Today's Top Picks

MigrationsClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Charlotte McConaghy

Summary

A MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK (Entertainment Weekly, Vogue, Time, Vulture, Elle, Harper's Bazaar, Newsweek, The Millions, Library Journal, Maclean's, and more)

Franny Stone has always been a wanderer. By following the ocean's tides and the birds that soar above, she can forget the losses that have haunted her life. But when the wild she loves begins to disappear, Franny can no longer wander without a destination. She arrives in remote Greenland with one purpose: to find the world's last flock of Arctic terns and follow them on their final migration. She convinces Ennis Malone, captain of the Saghani, to take her onboard, winning over his eccentric crew with promises that the birds she is tracking will lead them to fish.

As the Saghani fights its way south, Franny's new shipmates begin to realize that she is full of dark secrets: night terrors, an unsent pile of letters, and an obsession with pursuing the terns at any cost. When the story of her past begins to unspool, Ennis and his crew must ask themselves what Franny is really running toward―and running from.

Propelled by a narrator as fierce and fragile as the terns she is following, Migrations is both an ode to our threatened world and a breathtaking page-turner about the lengths we will go for the people we love.

BookBrowse Review

Migrations, Australian author Charlotte McConaghy's literary fiction debut, earned a notably high average rating of 4.8 out of 5 stars from our 41 First Impressions reviewers.

What the book is about:

Written with profound insight, Migrations tells the story of Franny Stone's quest to follow the endangered Arctic tern migration from Greenland to the Weddell Sea near the Antarctic Peninsula (Marilyn G). Migrations is a compelling story of the possible future of wildlife extinction. As Franny follows the last of the Arctic terns during their migration we are drawn into her past story and yet apprehensive of her current journey (Carol F).

Readers found McConaghy's novel impressively ambitious in its variety of themes and subjects,

The author describes a future we do not want. But her bleak vision is only one element of this engrossing story. The novel is also a warm combination of a love story, a perilous journey, a dark back story that is only gradually revealed, echoes of classics (Moby Dick, Jules Verne and Hans Christian Andersen immediately come to mind, along with tales of orphans) and mesmerizing nature writing... Just as Flight Behavior changes the way its readers look at and think about butterflies, and The Overstory does that for trees, so does Migrations for birds (Deborah W). This book was a delicious "trail" of imagery, feelings, times and locations. It was like unwrapping a present (Linda V).

...and it helped some out of a reading slump.

In this time of coronavirus isolation, reading would seem the perfect antidote to our boredom and worries. And yet I've found myself lacking the concentration required as I tried various books on my "to read" pile. Until, that is, I came to Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy (Nanette C). This book captured me! So refreshing in a time of fear and uncertainty (Mary O). It has been awhile since I read a book that thoroughly captured me, but with Migrations I found that delight in reading again (Viqui G). What a good read. At first I thought it would be a little bit depressing for these days: Mass extinction, climate disruption, the end of the wild. But no, not at all! The story of Franny and her search for the last of the Arctic terns was engrossing (Gary R).

A few reviewers had difficulty connecting with the character of Franny,

I did not connect with Franny, the narrator, and thought she was unreliable (Jane C). Even though McConaghy's novel is a page turner that kept me reading too late many nights, I found myself not liking Franny at all. I feel she is supposed to be the sympathetic victim we are to root for and fall in love with, but I'm not sold (Melissa S).

...but many declared a special fondness for the book,

This novel is one of the better books that I've read in a long time; it even may be a look into our environmental future. I'm hoping Migrations will receive many honors. It is a special book (Suzanne G). I will carry this book with me a long time. I will reread it more slowly and deliberately (Carole R). I imagine in years to come I will remember Migrations as one of my most favorite books (Betty B).

...and felt it touched on important topics for discussion in current times.

I read this while "sheltering in place" during the coronavirus outbreak. It's too late to stop the global spread of the virus; but hopefully it's not too late to have a brighter future for our planet than the one Migrations paints. I have lots of time now, so I'll be thinking about what I can do about global warming, and I'll be thinking about Franny — what she was passionate about, where she ended up and how her tale can empower us. Book groups will find much to discuss here (Deborah W).

