20 Books of Summer, 1–3: Hargrave, Powles & Stewart

Plants mirror minds,

Healing, harming powers

Growing green thoughts.

(First stanza of “Plants Mirror Minds” from The Facebook of the Dead by Valerie Laws)

Here are my first three selections for my flora-themed summer reading. I hope to get through more of my own books, as opposed to library books and review copies, as the months go on. Today I have one of each from fiction, nonfiction and poetry, with the settings ranging from 16th-century Alsace to late-20th-century Spain.


The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (2022)

Kiran Millwood Hargrave is one of my favourite new voices in historical fiction (she had written fiction for children and young adults before 2020’s The Mercies). Both novels hit the absolute sweet spot between the literary and women’s fiction camps, choosing a lesser-known time period and incident and filling in the background with sumptuous detail and language. Both also consider situations in which women, queer people and other cultural minorities were oppressed, and imagine characters pushing against those boundaries in affirming but authentic-feeling ways.

The setting is Strasbourg in the sweltering summer of 1518, when a dancing plague (choreomania) hit and hundreds of women engaged in frenzied public dancing, often until their feet bled or even, allegedly, until 15 per day dropped dead. Lisbet observes this all at close hand through her sister-in-law and best friend, who get caught up in the dancing. In the final trimester of pregnancy at last after the loss of many pregnancies and babies, Lisbet tends to the family beekeeping enterprise while her husband is away, but gets distracted when two musicians (brought in to accompany the dancers; an early strategy before the council cracked down), one a Turk, lodge with her and her mother-in-law. The dance tree, where she commemorates her lost children, is her refuge away from the chaos enveloping the city. She’s a naive point-of-view character who quickly has her eyes opened about different ways of living. “It takes courage, to love beyond what others deem the right boundaries.”

This is likely to attract readers of Hamnet; I was also reminded of The Sleeping Beauties, in that the author’s note discusses the possibility that the dancing plagues were an example of a mass hysteria that arose in response to religious restrictions. (Public library)


Magnolia by Nina Mingya Powles (2020)

(Powles also kicked off my 2020 food-themed summer reading.) This came out from Nine Arches Press and a small New Zealand press two years ago but is being published in the USA by Tin House in August. I’ve reviewed it for Shelf Awareness in advance of that release. Those who are new to Powles’s work should enjoy her trademark blend of themes in this poetry collection. She’s mixed race and writes about crossing cultural and language boundaries – especially trying to express herself in Chinese and Hakka. Often, food is her way of embodying split loyalties and love for her heritage. I noted the alliteration in “Layers of silken tofu float in the shape of a lotus slowly opening under swirls of soy sauce.” Magnolia is the literal translation of “Mulan,” and that Disney movie and a few other films play a major role here, as do writers Eileen Chang and Robin Hyde. My issue with the book is that it doesn’t feel sufficiently different from her essay collections that I’ve read – the other is Small Bodies of Water – especially given that many of the poems are in prose paragraphs. [Update: I dug out my copy of Small Bodies of Water from a box and found that, indeed, one piece had felt awfully familiar for a reason: that book contains a revised version of “Falling City” (about Eileen Chang’s Shanghai apartment), which first appeared here.] (Read via Edelweiss)


A Parrot in the Pepper Tree by Chris Stewart (2002)

It’s at least 10 years ago, probably nearer 15, that I read Driving over Lemons, the first in Stewart’s eventual trilogy about buying a remote farm in Andalusia. His books are in the Peter Mayle vein, low-key and humorous: an Englishman finds the good life abroad and tells amusing anecdotes about the locals and his own mishaps.

This sequel stood out for me a little more than the previous book, if only because I mostly read it in Spain. It’s in discrete essays, some of which look back on his earlier life. He was a founding member of Genesis and very briefly the band’s drummer; and to make some cash for the farm he used to rent himself out as a sheep shearer, including during winters in Sweden.

To start with, they were really very isolated, such that getting a telephone line put in revolutionized their lives. By this time, his first book had become something of a literary sensation, so he reflects on its composition and early reception, remembering when the Mail sent a clueless reporter out to find him. Spanish bureaucracy becomes a key element, especially when it looks like their land might be flooded by the building of a dam. Despite that vague sense of dread, this was good fun. (Public library)


15 responses

  1. Well, I see that our library has the Kiran Millwood Hargrave in stock. So let’s start there. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Enjoy! Both of her novels for adults have been standouts for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A book I read yonks ago, The Day of St Anthony’s Fire discussed a French outbreak of ergotism in the 1950s with hyperactive villagers affected by rye which had been infected with the ergot fungus exhibited similar symptoms to horrendous medieval outbreaks of ‘dancing’. I’m not sure if this is the case here with the Kiranillwood Hargrave novel but it’s a point to consider.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She drew on one particular history book which did consider all those options. (Reminds me of Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns, too.)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I had mixed feelings about The Dance Tree and, in terms of queer rep, I wasn’t thrilled that Hargrave played into the same harmful trope she used in The Mercies (being vague to avoid spoilers!) However, I thought Lisbet’s quiet beekeeping and visits to the dance tree were beautifully told.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess I see it as being realistic for the time period. (And Frederich the musician survives, I think?)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m not an expert on early modern history, but I don’t think this was the fate of most same-sex attracted people in the past, especially as ideas of sexuality as an identity weren’t the same as they are now. I’m afraid I’ve forgotten who Frederich was already, so he obviously didn’t make a big impact on me as a character! (I loved The Mercies, though, it’s the pattern that bothers me rather than a one-off).


  4. I loved The Mercies, so I will have to get this new one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I liked this almost as much as The Mercies.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. A good strong start there, well done! I have read that Chris Stewart but had forgotten about the Genesis link – I’ve just been transcribing some of Genesis for a client so there’s a Bookish Beck Serendipitous Moment all of its own!!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. […] reviewed the above four across my Spain trip and 20 Books of Summer […]


  7. […] This reminded me of poetry I’ve enjoyed by other young Asian women: Romalyn Ante, Cynthia Miller, Nina Mingya Powles and Jenny Xie. A fantastic first […]


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