The Evening Hero, by Marie Myung-Ok Lee

After the rural Minnesotan hospital where Youngman Kwak works closes, he no longer has work to keep his mind occupied. This means that memories of his life in Korea during and after the Korean War start to creep back into his conscious mind. It also means that Youngman has time to reflect on his relationship with his wife, how they raised their son, the medical profession, and the casual racism he and his family have always faced. There’s a lot going on in Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s The Evening Hero. Unfortunately, it’s a little too much and the tone veers from beautifully thoughtful to absurdly satirical. To me, it read like two novels spliced together.

Youngman Kwak is a dedicated OB-GYN at Horse’s Breath Hospital when we first meet him—more so because the new director of the hospital is squeezing every scrap of profit out of the hospital before ingnominiously closing the whole thing down. Youngman feels very much for his patients, all of whom are now just that much further away from good medical care. Youngman’s diligence and humane care of his patients is a sharp contrast to his son, Einstein, and the employees at SANUS (the very company that bought and closed Youngman’s hospital). After an uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinner that further highlights the differences between Youngman and his wife and their son and daughter-in-law, Einstein talks his father into taking a job at SANUS. Unfortunately, the promised job delivering vaccines turns out to be a humiliating gig operating a depilation machine. SANUS is mall medicine. It’s far from Youngman’s work delivering babies and caring for women.

Meanwhile, Youngman starts to receive letters from an unknown woman in Seoul. He knows that the letters have someting to do with the brother he abandoned in Korea, to start his new life with his wife and unborn child in the United States. He’s been running from his brother—and his regrets—for decades. At this point, the narrative takes us back to just before the Korean War. Youngman and his mother, younger brother, and grandfather, are eking out a living in Water Project Village. When the war comes, their situation becomes even more fraught. Not only are they facing starvation, the small Kwak family and the rest of the non-combatants walk up and down the Korean peninsula, avoiding violence from soldiers on all sides, and hoping to find a safe place to stay until they can go home. This part of the novel is utterly harrowing.

Over the course of the rest of the novel, the narrative switches back and forth from Trump-era America to post-war South Korea. The contrast between the escalating weirdness of Youngman’s life in America and Youngman’s nostalgic memories of Korea grows bigger and bigger—and harder and harder to reconcile into a cohesive whole. For me, the parts of the book in Korea and South Korea were the most interesting and enjoyable. The narrative is much better when Lee leaves behind the satire and the absurdity. Although I appreciated the points Lee made about the greed of the America healthcare industry, I preferred the emotional honesty of the other half of the novel, the parts in which Youngman looks back across his long life and wonders if he made the right choices.

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

Metropolis, by B.A. Shapiro

Trigger warning for brief depiction of domestic violence.

B.A. Shapiro’s Metropolis is the kind of book that reminds us that there are so many spaces and people we just brush past. Most of us don’t need to store (or hide) possessions in storage facilities. They’re usually temporary spaces. Certainly, most of us don’t need to live in storage facilities. As we travel from home to work to our third spaces and back, few of us see the homeless or the jobless or the stateless. Metropolis focuses all our attention on a Boston storage building and straight onto people who, all for their own reasons, find refuge in a place most of us wouldn’t look twice at.

Metropolis is told from the perspective of several characters and from two different time periods before and after an accident involving the Metropolis building’s elevator. It jumps straight into the aftermath by first showing us an auction attended by Zach, the former owner of the Metropolis. He is raising money for legal fees and other expenses by auctioning off the unclaimed property in the building. As the auctioneer directs the procedings, we see each unit through his eyes. We see rooms full of dog houses, the contents of a teenagers’ bedroom, a darkroom filled with undeveloped film, a lawyer’s office, and rooms that have clearly been lived in, even though the building’s not rated for that.

