77 by Guillermo Saccomanno, trans. by Andrea G. Labinger (Open Letter 2019)
Reviewed by Allison McCausland
Fear makes people do crazy things. When a country is in turmoil politically, its hard to distinguish the clear-cut actions of people as heroic or survivalist. In the case of Professor Gomez, the protagonist of Guillermo Saccomanno’s latest translated work, 77, he acts as more of an active bystander, drawing in the reader through his retrospective narration of his time in Buenos Aires during the Jorge Videla coup d’état in 1977. Saccomanno captures the uncertainty and day-to-day dangers of living in this era with visceral scenes and inner longing for a better life. Translator Andrea G. Labinger keeps the rhetoric in line with Saccomanno’s vision to ground readers in both terrifying and startlingly mundane situations.
The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams (Doubleday Books 2020)
Reviewed by Summer A.H. Christiansen
Clare Beams’ new novel, The Illness Lesson is a gripping historical fiction that will leave you on the edge of your seat. The novel is set in Ashwell, Massachusetts in 1871, where Samuel Hood, a retired transcendental essayist, is establishing The School for the Trilling Heart. This private school for young women is the first of its kind. Its courses are taught by Samuel, young Civil War veteran David, and Samuel’s daughter Caroline. Throughout the novel, we follow Caroline as she struggles with her identity as an educated, unwed twenty-eight year old woman.
Library of Legends by Janie Chang (William Morrow and Co. 2020)
Reviewed by Angela Gualtieri
In her latest novel, The Library of Legends, Janie Chang blends Chinese history with fantasy elements, adding a dash of romance.
Set in 1937 China, the Japanese aerial attacks begin to close in, forcing students at Minghua University to flee from Nanking to Chengtu. They carry with them the Library of Legends, a 147-volume record of myth and folklore from the Ming dynasty, 500 years ago. A priceless treasure, the Library of Legends brought students far and wide to Minghua, including Hu Lian. Lian is an introverted scholar fascinated with the historic tomes. Throughout the 1000-mile journey, Lian is torn between locating her mother and her duty to her school. She soon finds herself at the center of controversy when one student is murdered and another arrested. Knowing she must escape, Lian chooses to travel back to Shanghai in hopes of finding her mother. Along the way, she uncovers a special connection between the Library of Legends and two of her companions.
The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi (Mira Books 2020)
Reviewed by Angela Gualtieri
Historical fiction opens the gateway to a different time and place. The settings themselves make readers long for somewhere they’ve never been. This is the case in Alka Joshi’s debut novel, The Henna Artist.
Set in the 1950s, The Henna Artist transports us back to India a few years after gaining independence from the British. Joshi’s vivid imagery makes India’s past crawl off the page, bringing it to life: “We entered a colonnade flanked by lush gardens. Topiary elephants frolicked on the lawns. Live peacocks pranced around circular fountains. Stone urns sprouted honeysuckle, jasmine and sweet pea” (142). Amidst the color and beauty of historical India, Joshi also gives us a taste of the social, economic, and political climates of the time, shedding light on the difficulties for people of lower castes and women.
How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang (Riverhead Books 2020)
Review by Lane Berger
C Pam Zhang’s debut novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, follows a Chinese-American family without a name. Ma, Ba (father), Lucy, and Sam are immigrant, migrant, and the children thereof.
Divided into four a-chronological sections, the novel spans America’s Gold Rush Era. In Part One, Ba is dead, “And long gone, Ma.” But for Ba’s body and a stolen horse, Lucy and Sam are destitute when they set out to bury their father properly. While Lucy wills every step to take her away from her past, toward a white lace dress and civilization, Sam carries a disparate inheritance and disparate dreams. Begun as a journey to stay a spirit, the siblings take up the mantle of their parents’ search for self and home.
Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed (Soho Teen 2020)
Reviewed by Maayan D’Antonio
17-year-old Khayyam Maquet—American, French, Indian, Muslim—is spending her August sulking around Paris. Her essay to her dream school, The Art Institute of Chicago, wasn’t received well by the committee, derailing her chances of getting in. On top of that, her maybe ex-boyfriend, Zaid, is ghosting her. Just when everything feels exceptionally crappy, and Khayyam literally steps in crap, she meets Alexander, the descendant of the famous French writer Alexander Dumas.
The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo (Flatiron Books, 2019)
Reviewed by Angela Gualtieri
Some stories tell of rich histories and folklore. Others enchant with forbidden romances and evil foes. Others are filled with emotional turmoil and death. And yet, some stories seem to encompass it all.
Set in 1930s Colonial Malaya (current Malaysia), Yangsze Choo’s The Night Tiger follows an eleven-year-old houseboy named Ren, tasked with fulfilling his dead master’s final wish to find his long-since detached finger. Ren only has 49 days to reunite the finger with its earthly body or his master’s soul will roam the Earth forever. Ji Lin, a young apprentice dressmaker moonlighting as a dancehall girl to pay her mother’s debts, accidentally receives one of her dance partner’s lucky charms: a mummified finger. As Ren and Ji Lin walk their destined paths unknowingly toward each other, a strange series of deaths, dreams of the in-between, and whispers of weretigers force them to fight their demons, both internal and external.