A wholly satisfying blend of silliness, feminist critique, and deft prose makes this a collection of bedtime stories that...

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THE MERRY SPINSTER

This delightfully disturbing collection of folk tales, fairy tales, and Bible stories from Ortberg (Texts from Jane Eyre, 2014), an expansion of her series Children's Stories Made Horrific from the cult-favorite website The Toast, delivers on chills, laughs, and much more.

A version of “The Little Mermaid” that is more concerned with cultural perceptions of property rights than singing crabs. A retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” in which the former title character is a dreadful bore and the latter is unbearably pedantic. A reimagining of The Velveteen Rabbit starring a far more ambitious stuffed animal than the depressing original version. There is plenty of humor to be had here, with Ortberg’s signature biting wit and nerdy whimsy out in full force (“Daughters are as good a thing as any to populate a kingdom with—if you’ve got them on hand. They don’t cost much more than their own upkeep, which you’re on the hook for regardless, so it’s not a bad strategy to put them to use as quickly as possible”). Pointing out the darker aspects of children’s stories and Disney movies has become as much a cliché as the original princesses and fairy godmothers were, but Ortberg’s point of view is thoughtful, insightful, and unpretentious. Gender is entirely fluid, as characters debate “which of us gets to be wife,” there is a girl named Paul, a brother named Sylvia, and “daughters” who use “he/him” pronouns. One story that borrows from the Grimm stories “The Six Swans” and “The Twelve Brothers” comments on the different ways men and women are subjected to suffering. Riffs on Frog and Toad Are Friends, “Cinderella,” King Lear, and “The Frog Prince” reflect on abusive relationship dynamics. If anything, Ortberg doesn’t twist the stories so much as illuminate how layered and complicated they really are.

A wholly satisfying blend of silliness, feminist critique, and deft prose makes this a collection of bedtime stories that will keep you up at night for all the right reasons.

Pub Date: March 13, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-250-11342-9

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: Nov. 28, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2017

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An almost-but-not-quite-great slavery novel.

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THE WATER DANCER

The celebrated author of Between the World and Me (2015) and We Were Eight Years in Power (2017) merges magic, adventure, and antebellum intrigue in his first novel.

In pre–Civil War Virginia, people who are white, whatever their degree of refinement, are considered “the Quality” while those who are black, whatever their degree of dignity, are regarded as “the Tasked.” Whether such euphemisms for slavery actually existed in the 19th century, they are evocatively deployed in this account of the Underground Railroad and one of its conductors: Hiram Walker, one of the Tasked who’s barely out of his teens when he’s recruited to help guide escapees from bondage in the South to freedom in the North. “Conduction” has more than one meaning for Hiram. It's also the name for a mysterious force that transports certain gifted individuals from one place to another by way of a blue light that lifts and carries them along or across bodies of water. Hiram knows he has this gift after it saves him from drowning in a carriage mishap that kills his master’s oafish son (who’s Hiram’s biological brother). Whatever the source of this power, it galvanizes Hiram to leave behind not only his chains, but also the two Tasked people he loves most: Thena, a truculent older woman who practically raised him as a surrogate mother, and Sophia, a vivacious young friend from childhood whose attempt to accompany Hiram on his escape is thwarted practically at the start when they’re caught and jailed by slave catchers. Hiram directly confronts the most pernicious abuses of slavery before he is once again conducted away from danger and into sanctuary with the Underground, whose members convey him to the freer, if funkier environs of Philadelphia, where he continues to test his power and prepare to return to Virginia to emancipate the women he left behind—and to confront the mysteries of his past. Coates’ imaginative spin on the Underground Railroad’s history is as audacious as Colson Whitehead’s, if less intensely realized. Coates’ narrative flourishes and magic-powered protagonist are reminiscent of his work on Marvel’s Black Panther superhero comic book, but even his most melodramatic effects are deepened by historical facts and contemporary urgency.

An almost-but-not-quite-great slavery novel.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-59059-7

Page Count: 432

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

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Fierce, poetic, uncompromising.

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THE CITY WE BECAME

This extremely urban fantasy, a love/hate song to and rallying cry for the author’s home of New York, expands her story “The City, Born Great” (from How Long ’Til Black Future Month, 2018).

When a great city reaches the point when it's ready to come to life, it chooses a human avatar, who guides the city through its birthing and contends with an extradimensional Enemy who seeks to strike at this vulnerable moment. Now, it is New York City’s time to be born, but its avatar is too weakened by the battle to complete the process. So each of the individual boroughs instantiates its own avatar to continue the fight. Manhattan is a multiracial grad student new to the city with a secret violent past that he can no longer quite remember; Brooklyn is an African American rap star–turned–lawyer and city councilwoman; Queens is an Indian math whiz here on a visa; the Bronx is a tough Lenape woman who runs a nonprofit art center; and Staten Island is a frightened and insular Irish American woman who wants nothing to do with the other four. Can these boroughs successfully awaken and heal their primary avatar and repel the invading white tentacles of the Enemy? The novel is a bold calling out of the racial tensions dividing not only New York City, but the U.S. as a whole; it underscores that people of color are an integral part of the city’s tapestry even if some white people prefer to treat them as interlopers. It's no accident that the only white avatar is the racist woman representing Staten Island, nor that the Enemy appears as a Woman in White who employs the forces of racism and gentrification in her invasion; her true self is openly inspired by the tropes of the xenophobic author H.P. Lovecraft. Although the story is a fantasy, many aspects of the plot draw on contemporary incidents. In the real world, white people don’t need a nudge from an eldritch abomination to call down a violent police reaction on people of color innocently conducting their daily lives, and just as in the book, third parties are fraudulently transferring property deeds from African American homeowners in Brooklyn, and gentrification forces out the people who made the neighborhood attractive in the first place. In the face of these behaviors, whataboutism, #BothSides, and #NotAllWhitePeople are feeble arguments.

Fierce, poetic, uncompromising.

Pub Date: March 24, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-316-50984-8

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Orbit

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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