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 Oracle of Stamboul by Michael David Lukas – Book Review

The Oracle of Stamboul by Michael David Lukas
Published by Harper Books, an imprint of Harper Collins

In1877, the Ottoman Empire was under severe external pressure, losing territories to Russia, among other things. It was into this environment that Eleonora Cohen was born, a young Jewish girl. Her birth, at the same time of the sacking of Constanta by the Cossacks, brought her into a chaotic world, while at the same time removing her mother from it. Still, Eleonora thrived, particularly in the academic realm, gaining the ability to read, understand, and memorize long passages of text on the same day she learned her letter sounds. At around eight years old, a combination of forces brings Eleonora to the household of wealthy resident of Stamboul, Moncef Bey. There she becomes unwittingly enmeshed in the political intrigue surrounding the capital city at the time, and her amazing proficiency with language, languages, and ciphers comes to the attention of the Sultan himself.

Michael David Lukas has chosen what should be a very interesting topic for his debut novel. I love the idea of seeing an empire limping towards death through the eyes of a young girl. Unfortunately, I was less than enamored with the execution. Lukas’s prose is perfectly good, but I found the plotting and characterization to be lacking. All of the characters were flat. The majority of the attention in the novel is given to Eleanora, but the reader is granted remarkably little insight into her emotional world, and the revelations that are expressed seem not at all to come from a child of eight or nine. Her remarkable talents, too, were simply a little too remarkable. I can accept that a savant child of 8 or 9 might be able to read multiple languages, but the deciphering of codes at a glance without training and the aforementioned initial literacy development in her native language were a bit beyond the pale. The flock of hoopoes that followed her wherever she went served only as a distraction, because it wasn’t explored fully enough to serve as good characterization.

The main issue I have with the plotting is that everything was far too facile. Certain events took place, the there was never a feel of anything truly happening, no conflict was ever particularly worked through and resolved. Even Eleanora’s refusal to speak for many months was brought to a close in a moment of unthinking confusion. So it goes throughout the entire book. This lack of conflict also indicates a lack of character growth, which feeds into my earlier objection about characterization. Also, Eleonora’s actual time as advisor to the Sultan and Oracle of Stamboul is surprisingly brief, leaving the feel that the rest of the book was a large amount of setup for a plotline that never fully panned out.

Still, even with all of these issues, I would not say that I disliked The Oracle of Stamboul. It was a fairly engaging book – helped along primarily by Lukas’s prose style – and was set against an interesting backdrop. However, the best I can do is recommend it as as quick read when you don’t feel like getting too deep into the mechanics of what does or does not make a book work.

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The Gendarme by Mark Mustian – Book Review

The Gendarme by Mark Mustian
Published by Amy Einhorn Books, an imprint of Penguin

The first thing that caught my attention about “The Gendarme” was the arresting cover. I found it very reminiscent of the National Geographic cover of the Afghan girl, if a slightly less intense gaze. When I read the jacket copy and saw that it was about Turkey and the Armenians in WWI, I was totally sold.

And, although, it was not at all what I expected, “The Gendarme” did not disappoint.

Emmet Cohn was born Ahmet Khan in Turkey at the end of the 19th century. Unfortunately, he does not remember much of anything before he woke up in a British hospital during World War I with severe head trauma. He made it to the United States due to the determination of his American nurse, whom he married. After a long life in which he considered himself American first and foremost, Emmet, 92 and recently diagnosed with a brain tumor, has become dreaming again of Turkey. Specifically, he is dreaming of being a gendarme – which is odd, because he is positive he was a Turkish solider, not a gendarme – who is taking a group of Armenians to Syria and is beguiled by an Armenian girl with two different colored eyes, Araxie.

I really enjoyed “The Gendarme,” the way it worked through memory, sins of the past, aging, sickness, duty, and repentance. The two storylines were worked together masterfully, particularly considering there was not always a visual cue of transition. One thing bled into another with ease and occasionally when the transition was overly quick, it was wonderfully evocative of exactly what Emmet must have been going through with his tumor and increasingly frequent lapses between waking and dreams. I adored the uncertainty – shared by Emmett himself – of whether or not we could trust him as a narrator, or whether him tumor and previous head trauma left him unreliable. There were times I felt that I shouldn’t buy the blossoming relationship between Emmett and Araxie, with all of the hardships between them, but Mustian wrote them so compellingly that I had a difficult time not believing their relationship, unlikely as it may have seemed.

In “The Gendarme,” Mustian blends history and the human spirit beautifully. Highly recommended.

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This review was done with a book received from BEA.
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