The Last Watchman of Cairo, by Michael David Lukas

35791972Joseph, like many other literary sons, only really learns who his father is after his death. A few weeks after his father dies, Joseph receives a package with a letter written in an archaic form of Arabic that turns out to document his family’s long history of serving as watchmen for the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo. The Last Watchman of Old Cairo, by Michael David Lukas, moves back and forth in time from the first watchman, to the discovery of the Cairo Genizah, to Joseph’s attempts to find out about his father’s life.

The Last Watchman of Old Cairo starts in the eleventh century, when Ali becomes the first watchman for the synagogue. Through his eyes, we see a thriving Jewish community in the middle of Muslim Cairo. We also learn about the synagogue’s greatest treasure, the Ezra Scroll, believed to be a perfect torah scroll created by the scribe Ezra. We then jump to the present, to Joseph, who is currently the last in the al-Raqb family. Joseph is the son of a Jewish woman and a Muslim father. Technically, this makes him both Jewish and Muslim. In a way, Joseph is the culmination of the tangled history of the al-Raqb family and the Cairene Jews.

Meanwhile, The Last Watchman of Old Cairo gives us chapters from the perspective of Agnes and Margaret Smith. The Smith twins were linguists and Biblical scholars who played an important role in the recovery of the Cairo Genizah at the end of the 1800s, though credit mostly goes to Solomon Schechter. Ali and Joseph’s chapters are interesting, but the Smith sisters’ parts were my favorite. I wanted to know more than the book gave me about the contents of the genizah. I also wanted more wrangling about who really owns the genizah materials, which are now scattered across several different university collections. I felt squicky at the way the Smiths and Schechter essentially snatched the genizah from the Cairene Jews.

The Last Watchman of Old Cairo is a fast read about a small community and the people who get drawn into it. While I wish it had devoted more time to character development and ethics, I was hooked. This book will be great for readers who like their historical fiction with a heavy dose of academia.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 13 March 2018.


Memento Park, by Mark Sarvas

35259562Matt Santos has had the misfortune of completely misunderstanding his father. He thought he knew enough about Gabor Szántós’ life in Hungary during the war and after to explain his gruffness, his obsession with toy cars, and his reluctance to talk about the past. But after Matt learns that a rare painting might have been stolen from the family in 1944 at the beginning of Mark Sarvas’ Memento Park, he finally starts to see how little he really knew.

Matt has done his best to distance himself from his father. Gabor was a tough man to live with. He would get angry for the smallest reasons. His toy cars were sacred and not to be touched. Any talk about the past was ruthlessly suppressed. When news of a lost painting by Ernst Kálman (fictional as far as I can tell) arrives, Gabor refuses to say anything and tells Matt that they “have nothing to with them.” But the painting gives Matt a perfect opportunity to investigate his origins himself.

With only hints about his Hungarian Jewish heritage, Matt has no idea who he is. He’s felt the lack of an understanding about his family history. Every time he gets close to Judaism—mezuzahs, the cantor’s songs, shabbes dinner—he feels a frisson of belonging. It’s more than he got from his father and it baffles him why Gabor cut himself off from their collective past. It’s only when Matt has a brush with violent anti-Semitism himself that he starts to understand what it means, even now, to be a Jew.

Matt tells his story (silently) to an unlistening security guard in the gallery where the recovered painting hangs. The framing feels a little gimmicky at times, but it allows Matt to move back and forth through time. He lets us reflect on his growing awareness of misunderstanding his father, how Judaism fills the gaps in his existence, and his tangled relationships with two women with missions that he falls in love with. It’s an affecting story and, even though I got a little exasperated by Matt’s neediness, I enjoyed his discoveries.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 13 March 2018.

The Natashas, by Yelena Moskovich

27241057Yelena Moskovich’s grueling novel, The Natashas, is, I’m afraid, a story that will only be read by people who already agree with its message. The people who probably need to hear about what this book has to say are unlikely to pick it up. This book tells the story of two people who learn to detach themselves and perform their “roles” according to what others want. Béatrice and César’s stories are attended by a Greek chorus of “Natashas,” women who have lost their original identities as they’ve been trafficked across Europe.

