River Woman, River Demon : A Novel by Jennifer Givhan

Nothing comes we haven’t conjured or called, one way or another.

I have been trying to have a more varied diet of fiction therefore I was fast to dig into this novel based on culture and folk magick (yes, the k is intentional). It seems I keep picking up stories that are about witches and water lately, maybe because it’s October. Often, these tales are about women who must find strength, particularly reaching back into traumatic pasts. For Eva, water turned toxic when her best friend Karma drowned, haunting her forever in the swamps of her memory. Her mind isn’t reliable, and just when she gets to the part of what happened to drag her friend to the bottom, the past won’t speak. Back then people believed she did it, she drowned Karma. Eighteen years have passed and “a thousand miles between Los Lunas and Calexico”, her days now are spent in a Magickal household of South Valley, New Mexico as a stay-at-home artist practicing Hoodoo with her husband Jericho (UNM professor of African American Studies) and their young children. It’s not fairytale nonsense, their deeply rooted practices, it is necessary for survival for people of color, but it can turn dark, mean. Jericho is a professor of roots and bones, of Hoodoo and mojo and herbs, he owns a successful shop and runs a Magickal showcase. Eva’s mother was a bruja (witch) who died when she was only eight. Left to be raised by her older sister, Eva was brought up among church folk, feeling robbed of her ancestry until she had her mother’s book of shadows in her hands, but it was meeting Jericho Moon that brought her birthright and Chicano perspective into focus. Her artistry was fruitful enough once, allowing her to purchase a ranch but things have gone off and death is rearing its ugly head again. She is no longer creating as before.

When she discovers her husband one night howling in the river, there is a dead woman in his arms, their friend Cec (godmother to their children). Claiming to have found her that way, there is no way to make sense of the horror and it isn’t long before Jericho is arrested and charged with her murder. It’s not going to look good, this defense of it being an accident, she knows how the authorities will judge their lives, their spiritual practices only make them look more guilty, but it is her own past that will fall under intense scrutiny. Does she even believe in her own innocence? Is there a spell that will right the wrongs, protect her family? A ritual that would prove Jericho’s telling the truth, does she believe him? Jericho is the one who always makes things right, he has been the pillar of their family, now it’s fallen on Eva’s shoulders. How can she defend him when she isn’t sure herself if he is guilty or not?

Eva suffers from blackouts, are they caused by the trauma she suffered losing Karma or is something more nefarious happening? How reliable is Eva? As she meets with the detective, she wonders if Cec and Jericho could have been lovers, and it awakens the beast of jealousy within her soul. Cec’s death is a mirror of Karma’s, it illuminates the past that Eva can’t get straight in her clouded mind. Her children (she calls them the X’s) have more faith in their father than she does, but they are having a hard time struggling without Jericho and her son Xavier is suffering through emotional distress, refusing to speak. Strange things start happening, Eva thinks they are being haunted. Living ghosts walk back into her life, she doesn’t know who to trust. She feels betrayed, conflicted, lost, and is drifting away from her life, from her marriage, from the truth.

The past and present are about to collide, darkness is falling, has she conjured this?

She’s a mess and is looking for strength, but does she have the clarity, does she trust her intuition enough? Eva’s making more mistakes, with her husband gone there is no one to guide her, but will she trust her gut? It is all so murky as the things from her past, the secrets she kept even from herself, climb out of the woodwork. Can she save her family if she doesn’t know the person or thing that is after them? What if she is the one calling the destruction upon them all? A solid psychological thriller with rich cultural history.

Publication Date: October 4, 2022

Blackstone Publishing

What Doesn’t Kill Us Makes Us: Who We Become After Tragedy and Trauma by Mike Mariani

The will and wherewithal born out of catastrophe cannot be showcased, glorified, or even reliably observed, because it is subject to constant confiscation, a daily toll that must be paid so that the embattled may continue progressing through their lives.

Afterlives is a fascinating word for people who have had misfortune dumped upon them. There is no end to feel good stories on television, in movies, and on bookshelves that recycle Nietzsche‚Äôs famous adage, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Uplifting tales of untold horrors, trauma where the victim comes out on the other side strong as an oak, wise as an owl and almost euphoric in conquering their misfortune. I always wonder, then what? As human beings, our emotions aren’t static. Each day brings challenges, more so when your way of life has been upended. Coming through the other end of accidents, illnesses, trauma, mistakes or having been the victim of a brutal crime isn’t the end of a chapter that you never pick up again. Not for those living afterlives, where their place in life has been torn from its roots. What, then, do such catastrophic events make of us?

