Tears of Amber: A Novel by Sofia Segovia, Translated by Simon Bruni

She was tired of wanting the madness to end; tired of life in a country that could feel so much repulsion for a human being, for a child, for her child. She was exhausted from so much fear of the war- fear of losing it, fear of winning it. She knew that her little family wouldn’t win under any circumstances.

War, all of it’s horror stories, full of so many sides of the same coin, where despite the repulsion and evil deeds there is sometimes goodness. Goodness is easy when it doesn’t cost us yet it’s hard to find in darkness. When we must protect our family, it’s shocking what people are capable of. This novel is about two families uprooted by war and everyone they meet on their path. Children are forced to join the effort on the front, or if too young than to remain ever watchful in their homes, or if a captured enemy, then to serve your captor as a prisoner of war. Segovia isn’t concerned about victors, because in this novel everyone loses, there are no winners just people who crawl out of the rubble half human, if they are ‘lucky’ (that word like a razor blade in the mouth). Despite what we imagine, the movies we watch, the fictional and non-fictional books we read, even the experiences our own family members share, we will never be able to comprehend what survivors endured. Your own people becoming enemies, a war that grew into a monster that went out of control devouring everyone. Separation, starvation, betrayal, death and people who have no choice. One thing spectators of the past like to do is shout how they would be brave, how they would never go along with things, they would be giants but in reality, non-compliance and rebellion was met with death or something worse- because yes, there is always something worse.

The Hahlbrock family have already survived the devastation of war, now the Führer has provided a life of order, food and a promise for a great future. When their youngest, Isle, is born they cannot imagine their Führer’s grand ambitions, nor what he has planned for his people and the rest of the world. Their darkest days are not behind them after all. The Schipper family’s youngest son, Arno, is celebrating his third birthday on the streets of Königsberg. It is this historic day, on the shoulders of his father, that Arno watches amongst a sea of people as red flags wave, slogans echo in the air, and heavy military vehicles pass in a parade of power. As a swell of voices chanting, “Heil Hitler!” dance in his head, it feels like confusion and when Hitler speaks through a loud speaker, Arno is too young to understand any of it, but it will change his entire live. Both Isle and Arno will be robbed of their childhood. As war approaches, school will drive home dangerous ideas, frightening parents, but one must keep their mouth shut and remain steadfast to the cause. Neighbors can’t be trusted, nor can soldiers. Fathers and sons are forced to either maintain their farms to feed the soldiers or join the war. When East Prussia starts to fall, Isle and her family are forced to flee. Januz, a forced laborer on her family’s farm (prisoner for all intents and purposes), dazzles young Isle with ‘tales of a besieged kingdom in the Baltic Sea from which spill the amber tears of a heartbroken queen.” Loyal to the Hahlbrock family, to the disgust of his fellow laborers, it is his mother’s stories that he uses to keep hope alive in the child’s beating heart. Something about Isle reminds him of someone he has lost, and for the first time, he feels cared for in a strange way, not much minding the hard work, now that he is no longer in danger of the wolves in the cold forest. But wolves are everywhere, and you can never trust anyone. Even when they must flee the Soviet Army, he remains steadfast, refusing to leave Isle, her mother and siblings to fend for themselves, even at his own detriment. Januz is my favorite character, and my heart was ripped out for it. As they escape, more than tears will be spilled.

Arno and his mother are going through their own dark winter of the soul, hiding in the ruins of a Königsberg mansion, with bombs falling around them, so much death from one day to the next, soon living like rats cowering in the shadows and rubble from the enemy. Neither knowing what happened to Arno’s father, or his siblings, afraid that maybe they were abandoned. His mother is losing faith and hope, weakened by her illness, unable to see the light at the end of this hell they now find themselves in. Tyrants and liberators are one in the same. Memories feel like nothing but fading lies, reality is distorted. Forced to give up their land, their very roots, each other… how is anyone to survive when bound to nothing, when loved ones are reduced to ash? Does it matter what side is winning when the world is decimated? Every character suffers invasion, and must do what they are ordered to do, so long as they have breath left within them. They must be grateful for another day, for crumbs. The war continues and they must give everything they have, including the lives of their sons and daughters. Some use stories to escape the scorched earth, but all stories must come to an end. The wind will change direction many times, and it is with a gift of an amber teardrop that will provide a future for Arno and Isle when their stories converge.

This is a painful read for every stage of life. Beautifully written despite the horrors because of the character Januz’s presence. He is able to warm the coldest heart. Yes read it!

