Such a Quiet Place, by Megan Miranda

“If you see something, say something” is a dangerous phrase. On the one hand, we need to watch out for each other. There are plenty of stories that serve as evidence that a sharp eye and willingness to speak up have saved lives. On the other, sometimes we speak up when we’re not sure we’ve actually seen something. This dilemma lies at the heart of Such a Quiet Place, by Megan Miranda. This book takes place in a small community that, a year before the book opens, was the scene of the surprising death of two long-time residents. There was enough evidence to convict one of their own of the deaths. Now, a year later, the conviction has been overturned and everyone is very uncomfortable that the person they all firmly believe is a murderer has returned.

Harper, one of the residents of Hollow’s Edge and one of several who testified at Ruby’s trial, spends the entirety of this novel twisted in anxious knots. She’s always wondered if she was right to speak up at Ruby’s trial, even if she didn’t say anything particularly damning. Her anxiety isn’t helped when Ruby sneaks up on Harper in her own home. (Ruby was her former roommate, until her arrest and conviction.) We quickly learn that Ruby is a mercurial person. I’m not sure if her personality rubbed people the wrong way before the deaths of the Truetts. Ruby certainly does now that she’s come back, especially since she’s determined to prove that she’s innocent and wreak some kind of revenge on the people who sent her to prison.

Throughout the novel, Harper and the other residents confer about what they will and won’t say. Everyone—except doubtful Harper—wants to stick to the story they all agreed on. With Ruby back and doing her own investigating, Harper decides to start asking questions, too. She also thinks back on the night the Truetts died and starts to wonder if she really saw what everyone thinks they saw. What about the fact that the cop who lives in their neighborhood is now facing scrutiny at work for railroading Ruby? What about all the others in Hollow’s Edge who clam up when Harper tries to ask deeper questions? And what about Ruby herself? Did she through up enough red flags with her behavior and criticism of others that she might really be a murderer? And if it wasn’t Ruby, who killed the Truetts?

In addition to asking questions about the balance between being too suspicious and watching out for each other, Such a Quiet Place also makes us take a good look at the lengths some people are willing to go to in order to preserve appearances. Before the Truetts and Ruby and the trial, Hollow’s Edge was an exclusive community. The residents created their own unofficial homeowner’s association to make sure that everything stayed respectable—or at least protected each other’s secrets enough to avoid scandals. I could easily imagine the residents of Hollow’s Edge, four hundred years earlier, taking justice into their own hands. Ruby is just the kind of person who would’ve been accused of witchcraft, too.) Although we don’t light torches and swing pitchforks anymore, Such a Quiet Place makes us wonder if we’re really all that different from our ancestors.

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

Cormorant Lake, by Faith Merino

There are so many ways to be a mother that I don’t know how lexicographers managed to come up with a definition. I suppose one could be very bare bones about it, but limiting “mother” to someone who gives birth to a child doesn’t take into account adoption, fostering, or found families. Traditional definitions presume a lot about sex and gender. They also don’t account for all the ways that mothers can be good or bad. That’s where literature takes over, I suppose, because it can sometimes take a 300 page novel like Faith Merino’s heartbreaking Cormorant Lake to define what “mother” can mean.

Evelyn is a mother who doesn’t fit the traditional definition of a mother. In fairness, none of the other women in this book is a particularly good example of motherhood. Evelyn comes to her version of motherhood in a way that most would consider a crime. The bare bones definition would that Evelyn stole two little girls from their biological mother. Other details are more important, I think. The biological mother was a drug addict who left her children alone, once for an entire year. Evelyn forbears until, one day when she arrives to check on the girls, she finds the youngest unsupervised in a bath and no sign of the mother anywhere. The sight of the little girl, little more than a toddler, moments away from drowning makes Evelyn snap. She takes the girls and heads for her not-biological mother Nan’s crumbling house in Cormorant Lake, somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

From this surprising beginning, Cormorant Lake dives into the wrenching stories of Evelyn and Nan. We learn how Evelyn was once abandoned by her own biological mother and grew almost feral. We learn why Nan is so willing to take in children who lost their mothers—and why she is haunted by ghosts only she can see. Seeing these two women turn themselves into mothers for neglected children got me to thinking about the duty that mothers (however they become mothers) owe to their children and what children owe to the people who birthed them and raised them (not always the same mothers). I had to examine my feelings about Evelyn’s and the girls’ biological mothers. I’ll admit that I was repelled by women who ran away from their responsibilities to their children. This realization really hit me when I saw Evelyn start to pull away from the girls. I didn’t blame Evelyn as much as I blamed the other neglectful mothers because she wasn’t legally or biologically tied to the girls she kidnapped/saved—yet she chose to become a mother where it’s possible that neither the girls’ biological mother or Evelyn’s own might have consciously made the decision to become mothers.

