A Ballad of Love and Glory, by Reyna Grande****

“We Irish know what ’tis like to be oppressed by an aggressive neighbor.”

Reyna Grande can really write. This is the first of her novels I have read, but it surely won’t be the last. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

A Ballad of Love and Glory encompasses two genres, romance and historical fiction. It’s the story of John Riley, an Irish immigrant to the USA in the mid-nineteenth century, who is met at the dock by military recruiters that want him and his compatriots to serve in the US army, fighting the war against Mexico. Riley arrives half-starved and worried sick about the fate of his family that he left behind. The promise of soldier’s wages is enough to persuade him, and he enlists.

It’s also the story of Ximena, a Mexican naturopath whose husband is killed by Texas Rangers. She follows the army to help care for the wounded; she and Riley are drawn together.

As for me, I am drawn to this tale by my love of military history, whether nonfiction or fiction, and by the unconventional point of view regarding the U.S. land grab. At the time of the annexation of Texas, followed by the war against Mexico, most Americans accepted the official explanation and believed that the war was initiated by Mexican aggression toward U.S. citizens across the border. Some, including an up-and-coming politician named Abraham Lincoln, saw threw the ruse and understood that the whole thing was a pretext on the part of the US designed to capture Texas, California, and points in between. This is the background information that I bring with me as I begin reading this novel.

The title and book cover both focus on romance, and if a friend hadn’t mentioned this story, I would have passed it by; most romance is too sappy for my tastes. But an entire brigade of Irish immigrants that jump sides in the midst of the conflict and fight, instead, for Mexico? I have to read this!

Grande honors historical truth in her storytelling, and as such, this is one sad read. The Irish soldiers are treated more savagely by the American-born officers than I had known, and Grande gives us plenty of detail. And although I know, when I begin reading, exactly who wins this war, it’s hard to face the inevitable once I am bonded to these characters.

That said, I do think Grande does a better job with the military end of this thing, and of developing John Riley in other regards, than romance. There’s this tension between Riley and Ximena, because he is a married man with a child back home—and I can guess immediately how this conflict will be resolved. Until that resolution, the tension, part of the “honor” mentioned in the title, is drawn to nearly ridiculous proportions; at one point, as the two are straining passionately toward one another, they both stop simultaneously, whip out their rosaries, and start saying Hail Mary’s together. I threw back my head and laughed!

Nevertheless, this is a wonderful novel. If you enjoy historical fiction; unconventional points of view; working class fiction; or tales of forbidden love, this book is for you. If you are in need of a good ugly cry, this book is your catalyst.

The Eternal Audience of One, by Remy Ngamije*****

“Life is not hard in Windhoek, but it is not easy, either. The poor are either falling behind or falling pregnant. The rich refuse to send the elevator back down when they reach the top. And since cities require a sturdy foundation of tolerated inequalities, Windhoek is like many other big places in the world. It is a haven for more, but a place of less. If you are not politically connected or from old white money, then the best thing to be is a tourist. The city and the country fawn over tourists. The country’s economy does, too. That is when it is not digging itself poor.

That is Windhoek. The best thing to do in the city is arrive and leave.”

And now, raise your hand if you find yourself wondering where Windhoek is. Don’t be shy. You’ll have plenty of company…ah. Yes. I applaud your bravery, being the first. And you, and you…and you in the back. Anyone else? That’s what I thought. Look around. Almost all of you. So now, I’ll relieve your discomfort and tell you, it’s in Namibia. Our protagonist, Seraphim, and his family must relocate there during the upheaval in their native Rwanda. This is his story, told in the first person.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Gallery Books for the review copy. This book is available to the public now.

Seraphim’s parents are strivers, working industriously to ensure that he and his siblings will have excellent educations and better lives. As a young man, he works hard and is fiercely competitive in school, but once he is at university in Cape Town, he becomes a party animal, using Cliffs Notes to dodge the assigned reading and embarking on booze fueled, all night romps. Ultimately, this is a coming of age story in a different time and place than that which most Western readers are accustomed to. And oh, my friend, if you are going to spread your wings and stretch your global literacy just a teensy bit, then this is one painless way to do it.

