their soulmate.

The Cartographers, by Peng Shepherd

Throughout The Cartographers, by Peng Shepherd, characters frequently ask each other, “What is the purpose of a map?” Answers range from the obvious (to find things) to the philosophical (to orient ourselves in relation to the world) to the near mystical. This book takes us deep into the world of rare maps and cartography to deliver a mystery that is a lot stranger than anyone could’ve ever expected. I love a story that starts in an archive and ends up somewhere magical.

Nell Young hasn’t worked at her beloved New York Public Library’s map division for seven years, ever since the “Junk Box Incident.” Before the incident, Nell interned there under her father’s direction. She got to work with rare, pre-modern maps along with her boyfriend. Then she finds a box labeled junk in the backlog of uncataloged donations to the library. Along with a handfull of very valuable maps, Nell finds a mass produced map that is so worthless it has to have been put in the box by mistake. Strangely, her father is incensed by the appearance of the worthless map and fires Nell. After seven years of exile, Nell is called back to the NYPL with news that her father has died.

Things start to get very weird after Nell visits the library to visit an old family friend/colleague. (The map world is apparently very small.) Reminiscing at her father’s desk leads to a rediscovery of that old junk map, a map that turns out to be the source of someone’s deadly obsession. The Cartographers turns into a steeple chase at this point: underground map sellers, suspicious black cars, break ins, murders, creepy tech moguls, family secrets. It all culminates in a secret that delighted me, but that I’m definitely not going to tell you about because it would ruin the book.

The Cartographers is a treat for readers who enjoy mystery and whimsy with an academic flavor and some outstanding character development.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Sentence, by Louise Erdrich

I just finished Louise Erdrich’s latest novel, The Sentence, and I am still feeling buzzy. As soon as I finished it, I wanted to do two things at the same time: immediately start reading it again and start messaging my bookish friends to talk them into reading it immediately. I loved so much about this book that this is probably going to be another gushy review in which I worry that I won’t be able to fully convey its wonderfulness. Heck, I’m even a little annoyed that I borrowed a copy from the library because there were so many beautiful passages I wanted to underline.

Tookie is a haunted woman, in both senses of the word. First, she is being haunted by a customer who, annoying in life, continues to be annoying by hanging around the bookstore where Tookie works. (This bookstore also happens to be in Minneapolis and owned by a woman named Louise, very much like this real bookstore). Second, she is haunted by a crime she committed when she was younger and making a lot of bad choices. That crime, laid out in the earliest chapters of the book, is an odd one: she stole a dead body because the woman she loved at the time asked her to. Of the two, the restless ghost of the customer is more troublesome.

Most of The Sentence takes place between November 2019 and November 2020. Erdrich gives us a series of chapters and vignettes that bring us into Tookie’s life. Some of the shorter segments are moments in which Tookie is caught by the beauty of the natural world around her, written in clear language that put that beauty straight into my head. Other chapters show Tookie with her sweet husband, Pollux, or with customers hungry for a new book. Later in the book, we see Covid roll in and change everything, while the protests after the murder of George Floyd spark protests and catharsis. All through this, the ghost keeps coming back and Tookie doesn’t know how to get rid of her.

The structure of the book allows Erdrich to play with other doubles like Tookie’s hauntings: prison sentences and literary sentences, names, police as guardians and police as the violent enforcers of the status quo, different kinds of closeness, waxing and waning relationships, and others. You see why I wanted to go back to the beginning? There is so much to this book that I want to unpack. On the first read through, I was too busy spending time with Tookie and all of the lives (and one un-life) that intersect with hers.

I really loved this book. In fact, I went and bought my own copy from that Minneapolis bookstore so that I can read it again.

Where the Drowned Girls Go, by Seanan McGuire

Trigger warning for references to eating disorders, bullying, and suicide.