Published May 1, 2021

Amazon Crossing

A Dark and Secret Place: A Novel by Jen Williams

All those monsters in the wood never really went away, not for me.

When Heather Evans returns home after the shocking suicide of her mother (Colleen), all the uncomfortable feelings of their shared past, of the distance between them, comes to the surface. Remembering the simmering anger she felt as a child, the house a too quiet, cold place with memories better left forgotten, her nerves are on edge thinking of her mother’s disturbing end. The eerie mention of monsters in the wood in Colleen’s suicide note could be chalked up to derangement if she didn’t know her sensible mother better. When she stumbles upon quiet, respectable Colleen’s secret stash of letters, she is sick in her gut to discover a secret her mother kept tightly sealed. She had been corresponding with the “Red Wolf”, infamous serial killer Michael Reave, whose decades of imprisonment for brutal, ritualistic murders of women is nothing short of gruesome, terrifying. When a young woman is found dismembered, her body arranged just like the “Red Wolf” disposed of a victim decades past, his outcries of his innocence begs to be heard.

How could her ‘well-to-do’ mother have been keeping such a secret, even while married to Heather’s father? The letters dating back twenty five years reveal more than any stories her mother ever shared, as she was never one for reminiscing. Why does the fact that in all the years Colleen wrote to the monster she never even mentioned Heather feel like a personal jab? There are strange things her mother wrote in her final farewell and Michael’s letters are like a bloody trail of crumbs leading Heather on a dangerous path to her mother’s poisonous past. The only way to attempt to understand this mystery is to confront the “Red Wolf”, despite the horror she feels knowing that her mother could have been one of those ridiculous serial killer groupies. With the help of the police, DI Ben Parker in particular, she comes to learn Colleen was Michael Reave’s only friend and that suddenly the police are open to her meeting with him. The “Red Wolf” will only talk to her, and maybe the police can find some information through Heather about these the grisly, copycat murders. In meeting Reaves, Heather will discover a tale of a family “everyone whispers about”.

What, if anything, did Michael have to do with her mother’s suicide? What does he know about Colleen’s past on the ‘hippy’ commune? Who or what are the monsters in the wood, and are they watching Heather now too? Why does she suddenly have a creeping feeling of impending doom? Is her own life now in danger? Straight away he tells her “Everyone has secrets, Lass”, but she is buried in the weight of the life her mother had before she was born. Colleen made choices, choices that were both her ruin and salvation. Michael Reave’s memories are like riddles or dark fairy tales, can Heather untangle the past through him or will he muddy the facts more? It all goes back to 1977 and a place called Fiddler’s Mill.

Violence is waiting, pulsing in the dark, Parker tells her their priority is her safety but how can you keep a woman safe from the monsters of truth? The knowledge her mother kept bundled up, that appears to have driven her to the desperate act of suicide, may well strip Heather of her very identity. Heather must enter the dark and secret place where the horror was born.

The novel is a slow read at times, although there is a lot happening. My one wish was for more time spent on Colleen in the past as well as raising Heather in the aftermath, what went through her mind, her inner turmoil. It would have been a lot more engaging with more connections to the characters emotionally but it’s still a decent storyline. I could see this turned into a movie.

Publication Date: June 8, 2021

Crooked Lane Books

Attachments: A Novel by Jeff Arch

Like everything else. Sudden or slow, ready or not. Everything ends.

Everything ends, but endings can also be the beginning for new stories or a catalyst for unfinished ones. When the Dean of a boarding school in Pennsylvania is clinging to life, he says two names, those of his former students- Piccolo (Sandy “Pick” Piccolo), and Goodman (Stewart “Goody” Goodman). To his perplexed son Chip, the association between his father and these men, one a local and the other a mystery, is lost on him. He wonders, how two men who haven’t been in his father’s life for decades could now, as grown adults, find his father so important that they would ‘jump out of their lives just because he asked.” It’s a complicated story, one that is full of secrets, betrayals and promises that not even Pick nor Goodman are fully aware of.

In 1972 Pick and Goody become unlikely best friends when they meet at boarding school in Pennsylvania. It also where they both fall in complete and total love with Laura Appleby, who is destined to come between them. The dean has been a strong presence in many students lives, but it is these three who have altered his own future. Laura decides she too will make her way to Mr. Griffin’s deathbed, unsure what it means for her own marriage. When they are all once again together, they will finally face the pain they caused each other and question the cost. Intentions, passion, regrets, it is about the secrets we keep, the paths we chose and what we destroy in the process. It is how we are present and how we disappear when those most precious to us are in need. Each carries the weight of life, for some it is lies of omission, and with sealed lips life goes on until silence becomes transgression. Henry has brought them together, it is time to confront the mountain of time between them to get at the heart of everything that happened.

