Island, by Siri Ranva Hjelm Jacobsen

I’ve never had a chance to use this word in earnest, but I’m glad that somewhere I learned the untranslatable Welsh word hiraeth so that I could use it for my review of Siri Ranva Hjelm Jacobsen’s magical novel, Island. If you drop the Wales-specific part of its definition, hiraeth means something like a blend of nostalgia, longing, and yearning for a place. The place in Island is the Faroe Islands and the person feeling something like hiraeth is an unnamed narrator making a trip to the islands with her parents after the death of her grandfather. But this is too simple an explanation of the book. Right from the beginning, this book is a blend of myth and slippery memory and emotion that twists around questions of belonging.

This book takes place on Suðuroy, the southernmost inhabited island in the Faroes, and in Copenhagen, in Denmark. (The Faroes are self-governing, but still officially part of Denmark as far as I understand.) And, in stark contrast to much of the rest of the book, the first character we meet is desperate to get to the mainland from the islands. So desperate, in fact, that she uses an incredibly dangerous method for abortion right before taking a boat to Denmark. We don’t know how yet, but the narrator is that character’s grandchild. It’s also a strange way to start a book in which the narrator spends so much time meditating on family and home. That said, sometimes the best way to understand something is by looking at its opposites.

The narrator—who is half-an ethnicity with dark skin and hair and half-Faroese—certainly makes use of her outsider status to observe and think. After the death of her grandfather, the narrator and her parents go back to Suðuroy and cross-cross the island visiting surviving members of the family. While her mother and her relatives chat in Faroese (which the narrator doesn’t really speak), she thinks about the many stories she’s heard over the years in somewhat mythic terms. So many relatives are known by monikers based on some important life event or chief characteristic, like many characters in the Norse sagas. Episodes in their lives are referred to with phrases that sound like the titles of stories, like Beate and the Gull or Red Ragnar and the Stone That Would Not Be Moved. But the narrator’s semi-epic retellings perhaps highlight how separate she feels from the rest of the family. Her stories about Omma and Abbe (her grandparents) are much more detailed and real because the narrator grew up with them in Copenhagen. The stories are all second- and thirdhand. Some of the relatives in them died before the narrator met them.

The narrator is meant to be a teenager, but I preferred to them of them as older given the cerebral nature of their thoughts as she avoids local delicacies like wind-dried mutton or look at the powerplant her grandfather once dreamed of working at. I don’t doubt that a teen could feel the kind of longing to belong to a people and a place seen in Island. What I doubt is their ability to express it as well as that emotion is explored in this novel. But this is my only quibble about this amazing novel. It is beautifully written. I loved how the past and the present and the narrator’s thoughts and memories were all woven together. This might sound challenging, but the contrasts between characters who wanted to leave and those who wanted to stay are thought-provoking. I was also intrigued by the way that time and distance became an unspoken wedge between people who share DNA and family history. It’s amazing what the author was able to pack in to less than 200 pages.

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

Coastline between Beinisvørð and Vágur, on Suðuroy, near where some of this novel takes place
(Image via Wikicommons)

The Comfort of Monsters, by Willa C. Richards

Trigger warning for domestic violence.

I don’t know what the statistics are on unsolved murders versus solved murders, but I do know that there are a lot more of the former than the latter. Sometimes cases go unsolved because there are no clues to follow, or because the technology doesn’t exist that can analyze the clues. Sometimes, a murder goes unsolved because no one knows a crime occurred. Hopefully, rarely, murders go unsolved because no one cares. A combination of all of these factors conspire to keep the disappearance of protagonist Margaret McBride’s sister in The Comfort of Monsters, by Willa C. Richards. Dee McBride disappeared around the same time that Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested and his mind-bogglingly horrific crimes came to light. Years later, no one knows what happened to her.

The Comfort of Monsters moves back and forth between 1991 and now. Both plotlines center on Margaret McBride. The Margaret of now is a barely functioning woman. She has just lost her job (again). Her family and romantic relationships are tenuous and fraught. Her Milwaukee apartment is full of case notes, testimonies, and legal textbooks that Margaret uses to constantly go over what she knows about her sister’s disappearance in July 1991. Margaret and her family have tried everything they can think of to find Dee. By the time we meet them, the McBrides are about to hire a very expensive TV psychic in a last ditch effort to find Dee’s remains. The Margaret of 1991 is, if not carefree, certainly someone who has no fucks to give. She drinks, does drugs, and spends a lot of time in sketchy places with her sister, Dee. Margaret and her boyfriend (with whom she has what we would now call a BDSM relationship, but they don’t have any rules or safe words) live in Riverwest, the same neighborhood as Dahmer. They don’t know this, of course, until the rest of the city finds out what he was up to in his apartment.