Where the Drowned Girls Go, by Seanan McGuire, is the latest outstanding volume in the Wayward Children series (a series I can’t praise enough). Each entry in the series features one or more teens who found a door where there wasn’t supposed to be one. These doors whisked them away to a strange world where oceans can be made of strawberry soda or the horses talk or the dead waltz. Cora’s world transformed her into a mermaid. Now that’s she back in the “real” world, Cora is having a hard time adjusting. Things get worse after another trip through the doors.

Cora is one of several students at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, there to find a way to make peace with leaving a place that felt more like home than their actual homes. Before Cora was a mermaid, she was bullied for being overweight. Nothing she would do would get rid of fat that genetics wants to hold onto. But as a mermaid, Cora was perfect and beautiful. She had been making progress at Eleanor’s school, but she takes another trip through the doors to help her friends, an encounter with the Drowned Gods of the Moors makes it impossible for Cora to relax. Her only option, she feels, is to turn to Eleanor’s competitor at the Whitethorn Institute. Unlike Eleanor, who works with her students to help them adjust while keeping alive the hope that their doors will return for them, Whitethorn pushes its students to forget that there are other worlds and doors.

As soon as Cora arrives at Whitethorn, she knows she’s made a mistake. Whitethorn is about conformity. It’s about misery. It’s about erasing everything that’s unique about the students who come there. What I love about this series is that it celebrates quirks and heroism and individuality—not forcing square pegs into round holes—but in a way that’s honest about the costs that have to be paid. I wish these books had been around when I was younger because I think they’re among the best coming-of-age stories I’ve ever read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina, by Zoraida Córdova

Orquídea Divina has been keeping her secrets for a long time. Now that she’s about to die, she calls her descendants back to the family ranch (a ranch that appeared just as mysteriously as Orquídea Divina herself did). Most of them come expecting an inheritance of some kind. Three of them, however, just want to know what’s been hidden from them their entire lives. In Zoraida Córdova’s The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina, all the chickens come home to roost and Orquídea’s secrets turn out to be as deadly as they are magical.

All Marimar, Rey, and Tatinelly—three of Orquídea’s grandchildren—know before they come back to Four Rivers is that Orquídea came from Guayaquil, Ecuador; that she has had five husbands but only speaks about four of them; and that she is able to make things happen that no one else can do. When our three protagonists and their relatives come back home, their plan is to try to finally get Orquídea to tell them about what she left behind…except, Orquídea still refuses to speak. Like she has done all their lives, Orquídea makes Marimar, Rey, and Tatinelly figure things out for themselves. When Orquídea dies (in spectacular fashion), she leaves even more mysteries behind. But when Orquídea dies, nothing is stopping her secrets from trying to wipe out her entire family.

At first, The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina moves in fits and starts. The day Orquídea dies is wild, full of magic and weirdness. But when Marimar and her cousins start to rebuild, it slows down. It’s only in the second half that things pick up again. It’s a little odd, but the characters, setting, and premise of the book were so interesting that I didn’t mind. I was just as busy as the protagonists were in trying to figure out what the hell was going on with Orquídea. Thankfully, the contemporary part of the story is interwoven with chapters set in Orquídea’s past in Ecuador.

We learn, long before her grandchildren, that Orquídea is the kind of person to seize every opportunity that comes her way. She might not have magic at first, but her gumption and ability to drive a bargain put her on the road to the wondrous and terrible things to come. There are river monsters (gods, thank you very much), living stars, flowers growing from bodies, and lots of wishes that never seem to come out right.

I really enjoyed this magical book.

The Hidden, by Melanie Golding

Trigger warning for domestic violence.

Ruby is a special person. She has a big heart, but is haunted by family secrets and loneliness. Unfortunately, she’s also prickly—prickly enough that it’s hard for people to learn about the kindness and loyalty underneath Ruby’s apparent standoffishness. Everyone gets Ruby wrong. And when Ruby gets caught up in sinister events in The Hidden, by Melanie Golding, it means that a lot of people end up surprised while they chase her across Great Britain.