Cormorant Lake is a fascinating read. It’s also kind of a sneaky one. Evelyn and Nan live so close to the bone that it was easy to get lost in their worries about feeding and caring for Evelyn’s girls or the possible legal repercussions of Evelyn’s kidnapping or all the gossip swirling around the town. The bigger issues about mothers and motherhood will sneak up readers. I haven’t stopped thinking about this book even though I finished it days ago. I expect that I will be thinking about Cormorant Lake for a long time.

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

Notes for Bibliotherapeutic Use: Recommend to readers who have complicated relationships with their mothers.

Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid

I think my first experience with a story that made the skin on my neck crawl with cringing embarrassment was The Office, the original British series. I couldn’t stop watching even though I knew, if I had been one of those office workers, I would have been doing my best slide out of the room and head straight for HR. Why do we watch, though? Why have there been so many more stories about people obliviously behaving badly in the last decade or so? I think I’ve figured it out after finishing Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, which deserves all the praise it’s received since it was published. First, cringy stories appeal to me because they present a chance to think about the minute dilemmas of ethics and etiquette of daily life. Second, because they make me feel utter relief that it’s not me making all those awful mistakes.

Late one night in September, Alix calls her sitter to take her toddler out of the house for a bit while they deal with an act of vandalism and the police. Emira shows up with a friend—even though she’s been celebrating a friend’s birthday—to take Briar to one of the few places that’s open that late, the local up-market grocery store. Emira’s friend makes the best of things by playing music and getting everyone dancing. It’s a cute moment, until a security guard and a “concerned” middle-aged white woman show up to start asking questions about why a Black woman is in a grocery store at midnight with a three-year-old white child. Emira handles the incident, with some help from a white guy who asks pointed questions and—more helpfully—starts recording the whole thing with his phone.

The cringiness begins to build when (the white) characters around Emira start to maneuver themselves to make themselves look good and avoid any accusations of racism. Alix—who has the very internet age job of asking companies to send her products so that she can review them on social media—conferences with her friends to keep Emira happy and quiet about the whole thing. She also, painfully, becomes obsessed with learning more about Emira as though becoming Emira’s friend means that Alix can somehow transcend the employer-employee relationship. Meanwhile, the helpful guy with the camera starts to date Emira. Although they have a real connection, Kelley keeps pushing Emira to “stand up for herself” against anything that even smacks of racism, to go public with the video, and quit working for Alix.

The more we learn about Alix and Kelley, the more I had to cringe. Their past relationship. All the misunderstandings. All the prejudices. If these characters had had a chance to talk to each other without all this baggage, they might have been able to avoid making a huge and very public mess of everything. We get to see all of the decision points for Emira, Alix, and Kelley. They have options about what they can do. More than once I wanted to shout at the characters about what I thought the right thing to do would be—Alix needs to let stuff go, Kelley needs to admit that he does fetishize Black people so that he can be the wokest white guy ever, Emira needs to stop coasting through life—but, for the most part, the characters compound their mistakes because they refuse to admit that they could be wrong.

Such a Fun Age, with all of those awful decisions for us to analyze, spoke to me about the need to slow down when we get caught up in trying to make amends or fix a bad situation. People who firmly believe that they know best are people who need the kind of hard comeuppances that so many characters receive in this novel.

And I am so relieved that I am not one of the characters in Such a Fun Age.