Dee’s disappearance is completely unrelated to Dahmer, but Dahmer kept the police so busy that the McBride’s only have one uninterested detective to look into Dee’s disappearance. Margaret pushes for Detective Wolski to look into Dee’s abusive boyfriend, but Wolski thinks that Dee just packed up and left. Dee’s fictional case is contrasted the murders of Konerak Sinthasomphone and the rest of Dahmer’s victims. Wolski’s indifference looks a lot like the Milwaukee Police Department’s indifference to crimes committed against gay men. By the time the police start to act, it’s too late to collect evidence and witness memories have faded. Thirty years later, in Dee’s case, it’s little wonder that the McBrides have called in a psychic. I’m not sure what’s worse for them: having no hope or having just enough hope to think that, all these years later, they might have an answer.

At the same time this is going on, we also get to see how Dee’s disappearance has affected Margaret. The sisters were incredibly close. No matter how much they fought, they would always make up. They shared each other’s secrets. They also share a similar affinity for men who “just can’t control themselves.” In Margaret’s case, we know that she likes rough sex (although she’s very ashamed of it). I’m not sure about Dee. Her boyfriend is violent, too, but more in the controlling/angry model. The juxtaposition is deeply unsettling because it forces you to try and find the line between different kinds of violence. Can a couple be said to have a healthy relationship if they never set boundaries on what one half can do to the other? If there are no safe words? If they’ve never even discussed this part of their sex life? Is it acceptable kink? Or is Margaret’s boyfriend another abuser? Someone with more knowledge of BDSM might be able to answer these questions.

The Comfort of Monsters is a challenging read, for so many reasons. And yet, I found myself fascinated by the questions Richards’ raised in her story. The Comfort of Monsters falls into the growing subgenre of mystery novels that examine the long aftermath of violent crime and that tell the stories of the people who are left behind to try and rebuild their lives after a loved one has been taken from them. In this example, we see characters who don’t know what happened to their loved one, not even where their remains are, after three decades. Readers who also like more intellectual true crime should enjoy this book, if they can handle the mix of sex and violence.

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

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist, by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington

Anyone looking at the coroners and the use of forensics experts in Mississippi would see a deeply flawed—possibly irredeemably—system that ignores murders and sends innocent people to prison for life or condemns them to death. But Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington argue in The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist that the system is working as exactly as designed. Any time someone tries to reform this system they are quickly shown the door. Legal reform is equally difficult, even with lawyers from organizations like the Innocence Project trying to win appeals and exonerations. Balko (a journalist) and Carrington (a law professor and first director/founder of the Mississippi Innocence Project) came to this story, they write in the first chapter, because two cases of wrongful conviction lead them to two of the biggest problems with Mississippi’s coronial system: Steven Hayne and Michael West. Balko and Carrington tear into Hayne and Wests’ reputations and bury these so-called expert witnesses in evidence of their shoddy work, pro-prosecution testimony, and years of lies.

Balko and Carrington’s The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist is the kind of true crime book that enthralls me at the same time that it makes me seethe. The authors did an astounding amount of research to put this book together. Not only do they take down Hayne and West, they also write a history of Mississippi’s coronial system in the twentieth century. For those not familiar, Mississippi (like a lot of American states) uses a system of elected coroners to determine if sudden deaths are either accidents, suicides, or murders. Unless the coroner declares a death a homicide, local law enforcement won’t investigate. Balko and Carrington share reports about the coronial system the reveal that many (most) of Mississippi’s coroners were, for decades, rarely qualified in medicine or forensics. Some of these coroners were, they found, illiterate. During the Civil Rights Movement, so many murders went uninvestigated that Mississippi gained a reputation as a murderers’ haven (especially if the victim was Black).

