Days Come and Go, by Hemley Boum

Trigger warnings for brief depictions of domestic violence and rape.

Some families seem cursed. Whether you believe that it’s divine retribution or a supernatural haunting or epigenetics, some people just seem doomed to follow the same path as their ancestors. The reason we read about families like the one depicted in Hemley Boum’s Days Come and Go and other literary family sagas, I think, is in the hope that one of the family’s scions will find a way to break the curse. The women of the sprawling Cameroonian family at the heart of Days Come and Go seem to be cursed in love. Three generations in a row, we see women get caught up in relationships at a critical moment in their young lives. The early promises of those relationships—love, belonging, social status, financial security, parenthood—are broken early, leaving Anna, Abi, and Tina to rediscover their solitary selves. Days Come and Go is skillfully translated by Nchanji Njamnsi.

Days Come and Go is told in roughly chronological order, after some present-day sections that help establish the relationships between our three narrators. As far as I can tell, the novel spans from the 1950s to 2015. When we first meet her, Anna, the matriarch, is dying of cancer. Her daughter, Abi, is torn between caring for Anna and dealing with the aftermath of a nasty divorce. One of Anna’s nurses tells Abi that Anna has been talking about her past, suggesting that Abi listen in. Anna’s revelations take us back to her girlhood in a remote Cameroonian village. She tells us how a missionary smoothed the way for Anna to get a French education: all Anna has to give up is her non-European name and work her fingers to the bone to get it. She slowly loses contact with the woman who raised her and reshapes herself into the good subject that the Europeans want her to be. Around the time Cameroon becomes independent, in 1960, Anna means her husband in a whirlwind of youthful idealism and rebelliousness, only to find herself trapped by pregnancy and in-laws who despise her.

When the novel comes back around to Abi’s story, we find her in the last days of her marriage. Her husband discovers that Abi has been having a long-term affair. The betrayal brings out a frightening, ugly side to Abi’s husband and rips their small family into pieces. Just like with her mother Anna, Abi has to confront the realization that people only really show you who they are when they’re under pressure. It might be the pressure to conform to racial prejudices or the dictates of a mother-in-law or humiliation.

The last narrator’s story is the most harrowing. Tina is not a biological member of Anna’s family but, as an orphan, she was informally adopted into Anna’s household. When her dearest friend becomes religious, Tina is so lonely that she joins the local mosque, too. It’s not until far too late that Tina and her friend realize that they’ve been recruited into Boko Haram. By then, it’s impossible for them to escape with their lives. Thankfully, Anna is able to use her husband’s contacts in the Cameroonian government and military to help Tina escape.

The details in the women’s stories vary but they all share the same rough arc. (There are some hints that Tina might be the one to break the family curse.) They all dive deeply into relationships with people they don’t really know. Anna’s husband had a controlling family and a taste for the kind of finer things that only lots of money can buy. Abi’s husband saw her as a possession; he was shockingly misogynist for a man who professed to be a lovely family man. Tina’s friend nursed a deep sense of rejection that led her to a fundamentalist group of terrorists that later killed her.

What are we to make of these stories? Should we stay away from all-encompassing relationships? Do we have to give up on love and kinship and friendship? In spite of all the heartache and pain the women experience in Days Come and Go, I think that the narrators in this story wouldn’t say that we have to give up any of these relationships. Instead, I think they’d say: keep your eyes open. I think they’d also say: you don’t need another person to make you whole. And I think that, in the end, they would say: we are stronger and more resilient than we realize.

The lake in Parcour vita, Douala, Cameroon. Much of the story takes place in Douala. (Image via Wikicommons)

Witches, by Brenda Lozano

Trigger warning for rape, anti-LGBTQ+ prejudice, and interpersonal violence.

There are so many things we don’t know about ourselves. There are medicines we take for which we don’t know the mechanism of action. There are ailments that we don’t have good treatments for or, sometimes, any treatment at all. Perhaps the most mysterious illnesses of all are the ones that afflict our psyches or, as the protagonist of Brenda Lozano’s affecting novel, The Witches, would say: sickness in our soul or our “deep waters.” Feliciana, modeled in part on real-life curandera María Sabina Magdalena García, has been healing people’s sick souls for decades through veladas, ceremonies involving the use of psychoactive mushrooms. When journalist Zoe comes to interview Feliciana after the murder of Feliciana’s transgender mentor and friend, Paloma, we see how Feliciana works her magic on maladies that no one else would consider curable.

