Belly up: Stories by Rita Bullwinkel

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Things are so easy to ruin, I remember thinking.  I remember thinking, why did I do that thing that I knew was going to have a bad ending?

This is a strange, unique story collection, but not so strange to be off-putting for some. Of all the tales, Black Tongue was my favorite. There is something painfully relatable to that part of us that is pulled by things we know are just a form of sabotage, be it physical or emotional. Standing there in the aftermath of a mess we made, thinking ‘I did this to myself.”  The Florida stories made me laugh, familiar with Cassadaga, the Spiritualist community, ‘psychic capital’ of the world and Gator tacos ‘tastes like chicken’ specials. Okay, so it’s a strange state and things are faded by the sun, and we are sometimes a world unto ourselves but we’re never boring.

What I Would Be If I Wasn’t What I Am is a thoughtful little piece. There are so many parts to us, made different by marriage as much as by being a parent, a sister, a friend. What is the true solid core? Because we are different for who we know, love. I’m mucking up an interesting story about a widow. Oh the strange life of cohabitation, of love. There are stories of ghosts and hired bra hands (some of us do pay outrageous prices for our brassieres, out of necessity), tricky snakes, and 24 hour donut shops where it’s okay to be an ugly teenager, who deserve love stories too.

In the South, the Sand Winds Are Our Greatest Enemy is a peculiar tale of banished brothers Gleb (the surgeon) and Oleg (the sculptor) working in a prison infirmary, full of wit and strange skills. There is nothing they can’t repair, and no one. They make great use of corpses, and outsmart the officer in control.

Stories that have an air of mystery while surrounded by the ordinary. Clever!

Available Now

Publisher:  A Strange Object

 

 

 

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A River of Stars: A Novel by Vanessa Hua

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Mama Fang held everyone’s wallets, passports, and their cash in the safe in her office, part of her pledge to take care of every detail. That meant Scarlett couldn’t pay for the fare and couldn’t leave the country. And if she asked Boss Yeung for a ticket, he’d refuse.

Scarlett Chen becomes pregnant by her lover and owner of the factory she works for, Boss Yeung. A self-made successful business man with three daughters and a wife yearns for what men in China want, an heir, a son to carry on his success. Daughters always end up being more like their mothers, belonging to them, then to another family. “When told they were having a boy, Boss Yeung had bowed his head and clasps his hands to his mouth, speechless.” When an ultrasound reveals Scarlett is carrying a treasured boy, he sends her to America so that his son will be born free, with every opportunity Americans have, a limitless future! Scarlett knows that she can’t risk telling her own Ma, who works at a family planning clinic that she, an unmarried woman, is pregnant. Not when one-child policies are enforced, pregnancies tracked. She would lose her job, the very job that despite its bitterness, afforded Scarlett and her mother a living, survival.

Through an arrangement with Mama Fang, who has her own entangled history, Scarlett stays at Perfume Bay with other expectant mothers eating terrible food, fighting with other women and thinking about Boss Yeung and her child’s future. Then a new sonogram gives her shocking news that she fears will change any love Boss Yeung has for her ending his support, it is vital she escapes before she gives birth, or the future she imagined will go up in smoke. One night she escapes, only to discover teenaged Daisy, another unwed mother, in the van she steals. Daisy, born in America but returned to Tawaiin when she was 2 months old, is suffering her own broken heart, kept from her child’s father William whom she met in Teipei during a summer language program. She wants nothing more than to get a message to him, being kept apart by her parents. What if, however, he never really loved her as much as she believed? Daisy is educated, and seems priveladed but her own reason for running is just as desperate. Despite their differences, both of their fates hinge on their cultures and the demands of others- both need each other desperately. In a sense, Scarlett mothers Daisy, and does everything she can with an interesting cast of characters to keep their American dream alive. It takes more than intelligence and hope, it takes humility and hard work, and the aid of strangers, a sort of make-shift family. They begin with nothing, invisible to people in San Francisco, fighting for their place within the community of Chinatown, where not everyone is eager to aid their own people. Old Wu and Scarlett build a unique relationship, which I really enjoyed more than her relationship with Boss Yeung. Scarlett using her own terrible cooking to persuade Wu to help her is funny. Always appeal to a man’s ego. Who knew food cart wars could be so dangerous, but when you’re hiding and can’t call attention to yourself for fear of deportation, well… Something that made me laugh and cringe with its pettiness was the flyer placed next to her food cart, a picture of her with wet hair, a photo of a blurry rat beside her and the accusation of ground rodent meat. You have to laugh at the inventiveness of street competitors, maybe as cut throat and fierce as big businesses.