Five Wives, by Joan Thomas

Like many works of historical fiction, Five Wives by Joan Thomas takes a real event and colors in the details that the historical record doesn’t have. Five Wives does something else, too. In addition to bringing deceased people back to life, Thomas also has to contend with the legend that has sprung up around Operation Auca, a Christian mission to the Huaorani who live in the Ecuadorean Amazon. The mission is considered a success by the church organization that sponsored it, which means that uncomfortable details and human frailty are glossed over so that listeners can focus on the glory of god. The fact that five of the missionaries are murdered by the Huaorani just makes this story even more an illustration of god’s will to the evangelical Christians. Thomas works in between grim reality and ecstatic legend to create a deeply human story of pride, doubt, and cultural destruction.

In the afterword, Thomas reveals which of her characters are fiction and which are fictional representation of historical people. The generation that launched the mission are mostly historical; their descendants are mostly fictional. Five Wives spans three generations to tell the long tale of Operation Auca, from its inception in the brains of a group of evangelical Christians to the present day. Most of the novel centers on Elisabeth Elliot, her son David, and her granddaughter Abby. The novel opens with Elisabeth’s funeral. Like the stories that are told later, Elisabeth’s funeral is full of stories about the great woman. Everyone has their own perception of her. Some view her as a hero of their religion. Her son sees her as the impossible role model he has to live up to. Her granddaughter sees her as an aloof representation of a religion that Abby is beginning to turn against.

From that microcosm of Five Wives, we travel back in time (with brief glimpses in the novel’s present) to the early fifties as the five couples that later created Operation Auca make their way further and further into the Amazon. Initially, the mission was to the Quechua. The missionaries take up residence in a settlement created and abandoned by Shell Oil (who bailed out when it became too expensive and dangerous to prospect for oil there). The Quechua warn the missionaries about the Huaorani. (Auca is a derogatory name for the Huaorani that was commonly used in the twentieth century.) The Huaorani are an uncontacted group who, until the missionaries arrive, live according to their own ways, defending themselves with lances and poison. The semi-official leaders of the operation, Nate Saint and his sister, Rachel, are determined to convert the Huaorani—whether or not the Huaorani want to convert.

The way that the Saints and the rest of the missionaries talk about their objective and the Huaorani people scares and angers me. Their fierce determination admits no doubt. They are so firmly convinced that what they are doing is god’s will and absolutely right that they fiercely fight against questions, doubts, or other points of view. They never ask if they should. Instead, they interpret their own hubris as the voice of god in their heads. Nate and Rachel compete to be the first to convert a Huaorani person so that they can be the first, which one might think is not really the point of converting someone. They also never consider the impact of forcing the Huaorani to give up a way of life that they have lived for generations. This is the part that angers me. Towards the end of the book, when David returns to Ecuador and the Huaorani village where his mother worked, we see how destructive Western ways are. The people have rashes from wearing more clothes than they used to. They are losing their culture (which Rachel claims they never had) and language. They’ve lost a lot of their land in an underhanded government deal and have been forced to become sedentary. This theme in Five Wives is very much the story of colonialism.

Nate Saint and a Huaorani man, undated
(Image via Wikicommons)

Thomas never loses the human element in this big story. She took me inside the minds of people I thought I would never really have access to, since I tend to give evangelical Christians wide berth. The minds of the Elliots and the Saints are alien places to me. As I read their thoughts about god and saw their world view, I came across so many points when I wanted to call these people out. I wanted to ask them tricky questions that got me tossed out of Sunday school years ago. Mostly, I wanted to tell them that they should have left the Huaorani (and for that matter, the Quechua) alone. All of the missionaries would’ve done well to close their mouths, sit down, and listen to the people they meet instead of overwriting everything with what they believe is the only way to live and believe.

My emotional reaction should serve as a clue to how very, very good Five Wives is. For all that the characters infuriated me, I was deeply engaged in this book. This book is a brilliant character study in addition to being an exemplary work of historical fiction. Enough of my gushing! Just read it!

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

Mother Land, by Leah Franqui

Rachel faces a fate feared by many women around the world. Shortly after Leah Franqui’s novel, Mother Land, opens, her mother-in-law appears at her apartment door with a loaded suitcase and no plans to ever leave. Franqui presents a clash of cultures that plays out as two women try to find a way to live together when they have radically different ideas about how to live.