Henry’s son Chip, at eighteen, is already feeling crushed by the burdensome ache of first love. Now with his father in a hospital barely alive, this new mystery has become a thread, one that if pulled may unravel what he thought he knew about his own dad. Worse, there are things Henry kept from Chip about himself. How does Laura, Goody and Pick fit into his story? How will Chip’s own broken heart help him understand the choices of veritable strangers or teach him about forgiveness and love? Each character’s voice speaks to the reader, getting to the heart of why they did the things they did, as best they themselves can understand. Laura, Pick and Goody’s turmoil about what occurred while they were young has never left them, and without unpacking those feelings openly it has grown into wounds. The tale asks us how we confront possibilities and if we chose to wreck what we have, are we happier in the end? Can there be second chances? Can we be forgiven our youthful mistakes, often made in fear or without malice, ill intent? How do we bridge time? Are we punished for our decisions? The story dips its toes in both past and present, because one cannot exist without the other. These are all the steps that have led them all to a dying man’s bedside.

It was a decent read. Who doesn’t reach a certain age and wonder how things could have been different or regretted the hurt they’ve caused? Secrets grow into beasts out of our control, a sort of snapping animal on a very short chain and you can’t ignore it forever. A tale about endings that have to happen in order for the birth of something new, even if it hurts everyone in the process.

Publication Date: May 11, 2021

SparkPress

Unsettled Ground: A Novel by Claire Fuller

Sometimes, I reckon, we need something to come along and trip us up when we’re not expecting it. Otherwise, one day we’re kids playing with the hose pipe, and the next we’re laid out on an old door in the parlour.”

The incident that comes along and trips up twins Jeanie and Julius, aged 51, is the sudden, unexpected death of their mother Dot. The family of three have lived in “rural isolation and poverty” in a cottage since the death of the twins father when they were still children. It has been Dot who has faced all of life’s difficulties keeping her beloved children in a safe bubble. Dot, whose secrets are now going to force Jeanie and Julius out into the world, has kept them tied to the only home they’ve ever known, for better or worse. Jeanie has never been healthy enough to face the challenges of life, learning too was a struggle, unlike her brother who has been the one venture into town taking on jobs here and there, she has spent her life feeling this crumbling home is their only sanctuary. Debts have been collecting, all the things Dot sheltered and hid from her children are knocking at their door, as threatening as monsters. Figuring out how to afford to bury their mother is the least of their woes. Julius has never really had a relationship, and suddenly he thinks about a woman named Shelley Swift who has hired him to fix the window in her place above the fish shop. With their mother gone, his attention isn’t focused solely on whether or not they will lose the cottage, though it is a screaming fact that troubles him along with fears for his needy sibling. How has he let 51 years go by with nothing to show? It disturbs Jeanie, the time he is spending away from her but she isn’t his mother…it’s his life.

Suddenly, the locals don’t feel so forgiving, nor willing to let the pair go on living on their charity. Jeanie feels like their lives, their very way of existence, is being stolen from beneath their feet. Who is she without her daily routine, without her vegetable garden, without chickens to feed, without her mother Dot? Why didn’t they know their mother was sick, when it seems everyone else did? Suddenly every hour seems swollen with worries, all the things Dot protected them from has come home to roost. Jeanie and her brother Julius deal with it in different ways, distance grows between them testing their co-dependence. They will be humiliated and enraged by the actions of others, forced into a different life, lost in their new surroundings. Will they falter or thrive?

It seems like such a simple, quiet story, but the tale escalates with each challenge, every uncovered lie. How did they get through 51 years of life and never really know who their mother truly was? Why did they remain needy children far beyond an acceptable age, never forced to face reality? It gets a bit dark too, and sometimes the weakest link in the family chain is the one who life challenges the most. I was engaged, and admit there is a certain appeal to their self-inflicted isolation, keeping your beloved children near, but it’s a grievous wrong. You can’t hide from life, though they had quite a go of it for 51 years. Trouble will find you in every corner of the world. How much do we owe our family? What do we owe our children? One would think, at the very least, we owe them the ability to stand on their own two feet, if not our truths. Dot was quite a complicated lady. A novel of strength, loyalty and betrayal.

Publication Date: May 18, 2021

Tin House

Nives by Sacha Naspini

If there’s anything that punishes the living, it is life itself. We don’t need to bring ghosts into it.

