Publisher: Tor Books Genre: Thriller, Fantasy Pages: 352 Format: Hardcover Buy Local My Rating: 4.5/5 stars
The stage is set in pre-second-world-war New York with an oracle, an assassin, and an underworld gang about to lose its alpha—all thriving in a be-bop jazz bar, brazenly ignoring the Prohibition. Phyllis Green, blessed with saints’ hands, is mob boss Victor Dernov’s executioner. Known to some as Victor’s angel, and to most as Victor’s knife, she goes by Phyllis LeBlanc in downtown Manhattan, meting out mob justice with her holster of knives.
That is until she meets Dev. Playing judge, jury, and executioner turns out to be a lot more complicated when she falls in love. Devajyoti Patil, bartender at The Pelican, is also blessed with saints’ hands – he can detect threats on a single touch. But unlike Phyllis, he does not use them to throw knives. Just when Phyllis believes she can act on her promise to Dev of never killing again, she is given a task that forces her to go back on her word.
Someone is killing people with “the hands” and leaving the corpses behind with bleeding stumps and clear signs of having involved them in some form of dark ritual. It’s obvious—they’re trying to steal the power of these hands. Victor’s lieutenant, Red Man, tells Phyllis that the murderer is Trent Sullivan, and that she must take him out.
Having grown up in an all-Black neighborhood, Phyllis has spent her whole adult life trying to pretend that she’s not. Owing to her lighter skin, she passes scrutiny in most segregated places in 1930s New York. She has even taken care to change her name, so no one can trace her back to her old neighborhood—it’s how she has survived. But a decade after she executes Sullivan, and Dev leaves her for it, she finds that her heritage is about to be revealed, and that, suddenly, her life depends on her proving her whiteness.
A lot of factors wrestle for priority as Dev returns unexpectedly to her life as she’s simultaneously given a new assignment. Not to mention, the draft creeps up and starts upending the lives of everyone she holds dear.
The struggles of people of color before World War II that changed society in many irreversible ways are depicted in sincere detail in this book. Skin trumps economic status as Phyllis, Dev, and their friends find themselves increasingly vulnerable as they try to get away from the criminal element that has protected them so far.
It is really promising to find that BIPOC literature is finally making its way into the limelight. The story is set at a time when very few would think to write a novel with a black woman and an Indian man as the lead duo. Hopefully, we are at a time when we can look back at these immortal years from a different perspective than we are used to.
Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins
Publisher: Scholastic Press Genre: Science Fiction Pages: 517 Format: Hardcover Buy Local My Rating: 4.5/5 Stars
As I’m sure many of you know, this novel is the prequel to the Hunger Games series. It is set 63 years before Katniss’ Games and follows President Snow, known at this time as Coriolanus Snow.
Snow is only 18, and his family is facing hard times as the effects of the war play out. The story begins the morning of the reaping for the 10th annual Hunger Games. Snow is determined to get into University, and needs to mentor a winning tribute to help solidify his spot. The odds are not in his favor when he is assigned the girl tribute from District 12.
Much to his surprise, his tribute wows the crowd all on her own. Determined to win, no matter the cost, Snow takes a chance on her. He grows close to her as their fates are largely intertwined in a game unlike any before, leaving him to wonder, was it all worth it?
There were a lot of mixed expectations towards this novel—some people were upset that President Snow was getting a prequel when he was very clearly a terrible person. While I would love a prequel about Finnick or Mags, I also love a good villain origin story and couldn’t wait for this novel to come out. The moment I saw it on the shelf at Target, I ran to pick it up and, honestly, it exceeded my expectations.
I fully expected it to be a story that showed Snow as an empathetic, caring person who was turned sour by a negative experience. Without giving too much away, I can say the story subverted my expectations completely. While he certainly did not have the upbringing I expected, his goal was always clear. Various obstacles were thrown in his way, all adding to his character but never wavering his stance. In that way, the star of the story is the first person point-of-view. His actions and his thoughts are so different at times, if we weren’t constantly in his head, that we would have no idea. It appears that from a young age, Snow mastered the art of performance. While he certainly isn’t an admirable character, he sure is an interesting one. The connections between his actions and circumstances in this novel, to that in original Hunger Games novel are beautifully done and I loved finding them laced throughout. I had more ah-hah moments than I can count!
The only reason I didn’t give this novel a full 5/5 stars is because of the ending. There was one unanswered question that I still haven’t found the answer to, which caused some of the ending to feel anti-climatic. It is too small of a detail, though, for me to not highly recommend all Hunger Games trilogy lovers give it a read.
Even if you absolutely despise President Snow, this will be a treat for you. I truly hope it becomes a movie soon so I can enjoy it all over again!
