Elizabeth Schieber

Preview: ‘Our Homesick Songs’

Does anyone remember Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James? Oh, I loved it. I was so thrilled to see her new novel – out mid-August – that I moved it clear to the top of my stack.

Our Homesick Songs reminded me of The Rathbones and also a little bit of The Light Between Oceans. It’s set in a small fishing village called Big Running that once was flooded with fish but has now run dry. The fish shortage has sent all of the town’s inhabitants away to find work; the town has slowly dwindled down to only 6 occupied houses among the dozens of deserted ones. In one home lives the Connor family – Martha and Aidan and their children Cora and Finn. In alternating chapters we get the story of Martha and Aidan’s courtship and the story of their present.

The Connors are all cheats; it’s widely known throughout the village and even to young Aidan himself. He vows never to fall in love. Sequestering himself out at sea, he sings to the fish all night long. His voice travels far over the water, to the other shore, where young Martha Murphy finds it and believes it to be the voice of a mermaid. She listens night after night and when she finally meets him, she knows he is the one just as she knows that all Connors are cheats. Fast-forward 20 years, the members of the Connor family are each struggling in their own ways to come to terms with the dissolution of their town, their family, their lives.

What I love about Emma Hooper are the little details that make her stories magic – Cora, sneaking into abandoned houses and redecorating them according to different nationalities (an Italian house, a Mexican house, etc.); Finn, trying his best to lure the fish back according to any old folklore he comes across; Martha with her finely knotted fishing nets. This is a slow novel, but a beautiful one.


Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper (Simon & Schuster | 9781501124488 | August 14, 2018)

Review: ‘House of Broken Angels’

Have you ever thought about what you would think about if you knew you were dying? If you knew you were dying soon? If you are curious as to what it would be like, just read The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea.

Big Angel is the patriarch of a large, loud, opinionated Mexican (Mexican-AMERICAN thanks to Big Angel) family. And he’s dying. Soon. So he does what the patriarch of any big family would do – he decides to throw himself the biggest birthday bash ever seen. He invites all of his crazy relatives – his siblings, estranged children, everybody’s sister and child, grandchild and niece.

As with any family, Big Angel’s has its share of drama. There are feuds, brawls, tears, and laughs, tons of family stories to be told.  I loved that part. But what I loved most was Big Angel himself; reflecting on his life and coming to terms with his imminent departure from the world he has known and loved. There was something so real, so honest, in his fears and sorrows. I loved the way he talked about his memory, especially the memories of meeting his wife as a young man, of falling in love and then staying in a marriage, more or less in love. It’s the perfect novel for anyone who loves a large cast of colorful characters, a great family saga, or stories about crossing borders and building new lives.

Big Angel is definitely not perfect, but he felt very, very real.


House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea (Little Brown & Company | 9780316154888 | March 6, 2018)

Review: ‘The Italian Teacher’

Is it possible to really enjoy a book even though the main character is pretty much all-around unattractive? In looks, demeanor, attitude, thought? I think it must be, because I really enjoyed The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman, even though Pinch, our “hero,” is pretty pathetic.

The son of Bear Bavinsky, a famous and philandering painter, Pinch lives his life struggling to earn his father’s approval. He questions every move, every decision, and every conversation – hoping that it is the “right” one. He ends up teaching Italian at a small, unremarkable college in London, having long ago cast aside his desire to paint. When Pinch finds himself suddenly in Bear’s confidence and good graces, he makes some interesting and life-changing decisions that propel the second half of the story.

Bear is definitely the most dynamic character in the novel – loud, interesting, creatively unique. He’s almost too much of a character, probably best seen through the eyes of his admittedly less interesting son. A lot of the story has to do with Bear’s artistic persona, the quirks to his genius and also his obsession with self-preservation and perfection. I was completely interested the whole way through but found Pinch pretty pathetic.


The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman (Viking | 9780735222694 | February 20, 2018)

Review: ‘Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow’

I know everyone compares everything to Harry Potter, but this really does have the same sort of readability and charm. It’s the story of Morrigan Crow, born a cursed child and hated in her hometown (her father is mayor). Morrigan gets blamed for everything, from bad weather to upset stomachs to lost pets. Good thing that cursed children are all killed the night before their 11th birthday, and for Morrigan Crow, that is tomorrow.

Just before Morrigan is to die, a mysterious stranger whisks her away to Nevermoor, a realm she didn’t know existed, where she finds herself being groomed to compete for a spot in the illustrious Wundrous Society, a school for the gifted. The magically gifted, that is. Morrigan has to compete in a series of trials to earn her place among the future leaders of the country. The only problem is, she has no magic talent to speak of.

Living in an enchanted, clever and ever-changing hotel overseen by a large talking cat, Morrigan comes to love her life in this new world. But as with all good Harry-Potter-esque novels, there is something sinister afoot. And if she doesn’t pass her trials and make it into the Wundrous Society, she’ll be thrown back to her hometown to face certain death. I can’t wait for the second installment, due out in October 2018.


Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend (Little Brown Books for Young Readers | 9780316508889 | October 31, 2017)

Review: “In the Land of Armadillos”

scribner-armadillos-rev-lrI requested access to In the Land of Armadillos on Netgalley for two reasons: One, I loved the cover. Two, I loved the title. That’s it. I’d never heard of the author; it seemed like the stories would all be sad. I figured I’d just read the first story and leave the rest behind.

But oh, my gosh. Remember a while back when Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See came out? I said then that typically there was one great WWII novel a year. It’s a subject that will continue to intrigue authors and readers alike, but some tales are better than others. In the Land of Armadillos is most likely the best WWII fiction that will come out this year–and it’s only February. And they’re short stories.

Even if it turns out not to be the best, it’s certainly pretty amazing. Helen Maryles Shankman has written a series of linked short stories about a Polish town devastated by WWII. We get to see the cold-blooded SS officer who finds himself trying to save the (Jewish) illustrator of his son’s favorite picture book (while simultaneously killing those the illustrator loves); the farmer who himself hates Jews and turns in many of his neighbors, only to find himself hiding a young Jewish girl; the town’s best saddle maker; the orphaned siblings who run the town’s largest mill.

Every story was so great – yes, they’re all sad because terrible things happened during the war. But what I loved about them was that the characters–no matter their nationality, political affiliation or religious belief–were so real, so three-dimensional. The story that had me crying was not because of something wretched–a death or betrayal–but instead it was about the revelations of a hard-hearted man. 

Five stars, definitely.


In the Land of Armadillos by Helen Maryles Shankman (Scribner | 9781501115196 | February 2, 2016)