Tag Archives: Mythology

Sleep-Deprived in Park Slope: The Mermaid of Brooklyn by Amy Shearn @AmyShearn @SimonBooks

cover image of The Mermaid of BrooklynAmy Shearn‘s second novel, The Mermaid of Brooklyn has a cover blurb from Maria Semple, the author of Where’d You Go, Bernadette. This makes sense because the two authors are similar in that theyboth use humor when writing about serious issues like depression and motherhood, whichever comes first. (Just kidding!)

The Mermaid of Brooklyn is a story set in Brooklyn (specifically, the family-friendly neighborhood of Park Slope) in the current day of cell phones and triple strollers with cup holders. Readers get a real feel for the pleasures and the drawbacks of living in the city with children on relatively modest means.

Otherwise, the book is hard to describe. Though being saved by the spirit of a mermaid (specifically a rusulka, the scrappy mermaid of Slavic folk tales) after dying may make you think magical realism (with mysterious things happening all over the city to no one’s astonishment), the story reads more like a literary love letter to her Brooklyn neighborhood from Jenny Lipkin, a very tired stay-at-home mother of two very young children, who has a graduate degree in Russian folklore and a husband who went for cigarettes and never came back.

Jenny narrates the story with a wit and a critical eye that is similar to Bernadette’s riffing on the pretensions of other parents and Seattle in general, but in Where’d You Go, Bernadette, the story is lighter, airier, hard to sink into. Readers don’t get to know Bernadette or Seattle deeply. In The Mermaid of Brooklyn, readers are right there in the city, suffering through a long, hot summer with Jenny, which she gets through only with the help of her informal support group of other park-visiting parents, and, of course, the mermaid of the title.

This excerpt comes near the beginning of the book:

“When Harry left and I died it was the beginning of a desperately hot summer, a long sun-scorched stretch of days determined to silence doubters of global warming. The sidewalks of Brooklyn baked all around us, Prospect Park an expanse of brownish hay. I had these two babies, and people were always saying that my whole life was ahead of me – nosy grandmothers on the subway tugging at Rose’s bootie or boinging Betty’s curls, neighborhood eccentrics dispensing unsolicited advice from their bodega-front benches. I nodded and thanked them, or sometimes rolled my eyes.”

The Mermaid of Brooklyn explores the highs and lows of parenthood but also the friendships that spring up among parents who happen to fall in together. The eternal question of balancing family vs. career or artistic ambitions is  always there in the background, too, whenever the adults aren’t too tired to think about it.

I marked many passages in the book that I would love to share, but here’s just one more excerpt to explain a little bit about the whole mermaid thing. It comes near the beginning of the book, right after Jenny has told two-and-a-half-year-old Betty the often-requested bedtime story about a fish-woman who lived at the bottom of the river:

“The fish-woman stories had emerged from a fit of overparenting pique, when it was revealed that while babysitting one night Grandma Sylvia had exposed my daughter to Disney’s insipid Little Mermaid movie, with its teeny-bopper heroine. I’d relented on a lot of the perfect parenting ideals I’d had as a pre-parent, but this was too much. Mermaids had been my favorite figures in the Slavic fairy-tale pantheon, but it was because they were weird and powerful and a little scary, not because they looked great in clamshell bikinis. I admit that I tended to neglect the girls’ wardrobes – the cuteness quotient of their coats and dresses not nearly as high as one might expect from a pair of brownstone-Brooklyn babies – and things like clipping their nails and educating them about etiquette or God or non-microwaved cuisine. But simpering female role models and saccharine fairy stories? Come on. I left out the parts about mermaids being the unavenged spirits of suicides, forsaken girls, betrayed brides, unwed mothers-to-be. I figured that stuff could wait until at least pre-K.”

The Mermaid of Brooklyn will definitely be on my list of favorites of 2013, along with The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. If you liked The Interestings or another New York novel reviewed here recently, The Sunshine When She’s Gone, you’ll probably like The Mermaid of Brooklyn.

The Mermaid of Brooklyn
Shearn, Amy
Touchstone (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
April 2013
978-1-4516-7828-4
368 pp.
$14.99 US/$16.99 CAN

Disclosure: I borrowed this book from the public library, but I’ll buy a copy of the author’s first novel, How Far Is the Ocean from Here to add to my towering TBR pile. I don’t remember where I first heard of The Mermaid of Brooklyn. I thought I read an author interview somewhere or heard the author on the Literary New England radio show, but I can’t remember now.

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A More Diverse Universe: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

Cover image of The Hundred Thousand KingdomsBook bloggers were the ones who put The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit Books, 2010) on my radar, so reading it for the A More Diverse Universe Blog Tour seemed like the perfect reason to move it to the top of the TBR list.

First in a trilogy, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms lays the foundation for an overarching story but also has a satisfying completeness in itself. It took me a little while to get hooked, but about halfway through, I realized why so many readers liked this book so much.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, as you might guess from the title, mentions multiple countries in the course of the story, all under the rule of the Arameri family of Amn, in the palace of Sky, in the city of Sky. The story is set many years after the Gods’ War, when one of three powerful gods vanquished the other two and the world changed for the humans living under the sway of the pale-skinned Arameri, who wield the power of the one remaining god, the Skyfather, also known as Bright Itempas.

Yeine, the main character and narrator of the story, is a nineteen-year-old warrior chieftain from the forested country of Darr, the child of a Darren father and an Amn mother, who was the exiled daughter of the ruling Arameri family. Yeine describes herself near the beginning of the book as “short and flat and brown as forestwood, and my hair is a curled mess.” When she is thrust into the thick of palace intrigue and succession squabbling right at the start of the book, no one is more surprised than she is.

It doesn’t take Yeine long to get her bearings. It took me a lot longer, what with all the skillful world-building going on and the backstory of world mythology that was common knowledge to Yeine but had to be told to the reader. (I’ve never been good at geography. Or mythology, for that matter. All those gods and who does what…) Themes of race, gender, slavery, wealth, power, and religion thread through the book, but are never allowed to take over. The strong plot and the ultimate bad boy love interest move the story along quickly, once the story gets going and as Yeine starts to understand more.

I haven’t read a lot of straightforward fantasy to compare The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms to, so I’m not the best reviewer of this book, but The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms won the 2011 Locus Award for Best First Novel, so judges who are very familiar with the genre have recognized its merit. Readers looking for a fantasy with a strong female main character and detailed world-building should definitely give it a try.

Read the first chapter of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms here.

View the complete schedule for A More Diverse Universe Blog Tour hosted by Aarti at BookLust.

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman (AUDIO)

Audiobook Listeners — Log into the library catalog ASAP and request Anansi Boysby Neil Gaiman (pronounced GAY-mun). It is performed to pitch-perfect perfection by Lenny Henry, an English comedian and actor.

In Anansi Boys, dull Fat Charlie Nancy is engaged to be married and has a boring office job in London. When his estranged father dies, strange things start happening. Fat Charlie’s charismatic brother Spider shows up unexpectedly with his odd, inexplicable powers of suggestion and creation. For Fat Charlie, his brother’s arrival is like an entrance to another world — one that includes creatures out of African folklore and ghosts.

According to the library’s Biography Resource Database, audiobook reader Lenny Henry won the 2003 British Comedy Awards Lifetime Achievement Award, among many others. His male and female voices are all immediately distinguishable from each other and complement Gaiman’s dry wit and writing style. On a side note, he recently appeared as a shrunken head in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Preview the audiobook at HarperCollins here.