Balko and Carrington skillfully blend this history with the cases of Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer. These two men were charged with similar crimes. Brooks was sentenced to life in prison for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of toddler Courtney Smith. Brewer was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of another toddler, Christine Jackson. Both crimes, Balko and Carrington reveal, were committed by the same man—a man who was able to escape justice for decades because local law enforcement and the district attorney thought they had already gotten the person responsible in each case. Its only thanks to the Innocence Project, post-conviction lawyers, and increasingly sophisticated DNA science that Brooks and Brewer were exonerated. They were also exonerated in part because enough people were starting to ask questions about Hayne and West, who had delivered damning (and false) forensic testimony during Brooks and Brewer’s trials.

I’ve been ambivalent about the death penalty for a long time. Novels and true crime and TV shows have showed me how much of America’s court system is legal theater. Whoever can hire the best lawyer, who can put on the best show for the judge and jury, can—barring really convincing forensic evidence—be acquitted. People who can’t afford a good lawyer can be rushed through a trial to a life term or a death sentence. I would usually say that I don’t support the death penalty except in cases of serial murderers but, after reading The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist (among other books) has me questioning the entire law enforcement and criminal justice system so much that I think we should ban the death penalty. I also think that there should be a lot more regulations to make sure that coroners, sheriffs, and the rest are all professionals who know what they are doing, in addition to bigger consequences for officials who commit ethical violations and building a much more robust public defender system.

Build Your House Around My Body, by Violet Kupersmith

I thought I knew what to expect from Violet Kupersmith’s astounding novel, Build Your House Around My Body. The first chapters set up two disappearances, a little more than twenty years apart. Narrative law led me to think that, first, the two disappearances would be linked and, second, that there would be a detective character who would sleuth out everyone’s secrets and figure out what happened. The first assumption turned out to be true. The second assumption was blown out of the water as the pace started to pick up and things started to get weird. By the end of the novel, I was so hooked that I wanted more pages to explore the world Kupersmith created from everyday Vietnamese life and a heavy dose of the supernatural.

The first disappearance we learn about—and the one that provides a central reference point in the timeline of Build Your House Around My Body—takes place in Saigon, in 2011. Vietnamese American woman Winnie has come to Saigon looking for something. She takes a job teaching English, but she’s terrible at it. When she’s not leading “advanced conversation” sessions (defining American slang), Winnie drifts around the city. She’d had the vague notion that she would fit in better in Vietnam, but here she gets side-eye for being too American. (The reverse was true in the United States.) Although she manages to make some (one) friend in Saigon, Winnie never really makes a life. Someone always has to take care of her. It’s not hard to believe that Winnie would go missing in the city, where everyone knows a lot more than the unambitious, naïve American.

Kupersmith introduces many characters during the slow ramp-up of the plot. We meet the very sweet man, Long, who tries to take care of Winnie; a fortune teller who might actually know how to harness the supernatural; Long’s brother, a reluctantly corrupt police officer; and Long’s old friend in Đà Lạt, the tough and unpredictable Binh. The plot also jumps from 2011 to 1986 to the 1940s and back, all circling around what happens to Winnie and other characters in 2011. The only connection at first is Long, but more links start to form between the characters. I don’t want to say too much about what happens in this book. The reveal is so magical and original that I don’t want to ruin it for other readers. The slow start is more than made up for by the last third or so. Once the links started to tighten, I couldn’t put the book down. I had to know what was going on.

I’ve written before, in other reviews, about books that walk the line between the possibly supernatural and the rational explanation. I love the tension that comes from characters and plots walking that line until the reveal resolves it. It’s fiction, so either possibility is likely. Build Your House Around My Body falls off that line early. Because I know so little about Vietnamese folklore and literature, I had no clue what was coming. (Kupersmith is brilliant at dropping clues that, in retrospect, perfectly foreshadow what happens later. I love those hints.) Like Winnie, whose adopted parents never bothered to tell her about her cultural heritage, we have to wade into a world with subtext and context that we can sense, but not understand. I love a book that not only gives me a wonderfully original plot but also one that introduces me to new lore.

Readers who like books that do new and original things with genre fiction will find a lot to like—especially readers who are used to keeping a sharp eye on everything and can navigate a densely interwoven timeline. I see Build Your House Around My Body as the kind of book that you read, hand to another reader, then eagerly wait for them to finish it so that you can have conversations that go: “Did you notice—?” “Yes! And how it lead to—” “And then—!” “I know! So amazing!”

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

Valley of Love, Đà Lạt, Vietnam (Image via Wikicommons)

The Silent Listener, by Lyn Yeowart

Trigger warning for child abuse.

