Repentance, by Eloísa Díaz

Joaquín Alzada is a police inspector who has a thinner line to walk than most. Twenty years ago, he had to maintain a balance between his sympathy for anti-government protesters. Now, he has to hold the thin blue line just long enough to make it to retirement. In Repentence, by Eloísa Díaz, we see Joaquín in 1981 and in 2001, at two turning points in his life. Joaquín is a wily man and, as he tries to walk a straight path through a lot of crooked streets, we see him use everything he’s learned to find two missing people.

Between 1976 and 1983 (plus or minus several years), Argentina’s government was at war with Argentina’s people. We don’t know how many people were killed during the Dirty War. In 1981, Joaquín is an agent of the government while his brother is quietly working for the revolution. Well, he thinks quietly. It isn’t long into Repentence before Joaquín’s brother is disappeared. In 2001, a much more world-weary Joaquín is given the task of finding a wealthy young woman who went missing. Unlike Joaquín’s brother two decades earlier, lots of people want to find the missing woman.

Twenty years has changed Joaquín. The juxtaposition between the two versions of Joaquín—and the things that remain the same—are fascinating to see. It’s also interesting to see what’s different about Buenos Aires and Argentine in 1981 and 2001. And as intriguing as comparisons are, it’s that much more compelling to think about the big questions this book asks. Will the government and powers that be always win? Or is there hope that things don’t always have to be this way? Will the ordinary people finally beat the bad guys? Will Joaquín finally be able to do good without having to check with what the men upstairs?

And to make this book just that much better, Joaquín is pure entertainment to watch, with his banter and less-than-regulation ways of policing. I had a surprisingly good time reading Repentence, even though it’s set during one of the grimmest chapters of Argentina’s history.

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

The Touch System, by Alejandra Costamanga

The touch typing system—the namesake of Alejandra Costamanga’s The Touch System (translated by Lisa Dillman)—involves placing the fingers on designated keys on a keyboard and typing without looking at those fingers after memorizing the positions of all the characters. It’s an amazing skill when done by people who can type hundreds of letters a minute. (I took a class back in middle school to learn how to touch type. I was terrible at it. I could only type a sentence correctly if I peeked. It’s only after years and years of near-constant writing that I’ve gotten good at touch typing.) In this novel, Costamanga shows us in high-relief what might happen when people never quite manage to get their metaphorical fingers on life’s keys.

The main characters of Costamanga’s novel haven’t really got the hang of having their fingers on the figurative keyboard of life. Agustín, dying somewhere in Argentina, drifted through life without doing much of anything. Ania, his niece, does a lot of many different things…but also struggles to move forward through life. She does odd jobs for money like plant and pet sitting. So when Ania’s father calls her and tells her that someone from the family needs to be with Agustín as he lies dying. He can’t make it for reasons and it’s not like she’s doing anything important, after all. So Ania travels from Chile to Argentina, back to the old family home in a backwater town. The Touch System is told through two streams of consciousness. While Ania thinks about life in the present, Agustín takes us into the past. Agustín’s thoughts reveal his biggest regrets in life, his mother’s mental illness, and a long existence of failing to launch. To be honest, it’s a bit like jumping back and forth between two hoses on full blast. (The ARC’s lack of formatting made it hard to figure out who was talking for a while.)

I realize that my Western perspective makes me value productivity as a virtue. I also realize that ambitionless characters tend to bother me. (The only reasons I got through Bartleby, the Scrivener were its brevity and my sense of psychological horror at a character who says no thank you to everything from a cookie to life itself.) But I think my pro-productive-life stance is supported by the narratives in The Touch System. Ania knows that the way she lives is not normal; she just struggles to find her purpose. When she visits the old, dilapidated family home, she gets enough of a jolt to put her fingers on the keyboard of life. We never get to see it, but we do learn enough to know that Ania doesn’t want to end up like Agustín. Meanwhile, there is so much of a sense of failure around Agustín that I know this story doesn’t approve of people who can’t make a life for themselves.

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

The Accomplice, by Joseph Kanon

Joseph Kanon’s The Accomplice stirs up a hell of a historical hornet’s nest. It begins with a conversation between a Nazi hunting uncle and his CIA nephew. The uncle, a survivor, believes that he is close to the end of his life. The man he’s been hunting ever since the end of the war, Otto Schramm, is believed to be dead but Max Weill is not so sure. Aaron, the nephew, is reluctant to take on his uncle’s mission. After all, in 1962, the Nuremberg Trials are long over. Some convicted Nazis have already completed their sentences. In spite of Max’s tenacity, its a random siting of Schramm in Hamburg of all places that breaks through Aaron’s resistance.