Book reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers

Beyond the Book:
The Arctic Tern

An Arctic tern on a rock by Bothnian Bay in Finland In Charlotte McConaghy's Migrations, Franny follows the migration of the Arctic tern (sterna paradisaea). McConaghy's novel is set in a fictional future in which the bird is on the brink of extinction. Currently, Arctic terns are not in danger to such a degree, as there are still more than one million of them around the world, but their habitats are threatened by climate change.

The Arctic tern is a small, grayish-white bird that ranges in length from about 11 to 15 inches, with a wingspan of between 25 and 30 inches. It holds the record for the longest observed migration journey of any bird; its yearly pattern runs from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back, covering a distance of at least 25,000 miles. Arctic terns breed in open, treeless areas, such as beaches and rocky islands. Their migration route, which takes them to Antarctica for the winter, brings some of the birds within close range of every continent.

Arctic terns are social, noisy birds who breed in colonies and subsist on a diet of small fish and insects. The birds often behave aggressively towards perceived outside threats, including humans. They pair off into monogamous couples for the breeding season and usually build their nests near water on rock or sand. Both parents incubate the eggs and take part in raising their young for about three months before they become independent. Arctic terns reach full maturity at the age of 3 or 4, and generally live between 20 and 30 years. It is estimated that the average Arctic tern travels close to 1.5 million miles in its lifetime, which is about the equivalent of three round-trip journeys to the moon.

Wildlife conservation organizations give different impressions of exactly to what degree the Arctic tern is currently endangered. The North American Waterbird Conservation Plan ranks it in their "High Concern" category, while the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has placed it on their Red List of Threatened Species, but puts it in the category of "Least Concern" within this list. The organization Partners in Flight rates the bird's situation as being of moderate concern, and has not placed it on their Watch List of "Species of Concern." Part of the discrepancy may be due to the fact that Arctic terns' migration habits, which take them to remote areas, make tracking their populations difficult.

However, it is generally agreed that the species is under threat. The IUCN estimates that Arctic terns will lose 20–50% of their habitat due to climate change. The National Audubon Society, which includes an interactive map of North America on their web site showing projections of the birds' "range" (the amount of livable area available), estimates that an increase of 1.5oC will result in a 29% loss of range for the birds, while an increase of 3oC will result in as much as a 48% loss. This drastic reduction in habitable land due to what may seem like a relatively small increase in temperature emphasizes how urgent the climate situation is for the Arctic tern and many other species of wildlife.

An Arctic tern on a rock by Bothnian Bay in Simo, Finland

The Forest of Vanishing StarsClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Kristin Harmel

Summary

After being stolen from her wealthy German parents and raised in the unforgiving wilderness of eastern Europe, a young woman finds herself alone in 1941 after her kidnapper dies. Her solitary existence is interrupted, however, when she happens upon a group of Jews fleeing the Nazi terror. Stunned to learn what's happening in the outside world, she vows to teach the group all she can about surviving in the forest—and in turn, they teach her some surprising lessons about opening her heart after years of isolation. But when she is betrayed and escapes into a German-occupied village, her past and present come together in a shocking collision that could change everything.

Inspired by incredible true stories of survival against staggering odds, and suffused with the journey-from-the-wilderness elements that made Where the Crawdads Sing a worldwide phenomenon, The Forest of Vanishing Stars is a heart-wrenching and suspenseful novel from the #1 internationally bestselling author whose writing has been hailed as "sweeping and magnificent" (Fiona Davis, New York Times bestselling author), "immersive and evocative" (Publishers Weekly), and "gripping" (Tampa Bay Times).

BookBrowse Review

Kristin Harmel's historical novel The Forest of Vanishing Stars was very well-received by our First Impressions readers, who gave it an average rating of 4.6 out of 5 stars.

What it's about:

The Forest of Vanishing Stars is a captivating read. The book is about a young girl, Yona, who was kidnapped when she was a baby and raised by her kidnapper in the forest. Yona is taught everything she needs to know to live there and stay hidden. These skills become immensely important to the Jews who hide in the forest from the Nazis during World War II (Colleen L).

