City of Miracles, by Robert Jackson Bennett

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City of Miracles

Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities comes to a satisfying conclusion in City of Miracles. Each of these books, featuring a different lead character, has told the story of what happens when a world faces a radical change in its power structure. Gods used to rule this world directly, until a subjugated people learned to kill them. Humans stepped into the power vacuum, but in City of Miracles, we learn that a little bit of the divine survived. And that little bit of the divine is hungry for revenge.

Sigurd je Harkvaldsson has appeared in both of the other two books in this series, City of Stairs and City of Blades, but now he takes a turn as protagonist. It’s been thirteen years since the end of City of Blades and Sigurd has been hiding out after the terrible things he did when he daughter was killed. After he learns that his old partner and friend was killed by an assassin, he comes out of his self-imposed exile to take revenge. This quest for vengeance becomes the start of a strange, bloody odyssey in which Sigurd is forced to face the worst of his inner demons and take on the most powerful enemy he’s ever encountered.

City of Stairs and City of Blades both featured either the old gods themselves or the remnants of their power. City of Miracles features the children of those old gods. Those children have been keeping their heads low since their parents were killed, but one of them has decided that it’s now time to seize whatever scraps of divine power they can and take on their parents’ role as master of reality. What begins as a story of revenge slowly becomes one of what one should do when one has the power to remake reality.

The Divine Cities trilogy is an original, gritty fantasy series that I have enjoyed from the very first page and City of Miracles is a brilliant end to the tale. I marveled at the way Bennet brought all of the loose threads of all three novels together after building everything up to a fever pitch. I was up way past midnight finishing this book because I just could not put it down.

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

Moving the Palace, by Charif Majdalani

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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. 

The Language of Solitude, by Jan-Philipp Sendker

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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

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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

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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.

 

This fortnight on the bookish internet

  • The folks at LitHub have rounded up some of the Library of Congress’ treasures for a special National Library Week post.
  • Peter Clark reports on how Syrian refugees are taking time to save books. (Moby Lives)
  • Adam Cozary makes delightfully zany GIFs with medieval illuminations. (TechCrunch)
  • Chloe Farand writes about the last librarian of Mosul. (The Independent)
  • Romeo Rosales writes about one of the American Library Association’s more adventurous moments: when they went to war. (Book Riot)
  • Matt Grant discusses the vexed question of supporting independent bookstores. (Book Riot)
  • A time capsule linked to Jules Verne has been found in southern France. (Digital Reader)
  • Like all readers, John Sherman understands that shelving books involves a lot more than the alphabet. (LitHub)
  • Reader Marianne has some advice for coping with your problematic favorites. (Boricuan Bookworms)

Verklempt, by Peter Sichrovsky

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Verklempt

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

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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

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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.

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.

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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.