Mike Mariani found himself facing a life-altering, chronic illness, grasping at the meaning of suffering making for a stronger human being. The adage leaves out the fragility, vulnerability, anger, pain, disbelief, shame, sorrow, confusion, resentment that arrives with the new reality. These are challenges that come to define a person, whether they want them to or not. Life as they knew it has ceased to exist and it is disorientating, suddenly they are estranged from their own lives. Funny to read such a book on the heels of Covid-19 and the deep depression people felt collectively, the unreality of routines on hold. Imagine never getting back to what is normal for you. As I read this book, I took it personally, my own health struggles and those of loved ones. The world can feel like a cold place in the wake of diagnosis, blessed to be alive, but truly feeling crucified by your failing body. You have been evicted from your identity, in a sense, and there is no amount of rallying from others, nor a warrior like stance that is going to return you to the life that anchored you before. One day you have the strength to fight, the next you plummet, that’s the ugly truth.

Brutal crime is an entirely different beast, one that I won’t pretend to understand the ramifications of. There are innocent victims and perpetrators here, sometimes a person encompasses both. I won’t deny being inspired by Mike’s subjects, who are facing their own afterlives, ones they never opted to live, but don’t think it’s meant to be an uplifting, pleasurable read so you go back to your life feeling safe and secure, tragedy barred. Sure, they have withstood the very nightmares people fear, but their lives are evolving with each day they meet. There are new challenges to face, the past returns to torment, and sometimes, memories take flight altogether, leaving them betrayed by their own minds (not uncommon in brain injuries). Another casualty is loved ones of the victims, friends and family who are now meeting someone different from the person they knew. People drop off, just another loss to mourn. If you are of a religious bend, how do the miseries you now live with take on meaning, is it deserved punishment? Are you earning your place in heaven by bearing a cross? If you are into philosophy or art, is this a source for creation, all this undue suffering and misery? If your faith is in science, how do cold, hard facts now define your purpose, your existence? It’s terrifying how are beliefs are tested.

Not all those living afterlives are victims of circumstance, take Sean, who commits a crime at seventeen that leaves him sentenced to life in prison. What led to his choices, what followed? There are many types of prisons, anyone dealing with PTSD can attest to this. It’s not just physical, mental, nor emotional. These stories truly are about ‘reconstructing’ one’s life after ruin, how the expectations of ‘pulling yourself together’ is often unrealistic and just as traumatizing as the event itself. They are reports of adversity, resilience, humility, and grief- they are personal endeavors that take constant revision. There is beauty in the ‘refinement’ each person has undertaken, and incredible strength of character, and I don’t say that lightly. These are some of the heaviest wounds I have ever read about. They are all, like us, a work in progress, but facing much harder challenges. We don’t know what fate has in store for us, philosophy, religion, or science may be a balm for our pains, but there aren’t any words or discoveries that can encompass the shifts that take place after catastrophe, to think so is an assault.

The reader is confronted by invisible lives; it reminds me that you never know what someone else is going through. It is incredible that people give birth to a new way of life, sorting through what they can salvage and what they must discard to go on. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: August 30, 2022 AVAILABLE NOW

Random House Publishing

Ballantine

I Walk Between The Raindrops: Stories by T.C. Boyle

Now- suddenly, wonderfully- purpose had come back into her life.

I was hooked by T.C. Boyle’s latest collection of stories, while they aren’t all uplifting and happy, in fact they are often unsettling, the tales have characters behaving, feeling as non-fictional people do . Yes, it can be terrible, but it’s genuine. The quote I used is from the story I enjoyed the most, The Apartment. In it, a ‘spritely French woman’ of ninety years of age (Madame C.) has an apartment that many would covet, but no, not the man who desires it. The woman, surely, is nearing the end of her life with no one to leave it to and wouldn’t it just be perfect for his family? Their own apartment is “too small to contain his growing daughters”, so he makes a proposal, one that his wife grows to hate. We all know how plans go awry, and in my mind the blessed Madame C. has a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. It also had me thinkin about the idea of what we deserve and what we get. Life doesn’t always follow the expected path, the order we assume it should.

SCS 750 is a nightmare story for me personally, I don’t know about the rest of the world, but it’s not a farfetched idea at all. The horror is a credit system that benefits all the good citizens, and technology based on facial-recognition, I think people know where this is going. There is a government based social credit system in a certain country now that comes to mind. The Shape of a Teardrop is a hell of a story, about parents, their responsibilities, adulthood, failure to thrive, and the undeniable hypocrisy of the “victim”. It plucked my emotions, darn it! There is a tale about a cruise and Covid19, I honestly try to stay away from any fictional book about the pandemic as I have Covid19 burnout, I imagine many people feel the same, but The Thirteenth Day was an interesting perspective, also rotten to imagine. I can feel the mounting panic those contained and restricted go through, the hopelessness and fear. This collection has stories that are hallucinatory, futuristic, absurd and tender too (I’m thinking of Dog Lab), oh my little dog loving heart! It was refreshing to read stories that aren’t run-of-the-mill, ugh here I go using idioms, sorry. Walking between the raindrops metaphorically, you aren’t getting wet, you are dodging the hardships if you apply it to life, no? Interesting title, I Walk Between the Raindrops, because the characters are trying to avoid obstacles, the dirt of life, but often failing. The book has been described as witty, biting satire, and inventive, it really is. Yes, read it!