In a sense, when you’re of a certain age, every trace of days gone by seem to be populated by ghosts. Ghosts of feelings, of memories and always those we’ve loved and lost (living and dead). For Tuscany native and widow Nives, who has just lost her husband Anteo, everything in the world feels strange. Anteo had bore witness to her life from the age of twenty to over sixty years old and what is a life without someone to share it with? Unable to cry, not even in the presence of her own grown daughter Laura’s tears, she finds herself besieged by thoughts and restless nights once she is alone in the house again. Until…she brings the chicken Giacomina into her abode, replacing Anteo with “the crippled old hen” and what does that mean about her marriage, if she could patch up his absence with the presence of a bird? It seems a bit disgusting, no? Had she wasted her life with him? Then comes all the memories of their early days, why does she feel so bloodless and numb? Every moment with him seems to have sped by like a flash. Shouldn’t a widow feel bowled over by devastation when her beloved is breathing beside her no more? How bad was Anteo’s love that a chicken is preferred company, a happy substitute?

It alarms her daughter, who is back in France with her own husband and children, to discover by way of gossip that her mother has a chicken living in her home. Has her mother gone mad? Of course, Nives enjoys alarming Laura and asserting her right to do as she so pleases! Just as soon as Nives is content with this new arrangement, the chicken suddenly behaves oddly, becoming still as a statue, as if she is the living dead. Nothing she attempts rouses the hen out of her stupor and her only resolution is to telephone her old friend Loriano Bottai, the local veterinarian and drunkard for the cause and cure. It is this phone call that tells the real story, a conversation filled with surprising humor, intimacy and untold secrets. The readers are privy to stories about the locals, some with tragic ends and others who played the gigolo when they were young, handsome and ‘full of fireworks’. Deaths, affairs, murder- intrigues and mysteries abound.

I devoured this novel, we take a little trip through Nives history and find that those old folks who snore like horn-players were once just as wild as the rest of us. That it’s easy to get yourself snared in traps of your own making and that sometimes truth can make you see clearly. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: May 4, 2021

Europa Editions

Madam: A Novel by Phoebe Wynne

“We shall need you to start impressing us, Rose, rather than having us tidy up your mess.”

Rose is stunned to learn she has been hired to teach at the grand, all-girls boarding school Caldonbrae Hall, an ancestral castle that looks down upon the world from its proud perch atop the rocky Scottish cliffs. Known for its excellence, churning out the cream of the crop, she has been chosen as Head of Classics. It all feels like a strange and yet happy stroke of luck. Her mother is pleased as punch that Rose will be earning her living at one of the most famous, prestigious schools and Rose is thrilled to be getting out from under her mother’s control. Her career is full speed ahead, even if she is more than a little intimidated and full of doubts that she is up for the challenge.

Once inside its great walls, she feels swallowed up by the great swarm of girls, all eyes upon her. Already shame rises, feeling shabby by comparison to these fashionable, fresh-faced beauties. On her first day teaching, despite her experience, she finds herself slipping with little mistakes. Caldonbrae isn’t a place that allows for failure, nor for one to question how things are done. Rose is on her own for the first time and is set on giving her all. She manages well enough until her class with the older girls, bursting into puberty, challenging her from the start. She looks young herself, at 26, and the students test her right away, madly curious of why she is teaching them when she isn’t even married. As if having a husband is a requirement. She feels like she has been thrown to the wolves and knows she must gain the upper hand, or she doesn’t stand a chance.

She takes her job preparing the young ladies for their bright futures seriously, and what is better than a top education? Yet her ideas may be a bit too liberal for the lives these daughters of Caldonbrae Hall are meant to lead. Every school has its traditions, and for 150 years Caldonbrae has produced young women who serve society to make for a better world. As a trip disrupts her teaching, Rose wonders what exactly the students are being presented for, what could be more important than their classes? What has their young, impressionable minds so preoccupied? What is it exactly they are really busy with? She stumbles across a desk drawer with a mysterious handkerchief, remnants of the former teacher she has replaced. There are traces of the woman everywhere, and the students don’t hold back in comparing her to their previous Madam, Jane. The place feels completely out of touch with time, it’s far more “old world” than she could have imagined. As she tries to gain solid footing, she learns there is no limit to the school’s reach. Caldonbrae asserts itself like a master in her entire life, everything within its walls is an old relic, it’s unnerving.

