The Girl They Left Behind, by Roxanne Veletzos****

TheGirlTheyLeftBehindI was ready for something that was a little different, and then an online friend recommended this historical fiction for review. Thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the DRC. It’s for sale today.

The story stems from the Bucharest Pogrom of 1941, in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed. And to show you how much I knew about this particular event before I read this book—my ignorance was so painful—I called to my spouse and said, “Honey?  Isn’t Bucharest in Hungary?”

The world-traveled, multilingual expatriate responded, “That’s Budapest. Bucharest is in Romania.”

Ahem. So this corner of my historical education was severely in need of help, and this was a good start for me.  If I were to rate this story solely on its merit as a novel,  I’d call it 3.5 because of some unevenness in the quality of writing, but the educational aspect of it is undeniable, and it makes a big difference.

The story centers on Natalia, a child that is abandoned during the pogrom when her parents flee from what they believe may be their death; they expect to be caught and killed. She is much loved, but her father persuades her mother that the only way the girl will make it out alive is if they leave her in the lobby of their apartment building with a note. She is adopted by a very wealthy couple that lavishes her with every possible comfort, until the regime falls and Romania comes inside of the Soviet orbit. After the coup, the conspicuously wealthy become government targets, and their assets—down to literally the clothes on their backs in some cases—are nationalized. Over the course of time, Natalia learns of her adoption and the parents to whom she was born.

The story uses the author’s family history as a framework, and notes at the end explain what aspects are autobiographical in nature, and which have been altered for the sake of the story.  There are family photos at the back of the book.

The voice is distinctly Eastern European, and that works in the author’s favor because it transports the reader to this time and place all the more effectively than a purely American-sounding voice would do. However, there are occasional lapses where clichés drop in, and it spoils the magic for awhile. The worst, perhaps, is “The walls have ears.”

The first forty percent of the novel is the most engaging, and I love the development of parents Despina and Anton, and little Natalia. The last half of the novel, however, is too busy and at times seems overwrought.

And then we are back to what I said at the outset: there is so much to learn here.  Historical detail is inextricably woven into the story, and our attachment to the characters, particularly at the start, makes the facts themselves more memorable. So when it comes down to it, I do recommend this book to you. If you can find a better work of historical fiction featuring the Bucharest Pogrom, then I may change my mind, but right now I would say Veletzos has cornered that market for those of us that read in the English language.

This book is one of a kind. Don’t miss it.

Inspector Oldfield and the Black Hand Society, by William Oldfield and Victoria Bruce***

InspectorOldfieldandtheBI received a review copy free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster/Touchtone. This book is for sale now.

Who knew that the U.S. Postmaster has the authority to commander an entire ship or airline in pursuit of justice? Needless to say, it doesn’t happen often; think of the press if that were to happen today! But Inspector Frank Oldfield was a man on a mission.

Once the introduction is over, I find an uneven quality to the narrative. The aspect that describes the gangsters and the formation of the Black Hand is fascinating; after the buildup, however, I find the inspector himself less riveting and the writing not as tight as I’d prefer. The research is a little spotty and the sources are not well integrated.

However, if true crime is your wheelhouse, you may want to get a copy of this one-of-a-kind biography.

Sadness is a White Bird, by Moriel Rothman-Zecher*****

“There’s nothing ‘not political’ in Palestine, habibi.”

SadnessisaJonathan grew up in the United States, but now his family is in Israel, the land of his mother’s birth. He’s visited Auschwitz where much of his family died, and he can’t wait to turn eighteen so that he can train to be an Israeli paratrooper. Enough with being ‘people of word’, he figures; he wants to be a Jewish warrior, the ‘people of the sword,’ and exact some payback.  A friendship with two Palestinian teenagers complicates his life in ways he didn’t expect. I received an advance review copy of this exquisitely rendered story free, courtesy of Net Galley and Atria Books in exchange for this honest review.

Twin siblings Laith and Nimreen are Palestinians, but long days at the beach and twilit evenings spent with Jonathan, getting high and telling ridiculous jokes, blur the social boundaries observed by most Jews, and by most Palestinians. With the absurd idealism peculiar to young people that haven’t run up hard against life’s limitations, Jonathan thinks that he can have both, that he can become an Israeli soldier and keep his friendships separate from his new career. His friends know better, but still they love him.

