Nonfiction review: The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Black Family

The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Black Family
By Bettye Kearse
Published March 24, 2020 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Publisher’s summary:
In The Other Madisons, Bettye Kearse—a descendant of an enslaved cook and, according to oral tradition, President James Madison—shares her family story and explores the issues of legacy, race, and the powerful consequences of telling the whole truth.

For thousands of years, West African griots (men) and griottes (women) have recited the stories of their people. Without this tradition Bettye Kearse would not have known that she is a descendant of President James Madison and his slave, and half-sister, Coreen. In 1990, Bettye became the eighth-generation griotte for her family. Their credo—“Always remember—you’re a Madison. You come from African slaves and a president”—was intended to be a source of pride, but for her, it echoed with abuses of slavery, including rape and incest.

Confronting those abuses, Bettye embarked on a journey of discovery—of her ancestors, the nation, and herself. She learned that wherever African slaves walked, recorded history silenced their voices and buried their footsteps: beside a slave-holding fortress in Ghana; below a federal building in New York City; and under a brick walkway at James Madison’s Virginia plantation. When Bettye tried to confirm the information her ancestors had passed down, she encountered obstacles at every turn.

Part personal quest, part testimony, part historical correction, The Other Madisons is the saga of an extraordinary American family told by a griotte in search of the whole story.

The Other Madisons is a fascinating book about a family’s secret history. When Bettye Kearse’s mother hands over a box containing the family records, she tells Bettye that she is now the family’s griotte, a West African tradition that means she is now the keeper of her family’s history.

Kearse has always been told that she’s the descendant of slaves and a president. Family The other madisonslegend says that President James Madison fathered a child with his slave, and Kearse’s family is descended from that child, a slave named Jim who was sold by Madison’s wife Dolley. While the descent from Madison is a source of pride for some in the family, Kearse is much more interested in finding her lost slave ancestors, and so she begins a journey into the past.

This is a really powerful, moving book. Kearse moves back in time, searching for her lost ancestors. The first of her line is Mandy, a girl who was kidnapped from West Africa and sold into slavery. She ends up on the Madison plantation, where she is the grandmother of Madison’s son Jim. There are short interludes between chapters written in the voice of Mandy. These passages are often brutal, as they tell the story of Mandy’s capture and life as a slave. These interludes worked well. Mandy can’t be found anywhere in official history, but Kearse gives her a voice in the book.

Kearse’s research takes her into some dark places. While others in her family referred to relationships between female slaves and masters by euphemisms, Kearse isn’t afraid to call it what it was, rape. And it’s hard to trace genealogy, because slaves aren’t listed by name in plantation records; they’re just numbers (that detail is particularly chilling). She visits Ghana to see where it all began, and she finds a measure of piece visiting the slave graveyard at the Madison estate.

I recommend this book for anyone who’s interested in American history, geneaology, or learning more about slavery and its effects on families. It’s an important story about a terrible stain on U.S. history.

I received an ARC from the publisher through Amazon Vine.

Review: Tigers, Not Daughters

I’m very pleased to be part of the blog tour for Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry. Thank you to Algonquin Young Readers for the ARC>

Tigers, Not Daughters
By Samantha Mabry
Published March 24, 2020 by Algonquin Young Readers

Publisher’s summary:
The Torres sisters dream of escape. Escape from their needy and despotic widowed father, and from their San Antonio neighborhood, full of old San Antonio families and all the traditions and expectations that go along with them. In the summer after her senior year of high school, Ana, the oldest sister, falls to her death from her bedroom window. A year later, her three younger sisters, Jessica, Iridian, and Rosa, are still consumed by grief and haunted by their sister’s memory. Their dream of leaving Southtown now seems out of reach. But then strange things start happening around the house: mysterious laughter, mysterious shadows, mysterious writing on the walls. The sisters begin to wonder if Ana really is haunting them, trying to send them a message—and what exactly she’s trying to say.

