River Sing Me Home by Eleanor Shearer

Cover of River Sing Me Home on a blue throw blanket.

The official abolitions of slavery across the “New World” rarely marked the end of enslavement. Enslavers sought to maintain their grip on power and their supply of labor. They enacted or expanded practices like chain gang labor, sharecropping, “apprenticeships,” or just refusing to acknowledge slavery ended. But despite the disparity in power, the formerly enslaved resisted and rebelled in all manner of ways. In River Sing Me Home, Eleanor Shearer brings light to some of those stories.

River Sing Me Home opens with escape. Rachel is fleeing from the Barbados plantation where she had spent her life in bondage. It is August 1834 and the day before, the master of the plantation announced the abolition of slavery. In its place, the formerly enslaved would stay on the plantation and labor for another six years as “apprentices” – remaining bound to the land, free in name only. Rachel isn’t quite sure what freedom really means, but she knows this isn’t it.

Over the years, Rachel gave birth to eight children. One was stillborn, two more died in early childhood, and her enslaver sold the other five away from her. She has no idea where they ended up or if they’re even alive, but until she finds them or learns what happened, she knows she cannot be free. 

It’s a dangerous journey. If she is caught by the plantation owner, she faces terrible punishment. White landowners could shoot her, capture her, and re-enslave her. The elements and the sea could do her in. The chance to find her babies, however, is worth all the risks she can imagine and even those she can’t.

River Sing Me Home covers a lot of ground relatively quickly, both literally and figuratively. Rachel’s journey takes her across Barbados, down to British Guiana, and then across to Trinidad in a year. The prose is succinct and straightforward, even though the issues are deep and complex. Shearer introduces us to Maroon colonies, free Black business owners, Indigenous survivors of colonialism, and the enslaved who endured plantation life and how all of these different groups intersected and interacted. She ties in real slave rebellions and revolts, and the difficult calculus those involved had to make for themselves.

Shearer does not hide from the violence of slavery, but neither does she make it a central focus. She trusts that we know about the beatings, the floggings, the rapes and so while they’re present, she generally does not describe them in detail. At first, I was a little surprised by this, but as the book continued, I really appreciated the focus on how people survived and continued to find hope, love, and purpose despite all they endured. Shearer doesn’t wallow in suffering; she acknowledges it, recognizes its effects, and then shows it is only a piece of a person and a people, not their entirety.

Rachel’s journey is one undertaken by so many across the Americas in slavery’s aftermath. Though fictional, it is based on the story of a real Mother Rachel, who walked across Antigua in search of her children after slavery’s end. It is also based on the author’s family, who hail from the Caribbean, and her own research and fieldwork.

Overall, River Sing Me Home is a strong novel that continues to deepen our understanding of slavery and its aftermath. In a time when certain powers are trying to strip that understanding away from us, these stories are even more important. 

Find it here

The Hacienda by Isabel Cañas

Cover of The Hacienda by Isabel Ceñas against a white backdrop with a red rose next to it.

I mentioned in an earlier review how much I love Silvia Moreno-Garcia.  Her book, Mexican Gothic, is fantastic and really won me over to gothic novels.  So when I glimpsed The Hacienda on the shelf, I immediately gravitated towards it. 

Set in Mexico in the aftermath of the Mexican War of Independence (which ended in 1821), The Hacienda follows a young woman named Beatriz.  Beatriz’s father, a respected general, ended up on the losing side of the war.  As a result, Beatriz and her mother lost their home, their status, and everything they.  In dire financial straits, Beatriz is determined to do whatever it takes to get her mother and herself out of this situation. 

A solution appears in the form of Rodolfo, a wealthy man about whom Beatriz knows very little.  Still, he owns a hacienda, he has good social standing, and he’s enchanted by Beatriz.  Despite her mother’s protests, Beatriz marries him and heads out to the hacienda. 

