Cleopatra and Frankenstein: A Novel by Coco Mellors

When the darkest part of you meets the darkest part of me, it creates light.

Frank and Cleo meet on New Year’s Eve inside an elevator at a party in Tribeca, their playful banter lighting both of them up. Older gentleman that he is, Frank offers to walk her home and the two float on the air of shared intimacies. British Cleo tells him how she ended up in New York, about her parents divorce, her dad’s new family, her mother’s death, and her scholarship to study painting at a graduate program. Now at the age of 24, she is struggling and working hard as a freelancer, living in the East Village with the reality that her student visa is almost expired. Frank runs a successful ad agency (after years of working hard himself), and is quite a bit older, double her age in fact but as his friend Santiago says, ‘they are both young in spirit.’ In six months, they will marry. His support solves all of her problems and they do love each other, right? Even if it all happened in a flash, it is love, it must be! When I first started reading, I thought this was going to be a light, fast read. It felt more flirty than my usual reading taste, but then it became heavier as other characters involved in both their lives entered the story.

Where Cleo’s pals are in a different stage in life (having good times, more careless, free, exploring who they are, what they want) Franks own friends are older, more settled and successful. Of course their love is suspect to them all. Her best friend Quentin is jealous, and a little needy of her attention as he is dealing with the messes of his own heart. They had spent all their time together before Frank came along and now with his break-up with Johnny and Cleo’s marriage, Quentin is unsettled. Though he can freely explore his sexuality at ‘invite-only’ parties without disruption. His relationship with Cleo is a complex thing in itself, his deep love for her, the truth that he feels closest with no one else. He takes cheap shots, surely she married Frank for convenience, a visa! But he should be with her, even if they aren’t for each other sexually, he truly is her partner of the soul. He isn’t taking things well. In fact, he is spiraling into a bad place without her. The drugs he consumes aren’t helping him either.

Frank and Ander’s friendship is decades long and built upon intense rivalry, and Frank feels there is jealousy brewing there. With neither in long term relationship, why wouldn’t he be envious of Frank with beautiful Cleo by his side, even if Anders has all his models, Cleo is talented, intelligent, something special. But Frank truly has no idea what the real reasons are. Then there is Frank’s half-sister Zoe, from his mother’s marriage to an African American man, who he has given assistance to financially for years, deciding with his marriage it’s time to stop supporting Zoe. His sister certainly isn’t smitten with his new wife, despite shared youth and similarities in personality but surely it’s only a matter of time before she is won over. Zoe is resentful of the fact that Chloe doesn’t have to worry about money, as she now does. It’s easy to let your artistic, creative juices flow, be happy and light when money woes aren’t hanging over your head like a noose.

The point of view shifts, giving each character space inside the reader’s mind. I enjoyed Eleanor the most. Done with LA she is happy to land her new job as copy writer at the ad agency and in no time gets to know Frank. At 37 years old, she is living with her mother again in Jersey (temporarily, she reminds herself), her brilliant brother Levi rarely visits, busy doing his own thing and she is lonely. There is something grounded and clever about her, she doesn’t need model looks and dewy youth. Her humor helps her through painful realities, like her father’s illness. Frank and Eleanor hit it off, a friendship of like minds, the perfect pairing for work. When she is alone she knows she wants more out of life than where she is, thinking about people her age that are far more successful. Cleo represents youth, but Eleanor is far away from girlhood.

Frank is drinking more, Cleo isn’t happy about it, she isn’t happy at all, how can he make her happy again? He is finding that the things he has been able to provide her may be causing her to break. Each carry their childhood into adulthood, and sometimes it can be haunting. The novel isn’t solely about the age gap between them, as in any relationship threats from the outside exist, but it’s their own minds and problems that challenge their love more than other people. Can Cleo be an artist if she isn’t really painting? Who is she to point out his flaws? Their beginning seemed so magical, electric. How did they get here? There is nothing magical about fighting. There communication isn’t easy anymore and Cleo is slipping away.

It’s about love, mental health, the pain we carry into adulthood, the sacrifices we make for others, the gift of fully seeing people and the failure to. Addiction (to substances, sex, people, love, the past), marital highs and lows, evolving as people, the connections we make in the places we least expect and how to attain what the heart wants. No one in this novel is perfect or without flaws. In not always knowing their own mind, they cause pain. But there is beauty too. The human mind is the most alien thing of all, its amazing any of us make it work with another. Yes, read it.

