Disappearing Earth, by Julia Phillips

5 Stars

I have fallen in love—with a book, a peninsula in Siberia, and most of all, with its native Even people.

Disappearing Earth, by Julia Phillips, opens with the abduction of two young white girls from a beach in Petropavlovsk on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. Their fate is compared to an earlier tsunami that wiped out an entire town, while the police’s vigorous search for them is contrasted with the earlier disappearance of a native girl, whom they dismissed as a promiscuous runaway.

Long isolated from Western influences, Kamchatka is reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the currency devaluations that followed. Older people, who still hang pictures of Stalin on their walls, wrestle with existential questions about whether freedom was worth what they perceive as a breakdown in values, while young adults resent their parents’ pensions, paid-for apartments, and free university educations. Simmering underneath, like the fault lines responsible for Kamchatka’s devastating earthquakes, lies a unique urban/ rural divide: Petropavlovsk is largely white, while remote villages, including Esso and its environs, constitute the traditional homes and grazing grounds of the reindeer-herding Even people.

Told through a series of interlocking stories, Disappearing Earth focuses on the lives and relationships of Kamchatka’s women and how the girls’ abduction impacts them. These women struggle with husbands and boyfriends, their roles in life, and most of all, with how they can better themselves in a society that seeks to relegate them to chain-bound roles: dutiful daughter; slut; and housewife/mother. Under these constraints, how does any woman—native or white—manage to live an empowered life free from violence?

Like reindeer on their circuitous annual journeys, over the course of a year we follow the compromises these women make with life. We meet a white housewife who fetishizes impoverished native construction workers, simply to escape the boredom of childcare. A native woman, caught between her traditional family and the sneering snobbery of her university classmates, carries on relationships with both a controlling Russian boyfriend and an intelligent native man who understands the salmon dances of their people.

The woman who lives the freest life is a lesbian who defies Russia’s dangerous homophobia and shares an apartment in St. Petersburg with her lover. After a painful break up, she returns to Kamchatka for a New Year’s Eve party, where she reconciles with a girlhood friend whom she has never forgotten—and to whom she has never before confided her homosexuality. Be careful, the friend whispers. The police can hurt you.

As a writer, reading Disappearing Earth evoked a flitter of despair: I have never hiked volcanoes, fumaroles, or glacier-carved lakes. I have never felt the ground tremble under thousands of reindeer hooves. I have never counted the stars in a Siberian night sky or heard the air hiss with the smoke of active volcanoes. How can my stories compare?

While I struggle to empower myself as a writer, I am so glad Julia Phillips brought me into the world of Kamchatka and its brave, resourceful women.

Book Review: House of Spies, by Daniel Silva

5 Stars

I bought House of Spies because it won Kirkus Best Book of the Year—and I am thrilled that I did. The book deserves the award and the bestselling status it has enjoyed

House of Spies is the only book I have read (so far!) in Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series, and I am hooked by the strong characterization, the sense of danger, and the tenuousness of the lives that Israeli spy chief—and ostensible art restorer—Gabriel Allon seeks to protect. The plot centers on capturing the Iraqi terrorist Saladin, who has perpetrated a series of deadly attacks on western cities that have scarred national treasures like The Lincoln Monument. A committed jihadist, Saladin seeks to install a caliphate that will destroy the very freedoms those monuments celebrate.

I especially loved the various settings of the novel, which take the reader from London to Provence and Marseilles and, in the climactic scenes, to the Berber lands of Morocco. Any book that has me drinking tea at sunset in a Bedouin tent in the Middle Atlas Mountains is going to enthrall me.

One caveat: other reviewers have criticized the repeated sentences, which should have been edited out. I agree, but these were minor foibles in an otherwise strong narrative.

When I finished House of Spies, I downloaded The Kill Artist, Book #1 in the Gabriel Allon series. If the other 19 books live up to House of Spies, I will read the entire series.

Fans of spy novels will love this book.

#thrillers #suspense #spy #espionage #fiction #danielsilva #houseofspies

Book Review: Queenie, by Candice Carty-Williams

5 Stars

A reviewer has described Queenie as a black Bridget Jones, a comparison that doesn’t convey the full scope of Carty-Williams’ complex, unflinching examination of a young woman and the emotional toll her childhood has taken on her.

Queenie is the story of a 25-year-old Jamaican-British woman who is falling apart, a disintegration that begins when her fiance Tom—the love of her life, who nonetheless tolerates his racist uncle calling Queenie the n word—initiates a break in their relationship, right after Queenie suffers a miscarriage. Heartbroken but determined to view their separation as temporary, Queenie endures several disastrous, even abusive interracial encounters—she fears black men don’t want black women, no matter how light their skin—who fetishize her body, trample upon her self-respect, and even hurl false accusations of harassment at work, leading to her dismissal.