Blackhunt is the last place Joy ever wanted to go. She did her best to escape the family farm at the age of sixteen after years of violent punishments from her church elder father. But at the beginning of The Silent Listener, by Lyn Yeowart, Joy receives a phone call that summons her back. Her father’s doctor has just informed her that the old man is on his death bed and can she come back to take care of him in his last days? Joy reluctantly agrees because, at long last, this might be her chance to finally let Blackhunt know what a monster George Henderson really is.

The Silent Listener is told in three interwoven parts. In 1983, Joy wrestles with her still intimidating, albeit bedridden father and her own desire for revenge. In 1960, we follow a very young Joy during the year when her friend Wendy disappears forever. Lastly, in 1942, we watch as Joy’s mother is emotionally and physically beaten down by George after a mere two months of courtship. Taken together, we see how George created a family of people who are absolutely terrified of him while at the same time becoming one of the most admired men in the district. You see, George never loses his temper or raises his hand to them in public. He’s lively and jolly in a crowd. Because the Henderson farm is so isolated, it’s not hard for George to keep his secrets.

As if all of this wasn’t complicated enough, 1983 Joy is dogged by two ghosts from the past. One ghost is one of the detectives who tried to find Wendy all those years ago. The other ghost is actually a ghost: the ghost of Joy’s sister, Ruth. Both of them hector Joy. The detective is absolutely convinced that Joy did something to speed her father to his death and wants a confession. When Joy starts to drop hints that George might have had something to do with Wendy, he starts to push even harder. As for Ruth, Ruth has always been the part of Joy that will say the things Joy can’t bring herself to say out loud. Ruth is the part of Joy that wants to withhold pain medication or come up with elaborate plans for vengeance.

This is a hard book to read. The child abuse is gutting to read about. No one should live so terrified of someone in their family that they can barely breathe or move when that person is in the same room. Readers will want to shout at the characters to run, to call the police, to do something in spite of all the research about living with abuse that tells us that all of those actions are a lot harder for someone conditioned to the kind of life we witness at the Henderson farm. The Silent Listener is a tough psychological drama, but a good one. I was hooked in spite of all the violence and misery. Readers, consider yourself warned.

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

Two Storm Wood, by Philip Gray

Note: This book was originally scheduled to come out in June 2021. According to Edelweiss, the expected publication date has been pushed to March 2022 on the date of this writing.

Two Storm Wood, by Philip Gray, is a bold book. So many other books about war, fiction or non, discuss the horror of war, occasionally the glory, often the heroism. But only rarely do books about war juxtapose the war dead with the victims of murder. Seeing the two so closely together forces us to try and spot the difference—and wonder if there even is a difference. And Two Storm Wood does this in addition to giving us a love story and psychological drama. This book is an emotional roller coaster.

Amy Vanneck is a romantic. So much so that she travelled across from England to France to find the remains of her secret fiancé at the beginning of Two Storm Wood. (Secret because Amy’s mother, Lady Constance, disapproves of her daughter marrying someone from the lower classes.) As she is told over and over, the former battlefields of northwestern France are no place for a lady. The people who tell her this aren’t wrong because most of the action of this book takes place near the zone rouge—land that was cordoned off so that no one would be killed by all the unexploded ordnance and toxic ground that’s still there more than a century later. But as I said, Amy is a romantic, and determined enough to walk into that to find what’s left of the man she loved.

At the same time that we follow Amy’s efforts to track down her fiancé, we also follow Captain James Mackenzie. Mackenzie is in charge of a group of British soldiers and Chinese laborers (who are subject to constant, appalling racism by the British officers who are bossing them around) who are collecting the remains of British soldiers who died to be reinterred in mass graves. Along with collecting those remains for reburial, Mackenzie tries to collect every clue he can so that the soldiers his crew finds can hopefully be buried with a name. It’s a noble mission. It’s also very dangerous work, being done by men who want to go home as soon as possible. It’s also work that brings Amy to Mackenzie. He and his men are digging near Two Storm Wood, the last place Amy knows where her fiancé was before she lost contact.

Unexploded WWI ordinance near Ypres in 2004 (Image via Wikicommons)

Meanwhile, a man known as Major Westbrook (but who we know is not Major Westbrook, because we saw this man smother the real Westbrook in the prologue) inveigles himself into the story by claiming to have orders to investigate what might be a war crime at Two Storm Wood. Thirteen men were tortured and murdered there before the end of the war. Most would be content to write the deaths off as another Hunnish atrocity—except for the fact that that part of the line was in British hands at the time.

