Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne by Katherine Rundell

Source: Public Library
Hardcover, 352 pgs.
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Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne by Katherine Rundell, my final book for the 12 books recommended by 12 friends reading challenge, is part biography and part critique of his work as a sermon writer and poet. Donne was considered to be one of the most romantic poets of the time period, which also included William Shakespeare and others. Much of what Rundell pieces together from Donne’s life is from fragmented time lines and very few complete documents, as he liked to destroy documents written from his friends after they had died. He also often wrote fragments of poems on napkins or other scraps, which were given to others or thrown away or lost.

In one section of the book, Rundell points to a copyrighted book called “Amours” by J.D., with other sonnets by W.S., but it is unclear if it is even Donne’s work or that of Shakespeare. The author admits it is impossible to know who wrote the work or the sonnets inside.

Rundell is clearly a lover of Donne’s work, and she admires his intimacy with his subject, and while she does humanize rather than exalt Donne, with very few documents to demonstrate his movements, etc., she’s piecing together his life from scraps. What is known of Donne is that he did indeed love his young wife and family, despite the hardship of family life and earning a living at a time when Catholics were persecuted, killed, and shunned/snubbed. His brother died in jail after being found to have hidden a priest in his home. Donne also lost two of his 12 children in childbirth, including the twelfth and then lost his wife. His life was hard, somewhat of his own doing and decisions, but also because of the political and religious landscape at the time.

I will be honest there were parts of this book that got too academic and I skimmed them. I was disappointed that there was not more about the poems and the actual life that could be verified, but that is not the author’s doing. Her writing style was a bit dry at times, even as she seemed to talk directly to the reader. Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne by Katherine Rundell does its best to pay homage to the man, including his faults, while highlighting his contributions to poetry and religion. I will leave you with a poem I memorized in school:

Death, be not proud
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

RATING: Tercet

About the Author:

Katherine Rundell is a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, where she works on Renaissance literature. Her bestselling books for children have been translated into more than thirty languages and have won multiple awards. Rundell is also the author of a book for adults, Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise. She has written for, among others, the London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Review of Books, and The New York Times, largely about books, though sometimes about animals, night climbing, and tightrope walking.

Click the image below to see all of my reviews for this challenge and maybe add some to your own reading lists.

Mailbox Monday #747

Mailbox Monday has become a tradition in the blogging world, and many of us thank Marcia of The Printed Page for creating it.

It now has its own blog where book bloggers can link up their own mailbox posts and share which books they bought or which they received for review from publishers, authors, and more.

Emma, Martha, and I also will share our picks from everyone’s links in the new feature Books that Caught Our Eye. We hope you’ll join us.

Here’s what I received:

Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne by Katherine Rundell, borrowed from the library for the 12 books, 12 friends reading challenge. It will be my last book for the challenge.

Sometime religious outsider and social disaster, sometime celebrity preacher and establishment darling, John Donne was incapable of being just one thing.

He was a scholar of law, a sea adventurer, a priest, a member of Parliament―and perhaps the greatest love poet in the history of the English language. He converted from Catholicism to Protestantism, was imprisoned for marrying a sixteen-year-old girl without her father’s consent, struggled to feed a family of ten children, and was often ill and in pain. He was a man who suffered from surges of misery, yet expressed in his verse many breathtaking impressions of electric joy and love.

In Super-Infinite, Katherine Rundell embarks on a fleet-footed act of evangelism, showing us the many sides of Donne’s extraordinary life, his obsessions, his blazing words, and his tempestuous Elizabethan times―unveiling Donne as the most remarkable mind and as a lesson in living.

What did you receive?

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Source: Public Library
Hardcover, 272 pgs.
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Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, is my 11th book for the 12 books recommended by 12 friends reading challenge, is a novel written with Greek mythology at its base, particularly the labyrinth and its connection to madness or mental health. In Clarke’s novel, Piranesi is given his name by the Other, the only other living person in the House, which is packed with giant statues and a maze of halls — some of which are flooded or partially flooded. From time to time, the main character is visited by birds and he fishes in certain halls for food when the tides are high. He’s a recordkeeper, tracking what’s in each hall and the tides. The Other, however, seems to have access to real-world supplies and knowledge, but relies on Piranesi to map the House for him as he continues his search for the secret knowledge.