The Witches is thoughtfully translated by Heather Cleary, who also writes a very informative introduction that I recommend to readers who aren’t familiar with curanderos or third-gender people in Mesoamerican cultures.

Feliciana and Paloma are the children of curanderos. Their family knowledge of local flora and fungi give them the ability to heal people with conditions Westerners might diagnose as alcoholism, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Over the years, attention from Western researchers, doctors, and (mostly) celebrities has turned her into a powerful woman who is viewed with jealousy by many people in her small Mexican village. But whatever ire is directed towards Feliciana pales in comparison to the violence faced by muxe Paloma, who we only meet through Feliciana’s memories about her mentor and friend. Just before the book opens, Paloma is murdered by a man who she accidentally infected with “a disease unborn,” which I think means HIV.

Psilocybe caerulescens, one of several psychoactive mushrooms used in Mesoamerican healing (Image via Wikicommons)

Feliciana tells her story—and Paloma’s story—to Zoe, a journalist who has reached the end of her psychological endurance. Just as Feliciana relates her life story, the curandera asks Zoe about her own life. It isn’t hard to see the parallels between Zoe and Feliciana’s lives: parents with abilities beyond the strictly mundane, sisters with histories of abuse, and pressure to “stay in their place” from society at large. The big difference between the two is that Feliciana has a deep, hopeful faith that everything wrong can be righted whereas Zoe has struggled to function and find happiness in her own life.

While Witches is primarily centered on the women’s lives, it does touch briefly on cultural appropriation, the limits of faith and healing, and the duty to one’s own happiness versus the duty to use one’s knowledge to help the community. I was glad to see these topics addressed because it enriches what is already a fascinating pair of stories. I would definitely recommend this to readers looking for a soul-deep story about hope, healing, and honesty.

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

We Carry Their Bones, by Erin Kimmerle

Trigger warning for extreme child abuse and murder.

Before it closed in 2011, the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, was the subject of repeated state investigations for abuse and unexplained deaths of the boys who were sentenced there. The correctional institution was a place where boys were dumped. Many of the inmates had been sentenced for criminal offenses, but some (especially children of color) could be sentenced for “vagrancy”—a “crime” that forensic anthropologist and author Erin Kimmerle notes was often used to snatch people (again, especially people of color) from around the state to lease out for prison labor. All of those investigations found evidence of extreme abuse and yet the school was remained open for 111 years, after dozens of children had died and thousands more suffered irreparable psychological and physical harm. We Carry Their Bones is Kimmerle’s attempt to document the crimes that took place at the Dozier School and her role in uncovering dozens of unmarked graves on the School’s land when the University of South Florida finally got permission to conduct a forensic investigation in 2012.

We Carry Their Bones is the second book I’ve read that was based, at least in part, on events at the Dozier School. In 2020, I read Colson Whitehead’s gutting novel, The Nickel Boys. That novel is part of the reason I wanted to read We Carry Their Bones. I wanted to know more about the history behind Whitehead’s book. That history is very grim indeed. The Florida School for Boys—later renamed the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys—was founded in 1900 as a place for minor boys to be sentenced by the court system. The institution was segregated. When investigators recommended reforms (when they weren’t asking for the whole school to be shut down), the few reforms that were enacted were usually only implemented on the white side of the school. For example, one of the early investigations required that the school install fire escapes on the dormitories, they were only added to the white ones. Only years later were fire escapes added to all the dormitories. A fire destroyed one of the white dormitories in 1914. At least seven people died in that fire. It would have been worse if not for the two fire escapes–although Kimmerle points out that the doors to those fire escapes were locked and chained. Guards and children had to break the locks to get out.