First Impressions reviewers felt The Book of Vanishing Stars is a unique entry in the crowded field of historical fiction about the Holocaust:

The story is told in such an interesting and unique way. Avid readers should read it for that reason alone. Kristin Harmel has made my list of favorite authors. I'm looking forward to her next book! (Maureen M). Beautifully written, well researched and inspired by incredible true stories. A great addition to my Holocaust library and highly recommended (Esther L). Although this is just one of the multitude of books I've read about WWII over the years, it was one that will not soon be forgotten (Freya H). This book is based on true stories of survival in the forests of eastern Europe during WWII. I have read many books that take place during this era but I'd never heard about some of the Jews escaping the ghettos and fleeing into the surrounding wilderness. The setting was unique and I'm surprised that it never occurred to me that there would be thousands driven into the forests (Rosemary S).

Many appreciated Harmel's strong, well-crafted protagonist:

The survival experiment is led by Yona, an unusual adolescent woman, abducted and raised without family or social ties, who seeks to overcome her personal fears. Her resilience and leadership instincts lead to a storyline with engaging twists and turns (Mary F). I highly recommend this book for readers who enjoy historical fiction, who want to learn more about WWII from a new perspective, and those who enjoy strong female lead characters (Stephanie Z). Yona was extraordinary. I rooted for her survival, her success in saving others and her happiness. Readers will undoubtedly join Yona's cheering club (Maureen M).

The book was praised by Kristin Harmel fans and those new to her work who plan on reading more:

I had read and appreciated three earlier books by Kristin Harmel, so I was expecting to also enjoy this book. However, The Forest of Vanishing Stars is so, so much more than I was expecting (Stephanie Z). Harmel writes a well-researched book with amazing detail for her characters and the period. I have had many a sleepless night reading her other books, and this one was no different (Susan H). I LOVE Harmel's writing. It is beautiful, lush, eloquent and gripping. It is so engaging that you want to race along to see what happens (Colleen L).

The book is highly recommended, especially for book clubs:

This extraordinary novel draws you in from the very first page. I believe The Forest of Vanishing Stars will appeal to history fans, book clubs and anyone who likes suspense. I thoroughly enjoyed it and highly recommend it (Laurette A). Applause to Kristin Harmel, this is one book that is extremely difficult to put down. I loved how she brought the characters in the story together to fight for survival. I believe this would be a great selection for a book club, as it will generate so many thoughts and opinions (Cheryl P).

Book reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers

Beyond the Book:
The Bielski Partisans

Black and white photo of a group of Bielski resistance fighters holding gunsIn The Forest of Vanishing Stars, persecuted Jews in Eastern Europe take shelter in the Naliboki Forest, located west of Minsk in contemporary Belarus. The area, then known as Byelorussia, was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939 at the same time as Germany invaded Poland as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that established a non-aggression agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union, and detailed how Finland, Poland, Romania and the Baltic states would be divided between them. In June 1941, Germany broke the treaty and invaded the western territories of the Soviet Union including Byelorussia (i.e. the Eastern Front, from the European perspective). It held the region until the USSR took back control in August 1944.

In crafting this fascinating historical novel, Kristin Harmel drew on real-life stories including that of the Bielski brothers, who grew a small army of resistance fighters and protected Jews who had fled from the surrounding areas seeking safety from the Nazis. The Bielskis' story begins in 1941 when brothers Tuvia, Alexander, Asael and Aron disappeared into the forest after their mother, father and other siblings were killed in the Nowogrodek ghetto. Tuvia was a former Polish Army corporal and an outspoken Zionist and he became the leader of the group as the brothers began recruiting friends and family, and then strangers, from nearby ghettos to join the Resistance. They also amassed weapons with the help of non-Jewish friends sympathetic to the cause.