Publication Date: February 8, 2022

Bloomsbury USA

Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century: Stories by Kim Fu

The realm of pretend had only just closed its doors to us, and light still leaked around the edges.

Kim Fu’s collection of stories takes turns of freakish oddity and yet is often an emotional touch. Tales of ordinary people dealing with abnormal situations, one in particular involving a bug infestation (which made my skin crawl) not as unlikely as we imagine. Moments that make people question things that are happening, all their peculiar patterns. Tales of loss and the intense grief that follows, memories and moments you can’t get back. Accidents, denial. The telling isn’t overly fantastical magical realism, but just on the edge of eerie, believable.

In the first tale the character wants to be with their deceased mother in a simulation, hungering for a small ordinary encounter, only to be disappointed by limitations. In the second, Liddy First To Fly, girls who are growing apart bond with the secret of their friend’s winged legs. Is she meant to fly away or can she be normal again? A woman chases “nourishing” sleep in Sandman, welcoming a monster to fill every hollow within. Twenty Hours is brutal, as a married couple adds excitement to their life with a special printer. It’s also a macabre play on how we hurt those we love and ourselves. How with each transgression we get closer to the ugliest side of ourselves. There was a catch in my throat when Connie, the wife, wakes up in the printer tray and her spouse thinks about the questions she isn’t asking. Despite the brutal endings they put each other through, again and again, there is tenderness. It also is about the great void that still exists between partners, places within’ the other we can never go. Our desire to return to one another at war with our need to be separate. It’s my favorite story. The Doll is creepy, yet it begins as a sad tragedy, one of those ‘thank god it didn’t happen to us, but it could have’ that neighbors are left to stew over. The neighborhood children are forced to confront the mean whims of fate and yet there is something exciting too about the house, daring each other to enter it, being scared. But can a doll be haunted? There is a touch of erotica in Scissors (an apt title), as women take to the stage for a show in a cabaret style theater. Dominance and surrender, the thrill of not knowing what will happen, the electric threat of danger, the ‘flinch’ of the audience. A question of trust.

Every tale is original, a reluctant bride and a sea monster, the loss of taste and how one woman finds a way to experience the sensation bodily… more than anything the tales are about how people cope after their lives have been upended by strange twists and turns. Loneliness, longing, grief, fear, love- quite an interesting collection.

Publication Date: February 1, 2022

Tin House

Violeta: A Novel by Isabel Allende

I think you’ll see that my life story is worthy of a novel, because of my sins more than my virtue.

This has become my favorite novel by Isabel Allende. Violeta was the perfect tale to read during our own pandemic, an interesting parallel as within these pages the Spanish Flu is terrorizing people with the specter of death. Yet, that is not what the story is about, just one of many obstacles fate deals Violetta and her family in their time. If you want to read a book full of characters and rich stories, this is a must read in 2022. Catastrophes, love, sin, political corruption, family loyalty and betrayal, drugs, poverty, wealth, births, deaths, war, the great depression… this is just to name a few. Violeta sees the rise and ruin of her family in waves, chaos within her own country. Your geography is enough to alter your life, your wealthy family can lose everything for being on the wrong side of politics or making one mistake in business. Nothing is guaranteed, nothing.

South America: Violeta is born in 1920 on a stormy day, a surprise for a family of five sons. It is the year of the scourge. She is a force as powerful as any of her male siblings, as her parents come to learn with her willful nature. Violeta’s family home is like a ‘little universe’ spinning safely, while many others collapse. Her father, a business tycoon, has the foresight about the forthcoming panic caused by the pandemic, hence has prepared to maintain their existence. While still venturing out for work, the measures he takes keeps them free from illness. As Violeta grows up in the bosom of her large and extended family (her aunts help her parents raise her) she becomes spoiled. Enter the scene an English governess, Miss Josephine Taylor, of course this much too young woman isn’t what her father hoped for. Her origins, too, come into question. He longs for his daughter to not be corrupted by ‘harmful ideas’ or taken by disease, which has ravaged so much of the population. As fate likes to challenge us all it is no different for her father, for Violeta is a theatrical child from the start, born to challenge and surprise him. Miss Taylor improves upon the girl, despite Violeta’s rebellious, strong will. She will be important to the family for years. Allende has not written ghosts of characters here, for they all come to feel like friends, kin.