Published September 13, 2022

Ecco

Lungfish: A Novel by Meghan Gilliss

There was a lack of practical concern that ran in our blood.

Tuck and her little girl Agnes are squatting in her deceased grandmother’s house on an uninhabited island off the coast of Maine, empty bellied and lost, while her husband Paul attempts to detox. But addiction is a beast, and the island of her childhood summers may not be the most practical solution to their gathering problems. Her grandmother’s bookcase holds field guides, but is there enough food to salvage upon the land to sustain her growing girl, sick husband and herself? It’s like abandoning civilization and relying on blind faith, but in what? Her marriage? Her father isn’t missing but his whereabouts are unknown, and that poses a threat to her plan, as her grandmother left the house to him. It is her family’s norm, these disappearing acts, little unsolvable mysteries. His absence is much different from her mother’s own leaving which comes to light over time.

Together she and Agnes look for supper in the woods, anything to eat with the tides, on the shore, the rocks and Agnes’s hunger is an endless source of fear and worry on top of the undeniable fact that Tuck will have to find another place for them, before the cold arrives, or they are kicked out. For now, she is trying to keep them all from starving, supporting Paul and his idea that this place could be his salvation, save their family of three from his addiction. If not for the situation it would be like a vacation, a hands on education for little Agnes, but not like this. It will be an escape from Paul’s struggles in Pittsburgh (that was his pitch to convince her to go to the island), she wants to believe in him, to keep him from drowning. It’s her favorite place in the world, but without work there is no money, without money they cannot care for their child properly. How long can she ignore this stark reality? How far will she go for love, and does anyone really have the ability to save their loved one from themselves? It’s a common story, nothing unique about addiction, hunger, pain, disappointment, but the location makes for an original read. It’s a mad choice, but Tuck has run out of options. Not bad enough for help from the government, the country full of sad stories, maybe she isn’t a fool to think this could work.

She resents and loves Paul, it’s a dizzying concept. As she grapples with painful memories, feelings of rejection come ashore, a mother who was never solidly present, a father whose invention is the only reminder that he once lived in his mother’s house, her brother Conrad off living his own life, the family always alone. Is it that Tuck doesn’t want to surrender the only true thing she has created? She refuses to be the sort of woman who can’t take care of herself, who needs to rely on a man and yet, there is a fury in her that Paul isn’t helping provide, that he has gotten them into this mess. She wants, though, to forgive him his sins, to “be the sweet voice calling overtop dark thickets”, of the wrongness in his brain. It’s seductive, the thought that we can heal all the broken parts of those we love most. But his leaving, his choosing to fall over caring for his wife and child, it’s not turning out right. Their lives are going to hell.

How many days will he sleep, how long before Paul wakes up? How long before she wakes up? What will it take? What will it do to their curious, sweet little girl? Shouldn’t she try to save Paul for Agnes? Paul gives her a glimmer of hope, but will it last?

The beauty of nature, all the creatures that cling to underwater rocks, much like Tuck clings to hope, is so hard to stomach. Hunger can’t be salvaged by bedtime stories, faith, though Tuck tries, to keep light in her daughter’s heart. Bad weather is coming, will her marriage survive reality? It’s about loyalty, loneliness, motherhood, addiction, family dysfunction, mental health, and love. We accept lies for a reason, but there comes a time you must deal with the consequences of blindness. There is so much pretending, denial and need, it’s a family capsized. Beautifully written, it’s about choices and how easy it is to ruin it all. I love the title, Lungfish, it’s fitting. Tuck is a survivor.

Publication Date: September 13, 2022

Catapult

Natural History: Stories by Andrea Barrett

All around Crooked Lake, people were aware of Henrietta.