Béatrice is a doomed girl, right from the moment she starts to blossom into a beauty. As soon as she starts to develop breasts, boys and men begin to pay very uncomfortable attention to her. The day she is groped the school hallway by a group of boys singing “La Marseilles” is the day she starts to slide away from herself. Béatrice does not appear to have enough of a sense of self-preservation to stand up for herself. No one around her notices what’s happening; there’s no one to catch her when she slips away.

César, a Mexican actor who relocates to France, has a little more volition when it comes to his detachment. His inner self is a gay man with a talent for imitation. But that self is not accepted by his family or even, it turns out, César himself. He learns to take on personas to help with daily life. His stereotypical Latin hothead character seems to be the most successful. César slips into the role more and more easily, until he lets “Juan Miguel” pilot for him more often than not.

It’s utterly depressing to watch Béatrice and César lose themselves. The Natashas provide some leavening anger to the story. There’s a tiny dose of hope, but this really is a relentlessly depressing book. Because this book is about the submission and erasure of independent women and gay men, as I said before, I doubt this book will be picked up by readers who should see what it’s like for people to struggle with their appearance or sexuality in the face of rampant misogyny, objectification, and homophobia. Readers who do find this message interesting may be battered by its unsparing brutality.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. 

The Last Equation of Isaac Severy, by Nova Jacobs

35297219Being the child of a legendary genius is difficult, especially when one has no talent for mathematics like one’s grandfather. After Isaac Severy commits suicide, it seems like everyone’s weaknesses and insecurities come out into the open. This might have been enough for any adopted granddaughter to cope with. But in The Last Equation of Isaac Severy, by Nova Jacobs, Hazel Severy is sent on a quest for her famous grandfather’s work. She has to dodge mysterious pseudo-governmental organizations as well as grieving family members.

During the reception after her grandfather’s funeral, Hazel finds a letter from him, asking her to find and destroy his most recent work. She’s not supposed to tell anyone about it. But how is a failing bookstore owner ever to follow the clues laid out by a mathematical genius? Hazel’s not a blood relative. She doesn’t have the family spark. And yet, she seems to be the only person that Isaac Severy trusted with his secrets.

While we follow Hazel’s sometimes hapless attempts at solving Isaac’s puzzles, we also get to look into the lives of Philip, Isaac’s son, and Gregory, Hazel’s brother. Philip is a capable mathematician, but not brilliant like his father. It eats at him, as does his wife’s grief after their daughter dies in an accident shortly after Isaac’s death. He’s flailing. It’s not the best time for vaguely threatening government consultants to come sniffing around. They’re after his father’s work, but Philip is vulnerable to a bit of flattery. Meanwhile, Gregory is also falling apart. He’s been following his abusive former foster father (another of Isaac’s sons) and pining after his lover.

There’s a lot going on in The Last Equation of Isaac Severy. Every chapter reveals another layer to this complicated family. Most fascinating of all is what Isaac was working on before his death. I won’t reveal the secret here, but I can say that it brings up questions about free well and determinism. This book is full of chaos that the characters are desperate to make sense of. They want to find meaning in their recent tragedies and I can’t blame them. This book shows us how Hazel, Philip, and Gregory seek answers in very different ways that bring up even more questions to ponder after the last page.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 6 March 2018.

Rainbirds, by Clarissa Goenawan

33026565Ren Ishida arrives in Akakawa, Japan, for the worst reason. His sister was murdered there. He has come from Tokyo to pack up her things and scatter her ashes. When he learns that there are no suspects and that no one seems to have a clue about what happened, Ren stays. Rainbirds, by Clarissa Goenawan, is an unusual novel of grief and discovery.