Once he’s inside South Africa, Sera deals with Apartheid, and during the course of his education, is advised by a wise friend, who tells him that if you want decent notes, you must befriend BWGs. These are Benevolent White Girls, and they seem to know some sort of educational code that young Black men have somehow been shut out of. There’s a funny passage about how to tell if a Caucasian is the sort one can hang out with, and to explain the difference in his own social class growing up, in contrast to others in his social group, he describes a problem with desks. There are fifty children in the class, he says, and not everyone can have a desk. Little Sera gets busy, and eventually is able to rise from chair number 50, to chair number three. Then, after a struggle with Gina and Hasham, the first and second place students, he rises to the first chair, first desk. When a friend asks what became of Gina and Hasham, Sera shrugs with his characteristic cocky arrogance, and he tells him, “I like to think they married and had second and third place children.”

Part of what I love is the way the voice here sounds like young men in their late teens and early twenties, here, there, or probably just about anywhere. In my experience, his demographic is the most hilarious of any in real life, and it comes shining through here, full of irreverent wit.

The narrative isn’t linear, and there’s some creative jumping around that, when combined with the internal discussions the narrator calls “The Council of the Seraphims,” can be difficult to keep up with. Don’t try to read the second half of this novel after you’ve taken your sleeping pill.

All told, this is a brainy, hilarious work, which is perhaps why Ngamije is being compared to Chabon and Zadie Smith.  He resembles neither, apart from being very literate and extremely funny. In fact, this book is worth reading just for the snarky texts sent by Sera and his friends; their handles crack me up even before I see what they have to say. Highly recommended, even at full price.

Beautiful Country, by Qian Julie Wang*****

“Secrets. They have so much power, don’t they?”

Qian Julie Wang is born in China to a professional couple living under the shadow of governmental disfavor. Her father’s elder brother has written critically about Mao Zedong, naively signing his own name to the article, and as a result, the entire family lives under a cloud and the threat of violence, courtesy of Chinese Stalinism. When her father finds a way to relocate himself and his family to New York, it is under a tourist visa, and so they cannot legally remain in the USA, or get any sort of legitimate employment. Wang’s memoir tells of the deprivation and terror, combined with occasional lifesaving windfalls and ingenuity, of growing up as an “illegal,” and of how, against all odds, she ultimately finds success and citizenship.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the invitation to read and review, along with my apologies for being inexcusably late.

Wang comes to the USA, which in Chinese translates to “Beautiful Country,” as a small child. From the moment her feet touch American soil, her parents drill the story into her: “I was born here. I’ve lived here all my life.” Because they are in the US illegally, they must find work to do under the table, and so they are exploited by the most malevolent sweatshop owners. At first, Wang is also employed, toddling off to do piecework with her mother, but eventually she is enrolled in school, where she proves to be highly capable once she overcomes the barriers of language and culture.

More than anything, her life and that of her parents is dominated by fear and secrecy. Opportunities that would otherwise be helpful must often be bypassed because of the documentation required. Her parents’ emotional stability, their marriage, and her mother’s health are broken.

If this story seems unbearably grim—and I confess, this is why I delayed reading it, moving other, pleasanter stories to the top of my queue—it is ultimately a story of resilience and of triumph. Wang is a gifted writer, and she breaks up the horror by recounting small victories and pleasures that punctuate her youth. But the most important aspect of how the memoir is presented, is that everything is told through the lens of childhood, and so we see everything as a seven-year-old Chinese girl, a nine-year-old, etc. would see it.

Because I had fallen behind, I checked out the audio version of this memoir from Seattle Bibliocommons, and Wang does her own narration, which is my favorite way to hear a book, because there’s no danger that the reader will add emphasis or interpretation that conflicts with the author’s intentions. The climax arrived as I was wrapping Christmas gifts, which made me all the more aware of my level of privilege.

Wang tells us:

“Most of all, I put these stories to paper for this country’s forgotten children, past and present, who grow up cloaked in fear, desolation, and the belief that their very existence is wrong, their very being illegal. I have been unfathomably lucky. But I dream of a day when being recognized as human requires no luck—when it is right, not a privilege. And I dream of a day when each and every one of us will have no reason to fear stepping out of the shadows.”

Highly recommended.

The Recent East, by Thomas Grattan*****

The Recent East introduces novelist Thomas Grattan, and it’s an impressive debut. It follows a family of German-Americans from 1965, when the eldest emigrates from East Germany with her parents, to the present. I initially decide to read it because of the setting; it’s the first fiction I’ve read set in the former Soviet satellite country. However, it is the characters that keep me engaged to the last page.