Henrietta Atkins is an intellectual, one who won spelling bees in grade school and wowed people with the Student Fossil Collection, a born naturalist full of wonder for science. After her teacher training in Oswego, she returns home to teach high school biology and establish several clubs, like the Natural History Club, to brighten young minds. Picking the best, most curious students to aid her in local experiments and studies, there are many lives she touches. An unmarried woman who is rooted in intellectual pursuits, trying her hardest to support the promise she sees shining through her students, she is much more than people see. She meets Daphne Bannister after graduation, and the fast friends vacation together often, enriching one another’s existence. Daphne is a well-known authoress of science guides, flusher with money than a biology teacher’s salary allows, but Henrietta helps with her work allowing them to engage in their shared passions. Without Henrietta’s help, influence, Daphne’s books wouldn’t be as successful. The two women avoid the sort of life that Henrietta’s sister has, full of noise and children. Wasn’t Daphne the one to advise that the single life was richer?

In the first story Daphne and Henrietta are ‘sharing a summer vacation’ on Appledore Island off the New Hampshire coast. Summer, the only time Henrietta can focus on her own investigations fully, not trapped by the demands of her school lesson plans. Sure, she helps with Daphne’s work, but feels so far behind with her own. On the shore, Daphne is collecting samples, with Henrietta’s aide, but it’s the invitation to poet Celia Thaxter’s cottage, with a select guest list of writers, musicians and painters, that pleases Daphne to no end. Henrietta would rather be far from such ‘entertainments’ and immersed in the life and creatures outside, making notes on Darwin’s books. There is no other way to spend her time that is as stimulating as her scientific pursuits, and she is unable to behave otherwise, even at the expense of social graces. It is during this time she has her own secrets from her dear friend. Daphne is wrapped up in making much needed connections and Henrietta, in an artist.

1863 we are taken back to Henrietta’s youth in Hello To You, where her employment at the Deverells place includes gathering and filing letters read by the family and neighbors with news of their boys (sons, brothers) enlisted in the war. Soon, she is enraptured by the missives from the regiments camp in Virginia, written by Mr. Deverell’s young brothers, Vic and Izzy. Most interesting to her, are stories about the Observation balloon. She is soon sharing household secrets, and the mystery of Vic’s absence but is let go when Izzy returns, a wounded war Veteran. The stories are knots and will reach out for her later through Bernard, the young child she tended to when working for the Deverells. Will she be able to set the story straight? Dispel the rumors?

In Henrietta and Her Moths she teaches children to marvel and wonder over moths through their many stages, creating educational spaces with breeding cages. If other locals find it all too peculiar and strange, the members of Henrietta’s Young Lepidopterists Club, as well as students in her classroom where smaller display classes call home, are blessed with a unique education. Too, she helps support her sister Hester through the stages of her pregnancy and helping raise her nieces Marion, Caroline and Elaine. She tirelessly helps while also working on projects, teaching, running labs and working with former students. The reader sees Henrietta as something fierce, if not in the same manner as her well-known friend Daphne. Her love for her sister Hester is strong, even if it keeps her from the work she is doing for Daphne and the deadline. Family seems to swallow her up, and though unmarried, she is still very much attached.

The Accident: Daphne is traveling to watch an air show, one where Henrietta’s niece, Caroline, is an aviator and so begins the story behind the brave woman’s unusual set of scars and what had inspired her best friend’s niece to start flying at all. Open House Henrietta is again at the heart of encouraging or ‘pushing’ the young to find a future that is absorbing, that feeds their talents and curiosity. Charlie’s inheritance is working in his family’s winery but she can see that paleontology is his passion, and he has the chance to study in Pennsylvania. It rubs his father the wrong way, and the professor Henrietta reached out to, once welcoming the idea, is no longer communicating with Charlie. Will he get out, thrive? Why is it when Henrietta tries to encourage people to reach for more she is seen as meddlesome?

It is about science and family but also about women and how expectations hinder choices. In the book, Sebastian is explaining to Rosalind about a phenomenon produced on the trunks of trees, and she is curious about the strange coincidences of their meeting at that exact moment. Later she is drawn to him but scolds herself to ignore him because for a female scientist, it diminishes a woman to have an attachment to a man. Her feelings are incredibly telling, that as a woman, you already aren’t taken seriously in the field and must take extra measures as not to appear ridiculous. Science too, in the future, becomes more of a business but the characters within are driven purely by their love of nature, and their wildly curious minds. Henrietta is at the heart of the stories, never birthing her own children but giving life to ideas, observing of the world what we miss and take for granted. She inspires her family and students alike, and their world would be so much darker without her gifts. The comparison between Daphne’s much freer existence and Henrietta’s many anchors that pulled her away from her work is interesting too. Is one better off? Henrietta is not famous like Charles Darwin, but her work isn’t without value. In a sense, she lives through her entire family line having inspired so many. The women after her, do they have it easier? Do the changing times afford them more opportunity?

This was an interesting read, though not my usual fare. There is something engaging about those who chose the path of intellectuals, and so often for women, shamed for it. Henrietta is a force.