When Max suddenly dies and Aaron and a friend are attacked trying to get a photo of the mystery man, the plot races off with Aaron. He travels from Hamburg to Buenos Aires, where many Nazis fled after the war—with help from a series of ratlines. The Accomplice is mostly written as a thriller. Aaron has to walk several tightropes to find Schramm and not tip off his CIA bosses to his unsanctioned hunting. There are chases and gunfights. His allies all have agendas of their own that may not jibe with Aaron’s plan to make Schramm somehow face a trial in Germany. There’s even a potentially dangerous dame that Aaron falls in lust with at first sight.

But it’s not all thriller. There are moments when Aaron has to wrestle with his conscience. Aaron’s investigations in Argentina kick up a lot of nasty specters from the past. We learn about Juan Perón‘s warm welcome of Nazis. Alois Hudal gets a mention, too. Most distressing, at least for American readers, we get definite hints that the American government also helped Nazis to flee to help them fight the Soviets. Being just one man means that Aaron’s conscience doesn’t get to do much more than point out that everything about the whole situation is wrong as he makes one compromise after another.

Kanon does justice to the premise, but I couldn’t help but think about The Odessa File, by Frederick Forsyth. I remember liking The Odessa File more than I liked The Accomplice; Forsyth spends more time building up suspense where Kanon races from scene to scene. Also, Kanon skips over parts of the Nazi hunting that I find the most interesting: the digging through archives to find their trail. Aaron knows what city his quarry is in. It’s all just a matter of getting his hands on the war criminal.

I realize that it sounds like I didn’t particularly care for The Accomplice. I found this book to be mostly entertaining and I enjoyed the quandary that the maybe-a-baddie woman character was in. I just which that Kanon had slowed things down a bit. The point of a premise like Nazi hunting is that it gives readers a chance to really think about the dilemma of justice versus political expediency and terrible familial guilt. If you’re looking for a fast read based on actual history, The Accomplice would be a good choice. For readers who like a slower burn and/or a book that makes room for ethical dilemmas, I would recommend The Odessa File instead.

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

People in the Room, by Norah Lange

Trigger warning for suicidal ideation.

Who hasn’t wondered about what’s happening on the other side of the window in other people’s houses? Briefly glimpsed neighbors’ attitudes, manners, clothes, or expressions can give us hints but, unless we screw up the courage to make their acquaintance, we will always wonder about what happens inside those other houses. The unnamed protagonist of Norah Lange’s brief, disturbing novella, People in the Room (ably translated by Charlotte Whittle), becomes obsessed with the three women she sees through a window across the street. The impulse to wonder is perfectly natural, but the protagonist takes her wonderings to extremes. And yet, she is so unreliable that it’s hard to say whether anything actually happens at all. This is definitely a book to put one on one’s toes.

It all starts on an ordinary day sometime during the World Wars in Buenos Aires, when our protagonist happens to look up from her book to see three women—sisters—in a drawing room across the street. The women are mysterious. They don’t speak. They just sit and smoke and sip at wine or tea. Our protagonist begins to imagine who they are and how they came to be in that room. She might have gone on wondering forever if she hadn’t intercepted the reply to a telegram they sent and thus wrangled an excuse to introduce herself. In spite of all her hinting and questioning after that, our protagonist never seems to learn much more about the three sisters. And then, one day while our protagonist is away on a holiday suggested by her slightly worried family, they disappear.

People in the Room will be frustrating to a lot of readers. It was certainly frustrating to me. The brief description of it I had read made me think that I was getting something in the vein of Rear Window, though without the murder plot. It was clearly almost immediately that this was not that kind of book, even though it had a very claustrophobic and sinister atmosphere. Instead, the forward by César Aira was much more helpful for understanding this book. People in the Room predates Rear Window by a couple of decades, putting in the later part of the modernist period. The book stays with the unnamed narrator’s off-kilter thoughts for the entirety. Aira also notes that Lange was an inspiration for Jorge Luis Borges, a wonderfully experimental writer who often wrote about possibilities that don’t quite play out in reality. Readers who like thinking about “what if?” and are okay with books in which nothing much actually happens, where the action is all in a character’s head, might enjoy this challenging novella.