Amy, Mackenzie, and Westbrook follow all the clues they can get their hands on as they try to solve their various mysteries. From our vantage point as readers, we can see that they all have different ends of the same stick. The plots converge near the end of the novel into a spectacular running chase along the edges of the zone rouge as all the secrets finally come out.

Two Storm Wood is a book I wish I had read as a member of a book group, because I would love to talk through all the questions this book tosses up. What do we owe the dead? Is it right for governments to use their soldiers’ lives in a conflict like World War II? What is the moral definition of a war crime? What is the difference between a death as a result of murder and death as the result of an enemy bullet? I hope you readers out there remember this book when it does come out so that we can finally talk about it.

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

The Bombay Prince, by Sujata Massey

Perveen Mistry returns to right wrongs in Sujata Massey’s The Bombay Prince. This entry sees the first Parsi woman lawyer hoping for a few more cases for the family firm while tension starts to simmer across the city in anticipation of a visit from the Prince of Wales, the future (briefly) King Edward VIII. On a routine day, Perveen has a visit from a student of one of her friends. The student asks for Perveen’s opinion about whether or not her college can kick her out for her political activities. This little meeting ultimately leads Perveen into a murder investigation, religious and political tangles, parental disappointment, and perhaps another chance at love.

The Prince of Wales’ visit to India reveals a deep divide between pro-independence Indians and Indians who are content to remain a part of the empire. While the pro-British side prepare for celebrations, the pro-independence side (which includes Perveen’s young visitor, Freny) are also scrambling on their response of protests and demonstrations. Freny only wants to refrain from attending a parade with the rest of her college, a minor act of rebellion. But she worries about expulsion and her parents’ displeasure if anyone finds out. This worry, unfortunately, creates an opportunity for her murder. Just a few days after Perveen and Freny meet, Perveen sees Freny’s dead body on the grounds of her college. Perveen immediately springs into action to make sure that Freny gets justice—something that’s even more difficult when the police are on high alert.

The Bombay Prince was kind of a slow burn until events kicked off the closer Perveen got to the solution. That slowness gave Massey a chance to do a lot of character development. We see more of Perveen’s father than we ever have. We also get to see more of life in Bombay’s Parsi colonies (neighborhoods, but a little more formal I think) and how complicated life can be in a place where everyone has very strict rules about how to behave. For example, part of what Perveen has to do, in addition to making sure that the Bombay police don’t write Freny’s death as a suicide, is making sure that all of the coroner’s work gets done in time for Freny to have proper Parsi funeral rites. Best of all, at least for me, was that Colin Sandringham returns. Perveen was not lucky in love (as we learned in The Widows of Malabar Hill). Colin first popped up in The Satapur Moonstone. The connection that grew between them on that case gave me hope that Perveen might be able to have a husband and a family in the future, something Perveen claims she’s accepted that she’ll miss out on because of her disastrous marriage.

Fans of Perveen Mistry will enjoy this one, and wait eagerly for a new book so that we can find out what happens next.

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

Tastes like War, by Grace M. Cho

Trigger warning for disordered eating and brief domestic violence.

When we think of war literature, we generally think of stories—either memoirs or works of fiction—about soldiers. There are innumerable accounts of soldiers on fields, trenches, planes, and ships stretching back centuries. Stories about civilians are rarer. Even rarer are stories about the children of civilian survivors, although there is a growing body of literature by and about children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. Grace M. Cho’s memoir, Tastes Like War, joins that expanding genre. Cho’s mother was a child during the Korean War. She lost several family members and nearly starved to death during and after the war. Her experiences haunted Cho’s mother for the rest of her life. This means that those experiences also haunted Cho, her brother, and her father for much of their lives.

Cho’s mother, Koonja, didn’t talk much about what happened to her before she married Cho’s father and emigrated to the United States. After Koonja developed schizophrenia, she talked even less about the war. Cho writes that her lack of information about her mother and her Korean family led her to her research topic: the experiences of sex workers and biracial Korean American children after the Korean War. If Koonja won’t talk about her life, Cho will learn everything she can about other Koreans who survived. This makes Taste Like War sounds a lot more academic than it actually is. While Cho brings in a lot of her academic knowledge, most of this book sweeps back and forth through her life. She talks about the racism she faced as a child in Chehalis, Washington. She talks about how Koonja pushed her to aim for academia. She also talks about Koonja’s decline into schizophrenia and her semi-recovery later in life.