A family of conservatives, the changing times will test them all. Violeta’s brother and her father’s second- in-command, José Antoino, is ‘old before his time’ but not too ancient for the bite of love. What will become of him, having worked so hard for his father? Some characters have their position forced upon them early on. Others make different decisions, which doesn’t always necessarily mean they are happier. If the measure of one’s life is happiness, you aren’t long for life. Violeta’s father isn’t alone in wishing his will be followed, Violeta’s own future children face love and rejection with their own father, with different consequences. There are acts of bravery and cowardice, each coming from surprising places. Torito is a fascinating character, his beautiful, protective nature such an admirable quality despite that ugliness he has faced in his days due to disability. Particularly when Violeta’s sheltered bubble bursts, with unfolding events but the ‘realities of life’ are often the greatest character forming moments. This book engaged me to the very end but it also broke my heart. People come and go, some leave a greater impact than others. Violeta’s own mother’s illness lends itself to the strength Violeta finds in her own life. Through a native, female healer named Yaima, her aunts learn of herbs and healing but she will guide Violetta through a spiritual experience of her own. Every person that comes into Violeta’s timeline has shaped her, whether she aims to emulate or reject who they are. Headstrong in youth, she refuses to live only in the past as others in her family have. Her views are far more progressive than her father likely would ever have imagined. It is the future she longs for and what an adventure it will be.

Love comes along early, a husband who will steady her but is it passionate enough? Is it the life she wants, particularly when independence is so important? With a man whose community is German, and she an outsider, how will she fit? Can she go along with his plans? Is she up to the challenge of molding herself into being a submissive wife with her fiery nature? She will be, of course, a fool for love that comes falling from the sky and it will be as unstoppable a force as a hurricane. A love that keeps coming around again and again, as if there is a lesson to learn. She isn’t without flaws, failing as a mother to protect her children and yet moving heaven and earth in her attempts to make things right. Violeta felt like a real person, through and through.

This is a novel in four parts, a life remembered as Violeta pens letters to her grandson who may one day want to remember her, and the devil would blush. It truly is a journal of self discovery deeply rooted in family tradition. There is sexual liberation and the burns of blind innocence but Violeta is a smart woman, one whose mistakes and sins afford her the freedom in business and her personal life, with a lot of heartache. This is one of the best books I have read in years.

Publication Date: January 25, 2022

Random House

Ballantine

Mouth to Mouth: A Novel by Antoine Wilson

The real matter was: Who was this man whose life I’d saved?

When the narrator in Mouth to Mouth hears the name Jeff Cook announced over the PA at the airport, he immediately thinks of an acquaintance, a fellow student from his UCLA days twenty years earlier. The man who strides to the counter is handsome, dressed expensively and nothing like the ‘thrift store Adnois’ he once crossed paths with. But the Adonis, Jeff, recognizes him immediately and as the two settle into conversation in the lounge while waiting on their delayed flight the story of is success unfolds. A story about how rescuing a drowning man changed his fate and helped him achieve his rich existence.

Rescuing renowned art dealer, Francis Arsenault, from the ocean is a moment Jeff had never imagined he’d face. A ‘crisis’ he alone had to decide to act upon. The emotional upheaval caused within Jeff has a staggering effect on him, a life altering moment that urges him to track Francis down. It leads him to Arsenault’s art gallery and he decides to throw himself into his path, shadowing him for what reason he isn’t entirely sure. As he follows him, the middle aged man doesn’t even recognize Jeff as his savior. The real matter suddenly becomes “who was this man whose life I’d saved”, like an obsession. The things he discovers isn’t enough, too much surface information, he longs to plunge his depths to really know who Francis is at his core. He needs more than his biography, he wants access to the man and opportunity falls right into his hands. Lines are crossed, this is how he remakes himself and paints his future. Moments are contrived but just as often chance guides Jeff along.

The men’s lives are tangled from the moment Jeff pulls Francis from the immense ocean. Francis teaches Jeff about the world of art and sees a lot of himself in him. Francis tells him he is lucky to have someone like him to show him the way and by being welcomed into his life and family, he learns exactly the sort of man he saved. He is on the fast track to becoming Francis’s confidant but Francis is no closer to discovering Jeff’s secret, that he saved his life but Francis has secrets of his own that could destroy his family and test Jeff’s loyalty. Things get even more complicated and Jeff cannot remain neutral, one must always chose sides particularly when they’ve insinuated themselves in another’s life, particularly one that had it’s own dramas already spinning.