Dark Constellations, by Pola Oloixarac

I finished reading Pola Oloixarac’s Dark Constellations (translated by Roy Kesey) a few hours ago and I’m still not sure what I read. This work of science fiction blends ideas from cutting edge computer science, botany, virology, anthropology and much more into a whirlwind of ideas. I don’t fault the translator or the author for my lack of comprehension; I am not smart enough to understand this book.

This bewildering novel begins in 1882, with a trip to a South American island full of people, flora, and fauna that fuel the most exciting tales of exploration. A member of that expedition, Dutch botanist Niklas Bruun, is inspired to theorize all kinds of symbiotic wonders that make others wonder if Bruun is off his trolley. Then we jump to 1982, for the birth of hacker superstar Cassio, who later works for a company that attempts to create an algorithm that can make sense of DNA and surveillance data now collected across Latin America and the world. In 2024, Piera, a biologist who worked on a DNA surveillance tool called Bionose, joins Cassio and the company he works for. She asks Cassio a few points questions that make him wonder about the implications of the algorithm he’s helping to build.

This is about as much as I understand about Dark Constellations. The novel takes tangents to hint at the possibilities of interconnectedness between humans, plants, viruses, and other species. In another novel, this might have been fodder for a techno-utopia where humans worldwide finally develop an eco-conscience and work to stop climate change, pollution, and extinctions. Instead, there are what I saw as missed opportunities (at least until the end of the book) where Cassio and his intellectual predecessors should have been thinking about the consequences of their actions. I have been wary of algorithms since reading Algorithms of Oppression, by Safiya Umoja Noble. The characters in Cassio’s timeline note that law and ethics haven’t kept pace with technology, but they see this as a good thing. They can let their imaginations run wild to create things. The bad news for the rest of us is that they don’t consider privacy, consent, or civil rights of all the people who are unwittingly becoming data points for corporations.

More than once I felt like a luddite who just couldn’t encompass the grand vision of the company Cassio works for. What if I was just being a stick in the mud? But then, so many of the characters in this book sound just like Mr. Hammond and his scientists from Jurassic Park. Aside from Piera, there is no one to check their grand visions, to ask very important questions about the ramifications of their data mining. Which brings me back around to what I don’t understand about this book: what is it trying to say about the roles and responsibilities of technology? Bruun, Cassio, and their fellow scientists are unethical in the sense that they don’t even stop to think about ethics. They are not terribly sympathetic characters and I couldn’t admire them. On the other hand, the ideas about symbiosis are described in enchanting, sometimes literally glowing terms. Perhaps the next phase for humanity is to join with other species on our planet to create something new and magical? I just can’t figure this book out.

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

Holmes Entangled, by Gordon McAlpine

35569734I’ve only read a few of the original Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. For some reason, I’ve been more interested in the character’s afterlife in other authors’ hands. In Holmes Entangled, by Gordon McAlpine, we have a fresh take on the immortal detective. The novel begins with a discovery by writer and librarian Jorge Luis Borges. Borges takes a manuscript he found to an unnamed PI that Borges dreamed of but who inexplicably exists. The manuscript appears to be written by Sherlock Holmes and covers what might be his real last case.

The manuscript begins with Holmes’ retirement. Instead of becoming a beekeeper in Sussex, Holmes began disguising himself as academics, studying up on various subjects, and lecturing at Oxford and Cambridge. The game seems to help keep his brain occupied, but it’s clear that it’s not a thrilling existence. Then, out of the blue, Holmes gets a visit from Arthur Conan Doyle, who tells him a very strange story about a séance, a ghostly prime minister who is still alive, and someone taking a shot at the author. Holmes leaps back into action, only to find a case that is weirder than he could have anticipated.

Because Holmes (or, this version of Holmes) is writing his own story, we learn a lot more about his beliefs, insecurities, values, and the like. He reflects on what it was like having John Watson tell his story for him, for creating the great Sherlock Holmes out of his cases. He also laments his fame. I think he likes having to outsmart people but, at 73, he’s getting a bit tired of dodging fans and going around in disguises.

What Holmes turns up in his investigation is truly incredible. I won’t reveal exactly what Holmes finds; that would ruin it. I can say that I love this take on Holmes and on the nature of fiction and authorship. Holmes Entangled is a great book for readers who like to think of characters as having a real life of their own.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 6 March 2018.

Things We Lost in the Fire, by Mariana Enríquez

Even though they didn’t take very long to read, the stories in Mariana Enríquez’ collection, Things We Lost in the Fire, are going to stay in my brain for a while. (In fact, returning to read a few more chapters of War and Peace turned out to be a pleasant mental palate cleanser.) The stories are set in Buenos Aires, Corrientes, and other cities in Argentina between the late 1980s and now. In addition to sharing a feeling of creeping horror, the stories are connected by the way the characters are forced to confront the unhealed wounds of the past that are just waiting to reopen as soon as they are poked.