Kimchi ingredients (image via Wikicommons)

Most of all, Cho talks about food. When she was young, Koonja was always cooking. For a time, Koonja also foraged in the forests around Chehalis, bringing in gallons of blackberries, fiddlehead ferns, mushrooms, and dandelion leaves. Years of hunger drove Koonja to feed everyone, although she wasn’t always able to keep herself fed. The voice in Koonja’s often led her to stop eating. Later in her life, after she recovered enough to be out of psychiatric facilities, she would only eat ramen, kimchi, and the meals Cho would prepare for her. Koonja would mention dishes she remembered from childhood. Cho would find the ingredients (much easier in contemporary New York than they were in 1970s and 1980s rural Washington). Tasting them again helped Koonja reconnect to a past before all the bad things. It also helped Cho reconnect to her Korean heritage on the sly as Koonja let things slip in between bites.

Tastes like War, even though it touched on a lot of challenging topics, fascinated me. Everything I know about the Korean War comes (to my shame) from M*A*S*H*. As an American, I never learned much about the Korean War. I certainly never learned about the long aftermath of the war. Cho’s point of view shifts from her personal, generational aftermath, to what she’s managed to glean about her mother’s history, to the huge societal forces that made life in post-war South Korea so harrowing for anyone who found themselves caught between their families and the American soldiers on the bases. Cho’s intelligence and thoughtfulness shine on every page, as well as her emotional honesty as she puts her memories on the page. This is an extraordinary memoir.

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

The Hidden Palace, by Helene Wecker

The Hidden Palace, by Helene Wecker, is not the book I was expecting. I think it might not be the book a lot of people have been waiting for since The Golem and the Jinni came out in 2013. Instead, it’s a more mature book. It’s the story of what happens after two characters start what they think will be their happily ever after. This is a book about learning to change or not changing, about learning to trust and betrayal, and about learning how to really love people. I wasn’t sure about this book when I started reading it, to be honest. But although this isn’t a perfect book, there are a lot of things about The Hidden Palace that I really enjoyed.

Chava, the golem, and Ahmad, the jinni, are comfortable with their lives after all the excitement in the last book. Chava is a champion baker for a Jewish bakery. Ahmad is a partner in an ironworks where he can exercise his creativity making beautiful things. At night, they walk the streets of New York and talk. That’s when the friction starts to appear. Ahmad slowly grows frustrated with Chava’s reluctance to change the status quo. Chava still feels the need to hide. Her ability to be violent and destructive when pushed terrifies her. So: she bakes, she does what her bosses ask of her, and she walks the city. The pair fight more frequently. They say things to each other that strike at their insecurities, wounding the lovers deeply. I was surprised to see the two characters grow estranged from each other over the long timespan of the novel, from 1900 to 1915.

Meanwhile, Wecker also follows Toby Blumberg and Sophia Winston, two more characters introduced in The Golem and the Jinni. Sophia is still suffering from her affair with Ahmad. She sails off to the Middle East to seek a cure for her extreme cold. Toby, the son of Chava’s best friend, has grown up in a world of adults keeping secrets from him. But, because his mother has to work most of the time, Toby grew up faster than most children these days. While Sophia travels around by camel, donkey, and ship, Toby has his trusty bicycle and a Western Union job that gives him a reason to roam the city. Wecker also introduces us to Kreindel Altschul, a young genius who helped her father create a golem in a tenement apartment before a catastrophic fire kills her rabbi father. The unintended consequences of Kreindel, Toby, Sophia, Ahmad, and Chava’s actions lead to a climax that threatens to destroy all of them, plus some New York real estate.

It takes a long time for all the characters to converge again. So long, in fact, that started to think that The Hidden Palace was paced too slowly. I haven’t entirely changed my mind about this, but I understood why Wecker had to make the first half or so of the book so sprawling. Everything comes together beautifully in the last third of the novel. The melancholy I felt as Chava and Ahmad fell apart vanished when events sped up for an incredible conclusion. Once I hit that last section of the book I couldn’t put The Hidden Palace down. I had to know how everything turned out.

