Triple Shot: The Penelopiad, Naked Heat, and The Age of Orphans

Three short reviews, because I want to clear out my backlog (8 months! Good grief.) and move forward:

The Penelopiad
Margaret Atwood
Canongate, 2005
New trade paperback

And we, the twelve who were later to die by his hand
At his father’s relentless command,
Sailed as well, in the dark frail boats of ourselves
Through the turbulent seas of our swollen and sore-footed mothers
Who were not royal queens, but a motley and piebald collection,
Bought, traded, captured, kidnapped from serfs and strangers.

Capsule summary: Odysseus’ return to Ithaca, from his wife’s point of view.

Capsule review: Disappointing, until the last 30 pages or so (beginning with chapter 24) when it suddenly turns amazing. The impetus for this retelling, according to Atwood’s introduction, was the execution of Penelope’s twelve handmaidens, which gets little more than a mention in the original poem. “I’ve always been haunted by the hanged maids,” Atwood writes, “and, in The Penelopiad, so is Penelope herself.” Unfortunately Atwood’s rendering of Penelope is so sketchy and flat that it left me unsatisfied. It isn’t until the story tackles the aftermath of the maids’ killings and the injustice dealt them by modern analyses that the full force of Atwood’s anger and reveals itself like a punch to the solar plexus:

You don’t have to think of us as real girls, real flesh and blood, real pain, real injustice. That might be too upsetting. Just discard the sordid part. Consider us pure symbol. We’re no more real than money.

Naked Heat
Richard Castle
Hyperion, 2010

“All right, fellas, I’ve got my first odd sock.” The detective’s approach to a crime scene, even one in this much disarray, was to simplify her field of view. She pared everything down to getting inside the logic of the life that was lived in that space and using that empathy to spot inconsistencies, the small thing that didn’t fit the pattern. The odd sock.

Raley and Ochoa came across the room to her. Rook adjusted his position at the perimeter to follow quietly from a distance. “Whatcha got?” asked Ochoa.

“Work space. Busy work space, right? Big newspaper columnist. Pens everywhere, pencils, custom notepads and stationery. Box of Kleenex. Look at this beside her here.” She stepped carefully around the body, still cast backward in the office chair. “A typewriter, for God’s sake. Magazines and newspapers with clippings snipped out of them, right? All that stuff makes lots of what?”

“Work,” said Raley.

“Trash,” said Rook, and Heat’s two detectives turned slightly his way and then back to Heat, unwilling to acknowledge him as part of this exchange. Like his season pass had expired.

Capsule summary: NYPD homicide detective Nikki Heat’s investigation into the murder of a prominent gossip columnist reunites her with investigative journalist Jameson Rook.

Capsule review: I’ll be honest: I wouldn’t have read this if I weren’t a fan of the TV show Castle. As your standard mystery-thriller, Naked Heat is neither exceptionally good nor exceptionally bad. It was an enjoyable read, a weekend well spent. The real fun in reading it, though, comes from spotting echoes of the previous season (for example: yes, “Schlemming” makes an out-of-the-blue appearance) and, if you ship Castle and Beckett like I do, reading the dedication and acknowledgements for hints to where their relationship is headed. So while someone who’s never seen Castle can easily enjoy Naked Heat and the other Nikki Heat novels, familiarity with the show adds an extra layer of meaning and pleasure to reading them.

The Age of Orphans
Laleh Khadivi
Bloomsbury, 2009
New trade paperback; won in “Caption This” contest from Roanoke Times columnist Dan Casey

See them sleep, these sons of mine.

See them, nestled like loved ones, row after row, barrack after barrack, heads awash in the last brine of boyhood.

See them sleep, my army of sons, each suckled off a different teat and their tongues still wet with prayers to me.

See them sleep, these sons of mine, and though I am now shah, most majestic and supreme, I too was once a boy, sleeping and divine. A boy like them, beaten and bruised by the thick angry hands of a brutish baba, forced to run and hide in the folds of Maman’s belly until found again.


Now I am the notorious Commander Reza Khan, boorish and proud, a buxom beast, a king over all I see, and I let loose my two forked hooves to prance over the hearts and heads of whomever I desire. Now I am a figure, face and father. All of it once hidden in the skin of a sleeping boy who was once woken and once loved, now cast out and forever cold.

Capsule summary: A Kurdish boy is taken and raised by the Iranian army after his family is massacred. Years later, when he returns to his homeland to enforce the shah’s rule, his true self begins to re-emerge.

Capsule review: Heartbreaking, disturbing, and yet enlightening. The boy’s namelessness until the shah’s soldiers have scrubbed away his Kurd identity personalizes the repeated attempts during the 20th century to eradicate the Kurds, and the gradual renaissance of the Kurd within him when he returns to the land of his childhood embodies that people’s determination and resilience. Khadivi’s writing is forceful and poetic. I recommend The Age of Orphans to anyone with even a cursory interest in the complex cultural nexus of central Asia.


