literary fiction · review

Mother Country, by Irina Reyn

Trigger warning for rape.

What should a mother do? Everyone has ideas about this, even people who aren’t mothers. It seems that, no matter who we are or what culture we’re a part of, we can’t help but have opinions about how women are raising their children. The protagonist of Irina Reyn’s thoughtful, troubling novel, Mother Country, is the target of judgment from friends, nannies, and relatives. Worst of all, Nadezhda’s own daughter judges her mothering. And yet, at every step in this heart-breaking novel, Nadia is absolutely convinced that she’s doing the right thing for her little Larisska.

Nadia has had one all-encompassing mission in life: to keep Larissa safe. This directive has manifested itself in her determination to bring her diabetic daughter from the war-torn western Ukraine to the United States. She tried once, just after the turn of the millennium, only to find that Larissa was too old to travel as her child. At 21, Larissa would have to apply independently. But Nadia’s own application was approved. So, in the interests of saving her child, Nadia made the awful choice of traveling thousands of miles away from her only child, leaving Larissa in her grandmother’s care in their small town. Nadia’s plan is to make as much money as she can and work the American bureaucracy to bring her daughter over.

By the time we meet Nadia—who is working two jobs to try and save money—it’s been years since she left Ukraine and Larissa is almost 30. Nadia is still trying to bring Larissa to the United States, but the years (during which war broke out in western Ukraine) have done a lot to separate the two. Nadia still sees her daughter as a child. In all of Nadia’s reminiscences about Larissa, Nadia always seems to be stopping her daughter from making choices about food, boys, and her future. It’s all done in the name of “saving” Larissa. But, even though I was getting things from Nadia’s point of view, I couldn’t help but wish that Nadia would make the effort to really understand who Larissa is and what Larissa wants.

Mothers will always be mothers, however. If Mother Country teaches us nothing else, it’s that mothers will always try to save their children. The hapless mother Nadia nannies for tries to shape her daughter into an idealized Russian child. The American mothers are all helicopter parents who also want to be their children’s friends. The Russian and Ukrainian women all want their daughters (and each other) to be “safely” married to a male breadwinner. It’s clear from an outside perspective that no one is going to get what they want. But, of course, who’s going to listen to an outsider when it comes to raising children?

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

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommended for mothers and daughters who don’t understand each other.

review · science fiction

The Psychology of Time Travel, by Kate Mascarenhas

Is it ironic that the creators of time travel never seem to know what will come of their discovery? Could the four women who create time travel in England in the 1960s have known that their invention would lead to a byzantine, temporally tangled, terrifyingly shadowy bureaucracy? They definitely couldn’t have predicted what time travel itself could do the psyches of people who undertake it. In Kate Mascarenhas’ fascinating novel, The Psychology of Time Travel, we dive deeply into these questions, especially that last one.

Barbara was one of the original four women who created time travel but, after an incident captured live by the BBC, she was pushed out of the quartet and forever banned from even working for the Conclave. Decades later, when another time travel starts to send warnings? hints? to Barbara’s granddaughter, Ruby, a spectacularly complex plot kicks off that will take the rest of the book, several investigators, and a lot of head-scratching to figure out. I loved every page of it.

The title of the book–and many events therein–force us to think about the consequences of skipping through time. A lot of the time travelers employed by the Conclave (including all of the original inventors except Barbara) “cheat” by looking ahead to see what happens to themselves. On the one hand, they are very confident. They know they will accomplish what they set out to do, because they already know what the outcome is. On the other, knowing when they’ll die and how, who their spouses will be, and so on, seems to leach their emotions of their intensity; they just don’t feel as much after a few trips. The only way to feel anything is to haze the new recruits or play chilling psychological games with civilians. For a few recruits, time traveling leads to debilitating maladaptive coping behavior or triggers latent mental illnesses. On top of a wonderfully complicated plot, The Psychology of Time Travel is one of the best “set up a scenario and let’s see what happens” books I’ve read in a long time.

The more I read The Psychology of Time Travel, the more I enjoyed it. The characters are fascinatingly warped and the moving parts of the plot slide around before satisfactorily clicking into place. It’s the kind of book where, at the end, you see that everything up to that point was perfectly placed, necessary, even fated. It’s the kind of plot mastery that I absolutely adore; I got a story that was utterly gripping, but only saw the author’s pen at work at the very end. Reading The Psychology of Time Travel is like watching an elaborate magic trick and getting to learn how it worked afterwards.

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

historical fiction · mystery · review

Evil Things, by Katja Ivar

Some settings seem tailor-made for sinister plots. Mid-twentieth century Finland, as portrayed in Katja Ivar’s series debut Evil Things, is clearly one of them. The small towns near the Soviet border are economically and emotionally depressed; cold, dark, and wet; and full of people who definitely want to be left alone. It’s not the sort of place to welcome one of the country’s first woman detectives. 