Mama Fang isn’t one to crumble nor fall when any of her businesses collapse. Naturally Boss Yeung is shocked to find out the state of the place he had sent his lover, and find her missing. Mama Fang’s back story is maybe more heartbreaking than both Scarlett and Daisy’s. A woman as strong as her always has more ideas waiting in the wings, always several steps ahead of the game, the only way she has survived for so long. Boss Yeung has his own story of betrayal, and his daughter Viann born to a successful father has her own goals, certainly it doesn’t include being usurped by a bastard son? Everyone has secrets, rich and poor alike, each trying to outmaneuver equally wily foes. What if one’s enemy is a lover, family or best friend?

The criminal acts expose how immigrants in desperation put their trust, all their money and faith into the hands of dubious people. How those with power manipulate and abuse those with none. Certainly the world is full of opportunists that target immigrants as cash cows and see them not as real people escaping horrifying bleak futures. You can’t outrun those with money and power, despite what continent you are on. Each person wants nothing more than to build a life for themselves and their family, and even if people like Scarlett’s Ma or even Mama Fang don’t agree with the morality of their job, sometimes there is no choice but to comply. Whether it’s Boss Yeung coming up from nothing to become a wealthy man in his own country, or Scarlett changing the trajectory of her own life, each changed their fate. The ending is not quite as I expected, I think I expected more shock after all the build up but it’s a solid novel. There were slow periods but things always picked up. This is a story about cultural obligations and the immigrant experience, which is varied and can end in tragedy or glorious fortune. It’s strange to think about the lives of others, continuing alongside our own, that remain invisible for the most part. A River of Stars is just one such experience, a drop in the ocean of many.

Publication Date: August 14, 2018

Random House

Ballantine Books

 

Five Hundred Poor: Stories by Noah Milligan

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When I was in the room, Frank stared at me the way men have since I was eleven years old, with a mixture of lust and apathy.

While this is a slim collection of stories it is so peculiar and wonderful that I hope Milligan writes more, I just realized he wrote a novel too titled An Elegant Theory that I will have to acquire. What I love about these stories is that they aren’t about perfect, successful happy folks.The men and women in this book seem to live outside the lives people imagine are waiting for the well-adjusted. Everything’s Fine is fantastic, what an odd story, there are some authors you read and ask yourself, ‘what inspired this tale?’ It is deeply sad, and these are the sort of characters (people) that will never be ‘normal’. Our narrator did strange things to herself, she tells us, when she was little. You can imagine her parents hovering over their daughter through her entire childhood scared, not of outside dangers, but of what she could do to herself. But that isn’t really the story, the story is where she works as an adult, at the Rosewood Medical Center for the Severely Disabled. More forgotten people who live in the cracks of time, stuck in facilities, lucky if their caretakers are gentle and kind. She meets the brother of a patient, and so begins one of the weirdest relationships I’ve read and yet this ‘living at a distance’, vicariously through another’s happiness that makes sense.

The Motion of Bodies exposes the dangers of our social comments whether they are light-hearted jokes or not. What’s more terrifying than an offhanded comment or joke that turns on you, makes you a social enemy? Not as far-fetched as we think. It can cost more than we ever thought we’d have to give up. How do you defend against a few words that paints a picture of you as someone you’re not? Especially if you wrote them? What we mean in this age is impossible to reign in, all it takes is one person to shape your thoughts, usually strangers. The jungle seems to be social media now.

A Good Start is the first story, a man grapples with caring for a boy who may or may not be his son, and truly what does it matter to him? He doesn’t much take to the idea of being ‘obligated’ to anything or anyone. I just kept thinking ‘born alone, die alone’. If it is his son, their childhoods and their mothers are mirrors. It produces raw thoughts and ugly feelings to imagine there are such upbringings that makes no room for innocence. Little boys and girls who learn all too soon not to trust any adults, most especially not their mothers and fathers, and that they better get streetwise fast if they have any chance of survival.