Rachel tells us more than once in Mother Land that she marred Dhruv because of his certainty. After a life of not knowing what she wants, she is attracted to a man who knows exactly what he wants. They married in less than a year, then took what turns out to be an even bigger step: they move to Mumbai. Rachel is more than willing to give living in India a chance. Like other Westerners, she hopes that India will help her find herself.

Unfortunately, not knowing what she wants doesn’t mean that Rachel doesn’t know what she doesn’t want. For example, Rachel does not want the maid to come more than once a day. Nor does she want a cook. Most especially, Rachel does not want her mother-in-law Swati to live with her. After seeing the way her son and daughter-in-law show each other affection, Swati realizes that she has never loved her husband. Her unhappiness leads her to separate from her husband and fly across the country, from Kolkata to Mumbai, to live with her son.

Swati and Rachel have very different ideas about the right way to live. Swati argues that of course maid has to come twice a day and that not having a cook is just not done. Rachel loves cooking so much that having a cook is an insult. Neither of these women is very good at explaining what they want and why. Swati falls back on arguing that this is just the way things work in India. Rachel can’t articulate the American shame of having servants or her satisfaction in cooking things from scratch. Because Mother Land is narrated by Rachel and Swati in turns, I couldn’t help but sympathize with both of them.

As forced proximity often does, Swati and Rachel start to learn more about each other—as much as they don’t want to at the beginning. Swati slowly comes out of her very constricted upbringing and social strictures. Rachel, however, has to come to terms with the fact that she might have made too big of a leap when it came to marrying and moving to India. And, as the characters reflect on their prejudices and choices, they start to realize just how much they have in common.

Mother Land doesn’t end with a happily ever after for Rachel and Swati that we might have expected from a story about two people from different cultures who have to suddenly get along or end up fighting to the death. But it does end with a clarity that feels brave and honest. I really, really liked this book.

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

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: This book is strongly recommended for people who find themselves in close quarters with people they don’t understand.

These Women, by Ivy Pochoda

There is a moment near the end of These Women, by Ivy Pochoda, when a character has to explain her art. This character, Marella, creates audiovisual pieces using found photographs. Her piece, “Dead Body #3,” features photos taken by a woman who is later found murdered. The photos the murdered woman took perfectly captured the life she and her crew lived as exotic dancers and sex workers. Marella explains the images and her art in terms of how the audience is supposed to feel the violence that was inflicted on these women. The way that Marella steals their images is the latest in a long line of people taking advantage if them. Reading Marella’s intellectualization of her art really brought home for me the way that society thinks of these women—sex workers, especially those who have been murdered—as disposable, degraded, and despicable. These Women is a ferociously powerful and moving novel.

Unlike traditional procedural and mystery novels, most of These Women happens on the periphery of a series of serial murders. There are clues scattered throughout the novel, but I wasn’t focused on putting them together. Instead, I got lost in the pitch-perfect thoughts of Pochoda’s cast. The women who tell this story are astonishingly real. All of them are lost in their own, often frantic thoughts. One of them, Dorian, lives a half-life as a grieving mother whose daughter was killed by the serial killer. Another is a sex worker, Julianna, who is struggling to find a way out of the life. Later, the narrative shifts to an LAPD Vice detective named Perry with a fractured mind that works like a crossword puzzle writer. Her determination to solve the killer’s old and new murders might be a way for her to finally prove that she’s a good cop. The last narrators, one a woman with a terrible secret (Anneke) and another who is the sole survivor (Feelia), have extraordinary chapters—ones that finally put all the pieces together.

As I became absorbed in the narratives in These Women, I constantly thought about the concept of the “less-dead.” This term, which I learned about from listening to true crime podcasts but one that I know is much older, refers to homeless people, poor people of color, sex workers, drug users, who never seem to get the appropriate attention from law enforcement and the media. The women who don’t get to tell their stories in These Women, yet who are the catalyst for the entire story, are the less-dead. They never got the attention they needed. So many of them were brutally murdered and, years later, in the novel’s present, more died. None of them deserved it. No one deserved that death. But, from the perspective of most of the narrators, these women some how did something to deserve being murdered, because they were sex workers. These Women, and Marella’s fictional art that is featured therein, puts the spotlight right on our societal scorn.

