Book Review: REFUGEE, the harrowing journeys of three young asylum seekers

Alan Gratz

Forced by life-or-death circumstances to flee home at a moment’s notice, the young protagonists of Refugee by Alan Gratz illustrate the journeys of asylum seekers in three periods of history. In 1938, Josef, a Jewish boy, boards the MS St. Louis for Cuba hoping for freedom for persecution. Isabel, her family, and her next-door neighbors, in 1994 board a handmade raft to Miami from Cuba after her father took part in a demonstration against Fidel Castro. Mahmoud and his family leave his beloved city of Aleppo, in ruins after six years of civil war, in 2014, after their apartment building is destroyed by a missile. Despite being separated by decades, the families are interconnected in surprising ways.

Though each has a unique voyage, similarities run through the pilgrimages. They all experience danger; watch as their families separate, sometimes permanently, witness death; and take on adult roles even though they are only twelve or thirteen. The book also shows how living besieged and then as refugees can affect people differently. Additionally, the reader can find interesting symbolic parallels such as the role of dictators and how they are displayed visually in each society.

These are heady and difficult issues, but Gratz presents them in an age-appropriate way. Especially at the beginning of the book, he provides a lot of context about the leaders in power in Germany, Cuba, and Syria, and the conditions that create refugees. While there is a lot of loss and sorrow in the book, it ends on a hopeful note.

I would recommend this book to any guardians who want their children to learn more about the refugee crisis. It’s also a book that promotes empathy with people of other cultures and backgrounds. Adults, too, can learn from the story.

Book Review: THE SNAKES, the traps may be set but who is the prey?

The Snakes
Sadie Jones

Relative newlyweds Bea and Dan are superficially happy in a small apartment in London, she a psychotherapist and he an estate agent. Bea, who came from a wealthy family, accepts no financial support from them. Dan, however, child of a black mother and absent white father and who grew up in poverty, hates his job and wants to return to his passion: painting. Dan, often described as the most handsome man in the room, surprised some of his friends when he paired up with the “frumpy” Bea.

Dan’s patience with his meaningless job comes to an end, and Bea suggests a three-month holiday through Europe. Bea has kept Dan away from her family, but she wants to stop in France and see her brother Alex, an addict who has been in and out of rehab but who is now clean and managing a hotel.

When they arrive at Hotel Paligny, however, they learn “clean” is relative and the decrepit hotel is less of an ongoing concern than a major stalled project. Even worse, for Bea, her parents, Griff and Liv, arrive for a visit. With them comes an air of entitlement and a level of access Dan has never before experienced. He doesn’t understand Bea’s ardency against them—but he also doesn’t know the childhood secrets Bea has locked away.

What starts as a family drama spins into a mystery when a character suddenly dies, and then the narrative shifts into horror for the dénouement. As a result, I never fully got my bearings when reading this novel, and the writing style, which I can best describe as staccato, kept me at a distance instead of drawing me in. That might very well be the point, as Bea had many mechanisms for putting layers between her and others, in which case it makes for clever writing but not necessarily enjoyable reading.

On the one hand, this novel explores how parents’ sins corrupt their children. Sadie Jones herself, talking to NPR, gave another perspective: “It’s a book about chaos and the surprise terrible things that happen that we can’t foresee …” In any case, this is book that is rich in symbolism (snakes!) and ideas and so intellectually stimulating, but not a book I would pick up for its entertainment value.

Book Review: EMPTY HEARTS, sourcing suicide bombers

E7720DEE-B3BF-4F0B-BBA9-60224924D222Empty Hearts
Juli Zeh
Translated by John Cullen

In 2025, the United States and Russia have formed an alliance making most terrorist groups impotent. France, along with Britain, has left the European Union. Nationalist, anti-immigration political parties have control of countries across the globe as many citizens have moved from despair to apathy.

Britta comforts herself by knowing she’s doing her part—providing a necessary service. She and her colleague Babak run The Bridge, a non-traditional anti-suicide service that uses Lassie, a sophisticated computer algorithm, to identify men with a high risk of suicide for intervention. However, though they have helped many disentangle themselves from suicidal thoughts, this practice actual conceals their true business: providing suicide bombers for terrorist groups.

If one of the clients goes through their twelve-step program and still wishes to die, Britta pairs him with an organization that wants to remind the world they still exist, perhaps ISIS or the Green Party. Since these organizations no longer have the cache they once did, they have trouble recruiting suicide bombers, and The Bridge has a monopoly on supply. When an organization works with The Bridge, they observe rules that benefit all, including a limit to collateral damage.

When a terrorist attack at the Leipzig airport is thwarted by authorities, Britta panics—the bombers, one of whom was killed, one captured—did not come from The Bridge. She divines that this indicates another provider is in operation and that she, Babak, and Julietta, their latest recruit, and only female, are in danger and go into hiding.

Empty Hearts had less action than I expected. However, there was interesting commentary on politics and the danger of apathy. As such, the focus remains on the philosophical themes. I wish there had been a shade more characterization. Babak has a fleshed-out backstory, but we see only glimpses of Britta’s past and even fewer insights into Julietta’s motivation. At the same time, Britta is an interesting character, focused on rules and procedure and comfortable being in charge of people and situations even as she has relinquished power in the political realm (though wielding suicide bombers is, I suppose, power enough!). I wish there were more context to these characters and to the CCC and its ominous initiatives.