Beatriz has everything planned out: establish herself as the mistress of the hacienda, make the house a home, and then bring her mother to join her.  But the household – and the house – have other plans.  From the moment she steps through the door, Beatriz gets an ominous feeling.  Rodolfo’s sister seems suspicious, and the kitchen help are constantly burning incense and scratching symbols in the doorways.  Then there’s the mystery of what happened to Rodolfo’s first wife and whether history may be repeating.

While all of this is going on, we meet Padre Andrés, a young Indigenous Catholic priest with deep connections to the hacienda and his own haunted past.  As forces outside their control conspire against them, the priest and the new bride are drawn together. 

This is a fast moving story and even when you have a good guess of what’s going to happen, you still want to keep reading to see how it plays out.  There’s romance, of course – what kind of gothic novel wouldn’t have one? It’s a well-built romance, and one that stays true to the characters and their situations.

Cañas also does a wonderful job of situating readers in the historical landscape of revolutionary Mexico.  Without becoming an academic paper, Cañas interrogates the impact of race and colonialism in Mexican society. It’s a complex topic, and yet it weaves in seamlessly with the story of a haunted house. 

Part of the reason Beatriz jumps at the chance to marry a man like Rodolfo is her awareness that her father’s disgraced reputation in this new order and her darker skin tone significantly limit her marriage prospects.  Meanwhile, Padre Andrés also grapples with his ethnic heritage, the spiritual practices he learned from his grandmother, and the faith instilled in him by the Catholic Church.  The blending of Catholicism and Indigenous beliefs also rang true and was a welcomed addition to the story. 

Most importantly, The Hacienda is a fun, engaging, and enthralling story.  We get to jump between perspectives of Beatriz and Andrés, with a little bit of back and forth through time. Cañas handles both deftly.  There was never a feeling of “ugh, did we have to switch characters” or anything like that.  Instead, the two side complimented each other well and added to the depth of the story. 

The Hacienda is Cañas’ debut novel and if this is her first, I can’t wait to see what she comes out with next!

Find it here

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Sympathizer book sitting on a stack of paper with a pen in front.

The Sympathizer is an elegantly written, beautiful, heartbreaking tale of conflicted loyalties and the never-ending battle between ideals and reality.  As a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, it’s no surprise that the writing is absolutely gorgeous. The story itself is a fascinating look at the Vietnam war from a perspective not often found in American culture.  In addition to tackling what the war was like for the Vietnamese who lived through it, Viet Thanh Nguyen also critiques how Americans rewrote the narrative for themselves. It is one of those seemingly rare situations, he notes, where the losers write the history.

The Sympathizer follows an unnamed narrator writing and rewriting his confessions for the commandant of a re-education prison in Vietnam.  He is a self-described “spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” The child of a French priest and a Vietnamese teenager, our narrator has never quite fit in.  He forges his own family with two friends, Man and Bon, and together become blood brothers as youths. Now as young adults, the war is testing their bonds.  Man is an enthusiastic and dedicated supporter of Ho Chi Minh, fighting on the side of communist North Vietnam. Bon is just as dedicated in his loyalty to the non-communist South.  Our narrator straddles the two as a Communist spy embedded with the South Vietnamese army.  While appearing as the dedicated aide to a top South Vietnamese general, he actually works with Man, passing vital information to the North.

April of 1975, was, our narrator informs the Commandant “the cruelest month.  It was the month in which a war that had run on for a very long time would lose its limbs, as is the way of wars.  It was a month that meant everything to all the people in our small part of the world and nothing to most people in the rest of the world.”

For the North, it was the month of liberation, of victory.  For the South and its American backers, it was the month of the Fall of Saigon, as desperate hordes of people crowded the American embassy and a famous picture of a line of evacuees climbed to the last helicopter to safety, if not necessarily freedom.  Having lived the life of a spy for years, the narrator is looking forward with anticipation to this liberation.  Unfortunately for him, the order is to accompany his general to the United States, maintaining his role as mole. 

The story follows him to exile in California. He dutifully sends reports in invisible ink to Man regarding the General’s new plans to return to Vietnam as victors. At the same time, he is watching out for Bon, who evacuated with him and is anxious to liberate Vietnam from its liberators.  In the interim, the narrator finds himself attached to a big movie director, rounding up extras for the director’s epic movie about Vietnam. Throughout it all, he is continually defined by his duality, his inability to never fully belong anywhere. No one actually knows him, with the exception of the voices of those he killed who never leave him.

