Mini-book reviews

Ohhhhh I am so behind with my 2020 mini-book reviews. My lofty goal of a round-up review each month entirely fell by the wayside, along with so much else in this overwhelming year. Let me partially remedy that right this minute with mini-book reviews of books I read in the last few months, written on the spot just now.

Note that I only review books I loved or that, even if I didn’t love them, have stayed with me in inexplicable ways that somehow merit attention. Note also that all these books were ordered and bought from indie bookstores, the beautiful lifeblood of readers and publishers. Please support your independent bookstores. You can find yours right here at this handy-dandy link:

Bonfire Opera, by Danusha Lameris. Oh, I love this woman’s poems. The first time I read Small Kindnesses, I wrote it out by hand and then copied it into my Favorite Poems files. And then scurried over to Magers and Quinn to pre-order Bonfire Opera, the book from whence it came. Lameris writes of ordinary life the way our greatest writers do, the way that allows us to see that no life is ordinary, that our every smallest action ripples out. A beautiful, beautiful book.

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson. I’m late to the party with this lovely book, a memoir in verse-like prose written for middle grades readers but which really, like all great books ostensibly for children, is written for everyone. Woodson writes about her life, from birth through middle school, dipping down into small details the way a hummingbird alights on the sweetest flowers. Each chapter is so brief, so full of love and wonder and subtle commentary on life as a brown girl in the 60s and 70s, and every few chapters is one consisting solely of a haiku that somehow punctuates and coheres the entirety. Such a beautiful book.

The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett. This woman is such a good writer. I loved her first novel, The Mothers, and this one is equally absorbing. Identical twins Stella and Desiree, born in the 60s into an almost-mythical small town populated entirely by light-skinned Black citizens, leave home at age sixteen to make their way in the wider world. Stella chooses to “pass” as white, a decision that haunts every aspect of her life thereafter, while Desiree gives birth to a daughter as “black as tar.” Bennett infuses her fictional people with such specificity that their pain, joy, and unbreakable sisterly bonds reveal the intricacies of our nation’s historical racism and sexism while pulling the reader so deeply into their personal life struggles that they will be with me forever.

Italian Shoes, by Henning Mankell. This is my first dip into the vast array of books by renowned Swedish writer Mankell (the man who writes the Kurt Wallander detective series), It’s an intensely serious, quiet novel narrated by a former doctor who, after a tragic surgical mistake, chooses to isolate himself on the island his grandparents left to him, where he is the sole inhabitant. He cuts a hole in the ice of the bay every morning and plunges in – the only time he feels truly alive. Over the course of the novel he encounters, for the first time in decades, a past love who comes in search of him, sparking a small but profound reconnection with the wider world. While I did not love, or even particularly like, the narrator of this book, I remain both haunted and heartened by his inherent sadness and gradual, slow, opening back up to his fellow humans.

Watch Over Me, by Nina LaCour. I loved Nina’s novel We Are Okay and I loved this one too, for the same reasons – her uncanny way with the small, perfect detail that bring both setting and people to life. LaCour writes of the Bay area the way that only an observer with a poet’s eye can, so that the landscape becomes as much a character as the people. Set on a farm for foster-to-adopt children, Watch Over Me follows teenager Mila as she gradually, painfully begins to place pattern to the trauma of her past. LaCour’s descriptions of The Farm are like a dream, the kind of farm where everyone is loved and cared for, where there’s always plenty to eat, plenty of blankets, flowers everywhere, warmth when you need it, solitude when you need it, and, I imagine board games everywhere. The foster parents surround their traumatized charges with the kind of love and support that would heal the entire world should we all be so lucky to experience it. A lovely novel, full of hard-earned hope.

Now We Will Speak in Flowers, by Micki Blenkush. I read this slender book of poetry in one sitting, and felt as if I’d been given a glimpse into the poet’s entire life. Set in northern Minnesota and dipping down into childhood, young adulthood, middle age, town and country and church and work, this is a work set firmly in place and time. The poet’s perspective, wise from experience and innate understanding of how the small and subtle inform the wider world, is captivating in a quiet, gentle way. Lovely.