Ruby is one of the narrators of this odd genre-hybrid. The other is her putative sister, a detective named Joanna. On Ruby’s side, The Hidden is a story of rescue and folklore come to life. On Joanna’s, it’s a manhunt involving a missing child. For us readers, it takes several chapters and some backtracking to find out what’s really going on. I’ll admit I wasn’t sure about this book at first. I worried that it would try to do too many things and The Hidden would be a shallow experience or that the two genres wouldn’t mesh together enough to be a cohesive narrative. Thankfully, The Hidden worked for me.

So, just like the narrative, let’s backtrack. One day, Ruby is caught spying on a very attractive neighbor doing yoga in his flat. The next couple of days sees Ruby and the man doing the dance of the socially awkward who are into each other. I thought it was cute, too, until Ruby accepts an invitation over to yoga man’s apartment only to find a toddler and a woman who really, really doesn’t want to be in that apartment. This is strange, but not as strange as the woman’s fixation on a coat she believes yoga man has hidden away from her. When we join the narrative, some months later, Joanna and other police officers break into yoga man’s apartment and find him near death in an overflowing bathtub. This is strange, but not as strange as what happens when yoga man wakes up from his coma and violently escapes the hospital.

There is a lot going on in The Hidden‘s plot, but what really made this book work for me was the attention the author gave to the shifting psychologies of the characters. So many characters flip from good to bad, dubious to heroic, rulebound to rebel in totally believable arcs that I was kept guessing right up until the last pages. This book was a wild, fascinating ride—although, I’m curious to see if the combination of genres works for other readers, too.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

God of Mercy, by Okezie Nwoka

Trigger warning for physical abuse of children.

Somewhere in Igboland (a region in Nigeria) is the small, remote village of Ichulu. This village has resisted European languages and religions in spite of all outside pressure. Their Igbokwe talks to the gods on the villagers’ behalf, warning them of floods and praying for healing or boons. Life is good. But then a girl who can’t speak aloud begins to fly, which throws everything into question. In God of Mercy, the challenging novel by Okezie Nwọka, we see what happens when two men who are afraid of the wide world twist their traditions to try to control the girl who can fly.

Ijeọma is a sweet, caring girl who can fly in moments where she becomes transfixed by the beautiful, joyous world around her. But, because she doesn’t speak out loud (Ijeọma signs), it’s far too easy for everyone else in Ichulu to project their own thoughts onto her. Her mother sees her as a helpmeet. The Igbokwe thinks she’s a sign of divine favor. Her father, however, can only think of his failures when he looks at his oldest daughter. The more she flies—and the more she rises in everyone else’s esteem—the more Ijeọma’s father resents her. When he breaks, he betrays his family by giving Ijeọma to a Christian preacher who specializes in “curing” children who are different or who act out.

There are hints in the early chapters of God of Mercy about Ijeọma’s fate. Small extracts from a diary begin to appear that reveal the horrific, violent treatment Ijeọma receives after her father’s betrayal. Before long we also leave Ichulu and Ijeọma’s family and the Igbokwe to go to Amalike with Ijeọma, where a man who claims to be Christian but acts like anything but tries to “drive the demons” out of the flying girl for nine years. Just like everyone else in Ichulu, this preacher projects his own version of reality and his own ambitions onto Ijeọma.

The middle of God of Mercy up until the last few pages are very hard to read. The abuse suffered by Ijeọma and the other children being kept by the preacher is among the worst I have ever seen in fiction. I was able to make it through because, first, I just had to know if Ijeọma would make it out, and second, because I was fascinated by what this book showed me about faith. There are many true believers in God of Mercy. In spite of their piety, the villains in this book are the ones who are so committed to following their religions’ rules with unwavering devotion. They never wonder if there can be exceptions or that the spirit of the law is more important than the letter. And they never pause when their interpretation of their religion points them in dark directions. The kindest characters in God of Mercy—the ones I think of as the good characters—are the ones who can grow along with their faith. This book turned out to be a revelatory examination of faith and religion.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.