In a stunning follow-up to her National Book Award–longlisted novel All the Wind in the World, Samantha Mabry weaves an aching, magical novel that is one part family drama, one part ghost story, and one part love story.


The Torres girls are a mess since their oldest sister Ana died last year. Jessica is angry at the world and in a bad relationship with Ana’s controlling ex. Iridian never leaves the house and loses herself in writing. Rosa has turned to religion and believes she can 45305582._SY475_communicate with animals. Their father is mostly drunk and has abdicated responsibility for his daughters. The sisters are shaken when they start to think that Ana’s ghost may be lingering.

I loved this book. This is an #ownvoices book about an Mexican-American family. Samantha Mabry is such a distinctive writer, and her prose style works really well in this mostly realistic story that’s laced with some magical realism. Her descriptive writing really evokes the setting (a Latinx community in San Antonio) and the sisters, who are all very distinctive characters.

The book is slightly reminiscent of The Virgin Suicides because the story is partly told through the point of view of a group of boys who are mildly obsessed with the sisters. This part of the narration is told in first person, and I liked the switch from the third person narration of the sisters’ narratives.

This is a ghost story of sorts, but it’s not terribly scary (although there are a few tense moments). It’s really more of a family story, about sisters torn apart and finding their way back to each other. I love books about siblings with rough relationships, so this was very much in my wheelhouse. It’s a really lovely book.

Content warning for an abusive relationship.

I received an ARC from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Review: All the Pretty Things

All the Pretty Things
By Emily Arsenault
Published March 17, 2020 by Delacorte Press

Publisher’s Summary:
For fans of Sadie and The Cheerleaders comes an all new thriller about a boy who turns up dead under suspicious circumstances and the one girl who may be the key to solving the mystery of his untimely death.

For Ivy, summer means roller-coaster season, spinning cotton candy at the Fabuland amusement park, and hanging out with her best friend, Morgan. But this summer is different.

One morning, Morgan finds a dead body. It’s their former classmate and coworker Ethan. To make matters worse, Morgan is taken to a hospital psych ward only days later, and she’s not saying much–not even to Ivy.

The police claim that Ethan simply took a bad fall, but Ivy isn’t convinced and realizes it’s up to her to get answers. What she finds is unsettling–it’s clear that some people aren’t being honest about Ethan’s last night at Fabuland. Including Morgan. And the more secrets Ivy uncovers, the closer she gets to unraveling dark truths that will change her life forever.


All the Pretty Things is a young adult mystery that held my attention, but never really grabbed me. It’s the story of Ivy, a teenager who’s investigating a mystery and coming to 46406706terms with her very dysfunctional family. Ivy gets involved in the mystery after her best friend finds a the dead body of a boy they knew and then (understandably) cracks up a bit.

There were things I liked about the book. it’s set mostly in a small-town amusement park. Ivy’s father owns the park and she’s working there on her summer break. The setting is really well described and it’s a cool and interesting setting for a mystery. I also thought the family dynamics were really well done. Ivy’s relationship with her brother is interesting, and the contrast between them and how differently they deal with their father was one of the best parts of the book for me.

My main issue with the book is Ivy. Her playing Nancy Drew doesn’t make all that much sense at the beginning of the story. Her friend has been freaked out by finding a body and has some questions, so Ivy decides that she needs to investigate the death, even after her friend stops speaking to her. But Ivy keeps blundering along, trying to solve a mystery and upsetting everyone around her while she does it.

I also found the reveal of the villain to be less than surprising given that this character is portrayed as a really awful person throughout the book.

I received an ARC from the publisher through NetGalley.

Review: Havenfall

By Sarah Holland
Published March 3, 2020 by Bloomsbury YA

Publisher’s summary:
A safe haven between four realms. The girl sworn to protect it–at any cost.

Hidden deep in the mountains of Colorado lies the Inn at Havenfall, a sanctuary that connects ancient worlds–each with their own magic–together. For generations, the inn has protected all who seek refuge within its walls, and any who disrupt the peace can never return.