This is a mysterious tale with slow reveals, and while clues are dropped along the way, readers may find they, too, are duped by the labyrinth. Who are these mysterious people and how do they have knowledge of the real world if they have only ever lived in the House. What is the point of all this record keeping and traipsing back and forth if there are only two people alive here? Why can they not simply live in one place together and be a society unto themselves? It is clear the relationship is not reciprocal and is lopsided in the power dynamic from the beginning.

The start of this book left a lot to be desired. It was a slow narrative that left me bored initially. I wasn’t interested in the characters for about 40 pages. However, once I got past that point, I started noticing some kernels of how this world was not necessarily real but an amalgamation of things from the real world and that it was not a post-apocalyptic world like I initially thought. Piranesi is the main protagonist and because he doesn’t initially have all of the information needed to unravel this House and its mysteries, neither does the reader. This can be tiresome, but ultimately, the novel revealed itself through a series of events and the dynamic with the Other was more intriguing and less sterile.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke is a book that can try your patience and it was not a beach read, which is what I was looking for last week. However, it was interesting to unravel the secrets of the labyrinth. It was more satisfying than I thought at the beginning. I’d recommend this for readers who like to think outside the box and who like mysteries where you are unraveling them with the protagonist.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Susanna Clarke was born in Nottingham in 1959. A nomadic childhood was spent in towns in Northern England and Scotland. She was educated at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, and has worked in various areas of non-fiction publishing, including Gordon Fraser and Quarto. In 1990, she left London and went to Turin to teach English to stressed-out executives of the Fiat motor company. The following year she taught English in Bilbao.

She returned to England in 1992 and spent the rest of that year in County Durham, in a house that looked out over the North Sea. There she began working on her first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. She lives in Cambridge with her partner, the novelist and reviewer Colin Greenland.

The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish by Katya Apekina (audio)

Source: Borrowed
Audiobook, 10+ hrs.
I am an Amazon Affiliate

The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish by Katya Apekina, narrated by Amy Melissa Bentley and Roger Wayne, is my 10th book for the 12 books recommended by 12 friends reading challenge. This is a deeply disturbing book in which a fractured family’s second chance is less than ideal as an absentee father fails at every turn to step in and do right by his daughters. Dark and disturbing, so many layers in this twisty novel.

*** Trigger Warning: underage and inappropriate sexual encounters and suicidal ideation, etc.***

Dennis is the least complex of the characters. His main motivation is his writing and his ego, which clouds his view of how to be a father to daughters who unwittingly witness their mother’s attempted suicide. It’s clear that he has a penchant for young ladies and the fragility of Mae’s mind leaves her vulnerable to his influence. Edie, on the other hand, is more independent, yet she falls into a similar pattern with Charlie, the neighbor she cons into taking her from New York to Louisiana to see her mother, who is in a psyche ward.

Apekina is exploring the depths of pain and how it can adversely impact yourself and those closest to you. In these present-tense accounts that shift from the past to the present and into the future, readers are taken on a nearly surreal journey into the lives of these sisters, their relationship with each other and their parents, and the after-affects of mental illness. So much occurs in this novel, but it is best experienced without any preamble from others. It’s deeply disturbing and sad.