The story’s perspective then shifts to refocus on our other narrators months before the auction. There’s Rose, the building’s former manager, who takes extra money to rent out two (later three) of the units for people to live in. We meet Jason, previously a high flying lawyer now reduced to working any case he can get from a room in the storage facility. There’s Laurent, a gifted photographer suffering from PTSD and undiagnosed illnesses. Laurent and Marta, a Venezuelan refugee and gifted sociology graduate student, both live in the Metropolis because it offers safety and anonymity. The last narrator we meet is Liddy. Initially, she rented a unit at the facility to store her children’s belongings after their awful father shipped them off to boarding school in Switzerland. It’s Liddy’s efforts to escape her husband that bring trouble down on everyone’s head.

Readers, I was engrossed from the minute the auctioneer started opening doors to let the punters have a peek. This book scratches that itch we feel when we sense a story behind an abandoned object by telling us how they came to be there, and how they were abandoned. I don’t want to say too much because a big part of the pleasure of reading this book is learning everyone’s secrets. But I will say that each character is a marvelous study in how the pressures of money and jobs and fear and desire can push people into places they never imagined they might end up.

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

An Unlasting Home, by Mai al-Nakib

It’s strange to me—but also not so strange—that for a species hardwired to spot patterns, we can be very dumb when it comes to not repeating bad patterns of behavior. In Mai al-Nakib’s deeply affecting and engrossing family saga, An Unlasting Home, we see three generations of women who are given choices that lead them into emotional traps. They are also given choices to get out of those traps but, for one reason or another, they walk into personal martyrdom in the form of bad husbands, needy family members, economics, and religion. As each generation grows old and has children, we’re left to wonder about the costs of sacrificing oneself for others against personal happiness.

We have several narrators in An Unlasting Home. In chronological order, we meet Yasmine and Lulwa, whose marriages and choices land them in neighboring houses in Kuwait City in the 1950s. Then we meet Maria, an Indian woman who comes to work for Lulwa’s daughter, Noura (another narrator). As these women recount their stories—and woven in between them—there is Sara, daughter of Noura, granddaughter of Yasmine and Lulwa, cared for by Maria. Before they all ended up in Kuwait, various members of the family lived in Lebanon, India, Iraq, and the United States. Kuwait is where everything converges.

Sara grew up in St. Louis and Kuwait City. Although she and her mother Noura felt like the United States was the best place for them to live freely, as individuals, family obligations bring Sara back after her mother’s death. Someone has to take care of Yasmine and Lulwa, Sara argues whenever anyone tells her she should go back to the States. This same family obligation is what pulled Lulwa away from her family for seven long years between the 1940s and 1950s, after her mentally ill mother tricked Lulwa into coming back to Kuwait from India. A different family obligation brought Yasmine from Basra to Kuwait when her moody husband failed to claim his father’s political position. Sara’s decision to stay turns into a crisis unlike what her mother and grandmothers went through. Unlike them, Sara might be pushed to break free of Kuwait and her family’s history when she is accused of blasphemy after teaching Nietzsche in her philosophy course at Kuwait University.

I can imagine readers’ responses to the choices made by the narrators in An Unlasting Home go in two very different directions. On the one hand, readers might rail against the decisions these characters make. They might holler at the pages for Yasmine, Lulwa, Maria, Noura, and Sara to cut loose and run. Their happiness is more important than living in misery to make others happy. Other readers might applaud the self-sacrifice of these characters. Without their choices, the family would’ve crumbled. And although I’ve probably painted a pretty bleak picture of these characters’ lives, there is a lot of happiness and joy in their lives. Yasmine and Lulwa and Maria delight in their children. Noura is able to express her opinions through her foreign language bookstore in Kuwait City. And Sara is a philosopher, through and through, and believes in her educational mission of teaching at Kuwait University. Where some readers would see a clear choice, others will see situations where it’s impossible to decide on the right course of action. After all, who can predict what will happen in the future?

This beautifully written book, with its wonderfully developed characters, is a fantastic read for book groups, or for readers who want to wrestle with the question of obligation versus self-actualization.