The Bielski Partisans had two goals — they wished to fight back against the Nazis, but they also recognized the importance of protecting other Jews; and the brothers and other leaders of the group were sometimes in conflict about how to prioritize these two goals. They regularly sent scouts out to look for fleeing Jews, and in late 1942, they undertook a rescue mission when the ghetto in the town of Iwie was to be liquidated, saving over 100 lives. While Tuvia reportedly proclaimed, "I would rather save one old Jewish woman than kill ten Nazi soldiers," the other brothers and their recruited resistance fighters were more focused on fighting back. They joined forces with Soviet Partisans to attack German military facilities. They sabotaged German equipment and infrastructure used for military transport. They also assassinated Nazi collaborators who had turned in their Jewish neighbors.

The Bielskis attracted the Nazis' attention and ire and there was a 100,000 Reichmark reward for Tuvia Bielski's capture. The brothers needed to constantly move their group to new locations to stay ahead of the Nazis. The group escaped one attack in the summer of 1943 but a second attack killed 10 people, and the brothers (who all survived) led the group deeper into the forest where they formed a new camp known as Jerusalem. Completed in late fall of 1943, just ahead of the bitterly cold winter season, Jerusalem contained more than 800 people and was, in essence, a fully operational village, with craftsmen plying their trades as cobblers, carpenters and blacksmiths. There was an infirmary, a school and a synagogue. At the time the Soviet Red Army officially liberated the forest in July 1944, the camp had over 1,200 residents.

After the war, Tuvia, Alexander and Aron Bielski moved to Palestine and eventually to the United States. Asael was conscripted into the Soviet Army and died in battle in 1945. The story of the Bielski Partisans was adapted into a 2008 film called Defiance starring Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber.

Bielski partisans, courtesy of Yad Vashem

African EuropeansClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Olivette Otele

Summary

Conventional wisdom holds that Africans are only a recent presence in Europe. But in African Europeans, renowned historian Olivette Otele debunks this and uncovers a long history of Europeans of African descent. From the third century, when the Egyptian Saint Maurice became the leader of a Roman legion, all the way up to the present, Otele explores encounters between those defined as "Africans" and those called "Europeans." She gives equal attention to the most prominent figures—like Alessandro de Medici, the first duke of Florence thought to have been born to a free African woman in a Roman village—and the untold stories—like the lives of dual-heritage families in Europe's coastal trading towns.

African Europeans is a landmark celebration of this integral, vibrantly complex slice of European history, and will redefine the field for years to come.

BookBrowse Review

The nexus of Africans and Europeans is not a recent historical development. Rather, the peoples of Africa and Europe have a long and complex history that — for many centuries, at least — transcended modern notions of race through artistic, intellectual and social interactions.

There is evidence of cultural and social intermingling and appreciation between Africans and Europeans from antiquity to the onset of the transatlantic slave trade that stands in stark contrast to our contemporary perceptions. Olivette Otele, professor of history and memory of enslavement at the University of Bristol, corrects this historical oversight in her vital new study, African Europeans: An Untold History, as she provides "multiple histories as a starting point to learn about the past and to dismantle racial oppression in the present."

The multiple individual histories she brings to the page are captivating. With the overarching goal of showing the 2,000+-year history of Africans in Europe as not just about European colonization and slavery, she relates the stories of those who moved within their own spheres of influence. Ranging as far back as ancient Rome, she tells the story of Septimius Severus, the Roman Empire's first African emperor. Moving from ancient times to the Renaissance, Otele delves deeply into the life of Alessandro de' Medici, the first Medici duke of Florence. Alessandro is believed to have been the son of Lorenzo de' Medici and a free African woman, but "Italian society in the sixteenth century, despite occasional denigration of black Africans, did not find it appropriate to attack the nobleman Alessandro on his ethnicity in the public sphere."

Otele explains that "European views on black Africans in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were more nuanced than one would assume centuries later." For instance, "blackness," and other racial/ethnic labels, were not necessarily the key delineator of difference in antiquity; more important in ancient and medieval times were the person's citizenship status or religion. What makes Otele's history so satisfying are the exceptional stories of her subjects, who somehow "defied obscurity to be included in European accounts." However, Otele also explores the conflict inherent in viewing the Africans in these stories through the European lens of "exceptionalism." Viewing these historical personages as exceptional is a means of objectification, and it also suggests that Africans as a whole are/were inferior. And with the imperial race to colonize and cash in on new lands and resources, many a "Christian" empire would rationalize enslavement of Africans based on the notion of "inferiority," as Otele's trenchant chapter on the transatlantic slave trade illustrates to devastating effect.