These are not your usual short stories, they aren’t pretty in fact in one a man’s job is to clean up crime scenes, suicides,  and nautral deaths in Status Zero, some are really weird but all are original. I read the following on goodreads.com under the book summary.  The title comes from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, “Wherever there is great property there is great inequality. For one very rich man there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many. The affluence of the rich excites the indignation of the poor, who are often both driven by want, and prompted by envy, to invade his possessions.” There must be five hundred poor.

Publication Date: June 1, 2018

Central Avenue Publishing

 

Our Homesick Songs: A Novel by Emma Hooper

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Sometimes mermaids save people, said Molly.

Sometimes they don’t, said Martha.

The Connor Family cling like barnacles to their dying fishing town, Big Running. The fish have vanished, and Eleven year old Finn wants to solve the great mystery and maybe save them all. His sister Cora, through her fantasies with decorating empty houses and longing for far away places longs for travel, wants to leave like many others have. Locals cannot make a living when there aren’t any fish to catch, and there is the looming threat to close up the town. Aidan and Martha have no choice but to earn money to stay afloat by working at an energy site, alternating one month up north one at home so that one parent is always with the children. It takes a toll on their marriage, and family.

The story drifts back and forth between Aidan and Martha’s early years, when they first met (1970s) and their present day (1990s). Every night young Martha was drawn to the shore, and the singing that had to be coming from a mermaid. The Murphy girls had lost both parents to the sea, and were on their own with the oldest only 19. It is the singing that brings her love. Through the years the sisters drift off, through marriage, illness but always the love for sisters must come before any boy! Aidan knows loss as much as all the others in the village, knows he can’t leave because his mother needs him and then it’s Martha who anchors him.

They want to stay, to hold fast to the traditions of their village, to the only home they’ve ever known and fight to keep hope alive for the few who remain. The children have plans of their own and when Cora takes flight, running away there is no explanation. But it’s evident the town is too stagnant, that she is restless, all she wants is another life, to see the world, to escape this dying place. Finn finds comfort in Mrs. Callaghan, all her stories, a strange friend for a young boy, but there are no children left. So he spends his time learning the accordion with her. People aren’t the only thing that can die, the very world they’ve known is passing away and they do not want to let go. Infidelity comes between Martha and Aidan but when their girl goes missing, it may well be the only thing to keep them together.

I had a difficult time with her writing style, and the story moves slowly. The back and forth through past and present flowed perfectly, but the conversations were sometimes too stiff for me. It is a quiet novel and has its sweet moments. Most people likely prefer Cora and Finn but I would have loved to just remain in the past and have a full story about the Murphy girls. A lovely, though sometimes slow, story about how time and the environment can change so many lives. The struggle of a dying fishing village and it’s people, their folk songs and stories. Hope and sorrow as it swims through generations. Do we stay or do we move on?

Publication Date: August 14, 2018

Simon & Schuster

Ohio: A Novel by Stephen Markley

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You passed your time in the cage, he figured, by clinging pointlessly and desperately to an endless series of unfinished sorrows. 

The character developement in this book is fantastic, because they are all heavy with some sort of sorrow. This town is like many others, falling into hard times, gritty, poverty striken, drug riddled, and it’s people as worn down and burned out on life or drugs. The author takes you into the dark recesses of his lost characters. There isn’t much hope here. Of all the stories, the last hit me between the eyes. Tina Ross is returning home to Ohio, her mind on love. If her theory about love, ‘that you can only have- really, truly- one love of your life”, then it comes early and leads her back to Number 56, for her. This love, of her re-telling, descends into serious abuse, which got me to thinking about teenage girls in general and unhealthy love. Really, you can pick any  woman, search her heart’s timeline and for most, there is a relationship where she likely succumbed to self-destruction for one partner. Love hurts, love hurts, love hurts playing on a loop in her love-sick mind. Tina has returned to see 56, her one true love, who may have ruined her for any normal healthy relationship. I wish I could get deeper into this twisted story but I don’t want to give away what happens.