The Sympathizer spares no one in its critiques.  It is a critique of the U.S. North Vietnam. South Vietnam. Anti-war protestors.  Warmongers in back rooms, ready to continue on the idea that a revolution could be flattened by enough artillery.  As he writes his confession over and over again, his captors force him to critique himself as well.  He must account for his actions – and inaction. 

Our narrator is like Vietnam itself.  Divided in half, bearing the legacy of French colonialism, loyal to friends on opposing sides of the conflict, desperately trying to protect the heart of it all, and caught in the wake of the churn of forces outside his control.  Yet for all the horror, The Sympathizer is a beautiful, searing book.

Find it here

Ordinary Monsters by J.M. Miro

Book cover of Ordinary Monster with a gauzy blue background.

In 1872, a pair of detectives (Alice Quicke and Mr. Coulton) are searching the world for Talents – children with extraordinary powers.  They take their foundlings back to the Cairndale Institute, a school and home for these ordinary monsters.  There, the children learn how to use and control their unique abilities, along with all the other basic subjects any child would learn. 

When the story opens, there are two specific children for whom the pair are searching.  Marlowe is a young boy born under tragic circumstances. His skin sometimes glows blue and he can heal or melt others. Unbeknownst to him initially, there is some kind of smoke monster stalking him.  Charlie Ovid, a teenage Black boy living in Mississippi, heals instantaneously, though he still feels all the pain inflicted upon him. 

The Cairndale employees soon find their charges, but what should be a relatively straightforward task of installing the boys in their new home is anything but.  There’s the smoke monster, lichts, and other dark forces seeking Cairndale’s secrets.  It’s up to Alice, Coulton, Charlie, Marlowe, and a handful of other Talents to disrupt their plans, while facing their own darkness as well.

Ordinary Monsters is a huge book, which is fitting for a tale that travels between Europe, the United States, and Japan.  Overall, I liked all the world building and didn’t notice the length much.  There was one section with Charlie that I felt didn’t quite fit though.  It seemed like it was setting up something else or that instead of simply getting lost in the streets of London, Charlie accidentally wandered out of his book and into one of Dickens’ before finding his way back.  It didn’t destroy the narrative or anything and there were still some connections to the larger story, but it just seemed a bit out of place.

One of the things that really struck me about this book was how many times things seemed impossible or hopeless, but the characters chose to keep going or keep fighting anyway.  It’s a good reminder for all of us that sometimes we just have to keep going through, no matter how pointless it seems.  And maybe we won’t “win” or change what already happened, but there’s still a chance that we can alter the future enough that something good can come from it later.

I also really liked the historical setting.  It felt very realistic, even with the magic sprinkled all around the world.  Yet again, the Pinkertons popped up, but like in The Devil’s Revolver, they’re still a bunch of bastards.  Again, realistic.  Alice is definitely my favorite character, both for her ability to get the job done and her annoyance with the restrictions society places on her.  In some ways, she reminded me of Sara Howard from The Alienist (another book I greatly enjoyed). 

From what I’ve seen, it sounds like Ordinary Monsters is the first of a series.  While I’ll check out any sequels, I thought this worked well as a stand-alone novel.  It took me a bit before I got to a point where I didn’t want to stop reading. Once that hit, I was stuck in my usual tug-of-war between wanting to hurry through to see what happens next and not wanting it to end. 

So if you’re looking for a thick book with magical kids, Victorian settings, some globe-trotting mysteries, and humor mixed with some light horror, Ordinary Monsters may be for you!

Find it here.

When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill

The cover of When Women Were Dragons, with toy dragons set around it.

For Christine Blasey Ford, whose testimony triggered this narrative” – with this dedication, When Women Were Dragons hooked me.  And it kept me so all the way through.  There are myriad themes in this book, which I’ll get to.  But at its heart, this is a book about rage and women experiencing and living that rage. 