African Europeans is an academic work that synthesizes a variety of historical studies, both ancient and contemporaneous. The reader will jump between centuries often and read about other scholars and their relevant analyses. When analyzing the historiography of her subject, Otele at times refers to these other studies by the authors' last name only, as if they should be known to the reader. Similar omissions are made when discussing some conceptual frameworks. While explaining how Europeans began to exoticize the "otherness" of African or dual heritage people, for instance, she references the unfortunate story of the "Hottentot Venus," aka Sarah Baartmans, a South African Khoikhoi woman exhibited as a freak show attraction in 19th century Europe, without providing much context. Readers may find themselves doing frequent Google searches.

At the book's conclusion, Otele moves from history to current events and uses the African Europeans of centuries ago as a cri de coeur for the necessity of Black radicalism today. The juxtaposition of these historic lives with the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as her call for greater Black female representation in academia, will spur many a reader to greater awareness of the past and what work still needs doing to achieve racial equality and justice.

Overall, African Europeans is essential if sometimes challenging reading. While the text often seems targeted to a peer-reviewing audience, it is the people of Otele's book who steal the show. An ample and diverse bibliography rounds out this brief history to keep the curious engaged and primed for more study.

Book reviewed by Peggy Kurkowski

Beyond the Book:
Grime Music

Graphic featuring the word grime repeated in different colorsAs Olivette Otele references in her book African Europeans: An Untold History, many Black British artists find music to be an effective and far-reaching medium in which to address and explore their heritage and life experiences as people of color. Grime music has become one of the hottest and most vibrant genres to emerge in the UK in the last two decades. Born in the early 2000s, grime takes its inspiration from a wide range of music genres, such as hip hop, electronic, dancehall and garage.

Grime's most noticeable features include its distinct machine-gun-like rapping over a rapid breakbeat of around 130 beats per minute with an element of electronic sounds mixed in. UK artist Wiley, aka Eskiboy, is recognized as one of the major pioneers of the genre, and when it first emerged it was referred to as "Eskibeat" in honor of Wiley's unique style. Other pioneering artists in the genre include Skepta, JME and Dizzee Rascal. While rooted in East London, grime has spread its branches throughout the UK, and artists across the country bring their own unique regional flavor to their music. Current favorites on the grime scene are artists such as Stormzy, Dave, Bugzy Malone, Aitch and Lady Leshurr. It is a mostly male-dominated music scene at the current time, but superstars like Lady Leshurr promise an opening for women who have the courage to work in an industry that too often sexualizes female artists. Stormzy uses his platform to highlight racial inequality and pledged a £10 million (about US$14 million) donation to racial justice and Black empowerment organizations in 2020 after the police murder of George Floyd in the US. Discussing the donation, Stormzy told the press, "The uncomfortable truth that our country continuously fails to recognise and admit, is that black people in the UK have been at a constant disadvantage in every aspect of life - simply due to the colour of our skin."

Much like rap music in the U.S., grime is controversial. Song lyrics often describe the experiences of young Black Britons living in deprived areas of their cities, finding the means to survive. The very name signals its raw, dirty and gritty aspects. With the alarming increase in knife crime in the UK in recent years, some grime artists have been banned from performing in Britain. Indeed, going back to the early to mid-2000s, government authorities have called grime rap lyrics "appalling" and claimed many grime musicians glamorized killing. It is the most recent incarnation of grime music that calls itself "UK drill" that seems to be the most troubling. As the New Yorker reported in 2018:

"Where grime is verbose and cathartic, U.K. drill traffics in a cool heartlessness, a sense of menace that wafts and oozes. Authorities have been troubled by drill's singular lyrical fixation on slashings and stabbings, and by episodes in which gang attacks were prompted, if not prophesied, by songs. U.K. drill is unusually grim, suffused with a nihilism that expects little of tomorrow."