I recently began listening to podcasts to give my eyes some relief from screen and print. These podcasts represent a range of my regular listening—two are concerned with language itself, while the following two focus on book reviews and poetry readings, respectively. I’ve found them to be a great way to explore and revisit language, poems, and books. It’s my hope that you enjoy them as well!
The Allusionist—Helen Zaltzman. From swear tablets found in bogs around Bath (68, 2017) to how transfolk maneuver their words to match their experiences of gender (56, 2017), The Allusionist focuses on language in its funny, serious, creative, and everyday functions. There is an entire episode devoted to how apples get their names and another about polari (99), which was the argot that many gay men in England used to reveal and conceal identity simultaneously.
Zaltzman also includes additional material for each episode on the podcast’s website, https://www.theallusionist.org/. For the episode about polari, materials include a link to the Polari Bible, a link to Round the Horne (a polari-loving radio program that aired from the mid-to-late 1960s), gay language in the Philippines, and much more. Zaltzman might also be the funniest person around formally trained as a Medievalist.
A Way With Words—Martha & Grand Barrett. This podcasting duo composed of an author/journalist and lexicographer/linguist talk about family expressions, where words come from, current slang, and classic sayings. They’re like the teachers we all love the most—lively, engaging, thoughtful, and warm. More about the podcast can be found at: https://www.waywordradio.org/about/
In “Pie in the Sky” a 6 foot 8 listened shares his favorite pithy remarks to strangers’ comments about his height (2012). The same episode also covers why leg cramps are called charley horses, and where the phrase “pie in the sky” originated. “Had the Radish” (2019) centers on a phrase commonly used by a listener when fed up or worn out. The phrase came to the upstate New York listener from France by the way of Quebec. The French phrase je n’ai plus de radis—which translates to “I don’t even have a radish”—originally expressed poverty.
The New York Times Book Review Podcast—Various Hosts. Wide-ranging as The Times itself, the Book Review Podcast explores fiction and non-fiction alike with a variety of hosts guiding the program. Trends in the publishing world and literary criticisms are also common subjects. In the episode “The Angry Children Are Our Future,” an interview of Lydia Millet, author of A Children’s Bible—an allegorical novel about climate change and a family vacation—precedes a discussion of Barry Gewen’s The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World.
The background of what constitutes a children’s Bible and how Millet’s novel departs from typical conventions of a coming-of-age tale offers material for contemplation for readers and writers alike. More about the podcast, including the option to stream content, can be found at https://www.nytimes.com/column/book-review-podcast.
Poetry Unbound—Pádraig Ó Tuama. “I need to feel the air in my throat and vocal cords constrict to make the poem real,” says the podcaster himself before he reads the poem “1383” by Emily Dickinson. He reads it well and follows the reading with his interpretation of the poem—how the fire described in the poem is like the fire that keeps friendship alive across distance and time. It’s a topical episode from late March of 2020, following the COVID-19 outbreak.
Other episodes are topical as well, though in a more general way. The episode “A Poem to See What’s Overlooked” offers a reading of a poem by Lemn Sissay that addresses what becomes forgotten. It’s a poem that demands remembrance, according to Ó Tuama, of the flat beer and missing buttons alike. “Like” is the word Ó Tuama brings our attention to throughout its repetition in the poem and his experience coming out as a gay man. Attentive and thoughtful, this podcast rewards the ears and the mind. More about the podcast can be found at https://radiopublic.com/poetryunbound-69qD3w/s1!30fd6.
Publisher: Doubleday Genre: Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction Pages: 224 Format: Hardcover Buy Local My Rating: 5/5 stars
In this novel, Whitehead examines the potential of youth and shows how corruption and injustice can so easily crush that potential. By all accounts, Elwood Curtis is a formidable young man—smart, curious, hardworking, and determined—he is even enrolled in college courses while he is still in high school. When Elwood is sent to the Nickel Academy for stealing a car to get to those classes, he finds that he will have to adapt to a harsh new reality if he wants to survive. Elwood discovers the strength to do so through his dedication to the works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which has engrained a deep sense of moral justice within him. At Nickel, however, injustice is bred into the very fabric of the institution.
What most entranced me with this book is the way in which Whitehead masterfully intertwines personal history with the history of an institution. Many chapters of this novel start like the slow panning of a camera until it zooms in on the narrative focal point. No words are wasted, though at times it can feel to the reader as if they are far from the places that the book has previously taken them. Many times I did not think that what I was reading could have anything to do with the Nickel Academy, and then the book would whisper in my ear “trust me.”
I did not feel the full weight of this book’s emotional impact until the epilogue. When I closed the book’s final chapter I was ready to give it a four star rating because I felt somewhat confused and dissatisfied. I could not have felt more different when I turned the final page of the novel. Hold on, this is an emotional and tumultuous ride worth seeing through to the very end.