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.

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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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