The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish by Katya Apekina was an uncomfortable read and at times confusing, as mental illness can be. I did not really like any of these characters, but I could empathize with these girls and was heartbroken with how each travels on their own dangerous journey. Mae was acutely affected, and how she copes is devastating.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Katya Apekina is a novelist, screenwriter and translator. Her novel, The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish, was named a Best Book of 2018 by Kirkus, Buzzfeed, LitHub and others, was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize and has been translated into Spanish, Catalan, French, German and Italian. She has published stories in various literary magazines and translated poetry and prose for Night Wraps the Sky: Writings by and about Mayakovsky (FSG, 2008), short-listed for the Best Translated Book Award. She co-wrote the screenplay for the feature film New Orleans, Mon Amour, which premiered at SXSW in 2008. She is the recipient of an Elizabeth George grant, an Olin Fellowship, the Alena Wilson prize and a 3rd Year Fiction Fellowship from Washington University in St. Louis where she did her MFA. She has done residencies at VCCA, Playa, Ucross, Art Omi: Writing and Fondation Jan Michalski in Switzerland. Born in Moscow, she currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband, daughter and dog.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audible, 12+ hrs.
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Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, narrated by Cassandra Campbell, is my 9th book for the 12 books recommended by 12 friends. Kya Clark is a young girl living in the marshland of North Carolina in the 1950s and 1960s, but her home life is far from calm and loving. Many of her family abandon the marsh and her father, leaving her alone with a man who drinks too much, has a mercurial personality, and can be abusive. She grows up wild like the birds and fish around her, learning about the marsh from the marsh and learns how to fish and find muscles on her own, as she struggles to earn money to live after even her father abandons her.

As you might guess, this marsh girl is shunned by her school peers, forcing her to live in the marsh and evade truant officers. She shies away from town, except for Jumpin’s marina gas station and shop where she strikes deals for gas for the boat and other supplies, mostly grits. He and his wife care from her at a distance, as close as she will let them. Kya is an independent woman who fears everything outside the marsh. And rightly so.

The death of former football star Chase Andrews, however, thrusts Kya into the spotlight and at the center of a murder case, with her life hanging in the balance. I loved all of the poetry in the book. I love that Kya finds solace in poetry and uses it to get through some of her most trying times in this novel. Cassandra Campbell is an excellent narrator, as she dramatized each of the characters well and made them easy to differentiate.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is a sweeping tale, and I fell into it and out of it like the tides. Some of the longer descriptive sessions dragged on too long. But overall, I enjoyed the story and Kya’s coming of age story with the backdrop of the marsh and the predator-prey dynamic.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Delia Owens is an American author, zoologist, and conservationist. She is best known for her 2018 novel Where the Crawdads Sing. Owens was born and raised in Southern Georgia, where she spent most of her life in or near true wilderness.

Odder by Katherine Applegate

Source: Borrowed
Hardcover, 288 pgs.
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Odder by Katherine Applegate, illustrated by Charles Santoso, is my 8th book for the 12 books recommended by 12 friends reading challenge. Odder is a sea otter who has been raised by humans and released into the wild. She adjusts well, but she seems a bit more daring than her friend. Told in the present and alternating to the past when she was being raised in animal rehabilitation facility, Odder’s life in Monterey Bay, California, is an adventure.

From too late (pg. 4-5)


You've been there,
haven't you,
in the cafeteria line
or the breakfast buffet,
taking a chance on
some new food?
Grab, gulp, grimace:
You spit the offending
item into a napkin,
no harm, no foul.

Same goes for the shark,
who quickly 
reconsiders and


there's no need for noise,
for grunts or squeals or chirps.

Not when you can twist
and pretzel and weave.

Not when you've turned
frolic into art.

Applegate uses narrative poetry to tell Odder’s story. The poems really read more like prose. Odder is a curious otter who loves to swim and dive and push the envelope. But it wasn’t always this way. She’s had to learn how to be an otter after she was discovered by humans as a pup. I won’t spoil the whole story, but it is a heartwarming tale of growing up parentless and learning to discern where dangers lie. It’s also a story about learning to love and evolve beyond what you perceive as your capabilities. Sometimes you can surprise yourself.