Review: The Holy Thief

This review originally appeared on Buried Under Books.

The Holy Thief
William Ryan
Minotaur Books, September 2010
ARC from Creatures ‘n Crooks

“I’m investigating the murders,” [Korolev] managed to say. “If it’s in my power, I’ll bring whoever committed them to justice.”

“Soviet justice?”

“It’s as good as any. The system may not be perfect—I’m not blind. These are eyes in my head. But we work for the future, a Soviet future. And it’s as fair as any damned justice system the capitalists ever lied about.” He could feel his leg trembling against the bale of hay. Was it anger or some other emotion? He wasn’t sure of anything any more. But if he didn’t believe the leadership weren’t working for the People’s future—well, where would he be? What hell would he find himself in then—if it all turned out to be a blood-soaked lie? He spat on the floor to ward off the thought, and then fumbled for another cigarette. He put it in his mouth, reaching for his matches, but Kolya had already extended a lighter.

“Thank you,” Korolev said, hearing the gruffness in his voice. He offered the Thief the packet.

“You’re an honest man. And you are a Believer, aren’t you?” Kolya seemed to be weighing him up.

“It’s none of your business.”

“Maybe it isn’t. But what if, at some stage, you have to decide between your loyalty to the church and your loyalty to Comrade Stalin. How do you think you would decide?”

In 1936 Moscow, as Stalin’s notorious Great Purge is heating up, Comrade Alexei Korolev is a battle-scarred, world-weary veteran who publicly swears fidelity to the Soviet Union and privately hides a Bible beneath a floorboard in his bedroom. Continue reading

Review: 13, rue Thérèse

13, rue Thérèse
Elena Mauli Shapiro
Reagan Arthur Books, February 2011

These gloves haunt you.

But let us not be bothered with that now. Let us not slip onto our own body these accoutrements of the dead. Such a gesture would be a bit strange, a bit unsettling. Such a gesture is unnecessary when the object is before us and we can look at it at our leisure.

The gloves are flexible, strong, starkly black. They look like something to be worn to the funeral of a beloved someone; as you might have observed, they look like a widow’s gloves. The truth is that they are merely church gloves, worn every Sunday to holy offices. The color is so because white gloves are better suited to a virgin (or at the very least, a young and unmarried woman who could still plausibly undergo such a pantomime of purity). Black is the color of the true woman, one burdened with keeping a house and bearing children—a wife.

Louise has yearned keenly for the fulfillment of motherhood. She has been trying so hard. As of the day where our story hovers (Tuesday, November 6, 1928), she has not succeeded in this strenuous endeavor, though Lord knows she has been the most efficient puller of husbandly seed she had been allowed to be.

13, rue Thérèse is a delightful and clever origami box of a story. I’m probably not the first to make that analogy, nor do I think I will be the last, but it is an apt comparison: it is the kind of story that folds fiction and history, reality and imagination back and forth upon themselves until the reader scarcely knows which end is up.

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Double Review: Say You’re One of Them and Things Fall Apart

Say You’re One of Them
Uwem Akpan
Back Bay Books, 2009 (2008)

Say You’re One of Them is a collection of five stories by Nigerian author Uwem Akpan, each of them about the lives and experiences of children in Africa (Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda, among others).

The stories are not easy to read. Despite (or perhaps because of) the youth and innocence of their central characters, they harshly illuminate the conflicts that have inflicted such terrible and frequently violent suffering on Africa in recent decades. In “My Parents’ Bedroom,” for example, nine-year-old Monique witnesses first-hand the genocidal war that seemed to erupt overnight in Rwanda, a war that literally enters her home when her Hutu father butchers her Tutsi mother before her. “Luxurious Hearses” tells of Jubril’s efforts to flee to his father’s homeland in southern Nigeria – a flight that requires the teenager to conceal his Muslim faith, including the stump of an arm that marks him as a thief convicted under sharia, on a bus overcrowded with Christians driven from the north by sectarian violence. “Fattening for Gabon” is a story about a brother and sister sold by their uncle into slavery for a motorbike, while “What Language Is That?” shows two Ethiopian girls perplexed to learn one morning that they can never play together again because one is Muslim and the other Christian. Lastly, “An Ex-Mas Feast” depicts one Christmas celebration for a family living in a shack in Nairobi, their most precious gift a can of shoe glue they take turns sniffing at to stave off hunger pangs.

Things Fall Apart
Chinua Achebe
Anchor Books, 1994 (1959)

Things Fall Apart was the debut novel of Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, winner of the Man Booker International Prize in 2007 and hailed as the father of modern African literature. It tells the story of prosperous Ibo yam farmer Okonkwo’s fall from grace. Exiled for seven years for an inadvertent violation of one of his village’s sacred laws, humiliated by his son’s behavior, Okonkwo’s longed-for return to glory fails to materialize, and he is driven to commit one final desperate act.