There’s only one way to tell a story like this one, and that’s as a tragedy; that’s exactly what Rothman-Zecher does, but he does it better than anyone else I can imagine.  This doomed friendship becomes more deeply intimate the closer the day comes when Jonathan must report for duty. Ultimately it becomes a bizarre love triangle in which our young protagonist has a sexual relationship with both of them—though fortunately not simultaneously.  For a good long while this lodges in my craw, and as the story continues, I am too revolted to focus. As brilliantly written as this story is, I was headed in the direction of a four star review in protest; that was true, anyway, until I recognized the allegory. Then I was over it.

Nimreen is a teenager too, but she lives with the partitioned state every damn day of her life. She knows that Jonathan can’t have it both ways, but she hopes against hope that he’ll change his mind, that he won’t go into the service. And as Jonathan and his friends try to do anything, go anywhere where there are other people, we see exactly how polarized this place has become. They can’t hitchhike together; there are so many places where either Jonathan isn’t safe, or Laith and Nimreen are not permitted. He goes through a checkpoint where, without his suspicious-looking friends, he would simply have been waved through, and he finds out what it’s like to have one’s homeland invaded.

Rothman-Zecher does a splendid job of depicting exactly how difficult this question is. If I ask myself, have Jews been systematically robbed of their possessions, their homes, and sometimes their lives across not just hundreds of years, but across centuries? I know the answer is yes. I knew it before, but this story drives it home in a way that is visceral. And do Jews deserve to have a home that nobody can ever, ever take from them again? Again, the answer is absolutely yes.

But then we look at the Palestinians, indigenous people living in the Third World at a bare subsistence level. Their homes are almost all they possess, and does anyone have the right to march in, evict them from this place and chase them away from their homes, their families, their livelihoods? Oh hell no, of course not.

In this epic story, Rothman-Zecher bridges the scholarly with the deeply personal, fulfilling a task that can only be achieved by excellent fiction. This searing debut has put this writer on the map definitively and marked him as a new voice in literature.

Highly recommended.

The Signal Flame, by Andrew Krivak*****

thesignalflameThere are good writers, excellent writers, and of course, indifferent writers, but once in a rare while there’s a writer that makes me sit up straight and take notice, someone with that special spark of genius that no money can buy nor school can teach. Krivak’s work is exquisite, the product of both power and restraint. If you love historical fiction, you have to read this book, which comes out January 24, 2107.

I was lucky and read it free in exchange for an honest review, thanks to Scribner and Net Galley. If you read my last review of a DRC, you know I call them as I see them; I see this one as standing, at the end of 2017, as one of perhaps a dozen that will still shine after I’ve read between one and two hundred others.

Bo, our protagonist, is the grandson of Slovakian immigrants, and has been steeped in the tradition of those that came before him. His grandfather, Jozef, served in the trenches during World War I; Jozef’s son, Bo’s father, was imprisoned for desertion during World War II and then died in a hunting accident upon his return home. Bo’s grandparents and mother have raised him and his brother Sam, who is missing in action in Vietnam. When Jozef dies, Bo is the last man left to carry on the family business and the traditions with which he was raised.

The title of the book refers to the sign for which Agamemnon was to watch for news from Troy; the book is begun with the relevant quote from Aeschylus, an old friend in literature that I hadn’t visited in nearly 40 years. I tell you this not to intimidate you, because I think this text is accessible to most high school graduates that love good literature. No, I just want you to understand that this is a work of depth and quality…and also unending sorrow.

Hannah, Bo’s mother, has been writing to the Navy twice each month for updates about the status of her missing son. Without a body, she doesn’t feel free to mourn; without a notification of death, she holds on to a tiny filament of hope that Sam may come marching home and surprise them all, any day now. Foremost in everyone’s minds is that Sam must not also be considered a deserter.

Now President Nixon speaks of ending the war with honorable peace, but there can be no real peace for Hannah; the Navy sends the same response every time she writes, “informing her that Sam was still carried in a missing status. Like he’s in a box somewhere, she would say, and the marines just haven’t gotten around to opening it yet.”

Father Rovnavaha is their parish priest, but he is also an old, dear family friend, and as he lays to rest two generations of a local family that are killed in a terrible flood, he seeks to comfort those present, perhaps himself included, by speaking of a kingdom, but Hannah has trouble believing as she once did:

 

“Her faith was once that strong, but she doubted it now, doubted not that there was a promise but that the promise claimed was a gift to hold, a joy that could assuage all sadness. No, she had come to believe that the only thing one could be certain of was loss. The loss of others as one lived on.  Loss as the last thing one left behind.”