These Women knocked me flat. This book is seriously one of the most powerful books I think I’ve ever read. It has so much to say and it does it all in a realistic, organic way that highlights the author’s ability to create characters that jump right off the page. I cannot praise this book highly enough.

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

The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich

Who is a Native American? What does it mean to be a member of a Native American tribe? What to men of the tribe owe the women, and vice versa? If the Constitution doesn’t apply to them, as it didn’t for much of the history of the United States, do Native Americans have inalienable rights? Or can the American government chip away at their sovereignty until there’s nothing left? Louise Erdrich wrestles with all of these questions and more in The Night Watchman. Like many of her previous novels, this book jumps from character to character on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota to create a group portrait of people living in the shadow of personal and tribal history.

The Night Watchman takes us back to 1953 and 1954, and primarily follows two characters. First, we meet Thomas Wazhushk during one of his shifts as a night watchman at a jewel bearing plant. It’s a good job, but Thomas uses the time between the patrols to do work that he thinks is more important: helping the Turtle Mountain band of the Chippewa survive. Second, Patrice Paranteau offers us a view into life in one of the poorest family’s on the reservation. While the Wazhushk family seem to be getting on fairly well, comparatively, the Paranteaus live in a tar paper house and eat whatever Patrice’s mother can grow and forage. Patrice’s job at the jewel bearing plant is the only thing bringing in money. These two characters, paired with the perspectives of a White teacher at the local school, a young man who has a crush on Patrice, Patrice’s alcoholic father, a mixed-race woman who became an academic, and a few others, serve as spaces for Erdrich to meditate on identity, duty, and other ideas—although I want to be clear that Erdrich’s characters are all fully realized.

The night that we meet Thomas comes shortly after he learns that Congress is about to visit one more indignity upon his people. Within twelve months, Congress plans to pass a termination bill for the Chippewa. This bill will strip the tribe of federal recognition; invalidate all treaties; break up the reservation; and divest the federal government of all social, medical, educational, and financial support for the tribe. (It really helped to have recently read Ada Deer’s account of her own tribe’s fight with termination, over at LitHub, before I read this book. Erdrich is clear, but a little light on historical detail.) Congress is trying to sell termination as a way to make the Chippewa into “real” Americans. Thomas and his fellow elders intend to fight termination to the last. Congress and White people have taken just about everything else; they are not going to be allowed to take away the Chippewa’s identity.

Meanwhile, Patrice is growing up quickly. To be honest, Patrice never really got much of a chance to be a child, with an alcoholic father and a mother doing everything she could to keep them alive. As the sole breadwinner, Patrice doesn’t have much time for either her quest to find her missing sister or deal with the longings of two young(ish) men who want her. Thomas’ chapters show us the macro view of survival at Turtle Mountain. Patrice’s chapters are a lot closer to the bone.

All this may sound grim—and a lot of is—but one of the things I like about Erdrich is that she always has comic relief in her novels. Some of that humor comes from older characters talking about sex; the old people in Erdrich’s novels always make me cackle. A lot of the humor in this book comes from the experiences of two hapless Mormon missionaries who are on the reservation to covert that Lamanites. (In another stroke of serendipity, living in Utah has made it easy for me to find people who will translate LDS-ese for me. I would recommend some background reading* to fully understand what’s going on with these characters.) I laughed out loud when the missionaries introduced themselves to tribal elders as “elders”–male missionaries call themselves this, even though they’re usually in their late teens or early twenties. I could just see the eyebrows going up. I also had to laugh at some of Thomas’ thoughts about the, um, origin story of the LDS faith. The people who sent those missionaries should have known better than to try and sell their story to a people who are master story-tellers.

The Night Watchman is not my favorite of Erdrich’s novels. (The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse is my favorite, with The Round House a close second.) It was a little too muddled for me. Erdrich built this book by blending her own family history with research she had done on the termination policy. Consequently, I think, The Night Watchman just tries to do too much while trying to argue its thesis. I tend to enjoy Erdrich’s novels more when they are more tightly focused on a character (like the ones I mentioned) or when they are much more diffuse, and just tell stories about characters that share a place and a time. Although this is not my favorite book in Erdrich’s oeuvre, I really enjoyed the characters, the pathos of their fights, the humor, and the supernatural notes. I also think that this book would be a great choice for a book group. There are so many questions to tackle that a group could talk about this book for hours.