Is it fate or self-serving acts that have made Jeff who he is today? For me, the obsession was more about trying to figure out who Jeff is, not Francis. What is a life? For some it seems more like parts to be played. The rise and fall of a hero, that’s all I keep thinking. Imagine how many success stories share a common thread with this fiction. Is Jeff really driven by some unseen, inexplicable force or is it just a story he tells himself?

Publication Date: January 11, 2022

Simon & Schuster

Avid Reader Press

The Other Family: A Novel of Suspense by Wendi Corsi Staub

“It doesn’t really matter, does it? Who cares what happened years ago?”

“I do, it happened in our house.”

“Every house has a history, Stacey.”

“Yeah, not a triple homicide mom.”

If Nora and her husband Keith imagined the macabre history of their new home wouldn’t absorb their daughters’ Piper and Stacey’s imagination, than they don’t know much about their girls. A triple homicide, nay- a ‘heinous’ triple homicide, changes a place. How can they sleep in rooms where people were slain? It doesn’t matter that is was 25 years ago, because the killer was never found and Piper fears the murderer could return. Nora wants them to let it rest, it’s old news, this is meant to be a positive change from their lives in California and the last thing she wants is anyone dwelling on the past. But Stacey isn’t so sure, she has seen shadows and a man sitting across the street who seemed ‘off’ somehow. She can’t share her fears with Piper, Piper spills too much and then they will all worry about her. In this family, Stacey is the odd one with her moods and quirks. The one who needs therapy.

For gorgeous Nora, Brooklyn is a chance for her girls to get the hang of city life, despite her husband’s misgivings. He doesn’t think her California blood can handle a year in New York, which couldn’t be further from the sunshine and “cushiness” of LA that she is used to. She wants this to work out and maybe they will even stay for good so why does she feel so wary, nervous even now that they’re here? Her life is as perfect as it gets, she has everything she wants. Their brownstone is huge, beautiful but all she can envision is blood on the walls, the murdered family. Working in their garden, she hits upon a rectangular box, but it is what’s inside that will set off alarm bells. She is the envy of her neighbor, having grown up in California and blessed with her beauty but no one lives a perfect life. The family portrait from the 1800’s that came with the house is a reminder to remember the dead, but how can an old photo be sinister itself?

For Jacob, the past lingers and tugs at him. The crime that occurred in 1994 may have faded from the newspapers and people’s minds, but is still fresh in his soul. He is obsessed with one of the victims, and fears she may have suffered greatly, though hopes she didn’t. It doesn’t sit well with him that a new family has moved in after the house has laid empty for so many years but it’s not like they’re coming back.

Stacey goes deeper into the tragedy and finds a friend in Lennon, she isn’t used to being so vulnerable and open with others. Can she trust him? Someone is following her, some street person, has he mistaken her for someone else? Despite her digging into the past there is so much left undiscovered, facts she can’t possibly unearth. She confides secrets in Lennon, but is keeping so much from her parents but they have their secrets too. Nora’s mind is playing games with her memories, and she knows Stacey is keeping things from her. She isn’t sold on Lennon either but he may not be the real threat. Who is?

The story alternates between Nora, Stacey and Jacob. It is an easy read, I just wish Jacob was more developed as a character. I also wanted to stay with each voice longer, I never sank deeply enough into Nora nor Jacob. Stacey was interesting, she actually felt like a teenager to me for once, so many books write teenagers who seem far too wise for their years. She is the right balance of insecure and hungry to make her own choices. The novel left me with questions but it was still an interesting ending-I just wish for more background. I think had it been longer, this would have been achieved. I am not sure how plausible it is, but truth is stranger than fiction so who knows. Good dark mystery.

Publication Date: January 18, 2022

William Morrow and Custom House

The Latinist: A Novel by Mark Prins

She knew, to some degree, that she could speak sharply to undergraduates with impunity, despite being young, female and podunk American, because she enjoyed Chris’s unadulterated favoritism.