Almost 100 years later, Kimmerle and her team from the University of South Florida found those seven bodies, co-minged in a confusing number of coffins, in unmarked graves on the school grounds. School and legal records (those that could be found) recorded 31 burials on the school grounds. Between 2011 and 2012, fifty-five graves had been found. The initial USF investigation used ground-penetrating radar and a technique called ground-truthing to find the graves in the graveyard. Ground-truthing is the removal of a shallow layer of soil to see if anomalies detected by the radar were burial sites. Kimmerle and her team didn’t have permission to dig deeper to confirm burials or exhume bodies. They, relatives of children who died at Dozier, and former inmates had to go to court repeatedly to get official permission to exhume bodies, identify those they could, and rebury them. Kimmerle frequently shares her memories of conversations with grieving family members and former inmates. Even decades later, the grief and fear and sorrow and anger are fresh. The former inmates, notably the White Hosue Boys (who took their name from the building on campus where the worst beatings were meted out), and family members never stopped asking questions about what happened at Dozier.

I appreciated several things about We Carry Their Bones: Kimmerle’s persistence in getting at least some justice for the children, the former inmates, and the relatives; her forensic expertise; and her efforts to put the crimes of the Dozier school into historical context. That said, I struggled to get through the brief book. We Carry Their Bones is disorganized and repetitive. Events aren’t arranged chronologically or thematically. Some events are told more than once, in similar language. A lot of the school’s history itself is glossed over. I can understand that people who worked at the school would be very unwilling to talk to Kimmerle, but it’s hard to conceive of how the Dozier School was open for so long, almost entirely unchanged in spite of the investigations, without more information. On that score, Kimmerle does touch upon why the residents of Marianna—who for decades staffed the school and were financially supported by it—would have such a hard time a) admitting the crimes that happened at the school and b) accepting that the school’s secrets must come to light. A lot of white Americans resist the fact that their ancestors did terrible things. A lot of the people who fight Kimmerle and other’s efforts were very much alive when those crimes occurred. If they knew, they were complicit. If they didn’t know, they knew people who were involved, either in the brutality itself or the efforts to cover it up.

In sum, although there are some very good parts of We Carry Their Bones and although this is an important story that must be told, I think this book could have used more time with the editors to cut the repetitive elements; suggest areas to add additional, relevant material; and re-organize the overall structure.

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

The Blunder, by Mutt-Lon

Trigger warning for frequent use of racist language.

Before doctors understood the causes of and developed reliable treatments for the disease, African trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness) outbreaks could kill hundreds of thousands of people. Because the disease is caused by parasites in the tsetse fly, efforts to control and hopefully eradicate the disease involve controlling the population of the fly and treating patients as soon as possible. The course of dealing with sleeping sickness hasn’t run as smoothly as my quick background might make it sound. Mutt-Lon’s satirical novella, The Blunder, takes its inspiration from an actual historical incident. Mutt-Lon uses the real blunder and its aftermath to shine a light on colonial racism and paternalism and tribal conflict.

Damienne Bourdin is not a star in the medical field when she is dispatched to French Cameroon in 1929 to take on a personal mission for the head of Cameroon’s sleeping sickness eradication efforts, Eugène Jamot. Jamot explains that one of the doctors in his program has made a big, big mistake in calculating doses of tryparsamide and atoxyl. At the correct dosage, these drugs can treat sleeping sickness. At too high a dosage, it causes irreparable blindness due to the arsenic in the medicines. Hundreds of people were left blind. This mistake destroyed a lot of the confidence Cameroonians had in western medicine and the French government, to the point that a war might break out against the French. Damienne’s mission is to go into the interior to find the daughter of one of the most powerful Cameroonian chiefs. Edoa trained as a nurse and was caught in the violence. If Damienne can bring her back, the chief promises to use his influence to head off a bigger conflict. To keep things quiet, Damienne goes into the interior with only two guides: an official from the powerful chief’s government and a man named Ndongo, who is always described as a pygmy without reference to his tribe.

A savvier protagonist would have more questions about Jamot’s hair-brained quest. I certainly did. Jamot might be a genius when it comes to infectious disease but he clearly knows nothing about espionage or diplomacy. Almost as soon as Damienne leaves Yaoundé things start to go wrong. Damienne’s journey introduces her to angry Cameroonians, buffoonish colonial officers, and medical officers caught in the middle just trying to keep people alive. Her own prejudices toward the Cameroonians don’t help either. There are many cringe-worthy moments when Damienne is astonished to learn that Cameroonians are intelligent people who don’t need any Europeans to tell them what to do.