The first story is about Corporal Richard Jared Brinklan, killed in action in Iraq, whose life intersected with the characters in each story. A ceremony to honor the fallen soldier, immediately doesn’t feel so honorable when one who is chosen to speak, high school girlfriend Kaylyn Lyn is ‘stupefyingly high’, and their love story was one she ended coldly, cruelly. She is a mess herself, if once pretty and popular she is washed out and just as wrecked as anyone else in the novel. Then there is Bill Ashcroft, the smuggler distracted by the ‘fraternity’ of fellow aging, used up small town football athletes at the bar. It’s a given, after all, to run into the boys ‘relics’ anytime one is back in town. High out of his mind and drunk, remembering his glory years where memories are tainted, and out of some misdirected rage others became targets, and each story veers off elsewhere. No two memories are the same.

A small town like any other, bored teens with nothing to do but ruin each other or self-destruct. Factor in 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the earnestness when one first ‘joins up’ to fight a cause, the disaffected, broken returns, ambition that sinks you deeper until you abandon hope and you have Ohio. The writing is rich and while not every story held me, I was engaged. A promising new talent to be sure!

Publication Date: August 21, 2018

Simon & Schuster

Whistle In The Dark: A Novel by Emma Healey

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She hadn’t anticipated this, hadn’t been rehearsing for doctors and a recovery, had pictured only police press conferences and a funeral, or an endless agonizing wait. 

When Jen’s fifteen-year-old daughter Lana goes missing, she never for a minute imagines she will have her back, alive, and unharmed. Nor did she imagine Lana wouldn’t have anything to tell her of the most horrific four days of her parent’s lives. Days when they didn’t know what had happened to her, or if they would ever see her alive again. Lana’s troubles didn’t begin after she went missing, there was something lurking deep within her that begs the question, did she try to hurt herself- again?

Deep down, Jen doesn’t trust her daughter’s story, that she had somehow gotten lost during the painting holiday they were on. Worse, that she vanished while under her care and husband Hugh is so happy to have his daughter back that he doesn’t want Jen to harass her with questions, questions that demand answers! All Jen wants is to understand her daughter, but their relationship is nothing like the one she has with her eldest. Every interaction has always been exhausting, and she never seems to be able to do anything right by Lana. Her daughter has needed help for a long time, what sort of mother does that make her, when she can’t even guide her own child without professional help? What is a mother to do with a child who hurts herself, how do you save anyone from themselves?

Why is it so difficult with Lana, when she doesn’t struggle with her eldest, Meg? Even Meg tries to crack her sister’s shell of silence, dig for answers. The dynamics in the family may be part of the acting out. It is suffocating to be the ‘problem’ child, just as difficult to be a responsible one, both of Jen’s daughters have their own perspective on how each of them fit in the family. Does Lana really just manipulate her parents as Meg accuses? Is it depression, is it a lie, is this incident just another scream for more attention? Is it ever Meg’s turn, when something enormous is happening in her own life?

There are times you can feel Jen’s frustration with Lana, because she knows how to use her difficulties as a crutch, how to dodge facing things by playing the victim. But that isn’t to say she isn’t one, because she is struggling. This is imperfect parenting, is there any other kind? Going back to earlier sessions with Dr. Greenbaum one can’t help but feel the resentment, shame and helplessness of opening yourself to professional because it is the only way to help your child. It can feel like being tarred and feathered, worst parent of the year. It’s possible to love your child and hate the illness, despair when engaging in the hopelessness, or the rage. Now this, this public disappearance with no way to answer any pressing questions everyone has, herself included. How can Hugh be so happy, think that suddenly all will be right with their broken girl?

Jen decides to find out for herself just what happened those four days and it’s nothing that she imagined.“The feeling that things were happening just out of her sight was growing.” Sometimes it’s the only way life moves ahead, children grow up- out of sight of their mother’s ever watchful eye. The police can’t crack the story, can Jen, without further hurting Lana? All she wanted was to help her, be it through GP visits or research in books on mental health, but there is no true answer to repair her daughter. She doesn’t feel any closer to making things right. Now, all Lana wants is to be left alone, to stop being asked how she is feeling, what she is thinking, what happened. Jen is desperate to understand, is it really spying if everything she does is intended to keep her girl safe? If her daughter shares nothing, keeps those four days locked up tight?