Odder by Katherine Applegate, illustrated by Charles Santoso also touches on the healing process from trauma. Kids will learn a lot about otter behaviors and how they interact in the wild, what their habitats are like, what they eat, and what animals they fear. I learned a great deal about the rehabilitation process and how humans try to prevent these wild animals from bonding with their caretakers. Applegate also includes resources for kids to check out and learn more about otters and rehabilitation programs.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Katherine Applegate is the Newbery Medal-winning and #1 New York Times bestselling author of numerous books for young readers, including The One and Only Ivan, the Endling series, Crenshaw, Wishtree, the Roscoe Riley Rules chapter books series, and the Animorphs series.

She lives with her husband, who writes as the author Michael Grant, and their children in California.

A Season for Second Chances by Jenny Bayliss (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audible, 12+ hrs.
I am an Amazon Affiliate

A Season for Second Chances by Jenny Bayliss, narrated by Ell Potter, is my 7th book for the 12 books recommended by 12 friends reading challenge. Yes, I am ahead of schedule – at least on this one thing.

Despite all the success she has had, Annie Sharpe’s 26-year marriage comes to a spectacular halt when her husband’s antics lead her to say, “enough is enough.” Feeling adrift from her city life and what it represents, Annie anchors herself in Willow Bay as the caretaker of a house by the sea as the owner takes a holiday with a friend away from the harsh conditions of winter. The six-month stint is exactly what she needs to set her life back on track and find out what she’d like to do next.

Annie finds the seaside town delightful, and she embarks on a new business venture — the Saltwater Nook Cafe. She finds that her temporary venture may run afoul of the proprietor’s nephew’s plan to sell the place. John Granger, the nephew, is a bit stiff and stand-offish. He has plans, but many see him as a money-grubbing relative of the actual building’s owner.

A Season for Second Chances by Jenny Bayliss is a delightful story about second chances. I loved all of the characters in Willow Bay. Loved the book club, loved the cafe employees, the two pubs/restaurants, and so many of the interactions with the local residents. They were all so delightful. Max, Annie’s ex-husband, drove me insane! I don’t know how Annie could have put up with him in 26 years of marriage. An absolutely lovely seaside trip.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Author:

A former professional cake baker, Jenny Bayliss lives in a small seaside town in the United Kingdom with her husband, their children having left home for big adventures. She is also the author of The Twelve Dates of Christmas, A Season for Second Chances, and Meet Me Under the Mistletoe.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audiobook, 16+ hours
I am an Amazon Affiliate

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield, narrated by Juliet Stevenson, is my 6th book from the 12 friends 12 books reading challenge. It is a collection of intertwined stories set along the River Thames, in which a baby miraculously comes back to life after drowning. These are river stories in which family secrets continue to float to the surface. From a midwife who has given up on love and having a husband or children who a small town relies on more than physicians to a family whose daughter was taken and ransomed and an educated Black farm owner who is looking for his son’s wife, Setterfield has created quite a cast of characters, but the star is that river.

Like her novel, The Thirteenth Tale, this one is deeply atmospheric. The river is as much a character as Mrs. White, the Vaughns, the Armstrongs, nurse Rita, and so many others. There are so many families and secrets to be unraveled, but they are done with the slow flow of the river. The miraculously recovered girl is a mystery to be solved — who are her parents, who threw her into the river, and who took her?

The Swan Inn and the town is a place where stories are woven and rewoven. Setterfield wants her readers to dive deep into this story, making it unlikely you will come up for air until the end. Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield is engaging, but like The Thirteenth Tale, it felt too long to me and I cared more about some of the characters than others. There was a wrapping up of loose ends, which I appreciated, but those also seemed too long to reach.

RATING: Tercet

About the Author:

Diane Setterfield is a British author. Her debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale (2006) was published in 38 countries worldwide and has sold more than three million copies. It was number one in the New York Times hardback fiction list for three weeks and is enjoyed as much for being ‘a love letter to reading’ as for its mystery and style. Her second novel is Bellman & Black (2013), an unusual genre-defying meditation on workaholism, Victorian mourning ritual and rooks, and her third, Once Upon a River, was published in 2019.