Prickly Hella Mauzer has been exiled to remote Finnish town for unclear but definitely sexist reasons. Every time she tries to do something more than the most boring police work, Hella is shut down. It’s only through clever manipulation that she gets a reluctant okay from her boss to investigate the disappearance of an old man in an even more remote village closer to the Soviet Border. The village priest’s wife had sent in a letter to the station, asking for someone to come out. Not only is a man missing, but his young grandson is without a guardian and has refused to ask questions about what happened.

Evil Things shifts between Hella’s perspective and that of the priest’s wife, Irja. Not only do we get a few clues and a few red herring to keep the plot ticking over, we also get to dive deeply into Hella and Irja’s psyches. Hella is angry at the pervasive demeaning sexism, so much so that she attempts to act brusque and matter of fact when what she wants to do is shake people until their teeth rattle until they admit that she’s right. Irja is quieter, but no less of a chameleon. While she’s attempting to be the perfect priest’s wife, Irja is hiding heartbreak over her own lost child and her subverted ambitions.

It’s fortunate that there is so much character development, at least for the protagonists, because the plot goes in weird directions as Hella investigates. I don’t exactly like it, because I really wanted the book to go in a more traditional, Scandi-noir direction instead of the thriller-ish direction it ultimately takes. If nothing else, I appreciated that character development and the author’s attention to detail in creating the tiny village where most of the action takes place.

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

literary fiction · review

The Salt of the Earth, by Józef Wittlin

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a strange creature. It spanned a huge swath of central and eastern Europe. Based in Vienna, it ruled over people who spoke Hungarian, Polish, Czech, and Ukrainian while ordering people around in German. It was bureaucratic and hidebound, as depicted in Józef Wittlin’s The Salt of the Earth (faithfully translated by Patrick Corness). This novel, the first in a planned but unfinished trilogy, gives us two views of the outbreak of World War I. In some chapters, it takes a macro view of the mobilization. In others, it zooms in to follow an illiterate Ukrainian peasant and other Austro-Hungarian citizens who got caught up in the war.

Because The Salt of the Earth is the opening novel in an incomplete trilogy, the pacing feels off. Instead of covering the arc of Piotr’s military experience, this novel is a long build up that takes Piotr from the outbreak of war to the beginning of his training in Hungary. The Salt of the Earth was clearly meant to be a big, sprawling epic of the war from the Austro-Hungarian perspective. But even though The Salt of the Earth is unfinished, it still provides an interesting reading experience. I ended up reading it more like a historical document, as a fictional account of events rather than a fully fledged novel.

Piotr, the protagonist at the heart of this book, is not as hapless or comic as Švejk or as tragic as Paul Bäumer, the protagonists of other iconic World War I novels. He’s an unlikeable man, dismissive of his lover (who loves him and serves essentially as a housekeeper Piotr can have sex with) and casually anti-Semitic. But he is a useful character for exploring the strange relationship people in the outskirts of the empire had with their Austrian rulers. Piotr believes in his government the way others believe in a religion. He has a completely one-sided relationship with his emperor. If he serves faithfully as a low-level railroad worker, he might someday be allowed to rise in the ranks and be awarded with the special cap worn by state employees. Just as he finally gets that special hat, Piotr is drafted and sent to basic training.

As I mentioned before, The Salt of the Earth is not a complete novel. It shouldn’t be read as one because it will only frustrate readers who want a satisfying conclusion. That said, I would only recommend this to readers who are curious about the experience of ordinary Austro-Hungarian men in 1914.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

literary fiction · review · science fiction

Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry, by Elizabeth McCracken

Elizabeth McCracken has lurked on the edge of my bookish awareness for a while, praised by other readers whose opinion I trust. But my aversion to short stories has always steered me away until. Now that I’ve finished Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry: Stories, I’m a little miffed at my past self for not diving in earlier. These thoughtful, often funny stories all feature cuckoos, people who either don’t fit into their families or who are made to feel as though they don’t belong.

Some of the standouts from this collection include:

“Some Have Entertained Angels, Unaware” is an uncomfortable but fascinating tale of a found family. After their mother dies, the narrator’s father starts to take in boarders. This in itself isn’t so unusual. What is unusual is that the narrator’s father is only interested in taking in boarders who have an interesting story to tell. Money is not a priority. And then, one day after years of life with a parade of oddballs, the narrator’s father disappears. Thankfully, the oddballs are more responsible (and less macabre than the father) and decide among themselves to raise the two children left behind.

“Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry” is possibly my favorite story in the collection. In this story, Aunt Helen Beck comes to stay with one of her many relations. Aunt Helen Beck is notorious in the family for dropping in and staying for months or years. She’s not onerous company; she tries to make herself useful wherever she goes. The problem is that no one seems to be sure how they’re related to this brusque, practical woman with a past that is never the same way twice. Aunt Helen Beck is definitely a character for my growing pantheon of audacious old ladies.

“Secretary of State” is bittersweet funny story that vies with “Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry” for my favorite tale in the collection. In this novel, a young narrator sees her sensitive father struggle with bombastic siblings-in-laws. The Barrons debate endless with themselves about what would be the worst fate for one of their children, what they would do if they were suddenly in charge of the government, and what everyone in their extended family should do for a living. They are absolutely sure of their decision-making abilities, to catastrophic effect for the narrator’s father. In the end, the narrator and her mother have to make a choice about which side they’re on and if they’re willing to pay a terrible price for making the right decision.