Because The Hidden Palace looks at what happens after happily-ever-after, it is unlike every other love story I’ve ever read. It’s not like the literary novels that look at the end of irreparable relationships. It’s also much more complicated than romance novels. That said, The Hidden Palace shares some of the elements of both genres. Ahmad and Chava’s personalites’ compliment each other. Ahmad pushes Chava to do more than just work. Chava helps Ahmad shed his carelessness and holds him steady. Unfortunately for both, it takes them years—and a lot of fights—to figure out how to appreciate their differences and learn to be together. I loved the ending of The Golem and the Jinni, but I have more confidence that the new happily-ever-after of The Hidden Palace will last.

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

The First Day of Spring, by Nancy Tucker

Trigger warnings for child neglect.

I’ve always thought one of the biggest questions our species has had to wrestle with is forgiveness and unforgivableness. Forgiveness is hard. The worse the crime, the more impossible it seems to forgive the perpetrator. It’s little wonder that, at least in Western culture, we talk about things that are unforgivable. We struggle to design just solutions that punish the criminal and make appropriate reparations to the victims. In fact, we seem to leave punishment to our governments and atonement to religion. I’ve even struggled to write this opening paragraph because I just lack the vocabulary to be precise about my thoughts. Ever since I finished Nancy Tucker’s searing exploration of forgiveness and unforgiveness The First Day of Spring, I’ve been thinking hard about whether there are such things as unforgiveable crimes and just punishment. This novel is an amazing exploration of impossible questions.

Chrissie, the protagonist of The First Day of Spring, starts her crimes early. On the first page of the novel and at the shocking age of eight, Chrissie strangles another child to death. This is the kind of crime that shocks us. The victim is a child. The perpetrator is a child. We don’t have laws for this kind of situation. And it’s rare enough that this kind of crime just short circuits us. It’s only after several chapters from Chrissie’s perspective that we start to learn how a little girl became “a bad seed”—a term that a neighbor uses and Chrissie adopts. The way that Chrissie has grown up is another crime. Her mother is extremely neglectful. Chrissie is left to fend for herself, down to creating strategies for cadging food out of mothers in the neighborhood and getting extra milk at school. The only time she gets attention from any adults is when she misbehaves. It doesn’t take a semester of Psychology 101 to know what this teaches Chrissie to do. None of this excuses what Chrissie does, but it helps to explain it a little.

Chrissie’s chapters alternate with chapters narrated by a woman named Julia. Julia is Chrissie, more than a decade later. We learn early on that Chrissie was sentenced to a Home, a secure group home for juvenile offenders that rehabilitates more than punishes. After her release, Chrissie is given a new name and a chance to restart her life. By the time we meet her again, Chrissie/Julia has had a daughter. Molly is Chrissie’s entire reason for living these days, and she is terrified that social services will take Molly away. These chapters fascinated me Chrissie has changed so much that she hardly seems like the same person. She has been completely transformed by years of enforced boundaries, good nutrition, and maturity. Instead of acting out of rage and impulse, Julia is afraid of not following the rules. She emotionally punishes herself by avoiding happiness and good things in life. Her “punishment” wasn’t the kind of punishment that one grows to resent. Instead, Chrissie’s time in that Home saved her from being a monster for the rest of her life.

But, as we read Julia’s chapters in The First Day of Spring, I was constantly thinking about the rightness of Chrissie’s punishment. Nothing that could’ve happened to Chrissie that would truly punish her for what she did. Chrissie’s extreme hunger and the parental neglect are complicating factors. They did so much psychological damage to Chrissie that her legal defense could probably have made a good case for Chrissie being not guilty by reason of insanity. When I read Julia’s chapters, I found myself so sympathetic to the transformed character that I felt that any further official punishment would be like punishing the wrong person. The First Day of Spring is the kind of novel that I wish I had read with others, either friends or a book group. There is so much to think and talk about here that I would love to know about what others think. I’m not a parent. Would I think differently of Chrissie/Julia if I had a child of my own? I’m also not a psychologist or social worker, so I don’t know if Chrissie’s situation would cause the behaviors seen here. Could Chrissie be more a product of nurture than nature? What on earth can or should be done with child offenders?

All of this is handled in solid prose that doesn’t belabor its themes. The dialogue feels realistic and brutally honest. There are so many ways that The First Day of Spring could’ve gone wrong. That it didn’t just makes this book even more spectacular. Tucker is deft hand at treating heavy topics with a light touch. I can’t say enough good things about this novel. If you’re the kind of reader who can handle insoluble, emotionally wrenching topics, I think you’ll love this book.

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