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

The Patron Saint of Second Chances, by Christine Simon

Sometimes, you just need to read something silly, something that puts a smile on your face and lets your brain relax. The Patron Saint of Second Chances, by Christine Simon, is exactly that kind of book. This book has one of the most ludicrous plots I’ve ever read and I enjoyed every page of it. I wasn’t worried about what would happen in the end—because like so many of the characters—I had faith that it would all work out. I don’t consider myself nearly as religious as protagonist Nino Speranza (whose surname means hope in Italian), who searches out saints to help him with his various problems, but I do believe that there’s someone looking out for fools trying to do good deeds.

Speranza is the mayor of the declining Italian village of Prometto (“I promise,” in Italian), although the villagers come to him with problems about their dogs more often than they do about real problems. As The Patron Saint of Second Chances opens, Speranza is dealing with an actual problem. An official has just found serious problems with the village’s plumbing. If Prometto can’t pay the 60,000 Euro repair bill, its water supply will be cut off and the villagers relocated elsewhere. Prometto would be no more. Speranza breaks into a desperate, furtive panic that lasts nearly the entire course of the novel. He decides not to tell anyone as he works out a way to save Prometto. This turns out to be a good thing as Speranza’s plan is, essentially, lying his ass off to everyone in the village.

The big lie Speranza tells is that Dante Rinaldi, the current hunk-du-jour of Italian cinema, is coming to Prometto to make a film. (This lie is based on a story a sketchy friend tells him about a neighboring town that experienced a surprise boom when it was rumored that George Clooney was going to buy a house there.) Like all big lies, Speranza’s story quickly spirals out of control. His assistant at his vacuum repair business transforms himself into a screenwriter and director and actor (standing in until Dante arrives). His daughter offers to do make-up. The richest man in town is conned out of most of the cost of the repair for the promise that Speranza will put his most handsome son in the movie. The first person to start asking questions is the village priest, but Speranza becomes very adept at dodging his old friend.

I know that there’s no way that Speranza will get away with his mad scheme, of course, but I hoped that he would be able to get along with it long enough to be able to save Prometto for at least a few more years. He tap-dances just as fast as he can and he, along with his assistant Smilzo, seem to have just enough daft luck to make it possible that they might be able to pull it off. I won’t ruin the ending and tell you all whether or not that happens. Instead, I’ll just say that the ending is the cherry on top of this confection of a novel.

If your brain needs a little getaway to small-town Italy, I recommend The Patron Saint of Second Chances.

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

How to Be Eaten, by Maria Adelmann

Trigger warnings for references to trauma and child abuse.

I have a fascination with books that look at what happens after—after the Big Bad has been taken down and the lovers have gotten together and all that. I especially love it when authors take the metafictional route and put characters into group therapy to talk through their issues (as in The Final Girls Support Group and Lost in a Good Book). When I saw reviews for Maria Adelmann’s How to Be Eaten I jumped at the chance to read it. I just couldn’t resist a book in which five women who lived through traumatic events that strangely resemble fairy tales are invited to participate in group therapy. Readers, I inhaled this book.

Five women receive a series of emails that invite them to private group therapy. It takes several emails to get them to attend since, for the most part, these women don’t want to talk about what happened and prefer to keep the lowest of profiles. The emails eventually wear them down and, in short order, we meet Bernice, who went into the one room her rich boyfriend told her not to; Ruby, who wears a wolfskin coat almost as heavy as her attitude; brittle-bright Ashlee, who won a Bachelor-style reality show called The One; Gretel, whose brother has very different memories of what happened when their impoverished parents abandoned them; and the mysterious Raina, a motherly woman nursing secret regrets in spite of her apparently perfect life. All of these women are barely maintaining the appearance of normalcy. It doesn’t take much to crack their facades.

Group therapy is a chance for all of these women to finally get their stories heard, if only by their therapist Will (who we learn has his own secrets). They are all heartily sick (or constantly retraumatized) by having the public at large telling simplified—and mostly wrong—versions of events. Like so many real women who appear in the news, the public question their choices, blame victims, or speculate about ulterior motives. The fact that their sometimes very traumatic pasts have been turned into entertainment just adds insult to injury. That these women’s stories have elements of the fantastic, it’s little wonder that they either hide from or rail against the injustice of it all.