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

* Or listen to the brilliant (but occasionally raunchy) five part series the guys at Last Podcast on the Life did on Mormonism.

Lady in the Lake, by Laura Lippman

Mystery fiction is full of amateur detectives. They’re a great vehicle for cozy mysteries, or for mysteries where the police aren’t interested for whatever reason. What annoys me about a lot of them is that these amateurs are often too good at their adopted profession. Either that or they’re graced with extraordinary good luck when it comes to getting information or stumbling onto clues. Laura Lippman’s Lady in the Lake features an amateur detective who, for once, bungles and slips up and makes terrible mistakes. Nothing in this book goes as expected. This novel’s constant defiance of expectation makes it stand head and shoulders above the crowd of amateur detective mysteries.

Baltimore in 1966 offers few opportunities for a woman to reinvent herself. Maddie Schwartz has been married to her husband for almost twenty years, living the ideal life of an upper middle class Jewish woman. The house is kosher. Everything runs on time. Everyone seems satisfied…except for Maddie. She has had enough of her unfulfilling life in the suburbs and separates from her husband. Maddie doesn’t know exactly what she’s going to do, at first. She finds an apartment in a not-great area of the city before she meets a very amorous African American police officer who not only helps her get set up as a single woman, but becomes her lover and connection to the Baltimore police department.

Two disappearances turn Lady in the Lake into a mystery. First, the one hinted at by the ghostly interstitial interruptions of Cleo Sherwood, becomes the main plot of the book. The second, the surprising murder of a young Jewish girl is the catalyst that helps Maddie find her new path in life as a journalist. After Maddie and an acquaintance find the body of Tessie Fine, Maddie takes it upon herself to write to her accused murderer. This leads her to a trial position at The Star. Until a body is found in one of the city’s fountains—and even after—Maddie is marginalized. Still, she keeps making opportunities for herself by investigating the death of the woman in the fountain, a death that no one seems particularly interested in because the victim is African American.

We don’t spend all of our time following Maddie around as she makes serious mistakes with her questions. For the first two-thirds of Lady in the Lake, every other chapter is told from the first-person perspective of the people Maddie meets, from a very self-satisfied prom date, to a murderer, to a man who goes to movies to put his hands on women’s knees. Many of these chapters are unpleasant. After reading them and how willing people are to take advantage of others makes me glad that I can’t read others’ thoughts. If nothing else, though, these chapters serve as a reminder that everyone has their own agenda and that our own adventures lead us to bump into a lot of those agendas every day.

Lady in the Lake is going to linger with me for a long time. Usually when I finish a mystery, I quickly move on to the book and the next puzzle. But because of the consequences of Maddie’s attempt to be an investigator and the very surprising ending, I’m left wondering if the cost of being a journalist or escaping Baltimore are too high. When is it best to stay quiet and live with the guilt or come clean and blow everything to hell again? Questions like these also mean that Lady in the Lake would be a great choice for a book club to take on. Even readers who aren’t a member of a book club should pick this one up for its genre-defying structure, characters, and conclusion.

I can’t remember who recommended Lady in the Lake to me. Sorry about that! And thank you!

The Shadow King, by Maaza Mengiste

Trigger warning for rape and torture.

In 1974, Hirut is a middle-aged woman shading into elderly. No one looking at her on the bus she is riding at the beginning of The Shadow King, the extraordinary novel by Maaza Mengiste, would know that she was a warrior who fought in her country’s most terrible war. The metal box full of photographs on her lap, however, is full of evidence of Hirut’s struggles and heroism. She is on a last mission to take these images back to the Italian photographer who took them and can’t resist a last look.

Until October 1935, when Fascist Italian forces invaded Ethiopia for the second time, Hirut was living a very isolated life as a slave to a jealous woman and her imperious husband. There’s no end in sight and no possibility of escape. It’s strange to say it, but the war is an opportunity for Hirut to change her fate. As many characters say in this novel, the only way out is through. The Shadow King shows us not just Hirut’s story; but also the dreamy fall of Emperor Haile Selassie as he loses his grip on his country and dignity and the struggles of Kidane and Aster, the people who claim to own Hirut; and the existential battles of an Italian photographer who starts to wonder if war crimes are really what he signed up for, being a half Jewish Russian-Italian man.