Babak has a fleshed-out backstory, but we see only glimpses of Britta’s past and even fewer insights into Julietta’s motivation. At the same time, Britta is an interesting character, focused on rules and procedure and comfortable being in charge of people and situations even as she has relinquished power in the political realm (though wielding suicide bombers is, I suppose, power enough!). I wish there were more context to these characters and to the CCC and its ominous initiatives (Efficiency Packages) that promote discrimination. I was also disturbed when Richard, Britta’s husband, started pressuring her to be more “wifely.” I suppose I wanted her to object more vehemently.

The ending of the novel surprised me, and it wasn’t the ending I wanted, but I do think it was the right ending which made me think about the book long after I put it away. Empty Hearts starts a little slowly and picks up steam, but its strength is found the philosophical questions it raises about the current state of politics and the implications for the future.

Book Review: HOUSE OF STONE, an unreliable narrator infiltrating a Zimbabwean household

Tshuma, Novuyo Rosa - House of Stone (2) (1)House of Stone
Novuyo Rosa Tshuma

During a political rally in Zimbabwe, Bukhosi Mlambo disappeared. Desperate to locate their son, they are vulnerable to the attentions of their lodger, Zamani, who is only seven years older than Bukosi. Zamani, an orphan, tries to become the Mlambo’s missing son, willing to go to desperate lengths to maintain his proximity to the family.

Unreliable, at times, Zamani, an orphan, believes he is a more worthy son than Bukosi. In other cases, he is more deliberately cruel to the parents in order to rewrite his own history and in turn remake his past. He misreads and misreports his own and other’s motivations and misunderstands people’s emotions and attitudes. As a result, he’s completely unreliable and completely fascinating.

History, memory, storytelling, and the right to declare the truth play an important role not only for Zamani and the Mlambo family. The country itself struggles with the same issues. After Zimbabwe gained independence, two nationalistic parties struggled for power during the Rhodesian Bush War. The national army under Robert Mugabe systematically killed Ndebele people ostensibly because they were dissidents, but in actuality because they supported the rival political party and Mugabe feared their opposition.

The book is not easy emotionally to read first because Zamani represents an unsympathetic character with whom it is difficult to empathize and second because of the terrible and graphic atrocities Abednego and Agnes experienced, and at times committed, in the aftermath of independence. Although I found certain sections slow, particularly Abednego’s teen and young adult years, once more characters were introduced and their secrets unfurled, the novel became surprising and unrelenting.

While I don’t think this is a universally appealing book, I am extremely glad I read it. I didn’t know anything about Zimbabwe’s Bush War and genocide, and though the descriptions were horrific, I thought it only fitting to fill the role of witness as uncomfortable as that might be. Additionally, as much as I despised Zamani, as a narrator, he was completely spellbinding.

House of Stone should find it audience among readers interested in African history, colonialism, genocide; those who find stories about history, memory, and identity compelling; and those who are fond of reading books from the perspective of unreliable narrators.

Book Review: THEY COULD HAVE NAMED HER ANYTHING, I loved the concept, but not the style

Jiminez, Stephanie - They Could Have Named Her AnythingThey Could Have Named Her Anything
Stephanie Jimenez

In They Could Have Named Her Anything, seventeen-year-old Maria Rosario, a denizen of Queens, makes a long journey to the Upper East Side each day where she attends Bell Seminary as a scholarship student. Although one of the only Latina students, she doesn’t fit in with the other girls in the Students of Color group, yet she sometimes leans into the stereotypes foist upon her, as she does in math class to bully her teacher into accepting it when she moved from her assigned seat in the front of the room to the back where she daydreamed about Andres, her boyfriend who called her a “corpse” after she lost her virginity to him.

That fateful move brought her into a collision course with Rachelle “Rocky” Albrecht, one of the wealthiest girls in a school full of rich students. Maria and Rocky gravitate towards each other, Maria envying Rocky’s wealth and privilege, Rocky jealous of Maria’s close family. Yet, the two also clash with secrets and misunderstandings. Although told primarily from Maria’s point of view, the book also has sections told from the points of view of Rocky, her dad, Charlie, and Maria’s father, Miguel.

Typically, this is a book I would like, given the diversity of the characters, the coming of age story, and the questions of identity and sexuality. However, They Could Have Named Her Anything wasn’t for me. One issue I had was that it didn’t seem to fall fully into the young adult or adult category and so was awkwardly straddling both. Another is that personally, I found the writing style choppy, as though I was in a bumper car or driving on a road full of potholes. It’s possible that this was done deliberately to reflect Maria’s circumstances or state of mind, but I found it detracted from my enjoyment of the book, so much so that at several points, I was tempted not to finish it.

That said, Jimenez did write some lovely passages, and I thought the idea of being hemmed in my one’s name—or liberated by it—interesting. I suspect that there would be readers who would really adore this book, but unfortunately, I wasn’t one of them.

Thank you to NetGalley and Little A for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.