But artists counter that their lyrics capture what daily life is like on the streets. In many ways, grime music is an empowering political outlet in a place where Black voices feel marginalized and ignored. "Grime is more than just a genre of music: it's a form of political and social rebellion," wrote Morgan McMillan in The Edge magazine in 2020. Indeed, many Black British grime artists view their art as a means to bring racism and discrimination in the UK to the forefront of social consciousness.

To get a sense of the grime sound, check out the video below featuring Wiley's 2007 song "Eskiboy."

Grime music graphic, courtesy of Hip Hop Database

The Killing HillsClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Chris Offutt

Summary

Mick Hardin, a combat veteran now working as an Army CID agent, is home on a leave that is almost done. His wife is about to give birth, but they aren't getting along. His sister, newly risen to sheriff, has just landed her first murder case, and local politicians are pushing for city police or the FBI to take the case. Are they convinced she can't handle it, or is there something else at work? She calls on Mick who, with his homicide investigation experience and familiarity with the terrain, is well-suited to staying under the radar. As he delves into the investigation, he dodges his commanding officer's increasingly urgent calls while attempting to head off further murders. And he needs to talk to his wife.

The Killing Hills is a novel of betrayal―sexual, personal, within and between the clans that populate the hollers―and the way it so often shades into violence. Chris Offutt has delivered a dark, witty, and absolutely compelling novel of murder and honor, with an investigator-hero unlike any in fiction.

BookBrowse Review

The personified hills of the novel's title foreshadow the mood of this brooding and ominous tale. Infused with colorful local lore, the story's backdrop is the hills and hollows ("hollers") of rural Kentucky, where the law — represented by protagonist Mick Hardin's sister Linda — exists alongside lawlessness, embodied by a cast of immediately recognizable archetypes.

In standard noir tradition, Chris Offutt's narrative commences with the discovery of a female murder victim: While out roaming the hollers, septuagenarian and former janitor Mr. Tucker stumbles across the corpse of 46-year-old widow Veronica "Nonnie" Johnson. The crime scene is noted as a "pretty place to die." The natural beauty of the surroundings juxtaposes sharply with the horror of the violated corpse.

Enter Mick Hardin. Not quite the outsider of traditional noir tropes, Hardin is nevertheless an outcast of sorts. Having left the parochial confines of east Kentucky 14 years earlier to pursue an army career, this combat veteran and homicide specialist has now returned to his native hollers. He has a specific mission in mind: to sort out his prickly relationship with his estranged wife Peggy, who is pregnant with another man's child. In the reader's first encounter with Hardin, Offutt succinctly paints an evocative picture of a troubled and hard-drinking soul. He wakes up in the woods near his late grandfather's cabin with two empty whiskey bottles as bed-fellows. This is all the detail the reader requires to become acquainted with both protagonist and circumstance. Offutt's judicious selection of detail sets the scene for the terse and incisive prose that pervades the novel as a whole, subtly revealing the real star of the show — Kentucky.

Misogyny comes to the fore when, newly appointed as the town's first female sheriff, Linda enlists the assistance of her brother in her quest to identify Nonnie's killer. Linda must outwit the FBI in a bid to be taken seriously within her role. Hardin is Linda's ideal accomplice — someone who is not only trained in investigating homicides but is a native of the hollers and conversant in the argot of the locals. Linda also meets these criteria. However, she has one characteristic that works against her: her gender. She knows that the case can make or break her career; she is not only facing sexist bias but must also contend with the guardedness of the community. Offutt seamlessly integrates these prejudices into the fabric of his prose.

The subcurrent of this novel is its sensory congregation of detail, not least the vivid descriptions of flora and fauna peculiar to the locale. And Offutt astutely captures the regional attributes of the characters, depicted in their appearance, dialect and mannerisms. The wariness of the denizens of the hollers shows their mistrust and clannism. Coal tycoon Murvill Knox — "slippery as chopped watermelon" — is easily imagined as the unprincipled, small-town bigwig. The ensemble who form the line-up of suspects (from obligatory patsy "Dopted Boy" to "Fuckin' Barney" — even his mother calls him this!) seem to grow organically from the hillsides. And the economic paucity is palpable. Throughout this novel, Offutt paints a credible picture of a "pretty place with a rough history," creating a believable framework for his narrative.