The Shadow King is a rough reading experience, but a deeply moving one. Mengiste’s novel is not a beat-for-beat recounting of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. The Christmas Offensive is briefly referred to. A bit more time is given to the evacuation of the imperial family. Instead, we see the struggle of Hirut and Aster to become real soldiers instead of overlooked, taken-for-granted support staff who cook, clean, and patch the men up after battles. Hirut survives so much in this book that I feel so proud of what she accomplished and heart-broken for what other people inflicted on each other.

Members of the Arbegnoch, Ethiopian resistance fighters (Image via Wikicommons)

This is the first book I’ve ever read that was set in Ethiopia. It was a magnificent introduction to the country, beautifully realized and with incredible characters. I loved Mengiste’s approach to historical fiction. The plot threads are so grounded in the lived experience of history rather than checking events off of a timeline. The characters know what the stakes are, but there is a lot of human planning and mistakes. There are no amazing coincidences or deuses ex machina to make sure that the Ethiopians come out on top. The Shadow King is packed with grit, literal and metaphorical.

I strongly recommend this to fans of books that blend historical fiction with literary writing chops. Reading groups will have plenty to discuss about entitlement, patriotism, colonialism, and courage. This book is absolutely incredible.

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

The Murmur of Bees, by Sofía Segovia

Francisco Morales has lived a long time in exile, although his is not as extreme or as tangible as exile in the traditional sense. When he was nine years old, his mother packed up the entire household and relocated from the family orange orchard to Monterrey, Nuevo León. Until the day that Francisco calls a cab to travel back to Linares, the closest town to where the orchard was, he hasn’t talked about the real reason for the family’s move. He doesn’t even talk about it until the end of The Murmur of Bees, by Sofía Segovia (beautifully translated by Simon Bruni). Instead, Francisco tells us (through the taxi driver) about the first nine years of his life, how the Morales family converted their sugarcane farm into a massive orange orchard, and about his friendship with the unusual Simonopio, before he explains what he’s been running from all these years.

The Murmur of Bees doesn’t open with Francisco, really. Instead, it opens with the discovery of an infant Simonopio by the very agéd Nana Reja. Simonopio was abandoned because of his severe cleft lip and cleft palate—although it doesn’t help that he is also found covered in honey bees. One character, who quietly becomes Simonopio and the Morales’ family nemesis, says that Simonopio’s condition is because the devil kissed him. Nana Reja and the Morales family take the boy into their care. Simonopio turns out to have special abilities. He can predict the weather. He never gets lost. And he can talk to bees. Simonopio is about ten years older than Francisco, who wasn’t born until after the Spanish flu pandemic. The two boys have a close connection right from the start. They’re nearly inseparable until the day that Señora Morales takes the family to Monterrey.

Segovia has a great gift for relating a lot of history without bogging down the narrative. Through Francisco and the lives of the Morales family, we learn about the impact of the Mexican Revolution and the agrarian reform movement of the 1910s and 1920s, the influenza pandemic, sharecropping, the conflict between atheist socialists and the Catholic church, and so much more. I didn’t feel the need to go to Wikipedia to learn more—I had more than enough information—but neither did I feel like all this history distracted from the very human stories unfolding around the Morales orchard. I fell in love with so many of the characters because Francisco does such a good job of telling their stories. He only takes center stage in about a third of the chapters. He gives way to chapters about Simonopio, chapters about both of his parents, and even a few chapters from the perspective of Anselmo, the canker at the center of the thriving orchard and community.

The Murmur of Bees is a book that envelops its readers; I sank into this book like a warm bath. There are awful things that happen, but the worst detains are told in an oblique way that takes away a lot of the potential horror. The awful things are also surrounded by years of family tales, bits of magic, and fully-realized, wonderful characters. This book would be a brilliant choice for book groups, readers who want family sagas, readers who like more accessible magical realism, and readers who are curious about life in Mexico that’s not all about Día de Muertos. I have a feeling I’m going to be recommending this book to a lot of people in the future.