For Maddie Morrow, summers at the inn are more than a chance to experience this magic first-hand. Havenfall is an escape from reality, where her mother sits on death row accused of murdering Maddie’s brother. It’s where Maddie fell in love with handsome Fiorden soldier Brekken. And it’s where one day she hopes to inherit the role of Innkeeper from her beloved uncle.

But this summer, the impossible happens–a dead body is found, shattering everything the inn stands for. With Brekken missing, her uncle gravely injured, and a dangerous creature on the loose, Maddie suddenly finds herself responsible for the safety of everyone in Havenfall. She’ll do anything to uncover the truth, even if it means working together with an alluring new staffer Taya, who seems to know more than she’s letting on. As dark secrets are revealed about the inn itself, one thing becomes clear to Maddie–no one can be trusted, and no one is safe . . .


Havenfall is everything I want in a young adult fantasy: a cool concept, well-executed, with a great heroine.

Maddie has had a rough life. Her mother is on death row for murdering her brother, and 44281011this has made Maddie something of an outcast. The only place she feels comfortable is her uncle’s inn in a small town in Colorado, where she spends her summers. Havenfall isn’t just a hotel–it’s the place where a portal to other worlds opens. Every summer, the portals open and the people of Fiordenkill and Byrn come through to meet in the safety of Havenfall. There were once many other lands, but their doors have all been closed, including Solaria, whose door was sealed off after a deadly incident, although it’s believed that some Solarians escaped and are roaming around on Earth.

When Maddie arrives for the summer, all hell breaks loose, and she finds herself in charge of the inn, a position she is not at all prepared for. With her uncle temporarily out of the picture, arguing factions, a potential threat from the Solarians, and a Fiorden prince with ambiguous motives trying to help her, Maddie is in way over her head and she has to figure out what’s really going on.

Maddie is a great heroine. She’s in a rough situation. Havenfall is the only place she feels safe and welcome, but now it’s no longer a haven and she has to be the one to figure out what’s really going on. There are a lot of twists and turns in the plot, and although I had some suspicions, I was really surprised by the big reveals at the end.

There’s some romance in the book, but it’s not the main focus. Maddie is bi and she has both male and female love interests in the book. Brekken is a handsome Fiorden who she’s know since childhood, and she’s hoping that friendship will turn into something more. Then there’s Taya, a newcomer to Havenfall. She and Maddie become close during the chaotic weeks at the inn. There’s a bit of swoon with both love interests, but the focus is more on the strange things happening at the inn. It does seem like a setup for a love triangle in book two.

The ending was very satisfying. There’s no major cliffhanger, but there’s a good setup for the next, which I’m very excited to read.

I received an ARC from the publisher through NetGalley.

Review: These Ghosts Are Family

These Ghosts Are Family
By Maisy Card
Published March 3, 2020 by Simon & Schuster

Publisher’s summary:
Stanford Solomon has a shocking, thirty-year-old secret. And it’s about to change the lives of everyone around him. Stanford Solomon is actually Abel Paisley, a man who faked his own death and stole the identity of his best friend.

And now, nearing the end of his life, Stanford is about to meet his firstborn daughter, Irene Paisley, a home health aide who has unwittingly shown up for her first day of work to tend to the father she thought was dead.

These Ghosts Are Family revolves around the consequences of Abel’s decision and tells the story of the Paisley family from colonial Jamaica to present day Harlem. There is Vera, whose widowhood forced her into the role of single mother. There are two daughters and a granddaughter who have never known they are related. And there are others, like the house boy who loved Vera, whose lives might have taken different courses if not for Abel Paisley’s actions.

These Ghosts Are Family explores the ways each character wrestles with their ghosts and struggles to forge independent identities outside of the family and their trauma. The result is an engrossing portrait of a family and individuals caught in the sweep of history, slavery, migration, and the more personal dramas of infidelity, lost love, and regret. This electric and luminous family saga announces the arrival of a new American talent.

