Underground Fugue, by Margot Singer

Underground Fugue

Margot Singer’s Underground Fugue is a novel that has not only subtext; it has background melody. In this novel, two parents and two children dance uncomfortably around each other in alternating chapters. Esther has returned to London to care for her terminally ill mother, Lonia. Next door, Javad wonders what his college student son, Amir, is really up to when he disappears late at night. Each chapter contains similar motifs to the one that came before, but with variations like the dueling melodies of a fugue.

The characters of Underground Fugue carry a lot of emotional baggage. Esther is still mourning her son and preparing to mourn her mother. Lonia, in a fog of painkillers, is slowly reliving her life in 1939 Czechoslovakia and Poland. Meanwhile, Javad is still angry over his long ago divorce and misses his family in Tehran. We don’t learn until much later what Amir is carrying and, until the conclusion, he feels a bit superfluous. All of the characters have to deal with their betrayals of the people in their lives, experience tunnels of one kind or another, traveling across vast geographical and emotional distances, and being outsiders everywhere they go.

Most novels with multiple protagonists will move their narratives closer together, so that all of them are involved with the same problem. That’s not what happens, quite, with Underground Fugue. Each of the characters is distinct. It’s more as though they met, then diverged, then came together before parting once more—over and over again. Because the chapters mimic the patterns of a fugue, I wondered more than once if I just wasn’t clever enough to work out what was going on in this novel. I’m not musician enough to pick up on all the references.

I have mixed feelings about Underground Fugue. There were parts I very much enjoyed. I sympathized with Lonia and Javad, but was more equivocal about Esther. I pitied Amir, who was mostly the wrong color at the wrong time and place. Because of the structure, however, I think the plot suffered for trying to be too baroque. (I had to make the pun.) Gimmicks like this rarely work; they tend to take over and detract from characterization and plotting. Those are the parts of books I love most, so I freely admit that I might be overly harsh on this book because of my own preferences.

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

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.

The Language of Solitude, by Jan-Philipp Sendker

The Language of Solitude

Jan-Philipp Sendker’s The Language of Solitude (translated by Christine Lo) is a strange hybrid novel. Some chapters read like a slightly overwritten literary tale of a Western man and his Chinese lover. Others could have been taken from a thriller. Still other chapters offer some gripping family historical drama. On their own, they work quite well. Together, the effect is of a book that tries to do too many things for no discernible reason. The characters rescue this book from itself, fortunately. Even though it’s messy, I found that I rather enjoyed the tribulations of Paul Leibovitz and the Wu family.

The novel opens in Hong Kong. Paul is worried about Christine Wu, who has become distant over the past few days. After prying, Paul learns that Christine’s astrologer has told her that she might kill Paul sometime during the next year. Paul is not a believer, but he goes to the astrologer himself in the hopes of finding something that will reassure his love. Of course, since this is the beginning of the novel, no such reassurance arrives. Instead, Paul received a fortune that rocks him to his core. Then Christine receives a letter from the brother she thought died during the Cultural Revolution and we’re off to the races, plot-wise.

The tone of the novel shifts at this point from that just a bit too overwrought literary style to thriller. The long-lost brother turns out to be in the middle of a medical mystery with huge political implications. Paul dives in head first, even though everyone warns him away. His conscience won’t let him stay detached. As the thriller plot unrolls, there are moments when the narrative takes us deeper into the Wu family’s history and the compromises they’ve had to make over the decades. (There are still a few overwritten chapters, but the writing got better as the novel moved along.)

While Sendker does manage to wrap up his various plots, I’m not sure why this book pulls from so many disparate genres. I could see these of forgiveness, justice versus compromise, and moving on after tragedy emerge in this book, all linked through Paul, but I’m not sure why the thriller elements were included. I think the book would have worked very well without the medical mystery. The family history alone could have fueled the whole book. It was the characters that kept me reading when I might have given up. I enjoyed Paul (even if he is a bit too good for this world) and loved Da Long, the long-lost brother.

The Language of Solitude is a puzzling book that I think I enjoyed in spite of itself.

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

Castle of Water, by Dane Huckelbridge

Castle of Water

I had no idea what I was getting into when I started Dane Hucklebridge’s Castle of WaterI’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t a wistful, beautiful, quirky, sad love story. I read this book in one long sitting because I couldn’t tear myself away. Castle of Water completely knocked my socks off.