Open City, by Teju Cole. Set entirely in New York City and almost exclusively in Manhattan, this slender novel follows its main character, a young Nigerian scholar, as he walks about the city. As I read, I kept having to remind myself that it was a novel and not a memoir, so intimate and quiet is the voice of the narrator. As a lifelong walker who soaks up the world through the soles of my feet while silently thinking and observing, the book felt deeply familiar both in its perspective and its essential loneliness. Toward the end, a small scene in a tailor’s shop shocked me. I did not love the main character but I will be thinking about him, and what he has to say about the world we all live in, for a long, long time.

What Narcissism Means to Me, by Tony Hoagland. How I love this man’s poems, and how I wept and wept when he died, too young, of cancer. There are few poets whose poems I almost universally love and treasure; Hoagland is one of them. This book was published in 2003 but no matter, any Hoagland poem lives in its own time and place that transcend the current time and place of the world. Hoagland aches for the world, and life, and his place in it, the same way my own heart does. Go forth and read him.

When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is one of my favorite books of all time. So far, he has not written a book I haven’t loved, although there are several I haven’t yet read. It takes me a while to work up to an Ishiguro novel because I know that a few chapters in, he will have inexorably taken hold of me and pulled me into whatever world he’s created. This one is no exception. Set in London and (mostly) Shanghai in the 1940s, this novel follows Banks, a celebrated London detective, as he attempts to discover why he was orphaned at age nine. Nothing is as it seems in When We Were Orphans, and every small revelation leads the reader further down a path of no return. Quintessential Ishiguro in his understanding of loneliness, longing, and transcendent love.

“What I Leave Behind,” a novel

IMG_9435I. My new novel, What I Leave Behind, out on May 15, stars 16-year-old Will. Will is one of those charming people that everyone loves – maybe because he’s naturally cool, but probably because he’s fundamentally kind. He knows how to make lonely people feel less lonely, for example his socially-awkward boss Tom at Dollar General. He knows how hard life can be –he lost his dad to suicide a few years ago and his childhood friend was recently assaulted—but instead of turning inward to his own pain and sorrow Will tries to make the lives of those around him better.

II. Will wonders: If he had stayed at the party where his friend was assaulted, could he have prevented it? Could he somehow have prevented his father’s suicide? Questions torment him. One of the ways Will tries to make sense of this un-sense-making world is by walking. He walks and walks and walks the streets of his downtown L.A. neighborhood, past Superman, the homeless man, past the house of a little boy he’s nicknamed Little Butterfly Dude because of his love of butterflies, past the bridge where his dad jumped, until he finds a rhythm that lets his thoughts roam free.

III. What I Leave Behind is a novel in almost-verse. I composed it in 100 chapters of 100 words exactly. It was a great artistic challenge to compress the emotion and depth of a novel into one-hundred-word passages, but I love great artistic challenges and I loved writing this book. The brevity of the passages and the need to infuse them with profound emotion worked a kind of magic on me. So did Will’s kindness. He is near and dear to my heart. Will conjured himself up like a gift to the world. I hope he feels that way to readers.


Early Reviews

“Told from Will’s fragmented, raw perspective, this slim novella packs a profound punch. Haunting, introspective, and traced with pain.” Kirkus, starred review.

“In this spare, emotionally raw novella, the deeply thoughtful 16-year-old narrator, Will, vainly tries to recreate his father’s cornbread recipe, and he walks through L.A. neighborhoods while his mom works overnight at the hospital. Ultimately, the piercing narrative offers an affirmation of remaining connected to others through loss as Will embraces his relationships and begins to heal.” Publishers Weekly, starred review.

“Sixteen-year-old Will is a walker. Things have to be walked out through the soles of your feet, he believes. McGhee’s short, understated novel is an artful exercise in melancholy. . . conveying emotions that are pure and sincere. Will is a classic wounded teenager who is nevertheless his own person. Everybody loved his father—and every reader will love openhearted Will.” Booklist, starred review, Review of the Day.

Bookstore Appearances

May 16, St. Paul, MN. The Red Balloon Bookshop, 6:30 pm.

May 21, La Grange, IL. Anderson’s Bookstore, 7 pm. 

May 22, Cincinnati, OH. Joseph Beth Booksellers. In conversation with Mindee Arnett and Emily Henry, 7 pm. 