There is a student following her like a shadow, and the former teacher’s absence haunts her. Something is very wrong here. Feeding the girls a diet of classic, feminist heroines, like Dido, Rose is teaching the students to take their lives into their own hands. But will the expectations of their school, parents, and society erase any hope for freedom they may entertain? Can courage be taught, particularly by Rose whose own life has been guided by her mother? Is it possible to imagine a life outside the path laid for them? Rose’s own road has ‘diverged’ with a troubled student, Bethany. Suddenly she is preoccupied with the girl’s tortured mind and disturbed by how the school handles such a delicate situation. Rose starts making a mess of things, risking her future as a Madam, poking her nose where it doesn’t belong. How far will she go in following in the former teacher’s footsteps, will it lead her to the real story of why Jane left?

Institutions like Caldonbrae demand their staff adhere to its strict traditions-with such impressionable, fragile, young, minds it’s always best to maintain an outward display of self-control and respect of the old ways. Rose just doesn’t understand, her modern beliefs don’t fit the mold that has thrived behind these walls for well over a century. Is she really strong enough to handle the truth? More, is she brave enough to confront such a challenge? Does she know best what’s good for the ‘lucky girls’ anymore than those in charge of the place?

There is a gothic feel and with the school cut off even from the locals, it’s a world unto itself. It’s a funny question, how does a woman serve society… hmmm? I agree the tale seems so far from modernity, but the timeless feel is a way to show how sheltered and controlled everything is. How easy it is to do whatever you please when those in charge are complicit in what they believe is for ‘the greater good’. It was a decent read, and the feminist theme using classics to start a fire in young minds was clever. The ending was interesting. I think Rose is meant to be odd herself, afraid of life, seemingly unadventurous, hence she appears to be someone that would easily fall into line with the school’s rules and demands. We wonder, does she have her own flame burning? Curious what others will make of this mysterious, dark tale.

Publication Date: May 18, 2021

St. Martin’s Press

The Secret Talker: A Novel by Geling Yan

Rather, he was like a ghost, secretly taking part in her life, undetected.

It is interesting it takes a secret talker, a seemingly ‘infatuated’ stranger, to force the real Hongmei out of her safe little exterior. She isn’t as self-possessed as she seems, as happy with the state of her comfortable marriage, which she admits cost she and her husband so much at the start. A relationship that was itself once dangerous. Hongmei begins to correspond with a stranger through email, a man who seems to have gleaned a lot about her emotional state, her very soul even, just through observation. It seems harmless as she carefully responds to him. His attentions become unnerving, though he says he doesn’t want to cause trouble between she and her husband Glen, a professor she once risked her entire life in her native China for. But the probing, the intimacy that is budding between them, is reminding Hongmei of her real self, the woman she has buried behind the quiet demeanor of a devoted wife. His questions are reminding her of the village where she was born, the secrets of her childhood that she has never shared with Glen, and making her question every choice she made, every step she took to escape herself and her origins. She shares the history of her village with the secret talker, about the Chinese resistance, all the things she had erased. Shocking herself, she speaks truths that have never been revealed to Glen because so much between them has been built on her own lies, and how can you open yourself to vulnerability with your husband when deception is the glue of your love?

Ending up in America, sunny California doesn’t seem like the world she was desperate to be carried away to. Every world she has imagined, outside her little village, has brought nothing but disappointment and the same can be said about men. When she first set eyes on Glen, an older, western, foreign professor, she is a first lieutenant working as a military interpreter while taking classes to further her education. Her life then, as now, was going well, including her the life she had with her then partner. Something about Glen immediately bewitched her, and her beauty made her just as irresistible to him. Their pursuit was reckless, dangerous. Looking at their life now, there doesn’t seem to be even a remnant of that passion. So much has happened between them since then allowing a distance to grow, impossible to traverse. Glen isn’t the man she once hungered to conquer, isn’t forbidden fruit any longer. He is still a good man, a provider, solid. While she is still beautiful, intelligent, she finds herself in a numb state, but with the confessions she shares with this nameless person, everything feels charged with eroticism. How can she engage this man, with her husband often a room away? How guilty she feels, how elicit an act secret talking can be, and yet it feels like she is stepping back into her true skin. Why is she revealing so much, stripping herself naked, to the bone? Is this a foolish mistake? For once, she isn’t in charge, she isn’t the one in pursuit. “How could she have sunk so low? Her body had run off, miles away.” Where is this betrayal going to take her? She is tormented by guilt, shame and anger- lots of anger, at the stranger and curiously, at Glen too! Isn’t he to blame for the state they are in too? Will she unmask this person, this stranger who is like a ghost, creeping along her skin, privy to her every secret?