Adelmann has crafted a brilliant narrative that explored how women are portrayed in the media and gossiped about by society in a way that stays grounded in a cast of fascinating characters. I was completely engaged with those characters, even as I tried to match them with fairy tales and wondered about what Will was really up to. Everything about this book was incredible.

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

The Hired Man, by Aminatta Forna

Trigger warning for violence towards animals.

Aminatta Forna’s tense novel, The Hired Man, shows us why the saying is just “revenge is a dish best served cold” and not “revenge is a dish best served cold and bewildering.” Our protagonist, Duro, is a patient man. He’s been waiting a very long time to tell the people who wronged him just how much he wants to hurt them. He’s also not a monologuer, so when the time comes, it’s hard to say what his targets are supposed to feel when his plan finally springs into action. I know I’m being hard on this book right out of the gate, but that’s because I was really enjoying the ride right up until the end. Take what I say with a grain of salt: I didn’t understand the ending, possibly because I was reading too fast to take in the important details.

Our story takes place in Gost, Croatia. The town used to be an important waypoint back in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Those days are long behind this rural backwater now. The Yugoslav Wars pushed the town even further into irrelevance. People still live there, mostly because it’s where they and their families have always lived. And Gost is quiet, mostly because the people did things to each other during the Wars that no one wants to talk about. The most excitement in years turns up in the form of an English woman and her two children, after the woman buys a house that is very important to Duro. Seeing the old Pavić house occupied after so many years shocks Duro for a moment. Then he goes up and introduces himself to Laura with an offer to help her fix the place up.

While Duro busily puts things at the Pavić house back to rights, Forna takes us into his past. We see his friendship with the Pavić children, especially daughter Anka—and also how his friendship with the son Krešimir goes sour as the boy’s moods grow violent and erratic. The three children grow up in the last decades of Yugoslavia, until Duro is forced to leave. The more we see, the more it makes sense that Duro is a solitary man, living in a former pig shed with his two dogs, dedicatedly putting together the home of his absent lost love and best friend.

It’s only later that Forna reveals to us how the war came to Gost, even though we all know that devastating and sectarian violence is coming. As that tension builds, another tension starts to form as Duro comes closer to finishing his restoration of the Pavić house. Strange things start to happen around Gost that remind Krešimir and the repugnant owner of the town’s only bar, Fabjan, of the terrible things that happened there so many years ago. There are no outright accusations. Instead, Duro’s narratives slowly show us who did what to whom. It’s left to us to decide if anyone deserves punishment or revenge, and if it’s fair to manipulate others to unwittingly be pawns in Duro’s long revenge.

This is an extremely well-written book, for the most part. It’s incredibly atmospheric and the character development is among the best I’ve seen. Before I consign this book to the “tried it” pile, I think I’ll need to go back and at least read the last third again. Resisting the urge to rush and reading slowly might make me change this book from a three to a four or five out of five.

Dead Collections, by Isaac Fellman

Isaac Fellman’s Dead Collections held a lot of promise for me when I first read the reviews. How could I not love a book about a vampire who works as an archivist who falls in love? I adore a good love story about weirdos finding each other. The fact that it took place at least partly in an archive was just gravy. That said…this was not the right book for me. Instead, this is a book for people who want to know what it’s like to feel uneasy about one’s body, out of place in the gender binary, or distressed by not feeling attracted by the same things as everyone else.

Sol Katz has some, but not all, of what he wants out of his unlife. He works in an archive (and squats there during the day). His coworkers don’t seem to like him that much, but they tolerate his vampiric quirks. The happy status quo changes when Elsie drops the archive of Sol’s favorite TV writer in his lap. Even though Elsie is recently bereaved, she and Sol have an instant connection. The two share long calls in which they reveal their desires and fretful thoughts about themselves. Those conversations are a lot, especially when what I really wanted was vampiric archival adventures and shenanigans.

