The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffery

Cover of The Mermaid of Black Conch against a backdrop of water.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a fan of authors taking old myths or mythological creatures and putting a new spin on them.  The Mermaid of Black Conch is a great addition to that genre.  Instead of The Little Mermaid type tale about a mermaid who wants to become human, the mermaid of Black Conch used to be human and a curse transformed her into a mermaid. After living as a mermaid for centuries, she suddenly and violently finds herself returning to land. 

The story follows several characters, but primarily we have David, a young man born and raised in Trinidad who spends most of his days out fishing.  He brings his guitar and sings and plays while out on his boat.  His music catches the attention of a mermaid named Aycayia, who breaks the surface to hear him better, stunning David and encouraging him to return to the spot and sing day after day. 

Aycayia was a Taino woman, living before Columbus showed up and shattered the world.  Her beauty and voice drew men to her, to the annoyance of the other women of the island. They cursed her and another older woman who was Aycayia’s friend. Aycayia became a mermaid, the other woman a sea turtle, and they spent the centuries in the sea, avoiding humans.  Until David’s singing reached Aycayia’s ears in 1975.  Though Aycayia doesn’t speak to him, she begins to follow his boat, listening to his music and remembering her old life. 

Then a couple White Americans invade their tranquility. The father, a businessman – a “man’s man” – is determined to use a big game fishing trip to toughen up his perceived weakling of a son.  His son, not exactly thrilled to be on this trip, casts his line. Unbeknownst to him, Aycayia heard the motor and, assuming it was David, swam into the area. The bite on his line was no big game fish. Together, father and son reel in the biggest catch ever – an actual mermaid.

After they bring her in and string her up on the dock like the giddy fishermen in Jaws who imagine themselves to be kings of the ocean, they go celebrate at the bar. David, wracked with guilt, takes the opportunity to cut Aycayia loose and bring her back to his home. While she recovers in his bathtub, David tries to figure out what he should do next. Slowly, Aycayia’s curse seems to lift, creating new dilemmas for everyone.

Told primarily through a third person narrative, Roffey peppers in excerpts from David’s journal and Aycayia’s viewpoint as well. It’s an elegant use of language. Even though everything is in English, Roffey deftly uses distinctive voices for each of the characters. Aycayia’s use of verse is particularly well done.

The Mermaid of Black Conch is more than a revision of classic mermaid tales. It also tackles colonialism, racism, love, jealously, class, and more.  All of it is wrapped up into an intriguing and compelling story spanning centuries.   

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The Ballad of Perilous Graves

by Alex Jennings

Book cover of The Ballad of Perilous Graves in front of a keyboard

The two things I splurge on are books and music, so a book based on the magical powers of music seemed right up my alley.  The Ballad of Perilous Graves is centered in a fantastical world with connections to our own in which music and art are at the foundation.

The titular Perilous Graves is a young boy who goes by the name Perry and recently finished fifth grade.  His younger sister is Brendy and a super-powered girl named Peaches is his best friend.  They all live in Nola, which appears to be very much like our New Orleans.  There are significant differences, however, such as flying trolley cars, a city of the dead, and everyday existence of magic.  Musicians, like Doctor Professor, pop up out of thin air.  But when Doctor Professor shows up in front of Perry’s house in the opening scene, it seems that something isn’t quite right. 

 In fact, something is very wrong.  Nola is built on an album of songs, which keep the city humming.  But someone – or something – is kidnapping the songs and destroying them, taking bits of the city with them.  When Perry’s grandpa disappears too, Perry feels compelled to solve the mystery.  Despite their youth, he, Brendy, and Peaches begin to scour the city, trying to knit together all the seeming disparate threads floating around them.  Additionally, Perry must surmount the feelings of fear and inadequacy stemming from some unknown traumatic even earlier in his life. 