These Ghosts Are Family is a really stunning multi-generational saga about a Jamaican family. It’s a powerful and ambitious debut novel.

The story begins with Stanford Solomon. He’s an elderly man who has hired a home These Ghostshealth aide and brings her into his house with his daughter and granddaughter. He has a story to tell all three women. For, you see, Stanford is really Abel Paisley and the home health aide is his daughter from him first marriage. Abel faked his own death and took his friend’s place. It was a planned deception, but when the opportunity arose Abel took it: “You almost laugh now when you think of it–the one time racism worked in your favor. The captain had gotten his wogs confused, looked you right in the eye and mistook you for the other black guy.” Abel becomes Stanford and leaves behind a “widow,” Vera, and two children.

The story moves back and forth in time, from colonial Jamaica, to the early days of Abel’s first marriage, to present-day New York. It’s almost more a collection of related short stories. We see Abel in the early 1960s, stuck in an unhappy marriage with Vera. Neither is what the other expected when they wed, and Card beautifully evokes their misery. I enjoyed some sections more than others, but all of them were interesting.

The book has hints of magical realism with occasional mentions of ghosts, but it goes full magical realism in the final section, and I’m not sure that it really worked. It felt very different in tone from the rest of the book. I’m planning to reread the ending to see if I’m just missing something. But everything else about the book worked for me, and it’s a really impressive debut novel.

I received an ARC from the publisher through NetGalley.

Review: The Midnight Lie

The Midnight Lie
By Marie Rutkoski
Published March 3, 2020 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Publisher’s summary:
Where Nirrim lives, crime abounds, a harsh tribunal rules, and society’s pleasures are reserved for the High Kith. Life in the Ward is grim and punishing. People of her low status are forbidden from sampling sweets or wearing colors. You either follow the rules, or pay a tithe and suffer the consequences.

Nirrim keeps her head down and a dangerous secret close to her chest.

But then she encounters Sid, a rakish traveler from far away who whispers rumors that the High Caste possesses magic. Sid tempts Nirrim to seek that magic for herself. But to do that, Nirrim must surrender her old life. She must place her trust in this sly stranger who asks, above all, not to be trusted.

Set in the world of the New York Times–bestselling Winner’s Trilogy, beloved author Marie Rutkoski returns with an epic LGBTQ romantic fantasy about learning to free ourselves from the lies others tell us—and the lies we tell ourselves.

The Midnight Lie is a really beautiful book. It’s a fantasy, a romance, and a nuanced look at abusive relationships. It reminded me a bit of Strange the Dreamer, another fantasy about a seemingly ordinary person who embraces an extraordinary life.

Nirrim lives in the ward. She’s a Half Kith and her kind are bound to live within the The MIdnight Lliewalls of the ward. The Half Kith live under draconian laws. They aren’t allowed any bright colored or fancy clothes. Everything they wear must be gray or brown. Their food must be plain, and anything sweet is forbidden. If they caught breaking the laws, the penalty is a tithe: they may have their blood drained or a finger removed or something worse. Nirrim works in a bakery where anything sweet is sold to the Middlings, the next class up. Anything colorful or fine produced by the Half Kith goes to the Middlings or the High Kith, the highest class. (The huge dichotomy between the classes is reminiscent of District 12 compared with the Capitol in the Hunger Games.) Nirrim’s life isn’t bad, even with these restrictions. She grew up in an orphanage and was then taken in by Raven, a Middling who runs a bakery in the ward. Nirrim works in the bakery, and because she’s an expert forger, she helps Raven make passports for people who want to sneak out of the ward.

Nirrim is thrown into prison one day on spurious charges. In the cell next to her is Sid, a young woman from somewhere else. She frees Nirrim from the prison and asks her many questions about the ward. Nirrim’s answer to every question is “it’s always been that way.” But Sid’s question start to make Nirrim think about why things are the way they are in the ward, and once she starts asking questions, things will never be the same. Not only does she begin to question everything she knows, she finds herself drawn to the enigmatic Sid.