In the opening chapter of Castle of Water, we learn that Barry Bleecker is famous for some reason. He’s famous enough for people to follow him through Paris to see what he’ll do. We also learn that he’s a solitary man of habits and very concerned about his contacts. The reason for all this, we soon find out, is that he was in a plane crash and was stranded on an unnamed island near the Marquesas for three years. He wasn’t alone; he was marooned with Sophie, a young French widow.

Castle of Water moves back and forth in time from twelve years after Barry got off the island to the three years he and Sophie spent together. Huckelbridge includes short chapter-long asides to explain the strange circumstances of their odyssey that lend to the gentle humor of the book. (I suspect some readers might find it a bit twee, but I had a good time.) The joy of the book comes from watching Barry and Sophie squabble over supplies and ideas. They truly drive each other insane, this American and this Française, before they fall in love.

Huckelbridge includes plenty of hints that Barry and Sophie won’t have a happily ever after, but the end of the book still hit me like a ton of literary bricks. The complex emotions I felt at the conclusion reminded me a lot of what I felt when I read The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin, one of my favorite books of recent years. This short novel had everything I didn’t know I was looking for since I read A.J. Fikry. I plan on recommending this book a lot.

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

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.


Verklempt, by Peter Sichrovsky


In Peter Sichrovsky’s introduction to his short story collection Verklempt (translated by John Howard), he explains that the German-Yiddish word means something that doesn’t work even though it should. In each of the stories in Verklempt, we met a man (usually) or woman who is emotionally broken in a way that makes it hard to connect with or understand others. These stories are full of misunderstandings that even the most clever comedy writer couldn’t talk their way out of.

Two of the stories, “The Aunt” and “Onju,” stood out to me in particular because they had the kind of ethical complexity I relish in fiction. (The rest of the stories would be preferred by readers who like tricky relationship stories.) In both “The Aunt” and “Onju,” elderly character reveal to their younger relatives memories (or possibly false memories) about crimes committed during the Holocaust. Even though the culprit might be remorseful (or wrongfully accused), the taint of even being associated with the Holocaust is enough to torture both the accused and the relatives. After so much time, what can or should be done? And yet, in “The Aunt,” accused and victim end up in the same retirement home and it’s clear that something has to be done.

I’ll admit that most of the stories in Verklempt washed right over me. That’s neither Sichrovsky or Howard’s fault. I am the wrong audience for stories about emotionally unhappy men who happen into odd sexual situations with women who are out of their league. (There are a shocking number of nymphomaniacs in Verklempt. Be warned)

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss 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.

The End of the Day, by Claire North

Writing this review is going to be a special challenge because I have always had a hard time talking about books that I loved and that have moved me deeply. I tend to gush without explaining why I enjoyed the book so much.

The End of the Day

On first impression, Claire North’s stunning and strange novel, The End of the Day, is about death. Charlie is the most recent Harbinger of Death. As he explains it, he goes before as a courtesy or a warning. Through his eyes, we see good deaths and bad—and the longer you read, the more you realize that this is not a book about death so much as it is a book about empathy. I read The End of the Day in chunks over two days. I would inhale the short chapters until I could take no more of its emotional honesty and have to take a break. The breaks didn’t last too long because I just had to have more.

The End of the Day covers the three or four years at the beginning of his career as Death’s Harbinger, but it tells his story out of order. We see Charlie when he’s bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as he enjoyed traveling around the world to meet the last woman of her tribe in Peru. We see him as he has a mystical encounter with Death on a glacier in Greenland. We also see Charlie as all of the senseless deaths shake him to the core when he visits a rebel compound in Syria after years of civil war. Charlie’s relationship with death, and Death, are constantly changing—though he seems to have a better grip on what Death is than most of the people he meets.

Charlie’s job is supposed to be either a courtesy or a warning. When it’s a courtesy, Charlie sees people before they have a good death, at peace with their lives and their ends. When it’s a warning, Charlie strives mightily to get people to heed him so that Death might pass them by. But Charlie also has an unofficial third duty to perform: answering questions from people who want to understand Death and try to bargain with the psychopomp. These parts of the book are often harrowing for Charlie because of his answers, though some of them are incredibly thoughtful.