You will tell people that you did not raise me to be an angry woman, and that statement will be correct.  I was never allowed to be angry, was I? My ability to discover and understand the power of my own raging was a thing denied to me.  Until, at last, I learned to stop denying myself.”

So writes a housewife from Nebraska, shortly before she dragoned in 1898, according to the opening document of the novel.  An ordinary housewife, married to an abusive and terrible man, spontaneously transformed into a dragon and flew away.  Sporadic dragonings happened throughout history, but authorities quickly squashed any news or evidence regarding it.  Until April 25, 1955, when hundreds of thousands of women in the United States, mostly wives and mothers, all transformed into dragons throughout that day.  Homes physically destroyed, families ripped apart, and a number of men eaten or immolated by dragon fire – it was a day that could not possibly be forgotten.

That didn’t mean people wouldn’t try.  Our narrator, Alex Green, was a young girl when her aunt dragoned, leaving behind a baby girl of her own.  Alex’s parents took the girl in and quickly set to work convincing Alex that her cousin Beatrice was her sister and always had been. Alex was not to ask questions or say anything about the dragons (who had flown off and disappeared) or her aunt (who didn’t exist, after all) or anything related to either topic.  But Alex remembered.

At the same time, the House Un-American Activities Committee (infamous for its persecution of suspected Communists, giving us the likes of Joe McCarthy) sought to silence any attempt by scientists to explore the phenomenon in any greater depth.  Since the Mass Dragoning was too large to ignore, the government issued a brief, sanitized overview of the event, and then worked hard to make sure that everyone just let it drift in the fogs of history, out of sight, out of mind.  But there remained scientists determined to learn the truth.

The book follows Alex’s personal journey towards understanding, interspersed with testimony by the lead scientist hauled in front of HUAC. Barnhill does a great job of weaving in the cultural pressures to keep anything related to the feminine as quiet and hushed as possible. 

Dragoning is dangerous precisely because it is both closely tied to the feminine while also displaying emotions that are deemed distinctly unfeminine.  Rage is at the heart of dragoning, it seems.  Women’s rage over being kept in the home, of having little to no recourse against violent husbands or boyfriends, of being told that their sexuality should be limited to “wifely duties,” of constantly being told to take up less space, less, time, less sound.  A dragon is not less.  She is large.  She is strong.  She is powerful.  She can gobble up or incinerate those who would harm her.  She can come and go as she pleases.  She does not conform. 

In addition to these meditations on women’s circumscribed emotions and options in the 50s, dragoning serves as a metaphor for LGBTAQ+ experiences.  Many of the women who dragon saw it as a way to fully embrace their true selves.  The research papers sprinkled in make mention of dragons who people had previously seen as men.  Other individuals nearly dragoned, but in the end stayed human for a variety of reasons. Dragoning is both hugely public and intensely personal.

There was only one thing that kind of clanged for me in this book.  The dragons themselves.  By which I mean, the abilities and properties of being a dragon in this world wasn’t clear to me.  They seemed to be able to do and be whatever was most convenient for the moment.  While most dragons flew to remote places on Earth, some went into space, exploring the galaxy, apparently being able to fly well past the speed of light.  Maybe it’s all the sci-fi I’ve imbibed over my life, but for some reason, that irked me.  However, it is a very very very tiny thing in the grand scheme of an excellent book.  So to paraphrase the theme from Mystery Science Theater 3000 “just repeat to yourself it’s just a [book], I should really just relax!”

“You brought me here, gentlemen, in hopes of conquest – in an attempt to rein in this feminine largeness, to shrink it down and force it to acquiesce to your paternal control, to allow our culture to forget that any of this dragon business ever happened.  This, my friends, is an impossibility.  While it is true that there is a freedom in forgetting – and this country has made great use of that freedom – there is a tremendous power in remembrance.  Indeed, it is memory that teaches us, and reminds us, again and again, who we truly are and who we have always been…

            “Personally, I think it’s rather marvelous.

So do I. 

Find it here