Amy B. Reid, the faithful translator, describes The Blunder as a hilarious lampooning of French Cameroon at the end of the 1920s. Hilarious is not the adjective I would use. It didn’t make me laugh. More than anything else, it made me angry. It’s possible that I’m missing things that would be funny if I was able to read the book in the original French. It’s also possible that I’m missing a lot of cultural and historical context. That said, not making me laugh is not a reason not to read this book. Don’t go looking for humor here. Instead, pay attention to the very pointed satire of the chaotic situations Damienne finds herself in and to the oblivious racism of the Europeans. Mutt-Lon’s verbal barbs strike deep.

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

The Many Daughters of Afong Moy, by Jamie Ford

Trigger warning for depictions of rape, racism, and abusive relationships.

The Bible tells us that the sins of the father shall be visited upon the son. But what about the mothers and daughters? Jamie Ford asks that very question in The Many Daughters of Afong Moy. Afong Moy is a real historical figure, believed to be the first Chinese woman to come to America. Newspapers in the 1830s wrote about her appearances as a traveling “exhibit,” in which she would sing and show her four-inch-long bound feet. From this inspiration, Ford imagines a series of female descendants who are haunted by trauma that compounds over the generations. Unfortunately, this interesting premise suffers from inadequate character development and a plot that races along too quickly to properly explore ideas and questions.

Afong Moy, at least in this book, seems like a person born to suffer. Instead of being able to marry the man she loves, she is given away in marriage to a man who has actually died. (Moy’s family can’t, for some reason, go back on the agreement with the other family.) Another of her dead fiance’s wives offers her an out: go to America. This rescue quickly turns sour as the people she was sent to end up exhibiting her as a curiosity. Things get even worse from here. Afong’s experiences—rape, exploitation, silencing—become the template for the lives of a series of descendants we meet in 1900s San Francisco, 1920s England, 1940s Myanmar, and Seattle in the 2010s and 2040s. In a sense, the racing plot might be a blessing in disguise because we are rarely given enough time with each of these women to bond with them.

An image of Moy from The Pittsburgh Gazette, 1836 (Image via Wikicommons)

We spend the most time with Dorothy, Afong’s descendant in a climate-ravaged Seattle of the mid-2040s. Dorothy’s homelife with her schmuck of a husband is just as tempestuous as the weather outside. The only bright spot is her daughter (we are told more than shown how precocious she is). Dorothy is afflicted with a depression that she can’t shake and can’t explain. After all other avenues have been explored—and with the pressure of possibly losing custody of her daughter—Dorothy tries an experimental treatment that claims to unlock past traumas. And by past traumas, the researcher means Dorothy’s and all her ancestors’ traumas. The ideas is that these traumas have been embedded in her DNA and the only way Dorothy can learn to deal with her inchoate feelings is to confront all of them.

The most interesting parts of The Many Daughters of Afong Moy come when Dorothy’s treatment begins to grant her access to her ancestors’ experiences. This mostly unexplained element of science fiction turns into a way for Dorothy to right some historic wrongs, if she can find enough courage in herself. It’s fun to watch. Unfortunately, at least for me, it was too little, too late. I felt like I was being whisked through a slide show of anti-Chinese racism and sexism over the centuries rather than engaging with realistic characters. If the plot had slowed down enough for more of the descendants to become more than waypoints, I would have enjoyed this book a lot more. That said, I wonder if a slower plot could’ve been supported by characters that didn’t have enough individuality to feel distinct from each other. Although there were interesting parts, I think The Many Daughters of Afong Moy just doesn’t live up to its premise.

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

W., by Steve Sem-Sandberg

Trigger warnings for disturbing acts of violence against humans and animals.

I’ve always been bothered by the term “crime of passion.” It always struck me as an excuse for a criminal act of violence, as if someone is somehow less guilty because they weren’t able to control their emotions. But then, when you start to think about things in terms of crime and punishment, how are we, a jury of readers or an actual jury, supposed to interpret the series of actions that lead to and follow a murder? How can we put ourselves in the mind of a perpetrator to decide if they acted with premeditation or malice aforethought or any of a number of legal distinctions for someone’s state of mind? And how much does that state of mind matter when someone is dead? I thought about these questions and the idea of a crime of passion a lot as I read Steve Sem-Sandberg’s W. (translated expertly by Saskia Vogel).