In the 1970s, Argentina was torn apart by the Dirty War, a bloody conflict in which the state terrorized its citizens in the name of anti-Communism and unity. Thousands of people were “disappeared.” The Dirty War is not directly referenced in Enríquez collection. Instead, Enríquez has transformed this trauma into semi or fully supernatural horrors that her protagonists stumble into when they try to right a wrong or stand up for themselves. In one story, “Under the Black Water,” a severely polluted river that has become a dumping ground for victims of police violence becomes a source of a zombie cult. In others, “Adela’s House” and “An Invocation of the Big-Earred Runt,” past crimes reach out from the past to claim new victims. It’s clear that nothing has healed.

The stories in Things We Lost in the Fire is also a close examination of women’s lives in Argentina. In many of the stories, the female characters are threatened by men. The threats are either of potential violence but, more often, of gaslighting. Over and over, the women in these stories are told that what they’ve seen is not real and that they should give up their “delusions.” In the final story, “Things We Lost in the Fire,” women begin to destroy themselves before their men can do it. This story is the one that will probably stick with me the longest because it is so appallingly bleak.

Things We Lost in the Fire is not for the faint of heart. Readers who tackle it, however, will be rewarded (if that’s the right word) with horripilating visions of traumatic lives, strange syncretic cults, preemptive revenge, and characters who will not leave things alone.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 21 February 2017.

What We Become, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

When Max Costa signed up as a ballroom dancer for the Cap Polonio in 1928, he didn’t know he would meet a woman who would haunt him for the rest of his life. To be fair to Mecha Inzunza, she didn’t know she was going to meet the love of her life on a trip to Buenos Aires, either. Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s What We Become (translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia) follows Max and Mecha over forty years, from Buenos Aires in 1928 to Nice in 1938 to Sorrento in 1964. What We Become is the story of two different kinds of scoundrels who keep getting caught up in their own schemes, though there is always the hope that this time will be different.

What We Become jumps back in forth in time, with Max as our lodestar. He’s not a first person narrator, but the story stays tightly focused on him throughout. The bulk of the novel takes place in 1964, in Sorrento, Italy. Max has, finally, settled into a steady job at the age of 64. He’s a chauffeur for a Swiss psychologist. When the psychologist leaves for an extended business trip, Max is left at loose ends. It is pure chance that he spots Mecha with her son and future daughter-in-law in town. They are there for a chess tournament. Seized with the desire to see Mecha again and relive the old days, Max “borrows” his employer’s car and clothes, empties his own bank account, and sets up like the playboy he used to be. Then he arranges to bump into Mecha again.

While Max and Mecha get reacquainted, the narrative takes us back to their first and second meetings. We see them tangoing in Buenos Aires before Max takes off with Mecha’s pearls after a brief and disturbing sexual liaison. We also see them in Nice, France, in 1938. Max has been blackmailed by agents of both the Italian government and the Spanish Nationalist government to steal some papers that would make everyone look bad if they were made public.

Again and again, Max and Mecha gently torment each other. They are always terribly polite and well-mannered (except in bed), but the subtext of their relationship is heartbreaking. Ever since their first tango on the ship to Buenos Aires, they’ve had a connection. No one else has been right for either of them and they’ve spent many lonely years apart.

The hope that the third time is the charm keeps us going along, even though both Max and Mecha have changed a lot since 1938. Mecha is now devoted to her son, who may be the next international chess champion if he can defeat the current holder of the title. Max is weary after years of financial failures. Don’t get the wrong impression, however. What We Become is not a romance. Rather, this book is a psychological portrait of two characters who have lived very unusual but unhappy lives. Further, because we learn about Mecha through Max’s life, she remains very mysterious. I’ve just spent almost 500 pages with her and I still don’t understand the woman.

What We Become is masterly in its characterization—even with Mecha’s unexplored motivations. Not only are the characters amazingly well-drawn, Pérez-Reverte has truly captured the lost world of old Europe and Buenos Aires. (Both Mecha and Max are creatures from a different age when we see them in 1964 Sorrento.) The descriptions of clothing and manners and places are richly detailed, so much so that I thought I could smell the spilled alcohol in the Argentinian dives and the cigarette smoke at the dinner party in Nice. This book is an immersive experience.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 7 June 2016.