The adventures in Nola would be enough for a book on its own, but there’s more!  While Perry and his friends race around Nola searching for the missing songs, things are afoot in “our” New Orleans.  Casey, who left New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, has returned to his roots.  He begins to reconnect with his cousin Jaylon and their shared history of street art.  But New Orleans is at risk as well, and slowly, Casey and Perry draw together. 


The Ballad of Perilous Graves tackles a lot.  The magic of music and art permeates the entire story.  In addition, Jennings explores the deep scars left by big storms.  In Casey’s story, it’s Katrina, but Nola has endured its share and is gearing up for another possible killer.  Race, gender, family, tourism, and gentrification are all wrapped up in here as well.  In addition to our two settings, multiverses make an appearance and expand the settings even further. 

At times, it’s a bit much and the story threatens to buckle under the weight.  But Jennings’ love for New Orleans radiates through the pages and makes both version of the city characters in their own rights.  I suspect that for people who have a connection to New Orleans, this book will hold a deeper meaning.  Having unfortunately never been myself, I can’t speak to that with any authority, but if you have and read this book, let me know!  

I struggled a bit with this one.  I was completely lost on the connection between Nola and New Orleans for most of the book or whether there was supposed to be one or not, although I was ok with waiting to see where it went.  It wasn’t always clear how Nola worked, but it was still a fun place to get lost in.  Things started coming together a little after the halfway mark and then nearly came apart again.  Yet Perry is a compelling character and I really wanted to know what was going to happen to him.  I’m glad I stayed with it.  Maybe at some point I’ll read it again – I have a feeling it’s the kind of book that you can get more out of with subsequent readings. And for a debut novel, it’s very impressive!

So as we come up on Mardi Gras and you’re looking for a magical New Orleans tale, check out The Ballad of Perilous Graves!

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Persephone Station

by Stina Leicht

cover of Persephone Station on a star field background with a red moon in the corner

I’ve noticed recently that when it comes to my Sci-Fi/Fantasy category, the “Fantasy” side definitely has the edge.  Persephone Station was a great reminder why I love the Sci-Fi part as well. 

Persephone Station embraces all sorts of aspects of sci-fi, though more Star Wars than Star Trek.  Various types of AI, mech suits, spaceships, planets, alien-life, etc. 

The story jumps between perspectives, but the main story follows Angel, an ex-marine who endured several resurrections during her service.

She now works as a mercenary on Persephone Station, a planet outpost that has caught the attention of the Serrao-Orlov Corporation.  But like all mega corporations, their plan for the planet is full of problems for everyone who lives there.  Angel and her team must figure out where they stand and what they stand for, regardless of the cost.

There’s a lot to like about this story.  The core characters are interesting people and it’s fun to learn more about them as the story goes on.  The perspective jumps help you get a deeper sense of each of them.  Leicht weaves world building into the narrative without huge exposition dumps. While there are places where it seems a little slow, it picks up and soon you’re hooked and can’t wait to find out what happens next. 

The one downside to this book is that there are 3-4 different perspectives, but there’s such a long break between some of them that you lose connection with them.  By the time we check beck in with a specific viewpoint, it feels like a bit more like a forced break from the main story rather than an integral part of the tale.  Things do start to come together towards the end, but I didn’t feel as connected to those characters.  Other things suddenly pop up that weren’t really set up and feel a bit shoved in.

But despite that, it’s still a great, fun read.  I could see this being part of a series, but it’s a stand alone novel for now.  So if you’re looking for a fun sci-fi novel with all sorts of queer characters, interesting world building, and an operatic plot, check out Persephone Station.        

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A Whirlwind Passed Through Our Country: Lakota Voices of the Ghost Dance

by Rani-Henrik Andersson

Cover of A Whirlwind Passed Through Our Country against a white background with two small pine trees.

One of the things I loved about college and grad school was getting to take a wide variety of classes about things subjects with which I wasn’t very familiar.  One area where I’m sadly lacking is Native American history, so I started stocking up on books on the subject.  One of those was A Whirlwind Passed Through Our Country, which is a fascinating book and a great resource.