Hongmei enlists the help of her friend, thinking to outwit the man who has been ‘hiding behind a shelter of words’, it only serves to complicate things more, makes the truth so much harder to discern. Hongmei begins to obsess over their interactions, to dismiss her own reality again. There is so much she herself is blind to. Her cultural identity isn’t a separate thing from her identity as woman, a wife. For Glen, as much as herself, their culture has molded them and yet their emotions aren’t really as divided as they imagine. Her past was one where people are always watching, an attention that becomes expected, everything one wants felt dangerous. That was one thing I thought about, regarding the start of she and Glen’s love, the constant eyes, the threat that always loomed based on cultural demands. It’s important, I believe, to why she is numb when things are stable. Maybe I am wrong, it was just my take away. I think being older, having been married a long time, I am reading this book from a different perspective than I would at say, 20. Fresh love is about the thrill of the chase, seduction but as love matures it is a different animal. Hongmei has needs and rather than confront them it’s easier to escape what has been built. Things settle and often we bottle up things that gnaw at us just to keep the illusion of contentment, as to not rupture the peace we think we’ve made. But delving deeper into the life of the person she has been communicating with could be the final straw in her marriage… dare she go down the rabbit’s hole?

This was an engaging read and I actually loved the ending, one I didn’t expect. The emotions are beautiful and sometimes biting. As more about Hongmei’s past is revealed, you begin to understand the reasons she seems to be willing to turn away from Glen but she turns away from herself just as much. Mysterious, quietly suspenseful, and heartbreaking. It is a psychological tale where the main character gets lost in a maze sometimes of her own making, not just the secret talker’s manipulations. A beautifully written slow burn.

Publication Date: May 4, 2021

HarperVia

We Trade Our Night for Someone Else’s Day: A Novel by Ivana Bodrožić, Translation by Ellen-Elias Bursac

“The worst part is realizing you can’t open the door from the inside,” was the first thing she said.

War, displacement, emigration, ethnic cleansing… Vukovar, a city in Croatia, saw one of the biggest battles since 1945 in Europe with the siege by the (JNA) with support by paramilitary from Serbia. Croatian soldiers and citizens were outnumbered but defended against the Serbians, the battle was bloody and ended in people being killed or thrown out of Vukovar. You can go further back in history with the dissolution of Austria-Hungary, the tensions didn’t simply begin with the Yugoslav Wars. Ivana Bodrožić was born in Vukovar, lived there until her own father disappeared then she and her family moved to a refugee hotel in Kumrovec. Though this is a fictional story of an unnamed city, the events within are based on actual historical events that touched the author’s own life. I asked my father, who escaped his homeland of Hungary as a young child during communist occupation, a lot of questions about the creation and history of Yugoslavia. He knows a lot more than me about the division between people there than I can even comprehend. This novel deals with the aftermath from nationalism and those who wanted independence, the splitting apart of Yugoslavia and how it effected the next generation. It is what remains after children grew up segregated, Serbian and Croatian, what happened during ‘peaceful reintegration’ when the rubble was cleared away and what clearly remains are the ruins within the hearts and souls of the people. Can you simply unite after the bones of your family has been cleared away? People long for a reckoning after every horror and humiliation has been committed against them and their loved ones. The anger stays after being expelled, imprisoned… What happens to rumored criminal networks? When “gangsters gain legal footing” for their businesses? Money, blood, and power. The people were left to suffer from political and economical damage long after the war ended.

In the middle, always, are the children trying to move forward into a future where division has been set by the adults. Dejan is a perfect example of cultural identity and who you claim allegiance to.

Nora Kirin is a journalist chasing a story, and a juicy one at that, at least for those hungry for tabloid fodder. It began with a sordid affair that ended in a murder, but it is a political fire too. Kristiana is a Croatian- language teacher at the general and vocational high school working with ethnic Serbian students. Her Croat husband Ante (a war veteran, formerly in a prison camp) has been murdered by her lover, seventeen-year-old Dejan. Dejan is a Serbian, whose Grandfather was one of the Chetnik leaders. The salacious story is already making the rounds, a woman seducing a teen to kill for her, “one of theirs”. Nora would far rather expose the system, like the dirty Mayor but is resolved to do her best with her current assignment. What she wants is to tell the woman’s (now a prisoner) side of the story, not just continue to smear her. Her work and this city is taking her back to the past, remembering what she’d rather forget, like the disappearing children from her heavy youth. She must seek out people to interview, despite her discomfort moving through the city streets and every memory it evokes. In interviewing the victim mother, one can grasp the sentiment behind “one of ours” and “one of theirs” that isn’t erased, despite the push for unity, integration. When the war ended, new battles would eventually ensue amongst the people, often through political manipulations , of course. Children of all ages are divided at daycare and school by fencing, Serbs one side Croats on the other. Brigita is the high school principal with bigger ambitions also tied to Kristina’s story, the corrupt mayor and bribery. There are singers who ‘toy with politics’, a PTA president who is a ‘self-appointed guardian of ethnic identity’, a friendly taxi driver Marko-whose story about life in the city during the war engages Nora, a philosophical poet, and many people who have dabbled in the war with no “proof” of any crimes committed. Those in power do not take kindly to being publicly disgraced. The love triangle murder she is covering may well become an “interethnic conflict”. But it is the pursuit of truth, for her father, she is most concerned with.

