Love Letter in Cuneiform, by Tomáš Zmeškal

26196562Tomáš Zmeškal’s Love Letter in Cuneiform (translated by Alex Zucker), I’m sorry to report, was a frustrating read for me. The publisher’s description—which is what attracted my interest in the first place—only covers a small part of this weirdly constructed novel about betrayal, love, family, forgiveness…and immortality, of all things. While this book does contain a plot thread about a family caught up in the Communist legal bureaucratic nightmare, it takes a lot of tangents. I didn’t get the book that I was expecting. This isn’t the book’s fault; I just wish I had been better prepared.

The novel opens with a family about to celebrate a marriage in 1968. Alice and Maximilian are going to get married. Only Alice’s parents and their few friends are in attendance. After a ceremony in a church and then a civil service, they have an elaborate wedding feast, with a Baroque cake created by a baker that we learn is completely off his trolley. There are long chapters later that reveal the story of Alice’s parents, Josef and Kvêta, Alice’s horrible marriage, and the delusions of the baker. The opening chapters are the easiest chapters to get through. The rest of the book felt like I was trying to assemble a puzzle after the pieces have been soaked and don’t really fit together anymore. To be honest, this book made me feel like an idiot.

There are a few things I think I worked out about Love Letter in Cuneiform. First, immortality is a frequent motif. The baker’s delusions include a man who is supposedly cloned from a famous person, to solve the problem of nature v. nurture at last. Another contains a man who is cursed with immortality. This overt examples of immortality are echoed by the way the characters keep telling each other stories about people who are gone or dead. As long as they tell stories, those people are not completely gone. Second, time plays a strange role in several sections. When Josef is in prison, for example, it’s as though he and Kvêta are living in lacunae. They’re just trying to survive until they can get back together again, when normal time will resume. So many characters seem to be waiting for a later them: when they get pregnant again, when Communism ends, etc. Things will be alright later. The problem with living like this is that it means so many characters suffer while they wait, instead of trying to make positive changes.

I’m sure I’m missing things about Love Letter in Cuneiform. In the translator’s note at the end, Zucker puts Zmeškal into the context of post-Communist Czech literature. The problem with this is that I had no clue who Zucker was talking about. I didn’t recognize any of the names. This isn’t Zmeškal or Zucker’s fault, of course. It’s not even really my fault; I could read every hour of the day, week in, week out, and still not be able to read everything I need to understand the titles in translation that come across my reading horizons.

At any rate, there are interesting ideas in Love Letter in Cuneiform. I would recommend it to readers who don’t get frustrated easily and like challenges (structural, thematic, contextual, etc.). For readers who are looking for a glimpse into life in another place and another time, there are easier reads out there.

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The Possible World, by Liese O’Halloran Schwarz

36373429Strange and violent things are happening in a small corner of the world around Providence, Rhode Island in Liese O’Halloran Schwarz’s The Possible World. The strangeness and the violence happen immediately. There’s a multiple murder. There’s a boy who stops answering to his own name and insisting on another. There’s an old woman in a nursing home with a mysterious past. Fortunately, all this strangeness and violent leads up to a perfect moment at the end of the book.

After the chaos of the opening chapters, The Possible World settles into three different narrative threads. The boy Ben, who wants people to call him Leo, is brought in to the emergency room to check for physical injuries after being the sole survivor of a multiple murder before being sent to the psychiatric ward. At the emergency room, he meets Dr. Lucy Cole, who is the consummate doctor with a crumbling marriage. Her husband doesn’t understand what it’s like to be married to a doctor. Meanwhile, Clare is about to celebrate her 100th birthday at a nursing home. In their little town, the oldest person gets a special award and it’s down to Clare and another woman. The problem is that no one can find proof of Clare’s birth…or her life before she arrived at the nursing home.

Leo (Ben) and Clare slowly tell their stories, revealing an unbelievable connection that I couldn’t have predicted from the outset. Leo and Lucy bond, both of them misunderstood by people who are supposed to stand by them. Leo is diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder and, because the psychiatrists aren’t making a lot of progress with him, he is about to turfed out to the foster system. His plight and his sadness make Lucy want to care for him beyond her remit as an ER doctor. As I learned more about Clare’s past and her connection to Leo, I saw a theme of ad hoc parenting and care-taking develop. In this book, family are the people you find when the biological family doesn’t work for a variety of reasons.