As her life disintegrates, Queenie reluctantly seeks therapy, which uncovers the traumas and multiple abandonments of her childhood. Her eventual healing is demonstrated in a two-hour shouting match with a neoNazi skinhead, where she bravely defends her commitment to the BlackLivesMatter movement.

Numerous characters prevent Queenie’s story from turning bleak: her domineering grandmother, who shelters Queenie when she is fired from her job as a reporter; her hilarious friend Kyazike, whose own dates demonstrate the strength that the weakened Queenie must learn to show; and her empathetic colleague Darcy, who eases her panic-stricken transition back to work. Her friends, nicknamed the Corgis (like The Queen’s favorites), are full characters in their own right, with idiosyncratic personalities that add depth to the book. Every woman needs a Kyazike and a Darcy in her life.

I happily give Queenie 5 Stars. By the time she deletes Tom’s contact info from her phone, I was silently cheering for her recovery. I can’t wait to read more of Carty-Williams’ writing.

Book Review: Keep Her Safe, by Sophie Hannah

Zero Stars

 

Keep Her Safe doesn’t merit even one star. I hated the book and forced myself to finish it.

The plot is convoluted, nonsensical, and repeatedly strains credulity. Accepting some of its twists requires a suspension of disbelief that was beyond me.  For instance, why would a female tourist traveling alone in a foreign country insist that a sketchy car rental operator keep her mobile phone until her vacation is over? This was an absurd way to ensure that Cara Burrows didn’t communicate with her family, particularly since she quickly acquires an iPad at the Swallowtail Resort where she stays. I love an unreliable narrator, but can’t abide a stupid one–or a ludicrous plot device.

I particularly disliked how the author introduced new characters late in the book.  How is the reader supposed to identify with a major character–one with a significant backstory–when that character only appears two-thirds of the way into the book?

Finally, I never got into the transcripts from the Justice with Bonnie Show or the excerpts from the book Melody never wrote. These sections seemed like a lazy way of conveying important information.

I’ve heard great things about Sophie Hannah, but Keep Her Safe does not justify its hype.

Book Review: Salt Houses, by Hala Alyan

Salt Houses provides an interesting and vital perspective: the Palestinian diaspora and the emotional toll emigration takes on those forced to wander from country to country.

Through the lived experiences of three generations of a Palestinian family, Salt Houses asks the reader to confront the concept of home:  where is home when you have been displaced by war? Can a refugee create a new home elsewhere, even as one’s own offspring reject the values on which their culture is based? How does one maintain family bonds strained by constant upheaval? As the grandchild of emigrants who fled civil war in Belfast, Northern Ireland, these questions resonated with me.

It’s important that Salt Houses is told from the viewpoint of a moderate Palestinian family that seeks to protect its relatives, especially its sons, from jihadists—and who are deeply suspicious of the imans whipping those boys and young men into a frenzy of anti-Israeli violence. Hala Alyan succeeds in creating characters who are far from the stereotype of rock-throwing terrorists. The Yacoub family are well off, with middle-class aspirations, romances, and jobs—and a snobbish disdain for their own compatriots living in refugee camps.

From a writing perspective, several criticisms: there were too many dream sequences, which took me out of the story. Also, I did not get a sense of what many of the characters wanted. The notable exception was Alia, who is desperate to leave Kuwait and live in Amman, even as she wrestles with a deep homesickness for her childhood home in Nablus. Finally, the occasional switch to the present tense was jarring. These issues are the reason I only gave the book 4 stars.

Anyone interested in fictional representations of Middle East history will enjoy Salt Houses.

Book Review: Calypso, by David Sedaris

Calypso is David Sedaris’s most intimate book, a tender, funny, and challenging memoir from an author renowned for writing humor that lays bare his own and his family’s soul. In Calypso, he spares no one, especially himself.

The central theme of the book is his sister Tiffany’s suicide and the emotional turmoil that follows.  He writes with great clarity of the mental health challenges that she faced, the fights she inflicted on her family, and his own sanity-preserving estrangement from her. In the aftermath of the suicide, all the Sedaris family has left are strange clues—like a phone number written on her apartment wall—to try to comprehend why Tiffany would take an overdose of prescription medication and tie a plastic bag over head.

Against the suicide’s backdrop, he is forced to face issues around caring for his elderly father, who lives alone and in increasingly-eccentric fashion, determined not to use electricity in order to leave a larger inheritance to the surviving children. More than two decades after his mother’s death, David grapples with residual sadness that she died before he achieved literary success, without their ever confronting her about the alcoholism that left her a mess each night. He expresses his poignant longing to have had the chance to spoil her.

Still, Calypso is about a family drawing closer after a tragedy. Attempting to recreate the summer vacations of their childhood, Sedaris purchases the Sea Section, a duplex on the beach in North Carolina, where he encounters a deformed snapping turtle, a vacationing former FBI Director, and man-eating sharks that fail to terrify his boyfriend Hugh. In their own unique and often-hilarious way, the Sedaris family heals. Every step along their quirky journey is a joy to read.

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