This is a place where their entire world, for all the people involved, has collapsed even down to their very language. Nora is warned to stay away from dangerous men, who destroy everything, but she has to know why her father was murdered, who did it, regardless of her own well being. Not even the light of blossoming love can stop her from getting justice. What she doesn’t know is so much worse than she can imagine. Everyone is strangely intertwined. A turn of fate, helping someone can lead to more suffering. Unimaginable suffering. “Everything is linked to everything else,” even things that seem inconsequential and so much of it is a part of the war.

You have to pay attention, there are connections you will miss if you don’t read closely. It might help you to research about the wars in the 1990’s in what was once Yugoslavia. Some wanted to keep it a country, others wished to become separate countries. Reading different sides is truly only going to give you a basic understanding as an outsider. The line I quoted is brilliant too, ‘you can’t open the door from the inside’, because it’s hard to comprehend war at all, or even ourselves and everything that happens when we are in the midst of it. Those who are in the war have far more experience, but may not necessarily be able to make much sense of it either. A whole generation can be destroyed by bloodshed. Childhood, community, family, innocence, the future- all of it swept from beneath your feet. War makes prisoners of us all. Yet there are still things worth fighting for, aren’t there? For Nora at least.

Publication Date: April 20, 2021

Seven Stories Press

The Happiness Thief: A Novel by Nicole Bokat

What kind of monster are you?

Natalie Greene has buried the horrible car accident that cost her mother her very life. With her shattered, haunting recollection of that event, hazy at best, the one thing she feels to be true is that it was all her fault. She is the reason her mother is dead. Now in her forties, her marriage has just ended due to her husband’s infidelity, so she turns to her adored step-sister Isabel Walker, once a troubled teen and now a wildly successful, spiritual guru of sorts. Natalie joins her at the annual Happiness Conference at the Cayman Islands, despite having just lost her own father, Isabel (always a powerhouse) works through her grief, surrounded by fans and admirers who long to be self-actualized and happy. Isabel is everything Natalie isn’t, as if Natalie’s happiness and future has been trapped in the nightmare of her own loss, her guilt a heavy stone in her heart. She doesn’t begrudge her step-sister her glorious life and is proud of her accomplishments, including her solid marriage to George. She doesn’t fall apart in the face of loss, not like Natalie.

Behind the wheel with her sister beside her, glorifying in Isabel’s presence, there is a suddenly blare of headlights, causing her to hit something. Once again she is the helpless teen and Isabel takes charge, confronting the other driver. No harm done, the man assures them it was nothing, a four legged creature. She sees the other driver later, a handsome photographer named Simon, who gives her his email. A shared passion for photography, even if her job photographing food is less stimulating, is a happy coincidence. Life goes on, Natalie returns to Boston and wonders about the stranger while she tries to launch herself as a single, working mother to Hadley, her teenage daughter. Hadley pushes her mother to try, make an effort to feel better about herself. Her soon to be ex is moving on faster than either of them are prepared for, putting a fire in Natalie that leads her to seek Simon.

When she receives an eerie email that seems to imply the recent accident is far more sinister than she thought, making her doubt everything that happened on the road that night at the Happiness retreat, she begins to question everyone in her life, including Simon. Could it be he isn’t who he seems? Maybe the trauma of her past is making her insane. She feels like an inept, amateur sleuth trying to figure out who Godfrey (the emailer) is. Memories of her mother’s accident are erupting too, and it has always been Isabel she relies on to supply the facts. After all, it was her devotion to her that caused such a tangle, a rift between she and her own mother. She meets Jeremy, a journalist, and asks him for a favor-help her find out what happened recently the night of her accident but there is a second request involving the past and her family. In turn, she will let him interview her. Jeremy isn’t a fan of happiness gurus or new age healers of any sort, who better to talk to than the popular Isabel’s sister for his piece? She knows Isabel is on the up and up, her passion is helping people, including Natalie herself. She has gone above and beyond to support her when she was at her weakest.