Throughout the book are interstitial chapters that consist of nothing but untagged dialogue. These snatches of speech, for me, were gut-wrenching contrasts to Charlie’s deep empathy for everyone he meets. Some of them sounded like they were taken directly from Donald Trump or Fox News because of their profound racism and stupidity. I was struck, over and over again, by how current they sounded because we seem to be living in a time when more and more people only care about themselves and their families. Everyone else can go hang for all they care. None of these voices realize that Death comes for all of us in the end. The divisions we put up between ourselves and others are completely meaningless and do nothing but make us miserable.

The End of the Day is not for everyone. It’s achronological structure will bother some readers. The issues the book covers will distress others. But I found the book to be one of the most enlightening and beautiful novels I’ve read in a while.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released on 4 April 2017.

The Last Bell, by Johannes Urzidil

The Last Bell

Pushkin Press continues to do sterling work by retranslating and republishing European fiction with Johannes Urzidil’s The Last Bell (translated by David Burnett). The Last Bell includes five stories by a mid-century Czech author who got lost in the shuffle of history. In these stories, Urzidil writes about life in Prague in the late 1930s (before he himself fled Europe) and in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire before World War I.

The first story is the eponymous “The Last Bell,” my favorite story in the collection. The story opens with housekeeper Marška being left in charge of her employers’ apartment for the foreseeable future. The master and missus are Jewish and the Germans are on their way. So, Marška decides to live it up on their wealth with her sister in the luxury apartment. Things go well, until the sisters start to fraternize with their new Nazi occupiers. The story starts with pathos but takes a completely different tone of horror by the end.

Another stand out story is “The Duchess of Albanera,” in which a lonely bank manager steals a famous painting. The bank manager keeps the Duchess in an armoire and talks to her. Meanwhile, his acquaintances notice the slight changes in his routine and wonder what’s going on. What makes the story interesting is that the Duchess talks back to the bank manager, questioning him about his ideals of women and reminding him that reality is usually a lot more sordid than his imaginings.

The other three stories feel less polished than “The Last Bell” and “The Duchess of Albanera.” Thought it might be because Urzidil’s style grew less concrete and more experimental and impressionistic over time. The last three stories feel like drifting through time and space; they could have been set almost anywhere and any-when. That said, the stories of The Last Bell offer an interesting peek into a vanished European world.

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

Long Black Veil, by Jennifer Finney Boylan

Long Black Veil

Jennifer Finney Boylan’s Long Black Veil begins like many other “awful thing happens to a group of friends”stories, but it quickly becomes more complicated—and more affecting. We are told at the beginning that some of the friends will die. What we don’t know until much later is why everything happened the way it did. While we have the mystery to sort out, Finney Boylan also gives us a moving portrait of a trans woman who wrestles with the long shadow of her past.

Long Black Veil moves back and forth in time from 1980, when the awful thing happened, to the later 1980s to 2015. The awful thing is the death of one of the friends when they get locked inside the abandoned Eastern State Penitentiary. No body is found (not until 2015), so the friend is only missing officially. The night at the Penitentiary breaks up the friends, who drift through the next 35 years. The chapters change perspective from one friend to another, so we get to see how the death has arrested their development into adulthood. They can function, but it’s clear that none of them is living the life they wanted—with one exception.

The exception is Judith. Judith was born in a male body before transitioning in the late 1980s. She hasn’t told her husband or her adopted son anything about her past in the sixteen years they’ve been a family; the men have told her they don’t want to know. There are some small marital spats, but Judith is very much content with her life. To be honest, I was much more interested in her character than in some of the others because I wanted to see how Finney Boylan would depict someone who didn’t feel right in the body they were born in.

The mystery part of Long Black Veil gives some added tension to the whole, but I think I might have been happy with just Judith’s story on its own. That said, when the literary and mystery parts of the novel start to converge again at the end of the book, I liked how the narratives asked the same question in two different ways. The question, of course, is how do you make amends for the past? In Judith’s case, it was her initial disappearance and starting her life over without telling anyone. In the case of the rest of the characters, it’s owning up to what really happened to their friend that night at the Penitentiary.

On balance, I enjoyed reading Long Black Veil in spite of some clumsiness with the disparate genre elements. What made this book so engrossing was the psychological portrait of Judith as she becomes the person she always was on the inside.

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