Foreword Reviews

Book of the Day Roundup: September 19-23, 2022

Phalaina

Book Cover
Alice Brière-Haquet
Emma Ramadan, translator
Levine Querido
Hardcover $18.99 (320pp)
978-1-64614-182-1
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

Phalaina is an enchanting dark fairy tale focused on an ethereal, red-eyed girl who may not be human.

Manon is a little girl when she appears, alone in the woods, in late nineteenth-century England. Although she is free and happy, she is in danger. Her father was killed in an accident, and two men with nefarious intentions are looking for her. She is rescued by a flurry of butterflies who bind her in a cocoon. When she emerges, she is discovered by Albert, a kind man who takes her home to the care of his wife.

But even with Albert, Manon is at risk: rumors swirl, and Jack the Ripper remains at large. Further, the adults whom Manon encounters don’t know quite what to make of her. Some think that she is an abandoned albino, and the nuns to whom she is entrusted suspect that she is the devil’s spawn. An evil scientist sees her as a lab specimen who’s waiting to be split open for study, and her aunt wants her dead for her inheritance.

This unusual story unfolds in short chapters told from various points of view, including those of Manon; her father, Professor Humphrey, a scientist who corresponded with Charles Darwin about the discovery of a superior civilization of moth-like creatures; an illiterate poetess, Molly, who took Manon in; a lab rat; and a dog, Giulio. Flashes of horrific violence and grisly descriptions of cadavers are countered by whimsical passages and humor as the truth of Manon’s existence is gradually revealed.

With its attentions to the natural world and to the menaces of humanity, Phalaina is a luminous ecofable wrapped in an immersive, propulsive tale.

SUZANNE KAMATA (August 27, 2022)

Tear

Book Cover
Erica McKeen
Invisible Publishing
Softcover $16.95 (304pp)
978-1-77843-006-0
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

Erica McKeen’s Tear is a hair-raising horror novel in which patriarchal dismissals of capable women fester across generations.

During the long winter of her senior year of college, in the lone basement room of a nondescript rental house, Frances starts hearing noises in her walls. She thinks that she sees the shadows move. And the night refuses to end.

As she loses her grip on what’s real, Frances’s mind drifts toward memories: of her absent father; of her grandmother, who declared her “different” to halt processions of ghost stories on the porch; of a cruel childhood friend who insisted that he imagined her into existence; and of her mother, who abandoned her dreams to have Frances, and who may have tried to trick her into drowning once.

In all, Frances recalls twenty-one years of slights and barbs—instances of being discounted and looked over; of being misunderstood and underloved. She wonders if she is invisible, or even real. Though Frances’s roommates haven’t checked on her in weeks, it’s not the first time she’s been forgotten; her more immediate concern is with the existential dangers that she faces in the dark.

This haunting, disorienting tale traces Frances’s descent into madness with empathetic precision. She gulps vinegar and scratches at her scalp. She mixes her hours with days, then months—or maybe the reverse. She cannot discern the dimensions of what’s before her. And no one seems to hear her cries for help—cries that she isn’t even certain left her ragged throat. She fades; she transforms. Opportunities for reprisal arise, but even they are bleak, tormented, and otherworldly.

There’s heartbreak in the girlhood silences of Tear, a hallucinatory psychological horror novel in which you only have to watch out for the quiet ones because no one watched out for them.

MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (August 27, 2022)

Sacrificio

Book Cover
Ernesto Mestre-Reed
Soho Press
Hardcover $27.00 (456pp)
978-1-64129-364-8
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

Ernesto Mestre-Reed’s historical novel is set in Cuba in the late 1990s, where a displaced young man learns the limits of family, trust, and community.

Rafa is an orphan. He moves to Havana, where Cecilia, a restaurant owner, becomes like family to him. Cecilia’s older son, Nicolás, courts Rafa prior to becoming infected with HIV and becoming more erratic. Cecilia’s younger son, Renato, follows in his brother’s footsteps, including asking for initiation into a movement of disillusioned young men who consent to being infected with HIV.