As a detective novel, The Killing Hills gradually delivers its promised thrills. Nevertheless, the plot is unremarkable and arguably formulaic. As for the noir aspect, the genre has been so ubiquitous over the past decade or so that one could be forgiven for thinking that all the flavor has been well and truly chewed out of this particular piece of gum. But Offutt breathes fresh life into these established genres. This is primarily achieved through the visceral concentration of demographic knowledge and forensic understanding of the hollers' inhabitants. The author subtly scrutinizes the "eye for an eye" value system along with dismissive cultural attitudes about women. He also chooses to subvert traditional female stereotypes: Linda, despite seeking her brother's help, is clearly able to hold her own; Peggy takes charge of her life in the absence of her husband; and even the victim turns out to have played a role in her destiny. Light relief is thrown into the mix with occasional humor. One character, for example, refers to California as a place where "all those serial killers and vegetarians" reside, unwittingly revealing something of the hollers' societal mindset.

This is a novel with wide-ranging appeal. Fans of detective fiction will enjoy the author's skillful handling of the form, while noir aficionados will find something satisfyingly new here. Ultimately, Offutt is serving up both a love letter to and affectionate critique of the Kentucky hollers.

Book reviewed by Amanda Ellison

Beyond the Book:
Misogynistic Themes in Murder Ballads

In The Killing Hills, which takes place in Kentucky, misogyny manifests in attitudes toward key female characters, notably the town sheriff. Additionally, the act of femicide is a central theme and a reminder of cultural aspects of female subjugation, including the murder ballad, a song format that is notably popular as a sub-genre of Appalachian folk music.

The origins of the murder ballad can be traced back to regions of Britain and Scandinavia, and became part of an oral tradition imported to the United States by British migrants who settled in Appalachia. One of the earliest examples of the song form, "The Twa Sisters" (The Two Sisters), is known to have existed in Britain as far back as 1656. It tells the story of one sister murdering another due to jealousy, and has spawned many versions, including one that emerged in Kentucky in 1917. While the murder is not committed by a man, the song tells of a male suitor who is the source of the sisters' rivalry. Thus, femicide in this type of song was present from the form's very inception. Other classic examples of the murder ballad include "On the Banks of the Ohio," "Knoxville Girl" and "Pretty Polly."

Whether based on historical fact – as some murder ballads are – or completely fictional, these songs often share one common denominator: misogyny. Subjects such as unwanted pregnancies, violence against women, male jealousy and its consequences, and gendered killing — frequently by drowning — all pervade the genre. The shame of unwed mothers who get their comeuppance is a particularly common theme, and the female subject of the ballad often suffers violence at the hands of a man, as in "On the Banks of the Ohio."

However, over time, the murder ballad has evolved. In Dolly Parton's "The Bridge," for example, a female speaker, pregnant and deserted by her lover, returns to the bridge where they met to kill herself. While this ballad is still freighted with traditional characteristics such as death by drowning and unwanted pregnancy, there are two crucial developments: Firstly, there is a female first-person perspective, which enables the listener to empathize with the protagonist in her last moments; secondly, she drowns of her own volition. Nevertheless, although the subject is not directly murdered by her male lover, the stigma he leaves her to deal with is clearly the source of her decision to take her own life.

Some recent songs have put a more feminist slant on the murder ballad. Hurray for the Riff Raff's "The Body Electric" uses the murder ballad format to critique indifference towards misogynistic violence, noting, "the whole world sings/Like there's nothing going on." Taylor Swift's "No Body, No Crime" hints at a woman hitting back against femicide. The song "Goodbye Earl," popularized by The Chicks (formerly known as The Dixie Chicks) in 2000, highlights the vengeful consequences of relentless domestic abuse: the female friends in the ballad plot to get away with the murder of the abusive husband in question. (The B-side of this song was — ironically — "Stand By Your Man"!)

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