 

Bo’s inheritance takes him in directions no one could have foreseen, and so although Krivak’s novel is indeed full of loss, it also shows us that hope can come from a direction never anticipated.

The characters here are beautifully rendered, developed so subtly that we aren’t aware of it occurring until it’s accomplished. There are no heavy-handed devices such as diaries or extensive local gossip; we see who each person is by the things that they do, and just as in life, we know who they are not only by their words, but by their actions. Krivak never lets a stereotype embrace his characters or plot; the result is so genuine that I feel I am following a dear old friend through the narrative.

Highly recommended for those that love historical fiction, as well as for anyone that needs an excuse to sit down and have a good cry.

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend****

thereadersofbrokenwheel“What is it with this town?”

Sara comes all the way from Sweden to visit Amy, who lives in Broken Wheel, Iowa. When she arrives, she learns that Amy is dead, yet the townspeople ask her to stay anyway; in fact, they expect her to stay. And once she is there, Sara seems to belong to the town, like the last jigsaw puzzle piece being thumbed into place. She brings Hope to Broken Wheel, both figuratively and literally.

And now I have to pause for a moment in order to acknowledge Net Galley and Sourcebooks for providing me with a galley to review, free of cost. This romantic beach read rates 3.5 stars by my reckoning, and I round those stars upward. I was greatly entertained.

Sara doesn’t have a lot going on back home. She worked at a bookstore, but it closed. At first, upon arriving in Broken Wheel and finding that her host has died, she figures she should leave, but everyone insists that Amy knew she was dying and wanted Sara to use her house for two months nevertheless. They make is sound like a sacred bequest; also, without a volunteer to drive her to the airport, she is sort of stranded anyway. The icing on the cake comes when her parents order her home. What young woman wouldn’t stay right where she is in such circumstances, since she doesn’t need parental funds? Oh heck yes!

The story evolves, developing multiple characters, the town itself, and of course, Sara. Multiple romances pop up. There are problems with pacing and the writing is uneven in its proficiency, but those problems are all within the first third of the book. Once the reader pushes past that point, I can guarantee you’ll want to finish the rest of it.

A fun read, enjoyable for those looking for a fluffy, engrossing book to take on vacation or curl up with over a solitary weekend.

The Sunlit Night, by Rebecca Dinerstein *****

thesunlitnightWhen was the last time I read something this poignant? No, it’s more than poignant. This novel is a real powerhouse, and my heartfelt thanks go to Net Galley and Bloomsbury, USA for letting me read it as a DRC. It affected me to the extent that I needed to let it steep in my mind for a few days after I read it, before I could review it. That’s always a good sign.

You see, Yasha has grown up without his mother, at least for most of his life. He, his father, and his mother all received much sought-after plane tickets to the USA from Russia. Not all were scheduled to depart at the same time, and not all of them did. And so Yasha and his father have lived above the bakery, and now and again they phone to see when Mama might be coming. It isn’t like she is dead or in jail. She just hasn’t come. She puts them off; she makes excuses. So Yasha helps his father run the bakery, rising early every day and jetting home from school promptly when the bell dismisses him. Season follows season,and year follows year;the loss grows deeper and stronger, as does his bond with his father, a flour-speckled, graying eccentric with the world’s kindest heart. His father is his life, and the place where his mother once was is a constant void. “No mother. No mother. No mother.” Unless you are made of brick or cement, you have to feel his pain.

I think the narrative that alternates here, that of Frances, who is destined to meet Yasha, is supposed to be equal in force, but to me she is an also-ran. The book is really about Yasha, and I am fine with that. Frances also hails from a family that is coming unstuck; her parents have given her and her sister notice that they need to get out of the tiny Manhattan apartment in which they grew up, because they are going to separate.

At the same time, Frances’s boyfriend, the man she loves so much that she has turned down a prestigious art fellowship in order to follow him to the ends of the earth, dumps her. Doesn’t even stay with her till she boards; he just leaves her there all by herself, hurt and stunned. He’s gone.

Yasha and Frances will meet at the top of the world, or the nearest possible place. It’s in Norway, not far from where the Sami hunt reindeer. In the summer, the sun never goes down.

Generally I am not a reader of romances. I am perhaps too cynical; I hear the violins starting up and slam the book shut. No schmaltz for me, thank you kindly. But once in awhile an amazing story comes along. Think of The Thornbirds; think of The Prince of Tides. The Sunlit Night is such a story, an exceptional story for which rules were meant to be broken.

