La Créole by Cheryl Sawyer

La Créole

When a white writer writes an African American or African character, I worry—especially when that author is writing about slaves. I worried through the first chapters of Cheryl Sawyer’s La Créole. This apprehension never quite went away, but I ended up enjoying this tale of revenge, villainy, love, piracy, slavery, war, and identity. La Créole tells the story of Ayisha, an enslaved woman on the island of Martinique, who escapes to France and spends a year working towards revenge on the man who owned her.

The first chapters set the stage for Ayisha’s revenge before catapulting her to Nantes, Orléans, and Paris. After seeing the man she loves murdered on the master’s orders, Ayisha makes a vow to return and rescue her mother and village from slavery. She’s not sure how to accomplish this. At first, she had vague plans to approach King Louis XVI and begging him to free her people. When that fails, she hatches an even riskier plan: to gamble and win enough money to buy the estate on Martinique and the enslaved people there.

La Créole stumbles in the first third. Though Ayisha shows a lot of spirit and determination, she is curiously passive as she travels from Nantes to Paris. She is mostly willing to go along with anyone’s schemes for her. These chapters read like a picaresque without the humor. Every now and then, Ayisha would show a flash of agency, but it isn’t until she becomes a gambler that she becomes more of an agent of her own future. This passivity could be explained by her naivté about France, I suppose, but I found Ayisha a very inconsistent character until the latter half of the book.

There is far too much plot to summarize, even in the first third, like I normally do. This book is crammed with things happening to and around Ayisha. I read faster and faster because I had to know what came next for our protagonist. Despite her odd characterization, I had to root for her as her fortunes rose and fell (sometimes literally). La Créole is a dramatic adventure and a highly entertaining read.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. 

The Long Drop, by Denise Mina

The Long Drop

How do you write a biography for a liar? Denise Mina found one way with her novel, The Long DropThe events in this book are based on the investigation and trial of Peter Manuel. Mina took what is known about Manuel and his crimes, the investigation, court records, and other documents and stitched together a tale of what might have happened in a series of murders in Glasgow between 1956 and 1958. It makes for chilling reading.

The Long Drop begins in the middle of the story (fitting enough, considering how much is unknown about Manuel). A solicitor and his client meet with an informer who claims to know what happened to the client’s wife, daughter, and sister-in-law. The three women were murdered in September of 1956. The husband and father, William Watts, was the Glasgow police’s first and only suspect. He began to investigate the murders himself, since the police wouldn’t look at any other suspects. As the night goes on, however, Watts and others slowly learn that Peter Manuel—the informer—knows a lot more than he should. The longer anyone knows him, the more they realize that there is something deeply wrong with the man.

The novel then starts moving back and forth in time, revolving around the night Watts and Manuel got profoundly drunk and shared secrets. We never see the murders reconstructed. Mina leaves them ambiguous, making us wonder if Manuel really did commit them. We do see a lot of Manuel’s trial in the second half of the book. We also get to see the last weeks of Manuel’s life before his execution.

Peter Manuel, both in life and in The Long Drop, is a compulsive liar. He has a desperate need to be the hero of his own life. He’s a terrible liar, constantly contradicting himself and spinning completely unbelievable yarns about “what really happened.” Between these lies and the lack of a proper investigation, we can only draw our own conclusions about Manuel’s guilt—which I think makes for a fascinating take on true crime nonfiction. I’ve never read anything quite like The Long Drop before, but I hope to read more from Mina in the future.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 23 May 2017.

New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier

New Boy

I think we keep returning to tragedies with the vague hope that this time things will work out differently. I’ve always felt that about Shakespeare’s tragedies because, after the first reading or viewing, I could see all of the places where things could have gone differently. If only someone had gotten Hamlet into grief counseling…If only someone had told Richard III to shove it the first time he tried to talk that someone into something…If only Othello had listened to Desdemona…I suppose this is why I’ve been paying such close attention to the Hogarth Shakespeare series.

New Boyby Tracy Chevalier, is a retelling of Othello—one of my favorite plays—but transplanted to a playground in Washington, D.C., sometime in the late 1970s. The story plays out over one day, the day that Osei is the new boy at the unnamed elementary school. I’ll admit that the setting had me fooled at first. It seemed like such a radical departure from the original setting and age of the characters. But even though the characters in this version of the story are sixth-graders, I could see the same path towards tragedy start to take shape as the kids meet for recess, lunch, and after school.