Akakawa is a strange place. The first thing that we know about its strangeness is the way that Ren is invited by the people who knew his sister, Keiko, to take her place. He is offered her job teaching English. Her landlord lets Ren stay in her room under the same conditions Keiko was given: getting lunch for his wife and reading English novels to her. Keiko’s friends talk to Ren about her. It’s puzzling. And yet, no one is very forthcoming about her murder. Still, Ren asks questions and learns more about the secrets his sister was keeping.

Apart from the murder, Ren struggles with his sorrow and aimlessness after her death. Their parents were mostly absent while they were growing up. Keiko took care of her brother, cooked for him, and quizzed him about his girlfriends. She was the most important person in her life. Rainbirds is as much about Ren processing her death and absence in her life as it is about finding out who killed her.

Rainbirds is ostensibly a mystery, but this does get a bit lost at times as Ren learns more about his sister’s life. He does eventually figure things out, though I wasn’t entirely satisfied with his solution. I suppose it’s sort of fitting that Keiko’s life is treated as more important than her death. This is a bit frustrating for readers looking for a mystery. I admit to being a bit frustrating my life. What I found instead was a story about the ripples a woman’s life can cause to the lives around it, and the hole that’s left when she’s gone.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 6 March 2018


Speak No Evil, by Uzodinma Iweala

35396904When should a friend meddle in one’s life? And when should a friend stay silent? In the case of Meredith and Niru, in Uzodinma Iweala’s deeply affecting novel, Speak No Evil, it’s easy to see what Meredith should have done in retrospect. Speak No Evil is told in two parts. We first hear from Niru, who comes out to Meredith after she tried to initiate sex. Then we hear from Meredith, six years after a devastating event changed both of their families forever.

Niru’s very traditional Nigerian father cannot accept a gay son. He, like their pastor and many in their ex-patriot community in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., think of homosexuality as an abomination. Niru might have been able to keep his sexuality a secret from his parents if Meredith hadn’t installed Grindr on his phone. As a privileged white American, Meredith didn’t think of what might happen if Niru’s parents had found his phone. There are frequent moments like that, where a white teenage friend or acquaintance pressures Niru into things. They don’t think anything of staying out, drinking, or having sex because they rarely face any consequences. Niru, being black, could end up paying a much higher price than they ever imagine.

The entire time I read Niru’s half of the book, my heart was in my throat. I dreaded what might happen to a young, gay, black teenager with parents like his, with a society like ours, and friends like Meredith. When Meredith took over narrating duties, it was almost a relief. The hammer had fallen and all that was left was to somehow try to atone. The question for Meredith, is how can she ever atone? She never deliberately tried to hurt Niru. She thought she was helping; she just didn’t realize how different his circumstances were. But on the other hand, she could have listened more to Niru and thought about what it might mean to accidentally out him to his parents. If only—and then things would have turned out completely differently.

Speak No Evil is brief, but it packs a hell of an emotional wallop. This book touches deeply on so many things—coming out, friendship, unintended consequences, racism, parenting—and it does it all deftly and powerfully while still telling an engaging story about two friends who accidentally destroy one another.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 6 March 2018.

Notes for Bibliotherapeutic Use: Recommend to impulsive readers who need to slow down and think through their actions.

The Darkling Bride, by Laura Andersen

35822664Carragh Ryan’s job at Deeprath Castle begins with a very odd job interview. She doesn’t learn much about the job  and isn’t very sure about the frosty Lady Gallagher that hires her, but she leaps at the chance to work at the remote castle’s famed library because of its troubled history. Little does she know that Deeprath’s history has continued to be troubled right through to the present day. In The Darkling Bride, by Laura Andersen, we follow (mostly) Carragh as she digs into the family history and winds up at the center of a re-opened murder investigation.