It comes out in June, and you just have to read it. Don’t let yourself be left out.

Away, by Amy Bloom *****

away Lillian escapes a pogrom after seeing her husband and parents viciously murdered and her little girl has disappeared. She was told by a neighbor that her daughter had drowned in the river, and so she allowed herself to be herded onto a ship bound for New York.

“In the fifty-seven blocks of the Lower East Side, just that day in July 1924, there are a hundred and twelve candy shops, ninety-three butchers, seventy saloons, forty-three bakeries, and five hundred thousand Jews.”

Away, strong historical fiction by Amy Bloom, is in turns poignant, fascinating, wry, and wrenching. It’s a great book, but it won’t lift your flagging spirits. However, a couple of amusing moments had a Keillor-like tug to them, and they kept the tone light enough to engage me.

Things aren’t going all that well for Lillian, and maybe that is why, when a cousin arrives from the old country and tells her that her little girl is alive, Lillian makes plans to go get her. Nobody will give her boat fare, but a dear friend hatches an alternate plan: she can head west across North America, go north into Canada, and then island hop her way across the Bering Strait. It’s a terrible idea, but if it will bring Sophie back into Lillian’s waiting arms, she’ll do it. And so she’s off.

Bloom is strongest when she is building characters and describing setting. By the time the book is over and done, Lillian is so real that even though I have half a dozen books I am also reading, I think of her fondly from time to time as one might when a good friend or much-loved relative that has been to visit and then gone home again.

That said, I didn’t like it as well as her most recent work, Lucky Us, reviewed earlier and available in my archives. But that is faint condemnation, because the latter was one of the best works of fiction I have ever read.

If you like well written three-hanky stories and excellent historical fiction, you can’t go wrong with Bloom. If your pockets aren’t deep enough for impulsive book buying, check your public library; it’s where I found my copy.

Saltwater Cowboys, by Dayle Furlong *****

SaltwatercowboysDayle Furlong’s writing is brilliant. This haunting story, visceral and evocative, is wholly original, but if it reminds me of any one other author, it is Russell Banks. My immense appreciation goes to Net Galley and Dundurn Group publishing house for the ARC. The first couple of pages wobbled and I waited to see whether the writing would settle in and be a good read, or whether the writer would struggle. By page three I was no longer watching the writing, because I was hooked on the story, and I needed to know what would happen next.

Jack McCarthy is a miner, and he’s just been laid off. Newfoundland has been home to his family for generations, but there’s just no work there. The place was already depressed before the layoffs, with high numbers of unemployed workers. Now he is just one more of them. What is he going to do? Angela is at home with their three little girls, and good heavens, she’s pregnant again. The pressure is on!

Leave it to his best buddy, Pete, to find the answer. Pete has found a mine that is hiring in Foxville. True, it’s clear across Canada, closer to the Pacific than to the Atlantic, and way far north. It’s near the Athabascan River. But they’ll take Jack, and they’ll have their friends nearby. It seems to be the obvious solution.

My quick Google search helped me find Foxville. Imagine driving all that way to look for work! When the McCarthys arrive, they find that the local workers consider them hicks. A migration has steadily occurred as unemployed miners from Newfoundland make the exodus in search of steady jobs. Their mannerisms are mimicked, and their women are sneered at. It’s humiliating.

If you were looking for something to pick your spirits up, this isn’t your book. It’s a dark story, but it’s one that speaks to the time in which we live. So many are jobless, displaced, and for those of us that are hanging on, sometimes the loss of one single paycheck is all that stands between us and disaster.

Furlong understands the working class. She knows the pride that takes hold of its families. A plastic bowl from a discount store is worth infinitely more than a beautiful old porcelain one from Goodwill or some other charity store, because it is new, and because it doesn’t smell of taking charity from others.

The longing to climb that social ladder, to actually buy an entire house and hold your head high, reaches out from Furlong’s text, reaches into your lungs and sucks out some of the space there. I became so invested in this fictional family that at one point I had to put it down and go read something else in order to gain distance.

Regardless, the setting and characters are so palpable–I underlined several quotes, but then decided you should find them for yourself, because they are made even better by context–I sometimes flipped the pages back in order to re-read passages.

When I wasn’t at my reader, I thought about the McCarthy family. I argued with them. I was the unseen third adult in their vehicle when they were out driving around. Most of all, I wanted to advise Jack. But damn damn and double damn, I could not get through to him. And I had to remind myself to calm the hell down, because…

He’s fictional.