I can’t fault Dead Collections for not being what I wanted it to be. There’s at least a little of archival shenanigans sprinkled here and there for those of us who wanted more books and fewer feelings. For readers who do want feelings, Dead Collections is a delightful and unusual love story about weirdos finding their soulmate.

The Violence, by Delilah S. Dawson

Trigger warning for domestic violence.

From the outside, Chelsea Martin lives an enviable life. Her house is perfectly decorated. Her daughters are adorable. She doesn’t have to work. The price she pays for this is by following every single rule set by her violent husband. She and her daughters have to meet him the instant he comes home, and she has to have a perfectly chilled beer ready for him. The consequences for breaking these rules are frightening and painful. But then, a terrifying pandemic arrives that gives Chelsea the chance she needs to get herself and her daughters out from under his thumb. The Violence, by Deliah S. Dawson, is an unsettling story about what might happen if everyone has to worry about the threat of being beaten to death if someone snaps.

In a brief preface, we see the first attack from what is later called the Violence. A woman in a grocery store attacks and kills another shopper then, after it’s over, goes back to shopping like nothing happened. We’re then whisked away to an ordinary day in the life of Chelsea Martin. She worries. A lot. Her essential oils aren’t selling. Her husband is terrifying. And then her narcissistic mother drops by, unannounced, to make everything just a little bit worse. It’s a lot to take, right off the bat. I wanted to yoink Chelsea and her daughters right out of the narrative before anything can happen to them—but this is not that kind of book. Thankfully, Chelsea comes up with her own plan to get out of her husband’s control. When details about the Violence start to spread, she decides to risk her safety by breaking all of her husband’s rules, then calling the police hotline to have him taken away by claiming that he has the disease.

Everything goes to plan, except that Chelsea’s husband has a cop buddy who is almost as frightening as he is. His threatening questions spook Chelsea so much that she bolts with her children. And then The Violence gets even weirder, as if a book where people blackout when they lose their temper, beat someone to death, and then wake up to a horror scene. There’s an amateur wrestling league, rich people avoiding mosquitos, camps for people with the Violence, roving teams of vaccinators, wrestling coaches who double as therapists, and lots of time in isolation for the characters to think about how they ended up in their situations. There are also plenty of references in The Violence to how COVID-19 has changed us: taking precautions or ignoring them, conspiracy theories about vaccines, society changing versus society refusing the change. Unlike Covid (despite its lethality and Long Covid), the Violence is impossible to sweep under the rug.

There’s a lot to process in this book. I finished it a week about and I’m still processing how I feel about it. There is a factual error that bugged me (there is no capsaicin in ground black pepper) and some facile plot resolution, but I found that I actually liked a lot of this novel. I loved seeing Chelsea find her power in the wrestling ring among some found family. The ending is also deeply satisfying (if in a very unethical and unsettling way). I guess my conclusion is that this was a weirdly entertaining book, as long as you don’t think too hard about the repercussions of all the violence.

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

When I’m Gone, Look for Me in the East, by Quan Barry

Quan Barry’s outstanding new novel, When I’m Gone, Look for Me in the East, is a perfect example of one of the reasons I read fiction. In this engrossing story, we walk along (sometimes literally) with protagonist Chuluun as he, accompanied by his twin brother, two fellow Gelug Buddhist monks, and a woman servant from a monastery in Ulaanbaatar look for the resurrection of one known as the One for Whom the Sky Never Darkens. It’s a journey full of doubt and questions and dharma and, just maybe, enlightenment. This book is so beautifully written, so realistic and so human, that I was nearly moved to tears by the end.