My thanks go to Net Galley and McMillan for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

The story opens in 1965 as Beate and her parents are defecting:

Everyone talked about the West as if it were a secret. They leaned in to share stories of its grocery stores that carried fresh oranges, its cars with bult-in radios. Covered their mouths to mention a Dusseldorf boulevard that catered to movie stars and dictators, whole Eastern month’s salaries spent on face cream. There were entire, whispered conversations about its large houses and overstuffed stores, its borders crossed with a smile and a flick of one’s passport. Some talked about it as if it were the most boring thing. Others like it was an uppity friend. But everyone talked about it…

The first chapter makes me laugh out loud. Teenage Beate is mocked when she enrolls in school in Cologne, because her clothing is nowhere near as nice as what the kids in West Germany wear. Since her parents cannot afford to upgrade her wardrobe just yet, Beate comes up with the genius idea to alter the clothes she owns to make them look as Soviet as possible, and she “put on her Moscow face, worked on her Leningrad walk.” Sure enough, the kids at school are terrified of her now. She still doesn’t have friends, but she isn’t bullied anymore.

Morph forward in time. Beate is a mother now, living in upstate New York with her two adolescent children and unhappy husband. When the Berlin Wall falls, so does her marriage. Soon afterward, she is notified that her late parents’ house now belongs to her. She packs up her belongings and her children, then buys tickets to Germany.

Adela and Michael have always been close, but the move shakes their relationship. Their usual routines are shattered, and their mother, reeling from the divorce, becomes withdrawn and uncommunicative. What a terrible time to disengage from parenting! Both Michael and Adela roam the city of Kritzhagen at will, at all hours of the night. Michael is just 13 years old and gay; sometimes he doesn’t come home at all at night. I read these passages, written without obvious judgment or commentary, with horror. A new house, new city, new country, new continent, and it’s now that their mother forgets to set boundaries? I want to find this woman and slap her upside the head (though I guess that’s a different sort of boundary violation.) Half the houses in town stand empty, and since they have no furniture of their own and their mother is doing nothing to acquire it, Michael breaks into houses and steals furnishings. Look, Ma, I found us some chairs.

My jaw drops.

Adela goes in the other direction, becoming a conscientious student and social justice advocate. But their mother pays her no attention, either.

For the first half of this story, it seems like a four star novel to me; well written, competent, but nothing to merit great accolades. This changes in the second half, because all three of these characters are dynamic, and the changes in them are absolutely believable and deeply absorbing.

I have friends that do social work, and what they have told me is this: children that are forced to become the adults in the family, taking on responsibilities they’re too young for when a parent abdicates them, often appear to miraculously mature, competent beyond their years. Everything is organized. They may do the jobs as well as any adult, and sometimes better than most. How wonderful!

But because they aren’t developmentally ready for these things yet, what happens is that later, when they are grown, they fall apart and become breathtakingly immature, because they have to go back and live their adolescent years that were stolen from them. (As a teacher, I saw this in action a couple of times.)  And so I am awestruck by how consistently our Grattan’s characters follow this pattern.

As the second half progresses, I make a couple of predictions, one of which is sort of formulaic, but Grattan does other things, and they’re far better than what I’d guessed. We follow these characters for several decades, and at the end, we see the relationship that blooms between Beate and her grandson. When it’s over, I miss them.

Because Michael is gay and is one of our three protagonists, this novel is easily slotted into the LGTB genre, but it is much more than this. Instead, one should regard it as a well-written story in which one character is gay.

But whatever you choose to call this book, you should get it and read it if you love excellent fiction.

On the Plain of Snakes, by Paul Theroux****-*****

Paul Theroux has been a successful travel writer for a very long time, but he is new to me. Lucky me, I read this free, thanks to Net Galley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It’s for sale now.

The first thing that took my notice was that this is a gutsy writer. Though he’s in his late seventies, he hops in his personal vehicle and motors south to Mexico, and then all over that nation independently, venturing into out-of-the-way spaces, mostly eschewing the usual tourist haunts that draw the spring break crowd from the US and other parts. Over and over again, locals explain to him that this road, or that, or the other is very dangerous right now; sometimes he revises his route; sometimes he takes the route but at a different time; and sometimes he goes anyway, but takes somebody with him. What he doesn’t do is go home early, or store his car somewhere and follow a tour guide around. I stand in awe.

Theroux approaches his journey as a researcher, rather than as a tourist advisor. He interviews countless individuals, even learning a little of one of the indigenous languages—in addition to Spanish– in order to communicate. I gave up trying to trace his route, instead just going with the narrative as it unspools.