To provide a very brief and basic overview, the Ghost Dance was a religious movement that moved through a number of American Indian nations across the Great Plains/Western U.S. during the 1880s and into the first year or two of the 1890s.  In 1889, members of the Lakota sent representatives to learn more about this movement and return to teach their communities about the Dance itself and the promises of a better future. 

The Ghost Dance allowed practitioners to fall into a state in which they could visit their dead relatives, who promised them that soon the dead would return, herds of buffalo (which had largely been wiped out by White Americans) would return to the Plains, and European-Americans would be pushed off the land. 

For the Lakota, suffering from famine as a result of numerous broken treaties (including a refusal to provide promised rations of beef and other food), forced removal to poor lands, and the disappearance of their usual sources of game, such a promise was powerful. The dance spread from one Lakota reservation to the next, alarming White settlers and U.S. Indian Agents in charge of controlling the reservations.  Unwilling or unable to understand, White newspapers and government dispatches stoked fears of “Indians on the warpath.” Soon, the U.S. government dispatched more troops to the area, further inflaming the situation. This culminated in the infamous massacre at Wounded Knee, where U.S. soldiers gunned down over 250 Lakota men, women, and children.

Most of what we get in textbooks give a fairly flat view of the Ghost Dance (if it gets mentioned much at all) and most of that is from White sources.  In A Whirlwind Passed Through our Country, Andersson creates a multi-layer analysis of the Ghost Dance and how different groups of Lakota understood it, interacted with it, and modified it. And even more importantly, he does so using Lakota sources. 

Andersson’s previous book analyzed the Ghost Dance from multiple perspectives, of which the Lakota were one.  He learned to read the language and found multiple primary Lakota sources.  Not being able to use all of them in his first book, in A Whirlwind Passed Through Our Country, he provides the full published texts of a variety of Lakota individuals who had direct connections with the Ghost Dance movement. 

The book is divided into four sections.  The first deals with Lakota who were full believers in the Ghost Dance.  The second focuses on Lakota caught in between.  Some believed but then fell away; some were interested, but never fully convinced; and some saw the potential, even if they had no interest in the religious aspect.  Part three presents sources from those who did not participate in the Ghost Dance but had front-row seats to its effects on the reservation.  This includes some of the Indian police responsible for the arrest and murder of Sitting Bull.  The book concludes with the words of Lakota who converted to Christianity and had no patience for the Ghost Dance movement. 

One thing to keep in mind is that the book is organized thematically, which means each part will go back in time and re-cover previous events from a different perspective.  Likewise, within each section, he provides all of the writings of an individual and then moves on to the next person. In my opinion, it’s an effective way to present this information.  However, it can take a little getting used to if you’re used to more chronological approaches.

Andersson is also very clear that this book is about the Ghost Dance and not specifically the Wounded Knee Massacre (about which he wrote a separate book).  While some of the sources do talk about the massacre, Andersson also notes that he has left out sources that speak only about the massacre and do not discuss the Ghost Dance.  So if you’re looking for more on that subject, it looks like you’ll need to check out his other book.

Overall, this is a wonderful source for getting first-hand accounts.  Andersson does a good job providing context at the beginning of each part, introducing the writer, and explaining language differences.  The chronology in the back also can help keep dates straight as you jump back and forth between parts. 

Having so many perspectives from so many Lakota voices is important.  Andersson helps remind us that there was no one unified “Indian” perspective. Additionally, the White binary of “progressive” vs. “unprogressive” Natives is not nearly complex enough.  This book will well-serve both historians and general readers alike.

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Tender is the Flesh

By Augustina Bazterrica. Translated by Sarah Moses.

A formally set table with candlelight and the book Tender is the Flesh standing on the plate.

Soylent Green meets The Jungle.” If I had to describe Tender is the Flesh in five words or less, that’s how I’d do it.  (Full disclosure: I’ve never actually seen Soylent Green, but I know the gist of it.  I have read The Jungle.)