Like the original OthelloNew Boy is very much about race and jealousy. Osei here is the son of a Ghanan diplomat who has just been transferred from New York. It’s the fourth school the boy has attended in just a few short years. He knows how to be the new kid, but it’s harder in America where he has been the only black student. The white adults and children react to him either with angry racism, ostracism, or a bewildered kind of liberal tolerance that makes me cringe because it’s really just a different form of racism.

Osei might have been able to weather all this if it hadn’t been for Dee and Ian. Dee is the only classmate who makes an effort to get to know Osei. They fascinate each other by lunch time but, unbeknownst to them, Ian has already started plotting his potential rival’s downfall. Even more than the original Iago, Ian finds it easy to tap into the racism of his classmates. Without that racism—and without Osei’s experience of racism every where he goes—this story might have turned out differently this time.

New Boy is a short novel. It doesn’t need more than five acts set over a single day to do its work. I wasn’t sure about the setting at first, but in Chevalier’s hands the playground and the children make the original story even more tragic than the original. Reading this book is like watching a disaster unfold and not be able to do anything to stop it before you yourself get blown up in the catastrophe. This retelling affected me more than any of the others I’ve yet read.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 11 May 2017.

Lilli de Jong, by Janet Benton

Lilli de Jong

Stories about new mothers tend to stop with with the birth and the implication that everything will now be all right. Janet Benton’s Lilli de Jong, however, continues after the eponymous character has her daughter in 1883’s Philadelphia. Being a new mother is challenge enough, but Lilli has to contend with prejudice against having children while unmarried, being shunned by her family and church, and not having many ways to make a living for herself and her daughter. Lilli de Jong is a much needed rebuttal to the assumed happily ever after of so many stories about pregnancy.

Lilli, when we first properly meet her after a scene-setting opening chapter, is a good Quaker daughter mourning her mother. Her father has fallen away from the high ideals of their church, to Lilli’s disgust. Yet, Lilli is not entirely a paragon because she decided to sleep with her fiancé before they get married. (Partly because Johan is leaving to get a job in Pittsburgh.) Their one night together results in pregnancy, which Lilli tries to hide for as long as possible.

Once Lilli is too big to hide her condition anymore, she seeks refuge at a women’s charity for unwed mothers. The plan is to give up her child for adoption and pretending that the whole thing never happened. But when Lilli meets her daughter, Charlotte, for the first time, a fierce protective love springs up. Everyone tells Lilli that keeping her child without a husband is impossible. In spite of the horror stories, Lilli seeks a job—eventually finding a position as a wet nurse for a prickly, upper class mother. The job pays well, but comes with heavy emotional costs.

Lilli de Jong is full of ups and downs (mostly downs) for Lilli and Charlotte. If Lilli wasn’t such a striver, I think this book would have been very hard to read. (There are still some very harrowing moments, especially towards the end.) Lilli’s inner grit and her faith—Quakers have a tradition of doing hard things they believe are right, e.g. fighting for abolition and participating in the Underground Railroad—are a wonder to behold because she has such a very difficult life. Lilli de Jong is an intriguing look into the hard parts of being a single mother.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 16 May 2017.

The Scribe of Siena, by Melodie Winawer

The Scribe of Siena

When I was younger and just getting into history, I used to think a lot about which time and place I might travel to if I ever got the chance. (Before I got older and realized that I would be burnt as a witch in most times and places.) One of the last times and places I ever wanted to go was 1348 in Europe. Unfortunately for the protagonist of Melodie Winawer’s The Scribe of Siena, that’s exactly where she ends up when she suddenly slips through time.

Dr. Beatrice Trovato has just left a career as a neurosurgeon to take care of her recently deceased brother’s affairs in Siena when, one fine day, she finds herself in 1347. All she knows is that an artist’s journal and one of his surviving frescos has somehow pulled her through the past. Otherwise, Beatrice manages to cope fairly well in the medieval city (barring a few mishaps with sumptuary laws). She lands a job as a scribe—being one of the few people the brothers and sisters at the Ospedale (hospital and pilgrim hostel) who can read and write—after a nun takes pity on her. Beatrice desperately wants to go home. She knows that in only a few months the Black Death will arrive and hit Siena hard.