Some readers may be irritated by the ending, which relies on the perfect alignment of all the plots. I liked it. For me, the ending was a brilliant resolution of Leo and Clare’s story. Surprisingly for a book that starts with a gruesome multiple murder, this book ends on a bright note of hope. I also really liked the characters. Unlike some books with multiple narrators, I liked all of the protagonists. There weren’t any sections that dragged or that bored me. The Possible World was a weirdly charming book.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 26 June 2018.

Cluny Brown, by Margery Sharp

29893549If you were to ask any of Cluny’s family members what’s wrong with her, they would tell you that it’s because she doesn’t know her place. If you were to ask Cluny, she would probably agree. She hungers for experiences and isn’t afraid to do anything that seems like a good idea. In Margery Sharp’s short novel, Cluny Brown, we watch the charmingly innocent Cluny take on a challenge that might help her find her place after at last.

When we first meet Cluny, she’s living in London with her uncle. She’s an orphan, but she’s making the best of it. She’s a delightful naïf who sometimes reminds me of a less destructive Amelia Bedelia. The day that she decides to take a call meant for her uncle and goes off to tackle an emergency plumbing job puts an end to get dreamy days in the big city. Uncle Arn takes his sister-in-law’s advice and sends Cluny into service. Because it’s 1938 and servants are thin on the ground, it’s not hard for her to get a job as a maid at a Devonshire estate called Friars Carmel. The idea is that the strict discipline of service will help Cluny settle down.

At first, it appears to be working. Cluny isn’t afraid of hard work and the fact that the estate is understaffed seems to appeal to Cluny’s scattered brain since she has to do a bunch of different jobs in a day. She even managed to form an attachment to a local chemist. But then, Cluny will be Cluny and, after spending all this time with her, I had to cheer. The world would’ve been a duller place without Cluny’s essential Cluny-ness in it. Meanwhile, the book is filled out with a Polish writer in exile who also doesn’t seem to know his place, a lovelorn future lord of the manner, and other denizens of Friars Carmel and the village.

I’ve read two other Margery Sharp novels, The Nutmeg Tree and Britannia Mews, and this one is my second favorite. It’s not quite as funny or as satisfying as The Nutmeg Tree, but it’s much zippier than Britannia Mews. I had a few problems with Cluny Brown that kept it from being a complete winner for me. I found the pacing to be off in places. Some of the book is slow and there’s a logjam of events right at the end of the book that seemed to come out nowhere. Cluny herself does a lot to rescue the book, though. She’s well worth the price of entry.

Deep Roots, by Ruthanna Emrys

36144841Deep Roots, the second novel in Ruthanna Emrys’s Innsmouth Legacy series, builds on the strange world her protagonists discovered and fought in Winter Tide. This entry in the series shows Aphra Marsh’s confluence—her magically bonded family members and friends—taking on new enemies and learning more about the creatures they didn’t know were already living on earth.

At the beginning of Deep Roots, Aphra et al. are in New York looking for distant family members who might have survived the devastating government raids of 1929. New family members could help them rebuild their species. They’ve traced a couple of distant cousins to the city, but it seems that someone else has a claim on cousin Freddy. While Aphra and the confluence try to get the measure of the Outer Ones and their bizarre, disturbing abilities to travel, they also have to contend with old frenemies: the weird stuff office of the FBI. Aphra reluctantly asks for their help because the Outer Ones have a fearsome reputation. But the problem with asking for federal help during the opening years of the Cold War is that the FBI agents will use every opportunity to find an advantage they can use against the Soviets.