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Review: Mattaponi Queen

Mattaponi Queen
Belle Boggs
Graywolf Press, 2010
Purchased new trade paperback

“There’s one lady, Nellie Wynn, you know her?” Ronnie asked one day. “Lives over near the post office?”

“Yeah,” Skinny said. “That’s my parents’ old place she lives in.”

“Oh,” Ronnie said. “It’s a nice house. Every day she offers me a cookie out of this enormous Aunt Jemima cookie jar. Blackface and everything, polka-dotted kerchief, big gummy smile. You pull her head off and there’s cookies inside.”

“She gives you cookies?”

“They’re not homemade, like yours,” Ronnie said. “It’s the Aunt Jemima jar. It’s so strange. And then she wants to talk about Pocahontas, how she was raped, and I just sit there.”

“My mom was stuck on Pocahontas too,” Skinny said. “Matoaka, she called her. She said it meant ‘naughty one.’ I guess in hindsight she probably shouldn’t have stepped in like she did. Then my mom would talk about how she broke her father’s heart, running off to England to get put on display.”

“You think she was trying to tell you something?” Ronnie said.

“What do you mean?”

“About women,” she said.

“Hell,” he said. “Where’ve you been all my life to translate this shit?”

—   from “It Won’t Be Long”

I had not intended for my next review here to have so much in common with the last one I wrote, but I could not put this off. Like The Toughest Indian in the World, Belle Boggs‘ debut is a collection of short stories, several of them about Indians. The Indians in Mattaponi Queen, however, are members of the Pamunkey and Mattaponi tribes in eastern Virginia, and they and their non-Indian neighbors, friends, and relatives live in King William and King and Queen counties, near the confluence of the Matta and Poni rivers. It’s an area I’m familiar with, having grown up in Richmond, but do not know well. It was the title that initially caught my attention while browsing at Barnes and Noble earlier this summer. After reading that it had been shortlisted for the 2010 Frank O’Connor Award (according to The Guardian, the world’s richest prize for short story collections), I moved it to the top of my TBR stack. As soon as I started reading, only the demands of nature could induce me to put it down.

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Review: Last Rituals

Last Rituals
Yrsa Sigurðardóttir; translated from Icelandic by Bernard Scudder
HarperCollins, 2007
Originally published in Iceland by Veröld Publishing
Purchased new trade paperback.

Matthew beat Thóra to the photograph. He looked at it without a flicker of emotion, then handed it to her. “It’s quite disgusting,” he said as she took it.

“Disgusting” was not a strong enough word to describe what Thóra saw. The picture showed the young man whom Thóra knew from family photographs as Harald Guntlieb lying on the floor in a peculiar position she recognized from the photographs in the case file. But those had been so grainy and badly reproduced that they were almost fit to show on children’s television compared with what greeted her eyes now.

Last Rituals is the first in a series of mystery novels by Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, though she also has several children’s books under her belt. The lead character, Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, is a lawyer and recently divorced mother of two hired by a wealthy German couple to investigate the gruesome murder of their son, who had been studying history at the University of Iceland in Reykjavík. Assisting her is Matthew Reich, the Guntliebs’ security officer and a former police detective in Germany. The case requires a delicate touch on two counts: first, because the police have already arrested a suspect and declared the crime solved; and secondly, because Harald Guntlieb’s body was horrifically mutilated – both before and after his death.

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Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

This review was originally posted on Buried Under Books.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
N.K. Jemisin
Orbit, February 2010
ARC from Creatures ‘n Crooks.

I knew that once my people had been heretics. That was why the Amn called races like mine darkling: we had accepted the Bright only to save ourselves when the Arameri threatened us with annihilation. But what Nahadoth implied–that some of my people had known the real reason for the Gods’ War all along and had hidden it from me–no. That I could not, did not want to, believe.

There had always been whispers about me. Doubts. My Amn hair, my Amn eyes. My Amn mother, who might have inculcated me with her Arameri ways. I had fought so hard to win my people’s respect. I thought I had succeeded.

When Yeine Darr is summoned to her ailing maternal grandfather’s royal court, she is shocked to hear herself named one of three potential heirs to the Arameri throne. She is a half-caste, the product of her mother’s rebellious marriage to a tribesman from the barbarian north, her dark skin and hair clearly marking her as an outsider in the capital city of Sky. Court intrigue abounds, however, and Yeine quickly learns nothing in Sky is what it seems – not even Yeine herself. With only days left until the king announces his final choice as heir, Yeine finds herself at the center of a power struggle between her world’s gods that stretches millennia into the past, far beyond the range of mortal reckoning. As she marshalls all of her resources to keep up with the ever-changing scenario, Yeine is forced to decide whether she can make a very personal sacrifice that could alter all life on her world forever.

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