When she meets the artist who painted the fresco (which has a figure with her face in it), everything changes. Gabriele is a kindred spirit for Beatrice, and it isn’t long before they fall in love. At this point, anyone who’s read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander is going to start making comparisons. Both female protagonists are doctors who fall through time. Their lovers are curiously understanding men from the past. Beatrice is different from Claire Fraser in that she seems to have a mystical sort of empathy (which ends up being a deus ex machina more than once). Beatrice is also different from Claire in that she seems to travel through time more easily, so The Scribe of Siena has a bit more back and forth with the present than Outlander.

Winawer clearly did a lot of research, but has a light touch with the information. This book is rich with detail. So much that I felt like I was traveling with Beatrice and enjoying the food of pre-tomato Italy. The Scribe of Siena is also jam-packed with plot. Once it gets going, this book races along and Beatrice and her Gabriele have to contend with Yersina pestis and Medici schemes. In spite of its similarities to Outlander and loosey-goosey approach to time travel, I enjoyed The Scribe of Siena.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 16 May 2017.

Moving the Palace, by Charif Majdalani

Moving the Palace

There aren’t many examples, but there are enough for there to be a distinct subgenre for obsessive colonial stories. While Moving the Palace, by Charif Majdalani and translated by Edward Gauvin, is not as harrowing as Heart of Darkness or Fitzcarraldo, it shares a similarly mad plot MacGuffin and features exotic locales. In this instance, the mad plot involves moving a building from Tripoli, piece by piece, all over Africa and the Middle East so that it can be rebuilt in Beirut.

An unnamed narrator begins his grandfather’s story with some background about how that illustrious ancestor, Samuel, got into the British Army in the early 1900s. After the Madhist War, the British Army desperately needed men who could speak English and Arabic fluently. (There are several cutting remarks about how artificially “virile” the Arabic spoken by the English officers is.) Samuel gets a job and is promptly sent to Khartoum. Meanwhile, another Lebanese man, Shafik, makes what seems to be a deal in Tripoli. Shafik buys a small palace in what turns out to be an undesirable location. So, he has the palace dismantled and hires a caravan to ship it south to try and sell it to a sub-Saharan prince or sultan.

The two men meet while Samuel is bribing local sultans to round up Madhists. Shafik has been lugging (or rather, his employees have been lugging) pieces of wood, stone, and other bits of palace all over the place. He just can’t sell the thing. Eventually, Samuel takes a liking to the palace and buys it, intending to rebuild it when he gets home to Beirut. He takes Shafik’s place as the man throwing money and spleen around trying to get every scrap of wood and stone to its destination.

With a bit more effort, this book could have been a hilarious picaresque. The humor falls short of this as Moving the Palace develops into more of an adventure story when Samuel and his palace get caught in the middle of World War I and the Arab Revolt. The tone of the book doesn’t help either. While the narrator captures some of his grandfathers frustrated doggedness, the book reads more like a piece of historical nonfiction. In spite of this, I was entertained—mostly by the setting. The years 1908 to 1916 between Sudan and Lebanon are rich ground for story and Majdalani does his setting justice.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 16 May 2017. 

Music of the Ghosts, by Vaddey Ratner

Music of the Ghosts

Vaddey Ratner’s Music of the Ghosts is the story of two parallel lives that were caught by the apocalyptic violence of the Khmer Rouge but managed to survive, albeit with deep psychological wounds. Music of the Ghosts moves back and forth between the late 1970s and the present day as these two people—a woman who fled to the United States as a child and an old man who fought with the Khmer Rouge—reveal their connections to each other and seek healing.

Suteera fled with her mother when the Khmer Rouge evacuated the entire city of Phnom Penh in 1975. Shortly thereafter, she and her aunt were helped over the border into Thailand. Thirty years later, Suteera receives a letter from the abbot of a Buddhist monastery in Phnom Penh. An old musician has a legacy for her from her father, who disappeared shortly before the Khmer Rouge takeover. When she reluctantly returns to Cambodia, Suteera finds herself awash in unexpressed grief and memories. The old musician, it turns out, knew her father from before the civil war and was imprisoned with him in one of the Khmer Rouge’s notorious prisons. Not only does the musician have a legacy to pass on, he also needs to confess what he did to survive to Suteera.