I have to tell you, this is a tome. I might never have finished it had I relied exclusively on my review copy. I recognized it would be a hefty commitment to get through all of it, so once again, I turned to Seattle Bibliocommons for the audio version. I found it went much faster once I was able to do something else with my hands as I listened. Joseph Balderrama is a wonderful reader, and I quickly found myself absorbed into the journey, as if I were an unseen passenger.

Theroux takes us through the ordeal at the US/Mexico border, which was a nightmare during the time this was written, during the Trump administration. (If you have a MAGA cap in your closet, you may not enjoy this book.) He listens to Mexican citizens that live near enough to the border that they can actually see it from their homes, or from their workplaces. Some of them have lived in Mexico but worked in Texas for a long time, and the hardship they experience once the rules are changed is dreadful. And the insight I gain from listening to his interviews with people there about immigration to the US is most enlightening.

The most amazing thing to me is the way the cartels and the Mexican police force overlap, and in a number of places are exactly the same people! He describes multiple shakedowns by traffic cops while he is driving. It seems that the state pays its cops next to nothing, and so in order for them to support themselves, (particularly, we assume, those not being paid by cartels also,) they are permitted to stop anyone they believe has some money, and essentially intimidate them into a bribe. But it’s not complete chaos: once a driver has been shaken down, they are entitled to a receipt for the money they have had to forfeit so that another cop up the road cannot do the same thing.

The one tourist area Theroux passes through is Puerto Vallarta, which also happens to be the only place in Mexico that I have visited. About ten years lapsed between my visit—a very pleasant one—and Theroux’s, and I was saddened to learn how unsafe it has become, and how badly the locals, who were mostly middle class when I was there, have it now.

There are a number of fascinating passages, and I learned a lot. One village is awash with what sounds like a new sort of trans woman, (new to an American from Seattle, at least,) and another where the handmade sandals are finished with a jaw dropping method. There’s one very poor village where earthquakes occur so frequently that most of the homes are no longer standing, but many people won’t sleep indoors anyway for fear of being crushed to death. No aid from the Mexican government or any international body has ever reached them. Those people are on their own, and they are suffering.

Perhaps the sweetest parts have to do with the friendships that the writer forms with the people he meets there. I especially enjoyed reading the interviews with his new author and artist friends.

For those like myself that approach this with general interest, I’d call this a four star book. My stamina is greater than most, yet as much as I enjoyed it, it did feel a little bit lengthy. For those with a particular interest in the socioeconomic, cultural, and political realities of Mexico, it’s five stars, hands down.

Recommended to those with an interest in this field.

Bestiary, by K-Ming Chang

It’s the best of books, but it’s the worst of books. K-Ming Chang has made her mark on modern literature, and her debut novel, Bestiary, has already made a number of prestigious lists. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the invitation to read and review; sadly, its twisted edginess is too intense for me.

This much-buzzed-about book is for sale now.

How many triggers are packed into this one little book? All of them. Every trigger you can possibly think of, plus she may have made a few more up on the spot. There is violence a-plenty here, and the graphic child abuse and elder abuse provide such visceral imagery that I may never get it out of my head. I abandoned this book faster than just about any I can recall, and although I was certain it was the right thing to do for myself, I nevertheless experienced a twinge of regret along with it, because it is obvious from the first page that this author can write.

My gut hunch is that younger adult readers with cast-iron stomachs and level dispositions will be the most appreciative demographic for this one, but wimps like me will need to give it a pass. It is to the former that this book is recommended.

Love and Other Crimes, by Sara Paretsky*****

Sara Paretsky is a venerable author, one who—along with the late, great Sue Grafton—reframed the role of women in detective fiction nearly forty years ago. When I saw this collection available for review on Edelweiss, I jumped on it. It’s for sale now, and you should get it and read it—although there’s a caveat coming up that should be considered first.

Sometimes when a favorite writer releases a book of short stories, I find that I’ve already read a lot of them in one form or another. This time, nearly every story is new to me. One forms the basis of a full length book that I read a long time ago and have forgotten much of. Another is a reworked version of the short story “Wildcat,” which I purchased a short time ago. These are the only duplicate stories I can detect, and I am a voracious reader where this author is concerned.  Some of her work was included in Sisters in Crime anthologies, but I haven’t seen them. Not all of them feature the iconic V.I. Warshawski. The signature elements that include social justice issues such as women’s rights, immigration, racism, and the homeless are here in abundance, as one might hope.