The Darkling Bride jumps back and forth in time and back and forth into the heads of various narrators. In the present, Carragh and Garda Inspector Sibéal McKenna, peel back the layers of the remaining Gallaghers’ secrets at Deeprath Castle, in County Wicklow, Ireland. Carragh works as an inoffensive cataloger in the castle library, but her curiosity (and the promptings of what might be a ghost) send her down the rabbit hole of the what happened to the famous Victorian author who once lived there and his (I think bipolar) Gallagher bride. Meanwhile, Sibéal has been tasked with re-investigating what really happened to the murdered parents of the current Lord Gallagher.

We also get glimpses of the past through the Victorian author, Evan Chase-Gallagher, who was famous for writing Gothic novels based on folklore, and from his wife’s diary. At first, I didn’t know why those chapters were included in the novel. They were interesting, sure, but it isn’t until the end of The Darkling Bride that everything comes together in a thrilling and fitting climax.

The mystery (or mysteries) at the heart of the book are very well plotted, but what made this book for me was the way that it brings the setting and its history to life. Throughout the novel, Lord Gallagher is harassed by his relatives for his decision to give the castle to the Irish National Trust. The Gallagher family has been there for centuries. They belong there. It would be a betrayal of all of that to give the place up. And yet, Carragh’s heritage as an adopted child and later revelations in the book show us just how much blood and family love matter. This affecting theme, plus all of the detail lavished on the castle and its surroundings, made this book much deeper than its mysteries.

I can recommend The Darkling Bride as a literary thriller that works. I’ve been disappointed quite a few times in the past by books that involve chases after lost manuscripts that fizzled. This book doesn’t fizzle. Far from it. It’s a slow burn that got more and more tense as I read. I couldn’t but it down for the last half because I just had to know what happened next.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 6 March 2018.

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding, by Jackie Copleton

25194121Amaterasu Takahashi thinks she is the last member of her family. Her husband has died. Her son-in-law was killed on New Guinea. Her daughter and grandson were killed when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. But when a man shows up on her doorstep claiming to be her grandson at the beginning of Jackie Copleton’s novel, A Dictionary of Mutual Understandingit is as though she’s been shot through the heart. Everything she believes about her family’s life and her own life is suddenly called into question.

Amaterasu finds it impossible to believe the claims of Hideo. After all, she found her grandson’s metal name tag on the ground on August 9, 1945. Perhaps the biggest strike against the man who calls himself Hideo is the fact that he comes bearing letters by Amaterasu’s nemesis, Jomei Sato, to her daughter, Yuko. Hideo’s arrival and the letters send Amaterasu back into the past, where she reexamines everything she’s believed since the day the bomb dropped.

Urakami Cathedral, Nagasaki, 7 January 1946 (Image via Wikicommons)

Over the course of A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding, Amaterasu reveals her secrets. She shows us how her life, Yuko’s life, and Jomei’s life tangled together in the 1910s and 1930s. Jomei is portrayed as a villain throughout the novel; Amaterasu blames him for her daughter’s death and most of what has gone wrong in her life. At times, I thought the novel was trying too hard to make Jomei an evil man. His letters reveal that he was recruited to Unit 731, which conducted appalling medical experiments on captured Chinese people, and taking advantage* of the Japanese Army’s “comfort women.” But we also learn about Amaterasu’s mistakes. By the end of the book, I’m not sure who bears the greater blame for Yuko’s tragedies.

I thought that A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding would be a story about reunion, with a particularly interesting setting. What I found was an incredibly complex tale about people who make things worse by trying to make things right**. I’m not sure I sympathize with either Amaterasu or Jomei. I can understand why they do what they do, but they are both so very stubborn and so convinced that they are right that they only have second thoughts when it’s too late the make amends. I wish that I had read this with my book group, because I want to talk this book over with someone.

* This is not the right verb, but I’m not sure English has the correct verb for what happens in that particular scene.
** Funny enough, there’s a German verb for this: verschlimmbessern.