Publication Date: September 13, 2022

W.W. Norton & Company

The Deceptions: A Novel by Jill Bialosky

What dreams I’ve deferred.

The impending doom of wrecking your own life, that is what I felt throughout the story. The narrator’s son (a gifted athlete to her husband’s delight) is off to college, she’s at ‘loose ends’ after eighteen years of tending to her only child. Her husband is loyal to his obsession, watching sports, and the fire in their marriage has been extinguished. She is a woman who lives on her rich imagination, feeding it life via visits to Metropolitan Museum of Art where she ponders the Greek and Roman art, sculptures and mythologies, finding connections to the modern world, especially her own complicated life. It is the one place she goes to restore herself. Her book of poetry is due for release soon, with it are the pending reviews she is ridden with anxiety over. Her husband doesn’t understand her, doesn’t seem to have desires for the richer life experiences that lure her. She has deferred so much to be with him, hasn’t she? It seems he takes it for granted. The glue that held them together, so many marriages together, is off living his own life now, of course she has no end of worries over her son too, especially when he is fickle about communication. Who are they now, when it’s just the two of them and what the hell does art, The Iliad and The Odyssey have to do with her existence? Twenty years of marriage, and it’s an empty bellied love, a wasteland, is there anything left that can be salvaged? Why is she so hungry for tragedy, elated by the ruin within myths? Why is her home, ‘a house of silence?’

Ruin and tragedy aren’t always fiction, and she connects the lessons, the imbalance of power, the struggle of the sexes, desires, yearning, the limitations, the punishment imparted by the gods upon us all. What torments us more than the evolution of our marriage and family? The elation of the early days and the trauma when “our true selves emerge”? The necessary vigilance when we have to tend to our young children and the gasping horror of setting them free, with the clawing fear something irredeemable or fatal will occur when we’re no longer standing guard. Speaking of true selves, what about our narrator? She tells us that, “something terrible has happened and I don’t know what to do.” What happened? She also tells us she no longer knows herself. She is teaching at a boys’ prep school when she becomes close to the visiting poet, flattered by his admiration of her. It appears to be a meeting of the minds, finally someone at the academy who understands the process of creation, whose work she is even, yes… she admits it, jealous of. He has a way of stripping her of her defenses, before long they form an intense friendship. Secret worlds are built, but as she informs us, her husband has his secrets too. We are witness to the castles in the air she builds, but who isn’t guilty of that? All our little mental escapades, the running narrative we have about our lives and our role in it? We are blinded by our wounds; we fall into traps of our own making sometimes. We let ourselves become vulnerable and often at the wrong time or with the wrong people.

The writing is very engaging, the exploration of entitlement, men, domination, their sexual drives, her lack of understanding the male mind, it’s revelatory. The emotions buried, the bargains made in partnerships and how our fantasies about the way things should be or could be disrupt, sometimes upend the reality of what is. The human need for approval is measured differently for a woman when she is setting out to create. Can she survive the thrust of severe judgement and betrayal? It’s a cruel thing when the narrative shifts and your own mythologies burn you. There is a creeping horror in this story, I know that sounds strange because it isn’t a nightmarish tale but it’s awful, knowing the life you have made is so easy to capsize. That maybe our sins aren’t always made with malicious intent, but because for a moment we forget ourselves and such things happen during times of change. Is she a victim? Are the things she does a willing sacrifice? There is so much to sift through, and it left me wondering, how much were boundaries society set compared to lines she drew for herself? Because make no mistake, there are always limits, based on the era we’re in and our upbringing that are hard to surmount. What an intelligent story of love, motherhood, creativity and ruin. Never have I been more gripped by Greek and Roman mythology. I think this is a book many will experience differently depending upon their age, and I love that.

Publication Date: September 6

Counterpoint

Five-Part Invention: A Novel by Andrea J. Buchanan

It’s easier than you might think to not respond, to stay in the dark, dreaming. When your eyes are closed, time passes without you. You hover in suspension. Darkness. Endlessness.

This novel blew me away. Where do bad mothers go? They go to places their husbands send them, where there is nothing but time to think, to suffer, places where a woman no longer has agency over herself. It is 1933, Lise is married to Mor, but her life’s breath is playing the piano. Her husband is convinced her playing has become an obsession, that it drives her to do terrible things to herself and makes her a failure as a wife. She has a nervous breakdown, but how can a piano and Lise’s love of music cause such a thing? The only solution is to have the music that is always in her head medicated out of her; what better plan than to have her committed. Mor just wants her well, doesn’t he? He isn’t doing it to punish her, he just wants her to stop hurting herself. He gifted her the piano, he wouldn’t take it away without a reason. Lise is pure music, but it is retreating as the treatments numb her. The piano in the corner of the common room is calling to her, but she isn’t ‘allowed’ to play it, unless her husband gives his permission. The doctors don’t understand, they only know drugs and constraints, they are only swayed by husbands.