When she informs Isabel about the email, her sister offers to get to the bottom of things. She’s always been there to pick up the pieces, to guide Natalie. She doesn’t understand why she is tormenting herself, assuring her the accident was nothing, this is just the past eroding the present again. She is leaping to impossible conclusions despite the evidence, hurting because of the past, mixing things up. Isabel is greatly concerned, worried about her well being.

As more information rises to the surface, things get more complicated, illuminating the past. There is more to the mystery of their family, so many doubts, holes in Natalie’s memory that maybe a letter could dispel. This is, in the end, a story about ‘the strong habit of love’, the things we see and how much we miss. The story is good, but there were times Natalie got on my nerves. She does act immature, but it could be the writer’s intent, to show how in a sense losing her mother, blaming herself, having relied on Isabel too much and being in such a long marriage infantilized her in some ways. When we first meet her, she doesn’t trust herself, hasn’t fully stood on her own two feet and divorce demands that of you. She suffers from trauma still and it’s hard to move past it when you don’t have the full story and your own memories play hide and seek. You can’t always look to others to save you.

The truth finds a way and it isn’t always pretty.

Publication Date: May 18, 2021

She Writes Press

The Little Devil and Other Stories by Alexei Remizov, Translated by Antonina W. Bouis

Many things vanished, even very necessary ones.

Alexei Remizov was an author of literary modernism and an expert calligrapher. He was a great Russian writer of the Russian symbolist movement, which I know little about, and read that it was an intelligent and artistic movement at the end of the 19th century. It was its own branch from European symbolism. Writing about feelings rather than reality. It states within this collection that the author gave up his Marxist beliefs and “became completely immersed in philosophy, cosmogony, and Slavic mythology.” He also put a lot of stock in dream divination and having read Martin Zadeka, the dream musings were wonderful. Alexei was imprisoned and exiled himself in the North Russia, with the information provided before reading it helps to imagine where the seeds for his writing were planted. These stories are bizarre, old customs I know nothing about, folk tales, the Orthodox Church, mysterious happenings. The truth is, much of the meaning is likely lost on me but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment. His pen was masterful in creating eccentric stories, if this collection is any evidence, borrowing from medieval Russian literature. He wrote his own versions of old Russian texts, as warnings, as lessons, sometimes humorous and horrifying tales, some that were in pre-Christian tradition. Food for ever curious minds, ‘suspicious curiosity’ that is.

In the stories there are connivers, inseparable lovers, destiny, the will of human beings, the confusion of fate, death, long cold winters, shoemakers, the revolution, peasants, and a long suffering grandmother. It is this grandmother’s beloved Petka (the little scamp) that broke my heart. Trouble comes for he and his grandmother, with the turn of each page and not even crossing herself when she hears the sound of shooting like thunder, can protect them from a world of hurt. There are so many kinds of poverty, none like the poverty of the heart.

Sacrifice is the theme in the old Borodin house where Pyotr Nikolaevich, joker and eccentric with the odd, pale face lives as if undead. Though a man with strange passions for looking at dead bodies, he is adored by his wife Alexandra, who saves the home from ruin. Then comes the sorrow, the coffins, the funerals. Corpses, rumors, death, the blessed house becomes filled with “anxiety and eeriness”. In The Little Devil, there is a holy fool known as the Drowned Man, and pagan practices. An old woman, who isn’t truly old, falls in love which leads to the casting of a spell. Wanting can be a thing to fear. Children are troublesome or sick but Deniska keeps his sister entertained with his long and cruel stories. The two share a great dislike for the exterminator, the feeling is mutual. The man sees evil and filth everywhere, and he has his own deep secrets. People learn that a witch is better than all the riches in the word in a later story.

A collection populated by people expecting something horrible and unusual, which life readily delivers. The devil is always waiting, all it takes is a thought, and he will “come in a black whirlwind.” Not all hearts are evil, there are devout believers who remain steadfast in their faith. Intoxicating desire heats up in Princess Mymra when Atya is drawn like a magnet to the lodger in his family’s apartment. The boy cannot stop wandering into Klavdia’s room, this irresistible mistress who brings new life to everyone. There is humor in the boy’s innocence, one can’t help but feel for him. The stories are rich, the writing is beautiful and certainly there is an audience for it.

Publication Date: April 13, 2021

Columbia University Press