May 23, Washington, DC. Politics & Prose. In conversation with Mary Quattlebaum (Washington Parent editor and Washington Post freelancer), 7 pm. 

May 24, Madison, CT. RJ Julia Books, 6:30 pm. 

To Order a Copy

From your local independent bookstore
From Amazon

From Barnes & Noble



Pablo and Birdy


McGhee’s tender tale of the search for home, belonging, and identity smoothly incorporates elements of magical realism and powerful allusions to the refugee experience. Publisher’s Weekly, starred review.

A quiet, memorable, fantastical tale beautifully complemented by Juan’s illustrations. Kirkus, starred review.

Friends and future friends, please welcome Pablo and Birdy, my brand-new novel for children and anyone who used to be a child, to the world. 

The novel is about Pablo, who lives with Emmanuel, his adoptive father, and Birdy, his beloved parrot, in Isla, a Key West-like town of fisherpeople and shopkeepers.

Pablo doesn’t know who or where he came from, and the unanswered questions of his past hurt him to think about.

But local legend tells of a mysterious Seafaring parrot –whose existence has never been verified– a parrot who holds within itself all the sounds ever made in the world, and who can reproduce those sounds under special circumstances. 

Is the legend true? If it is, would a Seafarer be able to tell Pablo where he came from? If he had a family before he arrived in Isla?

And if he did, did that family . . . love him? 

Twin Citians, I hereby invite you to a launch party at the wonderful Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul on August 23rd at 6:30. I’d love to see you there.

I’ll be making additional appearances (listed below) in New York City, Mississippi, Georgia, South Dakota, Vermont and Massachusetts this fall, and I’d love to meet some of you at the readings. 

August 19, Jackson, MS. The Mississippi Book Festival. Panel presentation on middle-grade fiction, followed by a book signing for Pablo and Birdy, 9:30-11:30 am

August 23, St. Paul, MN. The Red Balloon Bookshop. Launch party, reading, discussion and signing for Pablo and Birdy, 6:30 pm

September 2, Decatur, GA. Presentation on Pablo and Birdy at the Decatur Book Festival, 3:15-3:45 pm

October 27, Barneveld, NY. Unity Hall. Free public reading, discussion and signing featuring both Pablo and Birdy and Never Coming Back, 7 pm.

October 28, Liverpool, NY. Barnes and Noble. Public reading, signing and events for both Pablo and Birdy and Never Coming Back.

October 29, Chelsea, New York City. Books of Wonder. Panel presentation, reading and signing for Pablo and Birdy.

November 2, Shelburne, VT. Flying Pig Bookstore. Back-to-back readings, discussion and signings for Pablo and Birdy and Never Coming Back. (Come for the children’s novel, stay for the adult!)

November 4, Plainville, MA. An Unlikely Story. Back-to-back readings, discussion and signings for Pablo and Birdy and Never Coming Back. (Come for the children’s novel, stay for the adult!) 4 pm.

Poem of the Week, by Mark Strand

I just returned from the Red Balloon Bookshop, where I sat at a table for a couple of hours signing books and talking to any of the customers who felt like talking. One of them was an older woman wearing a big poofy winter jacket. She was in town for a few days from Kentucky, where she lives, and buying up bunches of picture books to give to her grandchildren. She admired my pigtails; I admired her smile. “Well, I certainly am happy,” she said (and she was, she gave off a kind of lightness of being), and I told her that the older I got the happier I got. “Just wait till you’re 70!” she said. “You’re not going to BELIEVE how happy you’ll be!”
* * *
The Coming of Light
     – Mark Strand

Even this late it happens:
the coming of love, the coming of light.
You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves,
stars gather, dreams pour into your pillows,
sending up warm bouquets of air.
Even this late the bones of the body shine
and tomorrow’s dust flares into breath.

​For  more information on Mark Strand, please click here.

Free Donut Holes!

Free donut holes, my friends, free donut holes!

Available at the Red Balloon Bookshop on Grand Avenue in St. Paul, tomorrow morning (August. 10) at 10:30, when I’ll be reading that new little book over to there to the left.

“The Case of the Missing Donut.”

Stop by and say hi if you’re in town.