Other reviews:

Thank You For Listening by Julia Whelan (audio)

Source: Borrowed
Audiobook, 11+ hrs.
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Thank You for Listening by Julia Whelan, narrated by the author, is my 5th book in the 12 books, 12 friends reading challenge, and it was the perfect book for my state of mind. Sewanee Chester, successful audiobook narrator and former actress, is worried about her grandmother’s health and disease’s progression, is in a battle of wills with her father over decisions related to his mother’s care, and continues to hide in the audio booth from how her life has changed and shaped who she is now.

In Las Vegas, filling in for her boss at a convention, Sewanee is thrust into the thick of romance narration as a panel moderator, which forces her to confront her own misgivings about HEA (happily ever after). It also forces her to see herself as something more than broken when she finds herself entangled with a strange and charming man. “What happens in Vegas….”

Once a narrator of romance, Sewanee has moved to meatier reads and won awards, but when an industry icon in the romance genre’s dying wish is to have her narrate her last book with steamy and mysterious Brock McNight, she’s unsure. After a bit of convincing and wishing for a return to her old life as an actress, Sewanee sets forth on a journey of rediscovering herself and learning to tap into her own emotional center. This is a romance, but it is as much a journey of healing and discovery. I laughed aloud while listening so many times, and I really felt these characters’ development and movement past pain and disappointment. There definitely is an HEA, but it’s more like Hope in Everything Always.

Thank You for Listening by Julia Whelan was a delight! It was the perfect book for where I was emotionally and in terms of stress levels. I had an entertaining read to fall into just when I needed it, and Whelan as a narrator is superb. I’m not sure who recommended this book, but it was a winner, and I thank you!

RATING: Cinquain

About the Author:

Having narrated over 400 audiobooks in all genres, Julia Whelan is, by industry standards, considered one of the top narrators recording today. She’s repeatedly featured on Audiofile Magazine’s annual Best-Of Lists. She was named Audible’s Narrator of the Year in 2014 and is a Grammy-nominated audiobook director. She has acquired multiple Audies and SOVAS (Society of Voice Arts) Awards, including for the performance of her own novel, My Oxford Year. She has won dozens of Earphone Awards, The Audie Award for Best Female Narrator of 2019, and was presented with Audiofile Magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Golden Voice Award in 2020. She attributes her distinctive style of narration to her ongoing passion for literature fueled by her decades of acting experience.


On Black Sisters Street by Chika Unigwe (audio)

Source: Library
Audiobook; 9+ hrs.
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On Black Sisters Street by Chika Unigwe, narrated by Chinasa Ojbuagu, is my 4th book for the 12 books 12 friends reading challenge.

***Those who have been raped, sexually assaulted, or human/sexually trafficked, be warned that this book is graphic and triggering.***

Sisi, Ama, Efe, and Joyce are four different women from Africa who come to Antwerp, Belgium, in pursuit of independence and finances for their own dreams in an unforgiving business of sex. Chinasa Ojbuagu‘s narration was not as differentiated as I would have liked for each character, and the story lines are fragmented, shifting from present to past, but it didn’t distract from the compelling story of these women.

While in Belgium, they each focus on their goals and share little of their real selves with the women they share an apartment with. Each has Madam and their pimp Dele in common, but their reasons for coming to Europe vary. In this book, desire is the main motivator – the desire for a better life among women under the thumb of men and society and for money as Dele and Madam use “slaves” to achieve their own dreams.

This novel is nothing but horrifying. There’s so much desire for a better life that these women are blinded by it, but at the same time, these women have faced significant trauma in their childhoods. Where is the bottom? Is there a new bottom? Or is the choice to sell yourself to men an empowering decision? This is muddled in the narrative because the trauma they face in their own nations would be a low point, but coming to Europe is not the freedom they expect it to be.