Unadulterated favoritism comes at a cost, particularly career advancement in The Latinist. With a glowing recommendation letter from Classics professor Christopher Eccles (a titan in their field), Oxford grad Tessa Templeton’s future is bound to take off. Having relentlessly pursued her passion studying classical Latin Literature, at the painful expense of her relationship with Ben, there is nothing she wants more than to succeed. Chris’s support seems to be the only path to achieving her dream. Her faith in Chris comes into serious question when she receives a email informing her that he may be the one who is destroying her chances. How could it be true, surely it must be a prank? She cares for Chris, knows about the wound his father’s death caused and how difficult it has been to confront the realities of his dying marriage. He would never sabotage her career, would he? Her Daphne and Apollo dissertation was well received, far above the work of her peers, it’s a simple fact. How then could this be happening? When she discovers her peer, Liam (who has accomplished far less than her) has landed a prestigious position, she is stunned. No more so than Liam himself who always felt Chris disliked him. She discovers it isn’t a cruel prank, but why would Chris ruin her? How could she have possibly misread him? How could he be the villain in this tale when he has shown her so much support, allowed her to thrive under his wing?

The Daphne and Apollo myth comes into play as betrayal and love descend into scheming. Chris believes his heart is in the right place. His love is what Daphne needs and Ben is no longer an obstacle but he didn’t expect to have to defend his act of sabotage. Naturally he denies having written the email. His only salvation may be that she needs to remain on his good side to work at Westfaling next year. He underestimates her rage and this is far from over. She doesn’t know whether he hates her or it’s a sick form of love. The reality that she will have to accept the job at Westfaling, making his dream of keeping her close come true, horrifies her. Does she own any of the blame, has she ever led him to think she felt more? She’ll be damned if she gives in after giving up so much! She can’t even turn to Ben for love and support, now that he is gone. Instead, she travels to Italy and there probes into ‘obscure’ Latin poet Marius, who she had put off in the past at Chris’s urging. There is a taste of mystery with excavation. When she uncovers a great discovery she has the chance to rise from the ruins but how far is she willing to go?

This isn’t my usual read, but it wasn’t hard to feel outrage. The beginning is a slow humiliation but when the winds of fate began to blow in Tessa’s favor, I enjoyed the discovery she made. She takes her future in her own hands but then it gets dark. Oh poor misguided souls! I wish the ending went further yet at the same time I think it was just right. Who do you root for? Underhanded acts, shameful passion, sabotage, revenge… It’s a nice escape from reality, where people who seek to ruin others often succeed. Does she succeed? It depends on how you measure success.

Publication Date: January 4th 2022

W.W. Norton & Company

You Never Get It Back by Cara Blue Adams

I have given everything at the wrong time, to the wrong people, she thinks.

This collection of connected stories is a journey into Kate’s life, as she finds place and meaning whether in the lush countryside, mountains, city or the desert. In college, Kate is the ‘disadvantaged’ friend juggling her course load for a career as a research scientist. Just moving towards a future different from the life her mother lives, wishing to be something else, as so many young women do. The past, through pivotal moments in her life, feels far away but it never is. She spends much of her early years waiting for life to happen, and when she makes choices about leaving, she wonders what staying would have meant, could have changed, particularly in love relationships. How do we get from one place to another, so far away from where we began? Her sister Agnes and mother seem to live in their own world, one she can’t help but judge- having grown up without much money after her parents’ divorce, Kate can only worry the trouble she imagines her sister’s future will be based on the choices she makes. Choices that are similar to their own mother’s, a college drop out, married young, divorced, struggling to pay bills and raise her daughters.

Each story provides glimpses into her life and the places she lives, deserts, countryside lend just as much feeling as the people who move through her. The two stories that moved me most were Charity and Seeing Clear. Although much of the stories focus on relationships with men she has loved or failed to love enough, it is the revelations about her mother and father that made me understand Kate and her troubled sister Agnes more. In Charity, I got the feeling they are the children of the black sheep in her mother’s family. There is also the resentment of not having enough, the expectations of family who don’t seem to understand your struggles, or is it simply her mother has decided to think a certain way and that’s that? Yes, the burn of class division is often felt most within one’s own family. In Seeing Clear, the reader understands even more the weight of Kate’s sadness, what made her strive for college as a means of lifting her out of unhappiness. Those two stories, for me, were the heaviest. Her fears of marriage and many choices make sense. How she worries about her sister and thinks she knows best, maybe she does, maybe she doesn’t.

It’s a story of coming into oneself, because we are always coming of age, with every experience, trying to understand our lives, all the choices and each other. Of course there are struggles, so much goes awry, it is easy to mess up even when we’re trying to be good. This is quiet novel but, for me at least, easy to relate to and engaging.

