The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian – Book Review

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian
Published by Doubleday, an imprint of Random House

Laura Petrosian is an author of light-hearted women’s fiction who also happens to be 1/4 Armenian, although for most of her life she gave her heritage little thought. When an old friend calls, claiming she has seen a picture of Laura’s grandmother from the time of the Armenian genocide in the newspaper, she decides to delve more deeply into her family’s past and write a book completely different than anything she has written before.

In 1915, Elizabeth Endicott of Boston arrives in Syria with some minimal nursing training and the blessing of the Friends of Armenia in order to help the refugees and witness and report on the genocide occurring in the Ottoman Empire. While there, she meets and falls in love with a young Armenian engineer named Armen Petrosian who lost his wife and infant daughter to the marches across the desert.

Chris Bohjalian has called The Sandcastle Girls the most important book he will ever write, but it is not strictly didactic. Instead, The Sandcastle Girls is beautiful and sad; Bohjalian walks a fine line, sharing the realities of the tragedies of the Armenian genocide without being too clinical or engaging in emotional manipulation. His characters are realistic, flawed but likable. Particularly impressive is how he keeps even the most minor characters – the American consul, a pair of German engineers, an Armenian woman and the orphaned girl she has taken into her heart – engaging. Their stories are interspesed with Laura, Elizabeth, and Armen’s and Bohjalian manages to do this without slowing down the story. If anything, these additional stories add richness and layers toThe Sandcastle Girls, layers that help make it such a wonderfully epic and meaningful novel.

I’ve never read another work of fiction that has more completely and almost effortlessly captured the Armenian genocide of the early 2oth century. Bohjalian manages to capture both the emotional impact of the events in question as well as the facts and background, all smoothly within his narrative and without resorting to any info dumps. The Sandcastle Girlsis a truly wonderful and important novel. Very highly recommended.

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The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger – Audiobook Review

The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger, narrated by Rosalyn Landor
Published in audio by Blackstone Audio; published in print by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster


After losing her parents in a train crash, Sally was sent rather young into service, where she began as a scullery maid. Eventually she found herself as the lady’s maid to Lady Duff Gordon, and travels with her lady to Egypt. Lady Duff Gordon has tuberculosis and decides that she cannot stay alive in the cold English climate, and heads to Luxor, Egypt for her health. While there, Sally falls in love with Omar, Lady Duff Gordon’s dragoman. As much as Lady Duff Gordon gives in to the Egyptian way of life, Sally does even more so, entering into a romantic relationship with an Egyptian man – a relationship which her lady does not approve of at all.

Thoughts on the story:

Although fascinating to experience late 19th century Egypt, and to see the late 19th century interactions between Egyptians and Europeans, the first person narrative really slowed down the first section of the book. Everything was simply Sally observing what was happening around her without much action. Eventually the pace picked up, but I spent a good amount of time at the beginning of “The Mistress of Nothing” wondering when something would happen.

Thoughts on the audio production:

Rosalyn Landor is a talented narrator who infuses her words with emotion, but even she could not keep me interested during the slow points of the narrative. For my complete thoughts, please see my review at Audiofile Magazine.


I recommend this in print or audio for the historical fiction fan who is interested in getting a feel for the interactions between Europe and Egypt in the late 19th century, but be warned that the beginning starts slowly.

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A local independent bookstore via Indiebound: Print*

Source: Audiofile Magazine, publisher.
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A Kidnapping in Milan by Steve Hendricks – Book Review

A Kidnapping in Milan: The CIA on Trial by Steve Hendricks
Published by W. W. Norton & Company

Extraordinary rendition. Not a phrase that many Americans heard before 9/11. The concept – kidnapping someone from one country and taking them to another country with, shall we say, a less firmly defined sense of what constitutes human rights abuses for the purpose of torture – is probably not one that occurred to many of us before then either. Evidence suggests that these renditions did happen before 9/11, but it was after that time that the phrase and the concept became a part of the national consciousness, perhaps because it is alleged that the CIA has extraordinarily rendered some 3,000 suspected terrorists since then.

In A Kidnapping in Milan, freelance reporter Steve Hendricks explores one such case of post-9/11 extraordinary rendition of a radical Egyptian imam living in Milan. Beginning with Abu Omar’s radicalization in Egypt, through his time in the Balkans and his re-creation as an imam in Milan, Hendricks relates the story of this rendition from the earliest logical point, through the bitter end. We do not simply learn of Abu Omar’s story either, also included is CIA and Italian history that greatly influenced both the rendition and the eventual prosecution in Italian courts of the men and women involved in the kidnapping.

A Kidnapping in Milan is extraordinarily well researched, particularly considering much of this information must have been hard to track down or make sense of. Early on in the book, Hendricks tells the reader:

In Milan a known fact is always explained by competing stories, more than one of which will be plausible. Some of the stories will be frivolous, even absurd. With time, the elements of all will mix, their separate origins becoming unclear. With time enough, even the one fact once known with certainty will become all but unknowable.
Page 14

Based on the other details he gives us about life in Milan, that certainly seems to be the case. However, his research is so good and his story told so flawlessly, that A Kidnapping in Milan seems to belie that statement with its very existence.

This book is particularly timely right now, because it covers in broad strokes much of the political history of Egypt. This is primarily done to explain the large number of Egyptian-born radicals living overseas, as well as the appeal of rendering terrorism suspects to Egypt. It raised a good many questions for me about what the place of Egypt will be in these matters going forward, which I would guess is not something that is really known as of yet, as we wait to see exactly how the recent events in Egypt will play out. The accounts of the tortures which took place in Egypt are horrific, and the faint of heart and stomach may want to skim those sections, although I do think it is important for informed citizen to know what is being done in our name by proxies of our own government.

One of the earliest recipients of the CIA’s training was Egypt. The trainers were former Nazi commanders from Germany who were recruited by the CIA not long after the Second World War.
Page 145

“If you want a serious interrogation,” said Robert Baer, who for years was a CIA officer in the Middle East, “you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear – never to see them again – you send them to Egypt.”
Page 147

This is not a particularly easy read, both because of the level of detail Hendricks includes, and because of the subject matter, but if you have even the slightest interest in this subject – or in knowing what is being done in your (if you are American) name – this is a great choice. Recommended.

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Powells | Indiebound | Amazon*

Source: Author.
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