While Suteera copes with her past and present, the old musician gets to tell his story—from his decision to join the Khmer Rouge to his ultimate betrayal by the Organization. I found these parts harrowing but fascinating. I’ve never read anything, fiction or otherwise, about the Khmer Rouge. Given how terrifying and brutal the regime was, fiction was a soft landing for me. Music of the Ghosts gives us an ant’s eye view of those bloody years. Ratner’s characters do not try to explain much of the ideology of the Khmer Rouge. Rather, this book presents that time as chaotic, deadly insanity.

The old musician’s flashbacks are the most gripping part of this book. However, much of this book is about how he and Suteera have learned to make space in their psyches for those terrible years. They haven’t forgiven themselves or the Organization for what happened. I don’t blame them a bit, which is why I found the ending of this book too easy considering what the protagonists had been through. I’m not about to say what a survivor should feel; I know that I’m not a very forgiving person myself so my perspective is skewed. My problem with the way the book wrapped was that it was rushed.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration.


Salt Houses, by Hala Alyan

Salt Houses

Some Palestinians refer to 1948 as al-Nakbah, “the Catastrophe.” That was the year Israel became a state and Palestinians were pushed off of their land to make room. Hala Alyan uses 1948 as the starting point for her novel, Salt Houses. Through chapters narrated by members of one Palestinian family from 1948 to 2014, Alyan shows us what looking back and being rootless can do to a family. And through this family, we can see the effects of losing a homeland on an entire people: the Palestinian diaspora.

Note: I am well aware of the fraught political nature of Israeli and Palestinian history. I will only discuss this in the context of the novel. Further, I would appreciate if readers and commenters only use this space to discuss the book—not the politics.

Salt Houses opens in the early 1960s as Salma, the matriarch of a small family in Nablus, is reading her daughter’s fortune in tea leaves. What she sees in the cup shocks and dismays her. She knows that Alia will have a tough life. So she refuses to tell Alia what she sees. From 1963, the novel jumps to 1965 and Salma’s son, Mustafa. Then on to the 1970s and Alia and her husband. Over the next decades, we will meet Alia’s children and their children. We will go from the former Palestine to Kuwait; Amman, Jordan; Beirut, Lebanon; and Paris.

At one point in the novel, about halfway through, one of the family muses on how nostalgia can be a disease. Throughout the book, characters regret and grow angry over the things they’ve lost. There was always a better time, in another place, that they can’t go back to. Sometimes, that better place and time was in Haifa, Israel, or Nablus or Amman. Sometimes it’s before a beloved family member died. Over time, the family loses their roots. The younger generation grow further and further away from their elders, who can remember their old homeland.

While most of the conflicts in Salt Houses are emotional ones (particularly between mothers and daughters who are so similar they can’t get along), politics and religion are present in the story. Two of the male members of the family are tempted to join terrorist organizations to regain what was taken from them. Terrorism is a shadowy force in the novel, mostly occurring off the page or between chapters. We really only learn of the fallout. The Islam that these two male characters, Mustafa and Abdullah, practice is less important for comfort or understanding as it is a vehicle and justification (through radical imams) for violence.

Alyan is savvy in that she provides more than one view of Islam. For those two men, Islam is spun as a way to take back power—something that is very attractive to men who feel (rightly or wrongly) that they’ve been abused and robbed by the state of Israel. For the women, however, especially Salma and her granddaughter, Riham, we get to see Islam as a personal comfort. Truth to tell, we see more of the women’s belief than the men’s. Through Salma and Riham, Islam becomes a way to talk to god, to see order in the world, and to comfort believers when life is hard. We see the Islam that American media rarely shows.

Not all of the characters in Salt Houses are appealing. One in particular drove me nuts when she showed up on the page. Rather, this book is a subtle depiction of politics, religion, nostalgia, and belonging. I say subtle because many of these topics crept up on me. Now that I’ve finished the book, I find myself thinking about them more–which is always a sign of a good book to me.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 2 May 2017.

My Last Lament, by James William Brown

My Last Lament

Aliki’s tragic life seems appropriate for a professional lamenter. We learn about her life as she records her story on tapes that were left for her by an American ethnographer—who really only wanted Aliki’s laments and talk about Greek “funerary customs”—in My Last Lament, by James William Brown. The novel jumps back and forth as Aliki tells us about her left in the present and between 1943 and 1948, when Greece was occupied and then tried to get back on its feet after World War II.