Together with their missing father, the family has more secrets than the nearby beach has grains of sand. Renato takes up residence in a state-sponsored sanatorium where Rafa visits him, but when Renato disappears, Rafa feels compelled to find him, follow him, and determine the extent of his involvement in the shadowy world of the counterrevolutionaries. The Pope’s 1998 visit to Cuba lights a spark among the disenchanted youth, promising a wave of violence. Caught up in Renato’s inexorable pull toward self-destruction, Rafa falls in with European tourists, double agents, and the downtrodden.

Rafa’s desires are inscrutable, beyond wanting to be near Renato. The extreme experiences that he has, from anonymous, paid sex to participating in a covert operation, point to the impact of systemic failures on him, showing how they obliterate his personhood, just as surely as nihilism and secrecy could. Narrated without the use of quotation marks, the prose takes on a psychedelic cast, blending memories with hallucinations. Evocative language is used to detail the creep of infections in once-healthy bodies and the decay of society in once-thriving cities.

Lush, dreamy descriptions contrast with grim fatalism in Sacrificio, a transcendent novel that catalogs the many ways that humans can hurt each other, and that a society can fall apart.

JEANA JORGENSEN (August 27, 2022)

When You Open a Book

Book Cover
Caroline Derlatka
Sara Ugolotti, illustrator
Bushel & Peck Books
Hardcover $18.99 (32pp)
978-1-63819-094-3
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

Two children dine with mermaids, swashbuckle with pirates, and ride on the shoulders of a giant in this beautiful tale about the transportive power of reading. The dreamlike illustrations use a broad palette of bright colors and wispy textures to spark children’s imaginations, encouraging them to crack open a book and enter a world of winged dragons, musical sea creatures, and mice hanging stars on the moon.

DANIELLE BALLANTYNE (August 27, 2022)

My Three Dads

Patriarchy on the Great Plains

Book Cover
Jessa Crispin
The University of Chicago Press
Softcover $19.00 (256pp)
978-0-226-82010-1
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

Jessa Crispin’s voluble memoir My Three Dads entwines intense personal experiences with compelling social observations.

Crispin, after renting a house in a blighted neighborhood of Kansas City, began to feel haunted. After meeting with local paranormal consultants, the supernatural presence of Charlie, the home’s former owner, was confirmed to her. Charlie wasn’t malicious, but he did disapprove of Crispin’s non-traditional behavior and her Tinder dates. And as a native of rural Kansas, Crispin was familiar with Charlie’s distinct energy. He was the spectral version of Midwestern men whom she had known all her life: taciturn, moralizing beings suffering from “emotional constipation,” yet “still strangely captivating” in their stoic detachment.

Following this beginning, the book recalls Crispin’s childhood and adolescence, spent within the confines of “Midwestern monoculture.” It also delves into the zealotry of Kansas in general, including the rampages of abolitionist John Brown, Ku Klux Klan raids, and anti-abortion violence and murder.

Throughout, Crispin explores diverse topics with varied brilliance. Bland Methodist church services alternate with frenzied evangelical gatherings, and moments of revelation are found in Chicago bars and medieval Romanian churches. Martin Luther’s Reformation is contemplated, as is the life of fellow Midwesterner Axl Rose, whose music evokes the region’s “dark wheat fields” and “endless display of stars.”

Beyond her own experiences, Crispin surveys America’s increasing polarization. She notes extremes of academic and cultural elitism, contrasted with homophobia, xenophobia, and inherited ignorance. And social media creates connections that fuel further division, she says, all while promoting trivial obsessions over “the latest Baby Yoda product,” craft beers, and Twitter feuds, along with the relentless monitoring of individual data.

My Three Dads is challenging in its assessment of American life—a personal story that’s conveyed with piercing humor, sharp details, and whirlwinds of intelligent, expansive prose.

MEG NOLA (August 27, 2022)

Barbara Hodge

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