While there are some great scenes in Deep Roots, notably the fight scene at the end of the book, most of this book is dialogue. Much of the dialogue is negotiation and plotting, between Aphra and the FBI, between Aphra and her much older relatives, between Aphra and the Outer Ones, between the Outer Ones and the FBI—and between Aphra and the members of the confluence. Too be honest, it was all a bit wearying. I enjoyed learning more about this revamped version of the Lovecraft mythos. The problem with this book is one I’ve seen in later series entries in urban fantasy when the various factions in the book all have immense powers. Instead of fighting or, well, any kind of action, it’s all talk.

Reader who were hooked by Winter Tide may enjoy this continuation. I suspect that it will be necessary reading for the next book in the series. I’m still curious about what will come next in the Innsmouth Legacy, since the ending of Deep Roots seems to clear the board for more adventures for the confluence. I just hope that those future adventures have more magic and action than talk.

I received a free copy of his book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 10 July 2018.

One Night, Markovitch, by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

23269042Though it takes place during World War II and the founding of Israel, Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s, One Night, Markovitchrevolves around questions of love and loneliness. In this novel, three men struggle to explain and obtain what they really want in life. Zeev loves his wife, but he also wants to be a manly hero. Ephraim loves Zeev’s wife, but cannot have her. And Markovitch himself wants the love of his own wife, but she can’t love him because he refused to let her go. I wonder if the book would have read differently before #MeToo, if I would have been more forgiving of these men. As it is, I have no tolerance for men who behave as though women owe them something because the men had feelings for their chosen women.

Markovitch and Zeev are members of the Irgun, under the direction of Ephraim (who is almost always referred to as the deputy commander). Zeev is better known as a philanderer than a fighter and Markovitch is only used as a smuggler because his face is so unremarkable. But when Markovitch and Zeev run afoul of a butcher in their kibbutz, they beg the deputy commander to send them on a mission. Thus, they are dispatched to Europe to help Jewish women escape to Palestine. The scheme is that they marry quickly, because the British will let couples in, and then get divorces as soon as they land in Tel Aviv. Zeev holds up his end of the bargain. Markovitch, who married the devastatingly beautiful Bella, does not.

Markovitch hopes that Bella will someday forgive him for what he did. As the years roll on, this seems less and less likely. One Night, Markovitch drifts through time. The war in Europe seems like a vague nightmare off in the distance. Zeev and Markovitch do get caught up in the fighting in 1948. Most of the novel, however, is surprisingly domestic given how violent things were at the time. We see babies born and children grow while Zeev, Markovitch, and Ephraim wrestle with their feelings and the women they feel things about. The three men act almost as models about how people can respond to unrequited love. Ephraim soldiers on, a mostly perfect stoic fighter for Israel. Zeev cracks after making a terrible mistake and runs away from his wife’s love. And then there’s Markovitch, stubbornly waiting for an angry woman to fall in love with him.

I’m not sure what to make of One Night, Markovitch other than to say that it’s the opposite of what a romance author would do with the marriage of convenience trope. Where a romance author would have the two leads fall madly in love with each other before the curtain drops, a literary author seems almost bound to go in the other direction. Everyone in this book is miserable and there is no happily ever after. I appreciate that. Markovitch is clearly in the wrong and he should have given Bella her freedom. But because I spent almost 400 pages watching everyone mope around the Israeli desert, I’m mostly left with feelings of uneasiness and frustration. If that’s what this book meant to accomplish, it achieved its goal. If I’m meant to sympathize with the characters in this book, it left me cold.

Safe Houses, by Dan Fesperman

36463975Helen Abell heard something she wasn’t supposed to hear at the beginning of Dan Fesperman’s Safe Houses. In fact, she hears two things she wasn’t supposed to hear. Also, she was taping the people speaking in one of the Berlin safe houses she monitors for the CIA. Even worse: some of the people who were saying things they shouldn’t know she has incriminating tapes. This is the set up for a thrilling mystery that spans almost four decades and two continents.

Helen’s half of Safe Houses follows her as she pisses off the wrong people trying to right a wrong and root out some possible treasons in 1979. Thirty-five years later, Henry Mattick helps Helen’s daughter, Anne, solve the mystery of Helen’s 2014 murder. (This isn’t a spoiler. The murders happen very early in the book.) Henry also works for the government and has special skills, though he’s not as official as Helen was. He’s already in the small Virginia town where Helen lived for decades, keeping track of her visitors, when she and her husband are suddenly and brutally murdered. Anne does not believe the official narrative, that her developmentally disabled brother murdered their parents with a rifle. Someone gives her Henry’s name and she hires him to basically double-down on the job he was already doing.