On Black Sisters Street by Chika Unigwe is stark in its horror, and remember these are real people’s lives (not just the lives of these characters). Reality can be the most horrifying thing you can face.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Chika Unigwe was born in Enugu, Nigeria, and now lives in Turnhout, Belgium, with her husband and four children. She writes in English and Dutch.

In April 2014 she was selected for the Hay Festival’s Africa39 list of 39 Sub-Saharan African writers aged under 40 with potential and talent to define future trends in African literature.
Unigwe holds a BA in English Language and Literature from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and an MA from the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. She also holds a PhD from the University of Leiden, The Netherlands, having completed a thesis entitled “In the shadow of Ala. Igbo women writing as an act of righting” in 2004.

Twice in a Lifetime by Melissa Baron (audio)

Source: Borrowed
Hoopla, 9+ hrs.
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Twice in a Lifetime by Melissa Baron, narrated by Megan Tusing, is a time-travel romance and my 3rd book for the 12 books 12 friends reading challenge.

***Those who have severe anxiety, a recent death in the family, or have suicidal thoughts should be warned about reading this book.***

Isla Abbott has severe anxiety and lost her mother, causing her to leave Chicago for just outside St. Louis. As a graphic designer, she starts again and works mostly remote, but soon she starts getting texts from a different timeline. Ewan Park enters her life in the most unusual way, but there is an undeniable connect, even as she remains awkward and anxiety-ridden.

Isla is tough to handle at times as a reader because you hear her inner thoughts, but that’s what’s so beautiful about Baron’s characterization. She understands anxiety and the incessant voice that puts you down, and she understands the overwhelming pressure that anxiety can be.

Ewan and Isla’s relationship is unconventional given the circumstances, but oh so lovely when they connect. Baron’s novel is tragic and emotional, a roller coaster. Twice in a Lifetime by Melissa Baron is a tough book to review, but definitely one that touches on fate and love and will be hard to forget.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Melissa Baron is a copywriter and technical writer from Chicago. She holds a B.A. in English and is a Denver Publishing Institute graduate. She regularly contributes to Book Riot and works as a book staffer at the annual Heartland Fall Forum. In her spare time, she likes to travel with her fiancé and play with their two cats, Denali and Mango. Twice in a Lifetime is her first novel.


Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafo (audio)

Source: Public Library
Audiobook: 4+ hrs.
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Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor, narrated by Adjoa Andoh and my 2nd book for the 12 books 12 friends reading challenge, opens with Sankofa walking through a Ghanaian village of ghosts, where people hide when she walks the streets. This opening immediately makes this story curious. Why are the villagers hiding from her? Is she dangerous?

Soon she pays a visit to a home, and announces, “Death has come to visit.”

Sankofa has a life before this in which she was known as Fatima. Even at age five she held the dust from a meteor shower without feeling its heat, and when she found a seed in a box, her imagination is all her parents and brother see. Of course, there are government officials who know better.

This story is both futuristic and in the present at the same time, steeped in traditions of Ghana. Planes and drones, unknown seeds, and abilities to manipulate light, time, and space. Adjoa Andoh is an engaging narrator and had me hooked on this story from the beginning, though I suspect that has a lot to do with the Okorafor’s material.

Fatima is transformed and when the light comes, she’s unable to control it and villages and individuals will be lifeless. She also cannot use technology without rendering it useless. Her journey is now as the angel of death, and she’s nomadic for much of the story as she searches for the seed that is stolen from her. Alone, she embarks on a journey of discovery. Is she empathy and compassion or is she evil like the villagers believe?

Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor is captivating from the first page, and it is clear that there is a juxtaposition between cultural superstition and the old ways and the advancement of technology. But at its heart the story is about a young, orphaned girl looking for her place in the world, one that fears her.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Author:

Nnedimma Nkemdili “Nnedi” Okorafor is a Nigerian-American writer of science fiction and fantasy for both children and adults. She is best known for her Binti Series and her novels Who Fears Death, Zahrah the Windseeker, Akata Witch, Akata Warrior, Lagoon and Remote Control. She has also written for comics and film.