Rutkoski has a way with words. Take this passage:

It occurred to me that all the rules that mandated that we live behind the wall had one purpose: to make the Half Kith forget how to wish for things. We had been taught not to want more than we had. I realized that wanting is a kind of power even if you don’t get what you want. Wanting illuminates everything you need, and how the world has failed you.

The book has an interesting portrayal of abusive relationships. Raven, the woman who took Nirrim in, alternates between tenderness and abuse. It’s obvious to the reader and to everyone around Nirrim that Raven is awful, but Nirrim is an orphan who’s never known love or affection, so it makes sense that she feels an attachment and a sense of duty to Raven. It’s hard to read, but the the dynamics of an abusive relationship ring true. Nirrim also has a relationship of a sort with a fellow Half Kith named Aden. He loves her and she feels an obligation to him even though she doesn’t feel the same (“He kissed me and I let him. Sometimes it can feel so good to give someone what they want that it is the next best thing to getting what you want.”). Aden is a classic “nice guy,” turning on Nirrim as soon as he doesn’t get his way. These relationships contrast with Sid, who although not without her own baggage, actually respects Nirrim as her own person and pushes her to see the world in new ways.

My only issue with the book is that the pacing is a bit slow. There’s a lot of character development, and the romance is very well done, but the plot lags a bit in the middle, only to pick up a lot of steam near the end of the book. The plot twists at the end are fantastic, and I’m dying to see where things go in the next book, but there could have been a bit more action in the middle.

I received an ARC from the publisher through Amazon Vine.



Review: Oona out of Order

Oona out of Order
By Margarita Montimore
Published February 25, 2020 by Flatiron Books

Publisher’s summary:
Just because life may be out of order, doesn’t mean it’s broken.

It’s New Year’s Eve 1982, and Oona Lockhart has her whole life before her. At the stroke of midnight she will turn nineteen, and the year ahead promises to be one of consequence. Should she go to London to study economics, or remain at home in Brooklyn to pursue her passion for music and be with her boyfriend? As the countdown to the New Year begins, Oona faints and awakens thirty-two years in the future in her fifty-one-year-old body. Greeted by a friendly stranger in a beautiful house she’s told is her own, Oona learns that with each passing year she will leap to another age at random. And so begins Oona Out of Order

Hopping through decades, pop culture fads, and much-needed stock tips, Oona is still a young woman on the inside but ever changing on the outside. Who will she be next year? Philanthropist? Club Kid? World traveler? Wife to a man she’s never met?

Oona Out of Order is a remarkably inventive novel that explores what it means to live a life fully in the moment, even if those moments are out of sequence. Surprising, magical, and heart-wrenching, Montimore has crafted an unforgettable story about the burdens of time, the endurance of love, and the power of family.

Oona Lockhart faints on her 19th birthday and wakes up 32 years later in her 51-year-old body. She’s understandably freaked out, but she’s greeted by a man who says he’s her OOnapersonal assistant and friend Kenzie. He explains that she’s a time traveler of a very unique sort: Every year on her birthday, she faints and wakes up in a different year of her life. It can be any year she’s never lived before, and she no way to control it or decide which year it will be.

And so, Oona experiences her life out of order, with no predictable pattern of how the years will go. She’s a young soul in a body of all different ages. Sometimes the year is a good one, sometimes it’s a painful one. There’s love and loss and sometimes a horrible sense of knowing something is going to happen and not being able to prevent it. She has her beloved mother and Kenzie to help her through the weirdness of her life, but there are times when she’s very much alone.

I thought this was a really interesting concept for time travel. The idea of living your life out of order provides a lot of emotional resonance. Oona is a great character. She’s strong and resilient, and she learns to embrace a life of uncertainty and enjoy the good moments, of which there are many. Although the time travel is a central element to this book, there’s no science fiction explanation here. This may be unsatisfying for some readers, but I thought that it worked really well for the plot in this case.

I received an ARC from the publisher through NetGalley.