Publication Date: December 15, 2021

University of Iowa Press

Where You Come From by Saša Stanišić, Damion Searls (Translated by)

Off we go, open your eyes, I’m going to show you a few things, you clearly have no idea about anything.

Saša Stanišić shows us all a few things, about how you create a life after war changes everything, when the country you were rooted in no longer exists. Where did it go? If the country no longer exists, what happens to its people? About exile, and the remaining few who are left behind to remember, the ones who may well be able to explain where you come from. It’s auto-fiction, memoir with exaggeration, it’s a journey through memories- tender, silly, horrible. It’s the roar of a football crowd (soccer to Americans, pfft) a childhood in Višegrad beside the Drina, being multiethnic (his father is Serbian Orthodox, mother Bosnian Muslim), a grandmother who can read kidney beans, the collapse of Yugoslavia, fitting in and sticking out in Germany, a mountain town of 13 villagers who won’t forget and hold the memories of ancestors. It’s the bumpy road of old age and youth chasing their history, so full of ghosts. The pressing question is, who am I? How do I define my life, my family when so much was ripped away? He is one of the lucky ones, isn’t he? Escaping with his mother before the atrocities that befell so many.

Why does grandmother take care of gravesites? What do the ancestors have to teach him? Why is it so important to her that he knows where he came from? With humor, he writes beautifully to the Alien Registration Office as he applies for German citizenship but he also struggles to define home, the horror of borders and what it means for people like him, in between places, histories. His childhood, charmed, gave no hint to the division that was coming, the terror, the spilling of blood. War is his origins as much as it was his grandmother’s. The hunt for a better life, which he will find as a writer because like his grandmother once told him , he and his Pero are both troublemakers with words. What words can tell his story, knotted as it is with his ancestors and a history nightmares are made of? “Worlds die away”, and he is trying to capture his, fill in the gaps of his memories, comprehend the history his family made under the conditions fate created. Is where we end up accidental, chance, choice? Is he his languages? It is an adventure, even as he tries to carve a place for himself to fit into, even if he doesn’t always know where he belongs and is ashamed sometimes in the light of glaring differences.

It’s a disorienting life, not just for grandmother whose mind rests upon the shifting sands of time, but for him too on shifting lands. Proof of reason to have a place to stay, the existence of dragons, politics, communism, being Slavic, growing up among heathens, migrants, borderless, massacres… there are heavy subjects here but somehow this novel manages to be fun, light, playful considering an ugly history. Identity, what the hell does it mean for any of us whether we are solid in the place we were born or squeezed out into alien places we have to contort ourselves to assimilate in? Shame of differences or pride in them? What is the measure of a life? The end of the novel is chose your own ending themed, I remember those books well. Villages die, so do grandmothers. Sad, beautiful. I think this book moved me because it’s like listening to my father talk about his own memories of the country he fled. I am not surprised this novel won a prize, he is a gifted writer.

Publication Date: December 7, 2021

Tin House

Defenestrate: A Novel by Renée Branum

Something in our bodies wants to fall, the blood magnetized to pavement, iron and concrete greeting each other across a stretch of air, the downward plunge and crack, like a pink Easter egg dropped from a window- we splinter that easily.

There is a curse in twins Marta and Nick’s superstitious family, one who seems to be in freefall after their mother reacts to a reality she cannot accept. The ill fate began back in Prague with their great-grandfather Jiří, and all over a ‘gentle push’ that left blood on his hands, ending his reputation, career and forced him to move with his wife and children to the American Midwest. Moving, however, has not chased away their odd inheritance, it is only a matter of time before a fall will come but when? Who? Where? They only know they are doomed to plunge, in one way or another, and there is no end to the creative manner in which one can fall.