It wasn’t always like this, upon first meeting Mor, Lise is on a student scholarship in France, her chance to study with Cortot and secure a career as a concert pianist. A brave act, considering her father is against it and wants her to get married. According to him, she is an old maid, at twenty, and needs to stop dreaming. Her musical gifts are a fever, much like a love affair. She proves him wrong, in a masterclass she is signaled out, the only way is up so long as she continues her level of work. Then she meets Mor, “floating on a high of praise” from Cortot, and it is like a fairytale. He is an artist, whose work ‘aims at realism’, a man passionate about politics. There is an instant “profound” connection upon meeting him, his drawings of her only make her seem a better version of herself and his protectiveness seals her feelings of love. He claims her immediately, and before long they marry, returning to America at the cost of abandoning her studies. New York is meant to be an adventure, according to Mor, it is “a place brimming with music”. Before she knows it, practicalities take over, necessitating work and her music is further out of reach, with little time to play. Worse, her husband is like a stranger, a different man from the one she met in Paris. So begins the souring of love and the insidious creep of emotional abuse. When people callously ask how someone can be so dumb to put up with cruelty and domestic abuse, this novel is a witness to the unfolding horrors. It starts with little things, until you are questioning your sanity and wondering “is it me?”

The grip of trauma never loosens on Lise, it’s a wall in her relationship with her daughter Anna, who finds love and tenderness only with her father. Lise is a master at wounding her, but once she has children of her own, Anna knows it is impossible for a child to deserve such coldness from their mother. She has kept Lise at a distant, an act of self-preservation but it’s a cycle, and Anna’s own love life is a beast that leaves its mark on her own children. This is one of the most genuine books I have ever read about living in a dysfunctional home. It is unnerving, particularly the incidents with volatile husbands/fathers. It changes every family member, mothers, children, all try to tread lightly as not to wake the beast. You can never know with unbalanced people what will set them off. The bitterness trickles down the line, it’s hard to keep a smile through pain and while children are innocent, they can sense the wrongness in the atmosphere, the ugliness in the adults, even if they don’t understand it. The need to please, to be loved, it’s a natural human desire, to find fault with oneself for another’s misery. There is no end histrionics and somehow abusers always have the audience they so desperately crave and what are children but captives of their home? The time period serves this novel perfectly because you didn’t air your dirty laundry in public then. There weren’t many avenues of escape, nor were there campaigns for domestic and child abuse, not like today. In fact, even when things feel wrong in the gut, how do you measure normal when you know nothing else? Pauline, oh how I suffered for her, and the senselessness of fate, why some are born to bear so much. There is goodness too, hope, as with Samuel’s presence but the characters are drowning in pain. We carry our past, our upbringing changes us, as does all our relationships whether we embrace or reject patterns, we are still affected by them. The hardest thing is our need to understand why, and yet even knowing things doesn’t repair all the damage. The story walks us through five generations, and it

This novel left me with a gush of emotions and it is very telling how one’s world shrinks when they are subjected to an abuser. This line, “How did some people go through the world like that, never snagging on anything rough?” How indeed? Every person in a family is forced into being a fraud, wearing a brave face, hiding evidence of their suffering, keeping poisonous secrets, denying their own needs and it does something to you. It is an inheritance no one wants. The novel captivated me, it is not an easy read, but the intelligence and observations of trauma makes it an unforgettable book. The character Zoey, it does fit with the identity struggles, and it seems it is personal to the author, but isn’t what I was expecting the novel to become. For me, the biggest pull was Lise, Anna and her children. Whoa, it’s a read!

Publication Date: July 5, 2022 Available Now

Pegasus Books

The Family Compound: A Novel by Liz Parker

There were two houses on a property that had been in their family for nearly sixty years. The front doors faced each other, with a two-hundred-foot-long driveway between them. Close enough to tell if someone was home, far enough away to not see into the windows.

When Laurie, Chris and Penny’s father dies, what happens with the Family Compound will be decided through the will. Siblings Halsey and William have their own ideas of what to do with the land, even if their cousins outnumber them. The will throws them all in a bind. Laurie always assumed with the majority, it was going to be her brother, sister and she who had the biggest decision making powers. Naturally, she and Chris are the only Nolans who have real “careers”, and the place isn’t cheap to upkeep. Maintenance is just the beginning of their business problems and the estate funds have dwindled. The rub? The will states they must all agree on any decision that is made, and without money time is of the essence.