The reactions to these cuckoos range from grudging tolerance to horror to ostracism. I fully realize that my summaries might make these stories sound more grim than they actually are. Thankfully, McCracken’s wit keeps things from getting too heavy; I really loved her turns of phrase and sharp observations about her quirky characters. I laughed more often than I felt teary. In addition to their wonderful writing, the stories also feel complete in themselves. (Too short stories are one of my big problems with the format.) I didn’t feel as though things were wrapping up too quickly, so I have no hesitation in recommending these stories even to readers who don’t like short stories. Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry is one of the best collections I think I’ve ever read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommended for readers who feel like a cuckoo in their family or who have someone in their family they don’t understand.

classics · literary fiction · review

The Quiet American, by Graham Greene

Graham Greene’s masterly novel, The Quiet American, is the kind of novel that I find impossible not to read as an allegory. In this brief, devastating novel, two men—one British and one American—fight for the affections of a Vietnamese woman without really considering her wishes or feelings. The woman rarely gets to speak while the two men debate what’s best for her and her country in either deep cynicism (the Briton) or naive idealism (the American). This novel is not just allegory. It is also the story of a man wrestling with his conscience and his long commitment to neutrality, which is harder to maintain as conditions grow more violent.

The Quiet American is set in the mid-1950s in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), when the French were still fighting to hang on to their colony and Americans were just barely getting involved in the escalating conflict. Thomas Fowler has been in the city for two years, working as a reporter for a British newspaper. He is content. He has a mistress, Phuong, who cares for his needs. His job is not difficult, as much of what he writes is delivered and press conferences and anything controversial is censored before it leaves the country. The French regime is beginning to crumble around him, but Fowler isn’t worried about much. (The opium might be helping with that. It’s hard to say for sure.) The arrival of American Alden Pyle throws Fowler’s carefully maintained status quo off its axis. Pyle decides, after one meeting, that he is in love with Phuong and is determined to marry her.

Pyle is a fascinating character. I’ve met cynical, detached-but-sensitive characters like Fowler before. I’m comfortable with his blasé view of the political and social landscape. But Pyle is another story entirely. Pyle comes straight from Boston, armed with books by armchair political theorists who tell him that Democracy is something everyone should have, especially when Communism is lurking about. If asked, I don’t know that Pyle would be able to give clear definitions of either. He’s been taught that Democracy is the ideal and the Communism is evil. Even when he’s confronted with evidence that the situation in Vietnam is complicated and that his version of Democracy is just a different flavor of colonialism, Pyle refuses to learn. Pyle horrified me as often as I pitied him for his rigid world view.

The Quiet American has been on my to-read shelf for a long time. It’s been lauded as a mid-twentieth century classic and I am happy to report that it absolutely deserves its reputation. It hasn’t lost any of its punch in the sixty-four years since it was published. Its commentary on imperialism, interventionism, paternalism, and independence are just as effective (and important) as they were in 1955. I strongly recommend this for historical fiction readers who like books that carry a timeless message. Even for readers who don’t want too much moralizing, this novel is a brilliant study of two men in a foreign country who approach life from very different angles. The Quiet American, if nothing else, is a terrific read for its depiction of what happens when pragmatism and idealism collide.

historical fantasy · review

Miraculum, by Steph Post

The name of the traveling carnival in Steph Post’s Miraculum oversells its attractions, but not by much. Pontilliar’s Spectacular Star Light Miraculum features a bearded lady, dancing girls, Russian acrobats, games, rides, and our protagonist, the tattooed, snake-charming Ruby Chole. It also featured a geek show at the beginning of the novel, but the geek and his sudden replacement by a sinister man in a tuxedo quickly clues us in to the fact that all is not right with this traveling show.

The Miraculum is one of the few homes Ruby has ever known. Ever since she agreed to be tattooed—at the request of her unscrupulous showman of a father, Pontilliar—Ruby can’t go anywhere without being stared at. She is covered from head to toe with strange symbols. These marks are so unusual and so different from what most Tattooed Ladies wear that Ruby has had to turn herself into a snake-charmer in order to have an act people will pay money to see. The traveling show is all she has, which is why she can’t allow anyone to mess with the Miraculum.

Daniel Revont wants to mess with the Miraculum. It’s his nature to mess with things. This strange man arrived just as the previous geek hanged himself after the night’s show. In spite of his lack of experience, Pontilliar hires him on the spot. Small things and short interstitial sections clue us into the fact that Revont is not what he appears. He can hypnotize people to do his bidding. He charms and menaces by turns. And all he seems to want is something to alleviate the boredom of centuries. The only person he can’t get his hooks into is Ruby. For some reason, she is immune and this fact fascinates Revont.

Unfortunately, Miraculum never quite lives up to the promise of having a supernatural interloper in a traveling carnival. There is just enough world building to make for an interesting setting and plot, but the ending was a complete disappointment to me. It undercuts all the wonderful tension that had been building since the geek’s death by just fizzling out.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.