But oh boy, would it not be enough!  It would also do a great disservice for the real power of this book. 

I’ve seen other reviews highlight the first line of Tender is the Flesh, to help readers understand exactly what they’re in for.  And it’s a powerful opening:

            Carcass.  Cut in half.  Stunner.  Slaughter line.  Spray wash.

It’s going to be brutal.

In the not-to-distant future, an unknown and poorly understood virus makes animal meat deadly to eat.  One would assume such a situation would create a vegetarian or vegan world.  (It’s not clear whether it’s just animal flesh that is affected or if all animal products, like eggs and honey, are affected.  It also doesn’t matter – Tender is the Flesh isn’t concerned with the wider world and its history.) But one would be wrong.  The vast majority of the world cannot give up meat.  And so, with animals off the table, society turns to the only remaining option: humans.

Cannibalism becomes legalized.  Initially, during the “Transition,” there seems to have been a bit of a free-for-all, with the marginalized set upon and butchered without much thought.  But by the time we join this world, capitalism has reasserted itself.  The slaughterhouses of yore are repurposed for the production of “special meat.” The factory-farm system reasserts itself, raising “head” for the slaughter, milking the udders of females, inseminating them to produce the next generation of food and pumping those offspring full of growth hormones to speed up development.  There are even “organic” options – the “First Generation Pure” specimens, raised without hormones though of course, that’ll cost you more.

Our guide through this world is Marcos, a man who used to work in a regular slaughterhouse prior to the Transition and then took up the job again as the meat source changed. He currently lives alone, as his wife moved into her mother’s house after the death of their infant son. This loss haunts him as well as he attempts to move through his days, lost and alone. The funeral and burial they had for the child was performative; in this world, one may “bury” a body to continue the old traditions, but then immediately disinter and cremate it or risk their loved ones becoming a meal for the Scavengers who cannot afford to buy special meat.

Due to all he sees in his job and after the death of his son and the ailing health of his father, Marcos no longer eats meat. This makes him a bit of an object of suspicion, but the real trouble comes when he is suddenly gifted with a First Generation Pure woman for his own personal use. He could eat her, or sell her for a goodly sum. For the moment, he keeps her in his barn. Where it goes from there….well, I’m not going to spoil it.  At least not here.  Perhaps in our spoiler space.

While the opening line of the book sets the stage for the horror of the world, it’s the subsequent lines of the book that hint to the real power: language, and the power of words.  Bazterrica continues:

            These words appear in his head and strike him. Destroy him. But they’re not just words. They’re the blood, the dense smell, the automation, the absence of thought.  They burst in on the night, catch him off guard. When he wakes, his body is covered in a film of sweat because he knows that what awaits is another day of slaughtering humans. … His brain warns him that there are words that cover up the world.

            There are words that are convenient, hygienic. Legal.

Throughout the book, Bazterrica’s meditation on the importance of language, and her narrator’s recognition of the implications of the words one chooses, brings an incredible depth to this quick and relatively short novel. It was nearly impossible to put this down, but what struck me the most was this focus on language and how we use euphemisms to disguise all sorts of unpleasant truths we’d rather not face.  Translator Sarah Moses deserves a huge round of applause; I can only imagine how tricky it is to translate a work where language and word choice is so central.

Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle in hopes of challenging his fellow Americans to question the capitalist system, which ground up low-wage workers and immigrants as easily as it ground up diseased meat in its slaughterhouses. But as anyone who ever read it in high school or college will likely attest, his detailed descriptions of the unsanitary methods, human body parts being ground into beef, and rats running rampant across food intended for human consumption is what grabbed attention. He later bemoaned that he “aimed for the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

Bazterrica shoots two arrows at once and hits both. Tender is the Flesh is not for the tender-hearted. Or the tender-stomached. But if you can handle it, it is an incredible tale.

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