Once all of this is set up, we’re off to the races with Helen, Henry, and Anne. I loved all the twists on the standard spy and mystery plots. Helen isn’t fighting the Russians or the East Germans; she’s up against the good old boy network of American intelligence. Henry isn’t sure which agency he actually reports to, but it’s clear there are factions and rot. Anne is not as strong a character, but that may be because she’s not a point-of-view character. (There is also a shoe-horned-in romance plot that was unnecessary and kind of irritated me.) I had a great time keeping track of all the double-crosses and sinister henchmen.

Aside from the romance subplot, I liked Safe Houses. It’s got gripping action scenes and original conflicts. Fesperman did a great job creating two settings in which the characters feel like they have no where to turn. Because Helen, Henry, and Anne are pretty much completely on their own, we have to wait and hope that they will find a way to survive with only the slimmest chance of rescue. I’d recommend this for thriller readers who’d like something other than the usual spy v. spy or spy v. terrorist fare.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, fore review consideration. It will be released 3 July 2018.

Dear Mrs Bird, by A.J. Pearce

36373413Blessed be the meddlers—but only the fictional ones who can’t actually meddle in your life. Perhaps its just that they’re fictional and there’s no way that their particular brand of obtrusive wackiness will never actually touch my life, but I dearly love to read about characters who mean well but tend to sow havoc when they try to help. These were my thoughts when I read the adventures of Emmy Lake in A.J. Pearce’s delightfully funny novel, Dear Mrs Bird.

When we meet her, Emmy has not yet become aware of her meddler status. She seems content as a soldier’s fiancée, legal secretary, and volunteer dispatcher for London’s air raid fire service. But then, she gets what she thinks is a once in a lifetime job opportunity: a job as a junior at a Fleet Street magazine. Unfortunately, this is not the first step to becoming a Lady War Correspondent (there are a lot of very British capital letters in this book). Emmy’s brand new job is as an assistant to the very bombastic and very old-fashioned advice columnist, Mrs Bird, at Women’s Friend. Since there aren’t any other job prospects, Emmy stays put, even though Mrs Bird is absolutely horrible. It isn’t long before Emmy is tempted to unofficially expand her job duties. Mrs Bird has a long list of topics for letters that are Unacceptable. She refuses to write about anything to do with adultery, sex, the war, and any adjacent topics. When she does answer a reader’s letter, her advice is as brisk as a cold shower with vinegar. So, Emmy starts to answer the letters herself.

in-a-narrow-air-raid-shelter-in-North-London-1940-1-595x895

A man and a woman share a bottle of wine on Christmas Day, 1940, in a London bomb shelter.
(Image via WW2Today)

Dear Mrs Bird follows Emmy as she continues her subterfuge and Do Her Bit during the worst months of the Blitz. The language of the novel is very much Keep Calm and Carry On. It’s hard to get a sense of what Emmy and her fellow Londoners really feel unless you’re fluent in understated British English. As the Blitz continues, however, it gets harder for Emmy, her friends, and family, start to lose their stiff upper lip, just a little. The sadness makes this book feel more real, giving us a small taste of what life might have been like when you didn’t know if you might get bombed out or killed by the Germans.

It’s only a taste though, and Dear Mrs Bird has wonderfully funny language, a romance subplot, hilarious characters, and plenty of period detail for the history buffs among us. I really enjoyed reading this book. It scratched an itch I didn’t know I had since I read Cold Comfort Farmby Stella Gibbons, in which another character who is convinced of the rightness of her actions turns a community on its head. Perhaps the thing I liked most about Dear Mrs Bird is its sweetness. What inspires Emmy to answer that first letter is a deep empathy for a writer who has no one else to turn to, who needs a sympathetic ear and a kind word of advice.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 3 July 2018.