Keeping the home means they all must equally contribute, but with unequal earnings, it seems unfair to pay the same amount. Especially if you aren’t working at all. Halsey has plans to stay there forever, it was her grandfather’s favorite place on earth. It radiates family memories, her family. She has never worked, but she knows how to manage things, if not her own failed marriage, but she is a great mother. She hates how her successful cousin Laurie condescends. Laurie is resentful of what she sees as laziness, she and Chris are not about to carry their sister Penny nor cousins Halsey and William, no matter how fond they are of their home. Why should they deal with the financial problems enabling the lifestyles the other three lead? Penny is a fragile mess, with her own complicated drama, always feeling like she is in the middle- forced into the role of tiebreaker. It’s too much pressure. William just wants to focus on his yogi plans, his Instagram followers but he doesn’t want to sell, he is on Halsey’s side. Halsey’s entire life is there, there is nowhere else in the entire world she plans on raising her son Miles. There is a split, but it’s not going to be easy as all their personal lives start unraveling, worse, they are all drifting further apart. Truth be told, none of them are close anymore.

Money and death do strange things to people, live long enough and most of us learn this, sadly it can get ugly. Each of the Nolans feel critical of each other and are hardest on themselves. They hide who they are, run off, deny the truth, and feud; all so they can avoid the critical eyes of their family. Can they truly be diplomatic when there is so much judgement? Laurie and Chris feel superior, with their luxurious lives but are the others less? Penny is an interesting character, lost. But are Chris and Laurie as perfect as they appear? Halsey can be just as self-righteous in her resentment of the power Laurie has. William, for some reason didn’t take up as much space in the novel for me. Can this family come together? Is it possible to make a decision that lets them all win? I thought the ending was good and the characters issues with each other seem realistic. The will is a clever set up, one that demands family communicate. A decent read for those who love family drama.

Publication Date: August 23, 2022 Available Today

Lake Union Publishing

Signal Fires: A Novel by Dani Shapiro

But these are only a few possible arcs to a life, a handful of shooting stars in the night sky. Change one thing and everything changes. A tremor here sets off an earthquake there. A fault line deepens. A wire gets tripped.

The writing is gorgeous, the pain is instinctive throughout the novel but there is beauty too. I read through much of this story with a lump in my throat, because what happens to the characters are fears, things you pray or hope never happens to you. Of course, something else will, you can’t live life pain free and every person alive will feel be affected by the tremors of others choices, not just their own. It begins in 1985 with siblings Sarah and Theo, and Sarah’s friend Misty driving in a car. An accident happens, a choice is made that seems innocent enough, but it cannot be erased, not even with Sarah’s best intentions for her little brother at heart. Under the beauty of the moon and stars, on their quiet street where the ‘good people’ of Avalon are sleeping, screams will reverberate. Dr. Benjamin Wilf will rush out into the night to a scene of horror involving his children. Another mistake will be made, adding further trauma to a secret already born between the siblings. Secrets become destruction.

2010, the same street, Waldo is an intelligent, ten-year-old boy who loves searching the night sky and studying the constellations. He befriends Dr. Wilf, just as lonely as the child, and like the stars, connections fire off. Though the young family aren’t new, they’ve never become friends, efforts weren’t made on either side. Ben’s family has drifted ever since the night of the accident years ago, and now his beloved wife, Mimi, is slowly losing time, her memory. I love the writing from her perspective, because every moment she has lived is happening in the now, because of her declining mind, she has a sort of freedom that is like time travel, I guess that’s a good description for it. It can hurt and it can soothe. Waldo is a welcome break from Ben’s pain, a delightful child, though it doesn’t say a lot about his parents that the boy is outside at night, no one watching out for him. It makes him feel protective of the kid and Waldo soaks up the attention Dr. Wilf provides as the two look at the little contraption he uses to track the stars. Long ago, when their children were first born, there was so much happiness, promise before the tragedy. Where are they now? Sarah was the golden child, Theo the fragile, sweet tender one and it seems as though the family collapsed in on itself. Sarah and Theo do not speak about what they did, and it becomes a cancer in their future, but Mimi and Ben never wanted to face it either, the shame was a wave that took them under. It’s an unspoken tragedy, the thing that flipped their happy lives upside down. Today, Sarah is impulsive, and Theo absent. The family is fractured, if only they could go back or start fresh. Waldo’s parents are a mess too, his father Shenkman can’t stomach his son, thinking he is obsessive, fearful of what will become of the boy. He can’t seem to connect with him, most fathers bond with their son through sports, but Waldo is hopeless, strange. Alice is gentle with their child, too passive of his oddball ways, Shenkman believes, and this causes serious problems in their marriage. Alice feels he punishes Waldo needlessly, cruelly. It’s a house of fear and disconnection, but more than anything, powerlessness. Something bigger than Ben and Waldo’s friendship will connect the two families. Mimi might be the one who brings her adult children home, close again. Is it possible to forgive yourself, or must you remain trapped in the sins of the past?