Dogs at the Perimeter, by Madeleine Thien

34068494Janie is haunted. Her memories of family members she lost during the reign of the Khmer Rouge have a firm hold on her, to the point that she sometimes sees her brother on the streets of Vancouver as she walks the city. She’s not the only person haunted like this. Her colleague, Hiroji, also lost a brother and keeps thinking he sees that brother in Canada even though that brother hasn’t been heard of since 1975. Perhaps it’s not strange that both of them became neuroscientists who study memory. In Dogs at the Perimeter, by Madeleine Thien, Janie and Hiroji’s haunting memories spark crises. After decades of trying to move on with their lives, they are pulled irresistibly into the past to finally get some closure.

Throughout Dogs at the Perimeter, tertiary characters advise Janie to let their lost ones go. This is obviously easier said that done. The trauma that Janie experienced as a small child is impossible to put behind her. Little things will remind her of the horrors of life under the Khmer Rouge. She has survivor’s guilt because she was the only person in her family to make it out. Her survival was a matter of luck; there’s no good reason to explain why she lived and her brother didn’t. If there had a been a reason, perhaps it might have been easier for her to let go.

We drift along with Janie in this book, from her current life as a neuroscientist, mother, wife, and colleague. Memories of the past frequently derail her, but she refuses to seek help for her struggles. When Hiroji disappears to go look for his brother in Cambodia, the past tightens its grip on her. She only gets relief by following her friend back to where everything started. As Janie’s attention wanders through her past and present, we learn a lot about her internal battles, how much she still lives in the past, and how much she wants to move on.

There is so much drifting in Dogs at the Perimeter that some readers might get frustrated with the narrator. It’s hard to tell when and where we are at times. This is the point, I think. We need to flail with time and place as much as Janie does to understand the impossibility of leaving a traumatic past behind. Janie’s trauma made her who she is. She’s broken, depressed, and frustrated. Watching her in this state made me terribly sympathetic for her. I wanted to reach into the book and pull her out of her memories. But without those memories, who would Janie be? Would she have become a neuroscientist studying how memories are passed on? Would she have married her husband and had a son? If her childhood had happened a different way, her scientific contributions wouldn’t exist. Her son wouldn’t exist. Janie doesn’t think of things this way, but I have hope that someday, she might.

Notes for Bibliotherapeutic Use: Recommend to readers who have a hard time empathizing with people who’ve been traumatized and can’t see why people can’t just get over it.

Hotel Silence, by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

36505873Jónas is the kind of man who lives for others. He’s kind. He’s accommodating. But when his wife leaves him and reveals that their daughter is not his biological child, he is plunged into suicidal depression. In fact, when we meet him at the beginning of Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Hotel Silence (translated by Brian FitzGibbon), he is planning on killing himself. He keeps putting it off because he doesn’t want his daughter to be the one to find his body. Eventually, Jónas plans to travel to a foreign country so that his body will be shipped back without too much fuss. But when he goes abroad to an unnamed country, he finds people who need him and he returns to meaningful life.

The first fifth of Hotel Silence are utterly depressing. Jónas shows us his quiet, lonely life. Without his wife and daughter and with his mother descending into obsessive thoughts about war, Jónas feels like there’s no point going on. He doesn’t have anyone to love or take care of and feels like he never will again. When he goes abroad to a country that was at war until very recently, it’s a relief from the unrelenting Icelandic melancholy of Jónas’ life.

Jónas’ new life starts with little things. He fixes the shower in his room at the Hotel Silence and the sticky door. One of the hotel owners asks him to fix a few other things. So does the owner of the town’s last restaurant. He demurs but caves because he really likes to be helpful. The next thing he knows, Jónas is helping to renovate the hotel and other buildings around town. These repairs and the gratitude of the people in this unnamed town help pull him out of his sorrow.

If you can make it through the first part of Hotel Silence, you’ll be rewarded with a sweet story of people being good to each other (with a few exceptions). This is a rare thing in fiction, since authors almost always torture their protagonists to move the plot forward. Seeing this much altruism left me with a warm, fuzzy feeling when I was done.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 22 February 2018.