My favorite selection is the second, “Miss Bianca,” a mystery in which a little girl saves a research rat and ultimately uncovers a dangerous conspiracy. Paretsky gets the tone of the child’s voice just right, making her bright within the bounds of what a child that age is capable of, and registering the thought processes and perceptions of her protagonist flawlessly.

There’s an historical mystery that involves a Sherlock Holmes retelling, and like all of that ilk, it bored the snot out of me, a first where this writer is concerned. I abandoned it halfway through. The five star rating is unchanged, because the reader can skip this story and still get her money’s worth and then some; also, I am aware that not everyone is as averse to this type of writing as I am.

Another story is set during the late 1960s, and the Civil Rights Movement is center stage. In order to convey the horror of the backlash by some Caucasian Chicagoans during this tumultuous period, the *N* word is included several times. I used the audio version of this book for some of the stories, including this one, and I feel as if it should have a warning sticker of some sort because hearing that word shouted angrily sent a cold finger right up my spine, and I don’t like to think of other readers, especially Black readers, listening to it within the hearing of their children. I don’t deduct anything from my rating, because the author includes a note about its use and her reasons for it at the end of the story; in fact, there is an author’s note at the end of many of these that makes the story more satisfying. But you should know that this word is there, so be ready for it.

When all is said and done, there are few authors that can deliver the way Paretsky can. With the considerations above included, I highly recommend this collection to you.

My Mother’s House, by Francesca Momplaisir***

The year seems to be riddled with novels that are brilliant conceptually, but whose execution falls short of its promise. Such is the case with My Mother’s House. My thanks go to Net Galley and Bloomsbury for the review copy.

The story is told in the third person omniscient, and the most interesting character by far is the house itself. The house has had it with its inhabitants, particularly with protagonist Lucien, a man that’s evil and demented from the top of his pointy head down to the toes of his nasty loafers. Think of the worst thing one human being can do to another, and whatever you’ve come up with, Lucien has done it.

Our rotten old man is an immigrant, a resident of a mostly Caribbean neighborhood in Queens, New York. He brought with him the wife—nearly a child-bride—that he had set his cap for early on, for she is a descendant of the Duvalier family that ruled Haiti ruthlessly for decades. Once he has married her and moved her, however, he abuses her in much the same way he does every other female in his life, including the daughters they have together.  

Do I need to tell you there are triggers all over this thing?

The house can’t take it anymore, all of the ugly within its walls. It decides that the only way to get rid of this bastard is to go down with him, and it sets itself ablaze.

One of the three stars is for this aspect of it, the animation of the house. This is where the story begins, with the house’s thoughts and actions, and I sigh contentedly, sure I am in possession of a great novel.

Alas, not so much.

I love a good horror story, but what makes such a story work is when there is an underdog to cheer for, or a victim to be rescued. This is part of Stephen King’s magic; not only does he provide visceral, original bad guys and monsters, but also some ordinary person that sees what is going on and tries to stop it. Whoever his good guy is, he develops the living heck out of them, and I feel as if I would know them on the street.

In contrast, Momplaisir gives me no possible good outcome; the only hope we have comes from the defeat and death of Lucien. That’s not enough to keep me turning the horrible pages of horrible deeds. I don’t just want to see the bad guy lose; I need a good character that might, against impossible odds, win.

Character development is also lacking. Although I learn about Lucien’s early life and the trauma that he’s endured, and which we know is often part of what warps a person, I never see him change internally. He is static all the way through, and since he’s the only important character, apart from the house, I feel cheated. His distinguishing characteristic is the need to count, because “I am nothing unless I count.” So all the way through, we hear him enumerating one thing after another, and to be honest, this device, though original, leaves me cold, and eventually it just becomes redundant. MAD Magazine—the original, from the 1960s and 1970s—would have had a field day here.

Unable to push myself all the way through the text, I seek out an audio book from Seattle Bibliocommons, and just to top all of it off, I dislike the reader intensely. The over-the-top dramatic voice would work in very small, shocking increments, but instead it is the main voice used, and by the end I just wanted to tell it to shut up. (Full disclosure: I actually did, not that anyone was there to hear it.)

In the end, I am left with a tremendously clever premise, a fantastic book cover, and then a whole lot of nothing.  How dare the publicist or whoever wrote the teaser compare this work to those of Tana French and Jesmyn Ward? For shame!

You can buy this book now, or you can take that same exact amount of money and burn it in the fireplace. Same thing, either way. Or you can do the smart thing, and go find another book by someone else.