This is a hard review for me because I don’t want to give away the actions and the emotional state each character is in. Time is indifferent to suffering, it moves forward but pain is tenacious, it makes us push our loved ones away but it also keeps us from allowing ourselves happiness. We don’t need strangers to shame us, we do a good job of it on our own. Some people lash out in fear, others hurt themselves, and sometimes we just sabotage our relationships. As the point of view changes, the reader gains insight into each character’s mindset. Wouldn’t life be a lot easier if we could know what is going through the mind of our loved one in the moments of their actions? Instead, we’re left to assume and that leads to disaster. We also fail to understand that whether we chose to be absent or present, we affect what is happening. Waldo needs help, but he hates it, it makes him feel foolish. Those of us with aging parents can understand angry displays and those of us in Waldo’s place can relate to the feeling of emasculation, that time seems to be going in reverse. Shenkman is easy to dislike, there is a lot to unload, but what parent doesn’t fear their child won’t fit in, will be ostracized, not grow out of their weirdness? Yes, it can be celebrated, it is what makes an individual, but this is not something Shenkman is open to. On that same token, there are also families that want their child to be freer, and push for that. Why does it seem fate plays cat and mouse with our lives, sometimes putting wildly different personalities in one family? Maybe to teach us something about ourselves? The story is about how we get tangled up and how we sometimes make a bigger mess in trying to save each other. It is about acceptance, change, the secrets we keep, the lies we tell ourselves and try to force on others and how easily it all slips out of our control. Love is at the core, there is hope, disappearing can be a strange cure.

An ache that lingers.

Publication Date: October 18, 2022

Knopf

Doubleday Publishing

Vanished: Stories by Karin Lin-Greenberg

It would be an understatement to say that it was not enough, that all my actions back then were not enough.

This collection begins with Still Life, where an arts professor in New York is disenchanted with the younger generation of artists. She thinks of them as ‘dabblers’ who aren’t passionate about honing their skills, for without a big following like her younger colleagues who have gallery shows in New York City, she is unable to instruct the more serious students she desires to educate. Her style of painting is out of fashion, worse, with the demands of her life she hasn’t been as prolific in her career as she wanted to be. Did she settle after tenure? She is getting older, and the art she sees the younger generation produce turns her off. They seem to want it all to be so easy. The people the students admire are hardly able to produce anything beyond ‘squiggles and blobs’ and know nothing of technique. Her frustration grows when she procures stuffed pheasants for her intermediate students to draw. I liked this, it’s quiet but the offense Alice takes at the changing times, it’s something most people will feel at a point in their life, when you feel cut off from popular culture.

In Housekeeping a brush with tragedy leads to small fame for a maid and a chance for to get out of her small town, leaving her younger sister surprised to be the one left behind. A twelve-year-old blind and partially deaf raccoon is meant to be a lesson in kindness and compassion for students in Roland Raccoon, an idea middle school teacher Ms. Gardner thinks is pointless. She has witnessed far too much cruelty and meanness to imagine even a furry creature piercing their cold hearts. Will it work? Vanished is about Margaret’s new roommate at college. She isn’t thrilled by Hayley, someone far more extroverted than she is, too open and friendly. Over Thanksgiving weekend Margaret goes home, Hayley decides to go camping in the Adirondacks, what follows is a shocking terror and a lucky escape from danger, it also stretches their thin bond even further, until Margaret feels abandoned. She was just beginning to think they could become friends, was finally making an effort.

Lost or Damaged is my favorite story, so ugly is the behavior and yet so typical when a girl feels threated by the shine of another. Why are girls mean to each other, well sometimes it’s as simple as loyalty and long standing friendship. It’s a phase some never outgrow, but most do, thankfully. The tales are about ordinary people, how they cope with life or hide from it, even if it’s with mountains of junk in their home and birds, or behind their cynicism. I felt the author was pointing out how thoughtlessly we put people through tar and feathering with all the ‘self-help’ type of shows as well as the shallowness of the series that aim to find love. Can we deny they are often trashy and dehumanizing? Well written stories about imperfect people, I would love to read a novel by Karin-Lin Greenburg. She writes about people who could actually exist, whose paths are a natural trajectory most of us confront. As for her teenage characters, they aren’t ridiculously maniacal but do behave as children who are trying to fit in and figure out who they are. Good stuff.

Publication Date: September 1, 2022

University of Nebraska Press