Truth can be horrifying and it can be heartbreaking. This is more a family drama, the horror is in how easy it is to feel lost within your own mind as much as your family. How do you put your family back together when you’re still reeling and the distance is only growing wider? Just how far will Jen have to go to understand the state Lana was in?

Publication Date: July 24, 2018

Harper

She Was the Quiet One: A Novel by Michele Campbell

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Neither Sarah nor Heath had a counseling background. They knew nothing about running a dorm, or providing guidance to messed-up girls. Sarah had spent her Odell years hiding from girls like that, and- to be honest- Heath had spent his time chasing them.

Rose and Bel Enright’s mother has just succumbed to cancer, the dreamier of the twins (Bel) wants nothing to change more than what already has. The devastating loss has already altered their known world. Both girls know without a place to go, they will end up in Foster Care so it is Rose’s idea to contact their father’s wealthy mother and take her up on her offer to send them (as has been an Enright tradition for generations) to boarding school at the prestigious Odell Academy. Rose can’t wait, the New England school is like a dream come true. It offers an education that she would never have known otherwise.  Bell can’t think of anything worse, surely their free-spirited mother would never have wanted this for her beloved, favorite girl. Soon enough, Rose and Bell are divided and Bell is in over her head, following an older, popular group of vicious, entitled girls.

The sister’s relationship veers into the point of no return when Bell takes part in hazing with Rose and her roommate as victims. Shockingly, her own grandmother can’t stand shame coming to the Enright name nor any smear upon Odell Academy. Worse, Bell seems to have their grandmother just as under her charm as their mother was. Sarah Donovan, the dorm mother, is there to support Rose when her own family turns against her. But Sarah has family issues of her own, in between juggling her young children and her husband’s ambition, there is some sort of stain they too are trying to erase, a problem the husband and wife are healing from. This was supposed to be a new start, but it seems their old school houses wealthy, dangerous girls as powerful, manipulative and intimidating as they were when Sarah and her husband were students themselves. Worse, there seems to be a scheme involving her guileless husband, a sort of dare amongst the senior girls, which soon enough Heath will laugh off as harmless.  How is a woman with a body taken over by the birth of children to feel secure around such youthful beauty, girls whose looks and artful exposure of their flesh betray their age and lack of experience? Sarah may as well be the awkward, unpopular girl she was in school. Can she trust Heath not to succumb to any untoward behavior?

Despite finding herself in serious trouble, ashamed that she betrayed her own sister, Bell is more obsessed with Mr. Heath, swooning at his every word, inserting herself as much as she can in his life, hungry for his attention. She is playing a dangerous game of seduction for a young, inexperienced girl. Heath won’t let anything ruin his chance to prove himself as a husband, father and if everything goes according to plan, be appointed Headmaster of Odell Academy. There isn’t enough scheming young bored girls can do to undermine his authority, his chance to make things up to his beloved, loyal wife Sarah. His family’s very future depends on this one year, and it’s starting out with a scandal involving the new twins. It is a stroke of luck that Bell confides in him, is willing to be steered in the right direction. Has Heath overestimated his skill as a teacher?

The students aren’t the only ones hiding dark secrets, Rose and Bell’s grandmother is distant, cold and her lawyer seems to be plotting, particularly against Rose at every turn. There is something sinister about him, as if the girls presence are a threat to his bond with their grandmother or her money. If they won’t support her and what Bell has put her through, to hell with them. She has evidence, and damned if she won’t expose Bell for what she really is, or at the very least use it as a means to wake Bell up to what she is becoming. Every character is crossing some sort of line, and when Rose is caught with blood all over her hands everyone is wondering if she is capable of murder.

I was engaged through the entire novel, with its twists and turns. Though there were times I felt like it would do better with a younger audience, 18 and over (because of the sexual nature) as at my age I have less patience for entitled rich kids, and find myself exhausted by their antics more than terrified. Then again, I’ve never been a dorm mother!  As a reader I just wanted to take poor Bell aside and say ‘oh honey, no…you are still grieving, you are so lost’. Then there is Rose, she just cannot seem to catch a break, and to think all she wanted was a good education, well she certainly got one, just not what she was hoping for. It all goes dark!

Publication Date: July 31, 2017

St. Martin’s Press