Twenty-three-year-old Chuluun has lived in a Buddhism monastery in remote Mongolia since he was a child of seven or eight. Chuluun tells us—and shows us in flashbacks—that he ended up at Yatuu Gol because the rinpoche believes that his twin, Mun, is the reincarnation of a great monk known as the Redeemer Who Blows the Conch in the Darkness. Chuluun is scooped up with his brother as the Servant to the Redeemer Who Blows the Conch in the Darkness. Yet, we know from the beginning of the novel that Mun rejected life as a monk and relocated to Ulaanbaatar. Mun’s resistance and occasional disdain for Buddhism becomes an important antithesis to Chuluun’s quest. In Gelug Buddhism, as far as I can, tell, great spiritual people are sometimes reincarnated as tulku. The Dalai Lamas, the Panchen Lamas, and hundreds of others are tulku. When one of these men or women is about to die, they leave clues as to where they will reincarnate. It is up to others to find them. Children believed to be tulku are tested to see how much they remember of their previous incarnations. If they pass, they are folded into Buddhist monastic life. As we see with Mun, it can be a bewildering, frightening, and stressful existence that shouldn’t be foisted onto anyone who doesn’t understand what it means.

Unlike Mun, Chuluun is a believer, although he is wracked with feelings of unworthiness. No matter how hard he strives, Chulunn still feels flashes of sexual desires. He wavers between returning to Yatuu Gol, where he will need to defend his faith and take on the mantle of full priesthood, or giving everything up to live in the secular world. There is a lot of pressure on Chuluun to become a fully-fledged Buddhist monk. Even though this book is set somewhere around 2015 (I think, I’m not sure of the math), Buddhism is only recently emerging into the light after decades of Stalinist repression. Not only is Chuluun fulfilling his own destiny, he’s also a representative of his faith in a newly democratic nation.

Mongolian landscape, 2005
(Image via Wikicommons)

Around all this rich characterization and narrative, Barry draws us a living portrait of rural Mongolia. As Chuluun narrates (all in the present tense, which is an amazing way to incorporate his efforts to live in the present into the text), we visit not only Ulaanbaatar, but the shamanic nomads of Khövsgöl Province, the Muslim eagle hunters of Bayan-Ölgii, and the arid fossil grounds of the Gobi desert as they seek the One For Whom the Sky Never Darkens. Chuluun frequently comments on the eternal sky and the way that the legend of Chinggis Khaan still inhabits the land. He shares stories from his pre-monastery boyhood living in gers with his grandfather, father, and twin and their herds. Although Chuluun might doubt his ability to be a priest and monk, he never doubts that he is Mongolian.

All of the wandering and questioning comes to a head during a sandstorm in the Gobi, in a transcendent moment that left me awestruck. The ending alone is worth the price of admission to When I’m Gone, Look for Me in the East, but I would’ve loved this book even if it had had a completely different ending. This is a truly magical book that, like few others, offers us an immersive, emotionally honest opportunity to experience someone else’s life.

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

The Cartographers, by Peng Shepherd

Throughout The Cartographers, by Peng Shepherd, characters frequently ask each other, “What is the purpose of a map?” Answers range from the obvious (to find things) to the philosophical (to orient ourselves in relation to the world) to the near mystical. This book takes us deep into the world of rare maps and cartography to deliver a mystery that is a lot stranger than anyone could’ve ever expected. I love a story that starts in an archive and ends up somewhere magical.

Nell Young hasn’t worked at her beloved New York Public Library’s map division for seven years, ever since the “Junk Box Incident.” Before the incident, Nell interned there under her father’s direction. She got to work with rare, pre-modern maps along with her boyfriend. Then she finds a box labeled junk in the backlog of uncataloged donations to the library. Along with a handfull of very valuable maps, Nell finds a mass produced map that is so worthless it has to have been put in the box by mistake. Strangely, her father is incensed by the appearance of the worthless map and fires Nell. After seven years of exile, Nell is called back to the NYPL with news that her father has died.

Things start to get very weird after Nell visits the library to visit an old family friend/colleague. (The map world is apparently very small.) Reminiscing at her father’s desk leads to a rediscovery of that old junk map, a map that turns out to be the source of someone’s deadly obsession. The Cartographers turns into a steeple chase at this point: underground map sellers, suspicious black cars, break ins, murders, creepy tech moguls, family secrets. It all culminates in a secret that delighted me, but that I’m definitely not going to tell you about because it would ruin the book.

The Cartographers is a treat for readers who enjoy mystery and whimsy with an academic flavor and some outstanding character development.

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