The book opens with Aliki in the present, as an ethnographer explains what she wants in baffling (and hilarious) academese. Aliki lives alone in her home village and is occasionally called out to compose spontaneous laments for the oldest members of the community. Aliki is willing to humor the American, but she takes the opportunity to tell her own story in between recalled laments and village goings-on. She takes us back to 1943. Her village in mainland Greece has been occupied by German forces and everyone is hungry. We meet young Aliki just as her father has been executed for running a secret squash garden.

After Aliki’s father is killed, a neighbor takes her in. Unbeknownst to Aliki and Takis, the neighbor’s son, Chrysoula is also hiding a Jewish mother and son in her basement. When disaster strikes just as the Germans are about to leave the village, Aliki flees with Takis and the Jewish son, Stelios. The trio have their own odyssey across mainland Greece, Crete, and a remote Greek island over the next few years. Bad luck and bad decisions hound them along the way (though there are no sirens or cyclops). Aliki and Stelios are such strivers that, after a few chapters, I just wished that they could find a bit of peace and happiness.

My Last Lament offers a look into a theater of the war I didn’t know much about. I knew even less about post-war Greece, which seems even more dangerous than the Germans because there are so many armed factions fighting for control of the liberated country. I wish there had been a bit more about Aliki’s mystical laments, but this book is laced with Greece puppet theater and customs that I very much enjoyed. (There are descriptions of food that will probably send readers to the nearest Greek restaurant.) Brown also pulls off the trick of making both the past and present sections of the book equally interesting. If you have a taste for the tragic, My Last Lament is a terrific read.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration.

Feast of Sorrow, by Crystal King

Feast of Sorrow

In Feast of Sorrow, Crystal King takes the few known historical details about the life of patrician Marcus Gavius Apicius and the cookbook named after him to create a captivating look into high Roman society in the first century CE. Through the eyes of Thrasius, Apicius’ enslaved cook, we see decades of political wrangling and lots and lots of cooking. Feast of Sorrow is deliciously rich in period detail—though I think I’ll hold off on making some of the provided recipes as I’m not all that fond of dormouse.

The novel opens with the day Apicius—one of the richest men of his time—buys Thrasius. He’s heard that Thrasius is a remarkable cook and Apicius believes that he will rise to fame by advising Caesar on food, wine, and fine dining. Fortunately for Thrasius, the young man is a gifted cook and inventor of recipes. Thrasius is given free reign in the kitchen and any supplies he wishes from across the Empire. The only difficulty is managing Apicious’ mercurial moods. The patrician is desperate for lasting fame, so desperate that he ignores a haruspex‘s prophecy that the harder Apicius’ seeks after fame, the more personal calamity he’ll suffer.

Because Feast of Sorrow follows Apicius’ life, the plot is highly biographical and episodic rather than focused. Some readers might find it meandering. I couldn’t fault the book for that because I was too interested in what Thrasius was cooking up in the kitchen and because Apicius was close enough to Emperor Tiberius‘ circle to get caught up in the machinations of Lucius Aelius Sejanus. The politics alone (more vicious and dangerous than modern politics, if only because of the liberal use of poison) would have been enough to keep me interested. I was hooked enough that I didn’t run to Wikipedia to find out how everything ended before I finished the book.

I was hooked by the food, even if the Romans were willing to eat parts of animals that we don’t even put in hotdogs nowadays. King took her inspiration from the Apicius, the oldest extant cookbook, and did her best to bring it all to life. (King provides a few updated recipes on her site for the bold.) Throughout the book, Thrasius experiments with new ways of not just preparing food but preparing animals for slaughter by feeding them delicacies. Because of Thrasius’ work and creativity, Apicius does rise—though he also becomes notorious for his profligacy with money and his alleged gluttony (as confirmed by Pliny, who appears in a brief cameo).

King’s descriptions of Apicius and Thrasius’ monumental feasts made me wish I could go back in time just for a glimpse. On top of these sumptuous passages, King gives us drama and pathos. If one doesn’t mind a plot that wanders through a historical life, this book is a terrific read.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 25 April 2017.