When the siblings move back to Prague, the origins of their family curse, they hope to navigate past the dangers and make sense of their sordid family tale. It is also an escape from their mother, making their own bond iron clad, always a family of two. But what does falling even mean? Can one only fall from great heights? How much of their fears are built upon family lore, how many stories are hard facts? What about their relationship with each other? Is prayer, like their mother believes, truly a weapon against misfortune? Nick has spent his life preparing to fall, not unlike a professional. Since childhood, Marta and Nick greatly admired silent film star and physical comedian Buster Keaton, who spent his whole life conquering falls and knocks life heaped upon him. There is something whimsical about his career that lends Marta and Nick faith, that it’s not all doom, that falling is survivable. Marta herself has always craved heights, brazen with her climbing because their is no better view than bird’s eye. Reckless by comparison to her careful brother, almost challenging fate to do it already! Within the tale are stories of other people who have survived incredible plummets and historical figures tossed from windows, a popular Prague practice long ago. The years they spent in Prague are like a dream and upon their return to the United States, the curse strikes, Nick has fallen. Were they so drunk with happiness when it was just the two of them in the old city? Was their time away armor against the curse? Did returning to the ‘scene of their ancestors crime’ lend them knowledge of their own lives? Why did Nick fall? What is the meaning?

It is about fragility, the blood running through our veins that is a continuation of those who came before us, and the fiction we create to chase away the monsters we can’t see nor understand. It is about filling in the gaps with magic, taking control of the narrative forced upon us and our children. A story of gravity as reality, loneliness, love that is just out of our grasp, holding on, letting go, grief, the search for meaning in the mysterious, bonds that include/exclude, all the falls that happen and the ones that never do. Where is the danger really coming from?

Marta cannot prevent catastrophe but it is Nick’s fall that may change everything and clear the air of mystery in their lives. This is an odd, beautiful novel. It is a whirlwind of emotions, sometimes funny and other times heartbreaking. The word defenestrate is a clever title and a history lesson for me. I was absolutely hooked. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: January 25, 2022

Bloomsbury USA

Five Tuesdays in Winter: Stories by Lily King

Soon Paula would begin complaining that he didn’t understand her, didn’t appreciate her, didn’t love her enough, when in fact he loved her so much his heart often felt shredded by it. But people always wanted words for all that roiled inside you.

Lily King’s story collection she has created characters who sort through complicated emotions, feelings that roil and sometimes settle so deep they just can’t be expressed easily to others. People are left behind, children live in the remains of broken marriages, social class divisions shadow moments, but too there is the thrill of teens on the verge of young adulthood. Sometimes kids are dealing with situations too heavy for the young, wanting to be rid of their parents while longing to fold themselves into their love at the same time.

In the first story, Creature, teenager Carol is hired as a live in babysitter for the wealthy Pike family. Living in the enormous mansion she plays at independence from her parents fighting, tries to forget the small apartment she and her mother live in and can loosen her worries over the problems of her father. With the romantic novel Jane Eyre occupying space in her mind, and making her own money, she’s ripe for “trying things out”. When Hugh arrives, order is disrupted and things get exciting. How much of a grown up education can she handle?

Five Winters in Tuesday a single father, bookseller Mitchell finds more life inside his books than in other people. His daughter Paula longs for him to be more involved, kinder with their customers but it is Kate, his employee, that brings more life into the store. Paula finds a friend in her, a woman who can help her with things no girl wants to turn to their father for, she fills the void her absent mother left in her wake. Can Mitchell change, should he?

When in Dordogne it is the summer of 1986 and a boy distant from his much older parents forms a close bond with the two young men hired to care for him while his parents head to France to help his father ‘get better’ from what ails him. Through the antics of Ed and Grant, their teasing and joy, he falls in love with a brotherhood he has never had. If only they could stay forever.

North Sea Oda takes her daughter Hanne to an island on the North Sea but it is costing her money she doesn’t really have after her husband Fritz’s death. Neither of them wanted the vacation, and yet here they are, miserable. If only they could stop pushing each other away and grieve over Hanne’s father, tend to their deep loss. Hanne isn’t willing to share her joys with her mother, the two drifting apart. Oda is stunned by the circumstances her husband left them in, helpless to change anything. Will they comfort one another? Other stories follow, each as engaging as the last. People aching through the vanishings of loved ones, turns and splits of fate, reeking with disasters love causes, be it with a partner or family. Stories about Motherhood and how it dominates every crevice of your life, the struggling desire to create while consumed by caring for others. The story that touched me the most, left a lump of feeling in my throat, was Waiting for Charlie. An aging grandfather visits his granddaughter at the hospital bedside after a terrible accident, one that has left her body in ruins. They are now, in a sense, alike- unfairly. It’s such a short story but it ripped my heart out. Lily King writes about the storms of our emotions, so often impossible to understand and find direction when you’re in the midst of it. Well done.

Published November 9, 2021

Grove Atlantic