Furlong has the talent to break your heart and feed it to you with a spoon. If you loved The Prince of Tides, if you cried through The Thornbirds, you have to get this book. It comes out early in 2015, and I will run it a second time on my blog when it does.

Jack and Angela are waiting for you, too.

The Honk and Holler Opening Soon, by Billie Letts ****

The Honk and HollerThis is a bittersweet story about quirky yet ordinary characters in a little out-of-the-way place in Oklahoma. The point of view swings from one perspective to another. MollyO is protective of the cafe’s owner, a complicated man who was rendered paraplegic in Vietnam. She longs for her daughter, Brenda, a runaway, to come home and stay. Bui is living covertly in a nearby church. He comes to work at the cafe. I watched this character unfold particularly carefully. I live in an area where there are a lot of Vietnamese immigrants, and I watched for stereotyping or assumptions on the part of the writer. In the end, though, Bui rang true to me, an endearingly familiar sounding man with a really good heart. And then the list continues.

I don’t like small towns; I prefer large northern metropolitan cities. I do like to read novels featuring working class protagonists, though, and I think it was this feature, believably rendered without undue sentimentality, that worked for me. I have older family members who lived in Oklahoma before I was born, and this novel evoked a strong pull on them, a sense of place nearly tangible to them.

If four and a half stars were possible, I’d give them here. Read it if you enjoy good fiction with strongly drawn characters.

Native Speaker, by Chang-Rae Lee *****

native speakerNative Speaker has been praised by the most prestigious periodicals, from New York to London to Los Angeles, and yet, though it has won a number of awards, I had not heard of it until I found it in a special award-winners area of Powell’s City of Books, when I made my annual pilgrimage to my old hometown and my old bookstore this summer. Perhaps I first found him there because he teaches at the U of Oregon; or perhaps it is because Powell’s is the only brick-and-mortar bookstore I frequent anymore. At any rate, this book was a real find.
Our protagonist is Henry Park, who works as a spy of sorts for a private firm:
“Our clients were multinational corporations, bureaus of foreign governments, individuals of resource and connection.”
Henry is having problems with his work. He is supposed to insinuate himself into the lives of individuals who may be working against the interests of one client or another, find out all he can about them, develop a psychological profile. To do this, he has to pretend to become emotionally attached to them, and in some cases make them dependent upon him; then he files his final report on them and disappears from their lives.
His most recent subject was a psychologist named Luzan. He saw Luzan regularly, began telling him things he had never told anyone. What with his problematic relationship with his father, now deceased, and the accidental death of his beloved son, his only child, and his marital problems…the man actually needs a psychologist, and in the end the firm has to muscle their way into the shrink’s office and physically remove Henry from his subject in order to break the connection.
Now they have thrown him a really easy job to get him back into shape. He is supposed to cover and report on a politician, John Kwang. There is the Korean connection, which makes him a shoo-in; he begins by posing as a freelance journalist, but becomes more and more involved as a member of the campaign staff. His reports become scantier and fewer as he adopts Kwang as the father he never really had.
Beautifully interwoven throughout Lee’s narrative are the cultural understandings between those of Korean ancestry; the conflicts that arise between first and second generations in the US; the racist assumptions, stereotypes, and miscommunications between Koreans and Caucasians, whom he pointedly refers to as “Americans”. Black people are just Black, but white folks are “Americans”. Park is still in love with his “American” wife, but she recently figured out what he does for a living, and she isn’t sure she can live with it. His plan is to finish this assignment, he tells her, and then he’ll get out, go do something else.
There is such grace and care in Lee’s story-telling, both in what is said, and in what is not. I’ve never read anything like it. And one thing I really appreciate is that without overtly saying so, he lets us know that there is no such thing as an Asian-American. A certain skin tone, a fold at the outside of the eyelid, these are superficial things that don’t speak to culture, to language, to expectations. I also really appreciated the way he dealt with the hostility between Korean small shop owners and their African-American neighbors and customers, and the historical reality to which he deftly traces back, without ever stepping away from the central storyline.
Native Speaker is unlike anything else I have ever read. It doesn’t even have a genre, unless we drop it into the “Asian studies” category that his story demonstrates is artificial in any case. It’s a thoughtful, deep story, yet it is not hyperliterate or particularly lengthy. It’s there for anyone who will take the time to read it. A worthy and thought-provoking journey.