The story of Johann Christian Woyzeck has been told in fiction more than. The first version of the story was an 1836 play by Georg Büchner. Judging by the number of adaptations of that play and other versions of Woyzeck that have appeared in the 200 years since the soldier Woyzeck fatally stabbed his lover, I’m not the only one who is curious about crimes of passion or who wants to understand the thoughts that could lead someone to a sudden act of violence.

Sem-Sandberg’s W. gives Woyzeck a chance to tell his confusing story, in between sections that read like court transcripts or reports from legal and medical experts involved in the Woyzeck case. The legal documents keep us grounded in the facts of the case. Sometime before the night of June 2/3, 1821, Johann Christian Woyzeck procured a dagger made from a broken saber or bayonet blade. He used the blade on that June night to murder Johanna Woost. Woost had been Woyzeck’s lover. Beyond these facts, even in W., there is a lot of uncertainty about why the murder happened. There’s also a lot of uncertainty about Woyzeck’s life. He held a number of different positions: wigmaker’s apprentice, woodworker, soldier, barber, and general man-at-work. It seems like no one, not even Woyzeck himself, knew what to do with the man. I can only describe his life as a dark or anti-picaresque, in which Woyzeck is constantly caught up in bad situations with violent and/or manipulative people.

In Sem-Sandberg’s account, there are a number of factors that might influence a jury’s verdict about Woyzeck’s guilt. Woyzeck suffered a number of head injuries over the course of his life, starting in childhood. We now know that serious head injuries can change someone’s personality or alter their ability to tell right from wrong or affect their ability to regulate their emotions. Woyzeck may have also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He served with a regiment of troops from Mecklenburg during Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Russia in 1812, during which he would’ve seen terrible things. And yet, court records show that Woyzeck was—as far as the medical science of 1821 and 1824 could tell—of sound mind when his crime occurred.

W. is a challenging read. The multiple timelines, the senseless violence, and the ethical questions about mitigating factors mean that this book is difficult to read in several senses of the word. But I don’t think that readers who are curious about historical true crime, justice, or mental health should be put off. This book is packed with food for thought. I also very much appreciated Sem-Sandberg’s handling of the historical material. W. is a skillful blend of fact and fiction that brings to life a story that, apart from fans of Büchner’s play, is almost entirely forgotten.

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

Love Marriage, by Monica Ali

Trigger warning for brief discussion of rape.

When Love Marriage, by Monica Ali, opens, we meet Yasmin Ghorami at her most anxious. She and her fiance, Joe, are about to introduce their parents to each other. Yasmin is very embarrassed by her traditional Bengali parents and extremely apprehensive about the judgment of her British future mother-in-law, a sex-positive intellectual. Ali is so descriptive in this opening chapter that I was cringing on Yasmin’s behalf. Strangely enough, the dinner goes relatively well. It goes well enough that it lures Yasmin into a false sense of security. Little does she know but that dinner is one of the last times that her life will be on course for many months.

Over the course of Love Marriage, almost everything will go wrong in Yasmin and Joe’s lives, and in their parents’ lives. That dinner—with all of the characters straining to make a good impression—gives us a strong hint about what’s going to go wrong in all those lives. You see, part of the reason why all the characters are sitting with their hair clenched (to borrow a line from one of my favorite movies, A Fish Called Wanda) is because all of them have secrets they desperately want to keep hidden from each other. We learn those secrets over the course of the novel as the characters make mistakes, get angry with each other, and are forced to renegotiate their relationships with each other. Sadly, Yasmin et al.’s stories prove that the course of true love really doesn’t want to run smooth.

I realize that my summary might make this book sound like a soap opera (and I haven’t even mentioned the sex addiction or the illegitimate child or the racial harassment). All of that drama serves a valuable purpose. Once the secrets start to come out, all of the characters can finally ask themselves important questions about what matters to them, who do they really love, and what are they willing to compromise over. The other benefit of all those secrets coming out is that the characters can face the things that have been haunting them, sometimes for years, and heal.

Love Marriage is one of the most cathartic books I’ve ever read. When I finished the last paragraph and closed the book, it felt like I had run a marathon. I felt emotionally wrung out. Again, this might sound bad, but it was a deeply satisfying kind of wrung out. Ali’s character development is absolutely stellar. The secrets the characters hold are original but still plausible and relatable. This is one of the best works of literary fiction I’ve read in a very long time.

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.

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.