The Balcony by Jane Delury

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“I see how Hugo looks at you, and I see how you look at him. I am only telling you it is alright if you want to.”

“I don’t. And I thought you loved him.”

She smiled at me, warily. “Silly girl,” she said. “What can you possibly know about love?”

This is novel is full of such sad beauty, stories that converge, changing facts, tying moments until everything makes sense. It is at turns romantic and tragic, it is stories in the brutalities of fate. It is a book I have added to my favorites list, because when I devoured it back in November I felt sad it was over. If you’re looking for a light little French read, this isn’t for you. If you want stories with depth, flawed characters, love that is forbidden, characters who make mistakes, all tied to a French estate then it’s perfection.

The novel begins with an American student given the opportunity to work as an au pair for  a married couple, Olga and Hugo in the French countryside. Her job is to keep   Élodie (their young child) company and help her  practice English while Hugo works on his book and Olga prepares for their move. Before long she falls for Hugo’s allure, a flirtation begins but she isn’t seeing the full picture. Her passion is a distraction, and it isn’t until later she really understands her purpose for being there and just why Olga was so careful with Élodie .There is the former courtesan now the lady of the manor who later becomes an eclipse, a man who as a boy protects his damaged brother from his bully of a father, a mother and daughter who find themselves in positions of belongings from a family of Jews who had to escape into the night and everything flows gorgeously.

Hélène wonders how to connect to her with her granddaughter during a visit while her husband drifts further and further away in his mind, the distance of time and age a wall she longs to scale, she decides to let grandchild chose a fruit and is flummoxed by the child’s choice. A woman is seduced by a poet and is much gossiped about, a mangy dog forces his way into a woman’s heart, a woman falls for a much older man not once perceived as a threat by her husband. There is a heritage of secrets passed down, wrongs made right in small gestures, and yet some stories are crushingly sad from start to finish.

Many of the characters bounce through time, and there is a resolution to many of the stories. There are regrets and chances that pass, untried desires, and incidents that alter the course of a life. My heart truly broke reading about the brothers, Guy and Jacques and the difficulties with their father. How Guy’s mental state drives the family to do something irrevocable soured me, and yet it’s a reality some families know too well. Yes, the novel is heavy and dark at times, but it has the ability gut you and I was fully engaged.

I wish I could write about each story at length, I particularly found myself laughing at the thoughts Hélène has about Élodie’s behavior and her body because Europeans deal with issues of ‘weight’ in ways we Americans find downright mean, and they see as refreshing honesty. You can feel her biting her tongue, wanting so badly to correct the child’s ‘imperfections’ and yet she dearly loves her. I found myself nodding, because it sounds like my elders. All their ‘cruelties’ were simply ‘critiques’ to the betterment of their family. Yet Hélène is not cruel, not at all, she is simply the product of an earlier time.

Yes, read it!

Publication Date: March 27, 2018

Little, Brown and Company

 

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My Dead Parents: A Memoir by Anya Yurchyshyn

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Ukraine sounded like a setting for a dark fairy tale that offered no magic or redemption, a place that had nothing to do with me.

It’s a strange sort of life for American born children with parents who come from other countries. The stories our parents share are nothing we can fully grasp, having never been at the mercy of losing our freedoms, yearning for a culture you had to leave behind, our only history in memories painted by our parents. It’s so much harder when you’ve never been taught your parent’s language, there are things that never translate (words, memories, nightmares). How are we to understand the spaces in the distance between us, the sorrows we can’t understand because said parent doesn’t have the words to express them, even if their English is flawless? Culture is a beautiful thing, but it can be limiting too. In part of the memoir, Anya mentions her cousins being more ‘Ukrainian’ than she and her sister were, having been exposed to the culture and taught the language. Her father compared them and felt she and her sister could never measure up, but how could she when he didn’t take the effort nor time to teach them. It’s funny how common that is, how often a parent can be proud of their heritage and yet give up teaching their American children about it, especially the language, then feeling slighted their offspring can’t say a word beyond hello and goodbye in their mother tongue, nor muster up the sufficient amount of pride and patriotism their parent feels.

We have a habit of dissecting behaviors based on our own experiences, never thinking how living in a country can mould you. Coldness can be a defense, mistrust and distance can be a byproduct of real events that took place when you had to fear your neighbors, even your own family turning you in for speaking against the regime. It means nothing to a child though, looking for love, acceptance, warmth. Anya has only her own experience to draw from, her own homeland, with needs any American child has that foreign parents resent or simply cannot comprehend. Their expectations are so much higher, understanding what obstacles they had to conquer to get where they are. Both are naturally gifted, highly intelligent, but it for Anya what is simple to her parents was a struggle for her. Anya’s parents were different people when they were alone together on their travels. As parents they were disappointed, short-tempered, demanding, drunk, distant, or outright absent. It was impossible to work up enthusiasm for his short visits, he was as much as a stranger. When her father was killed, she was numb because what did she really know about him? She could only recall being a disappointment to him. He was never really around, having lived overseas for his job, far more interested in his career. To Anya’s eyes there was a selfish cruelty there, how different her mother could have been had she had support, love instead of being a married woman living like a single mother. He got to use his education, give his dreams wings, experience all the exciting things the places he traveled and worked at had to offer while her once vibrant, gorgeous, intelligent mother was left behind to be the adult. It robbed she and her sister as much, leaving them with an unhappy mother that didn’t have the energy or wherewithal to nurture them. Her mother was consumed over his death, it had to have been murder! It was because of his work! Growing up, Anya’s mother drank herself into a stupor, she couldn’t be sure how much was delusional drunk ravings or truth. She falsely believed her parents were incapable of love, especially for each other.

It isn’t until she loses her mother that she uncovers the secret wounds both her mother and father carried, and finds herself traveling to Wales and the Ukraine, speaking to people who knew them to find out if there is truth to her father having been murdered. In the process, she discovers losses her mother suffered, that explains perfectly how she became unhinged. The heartbreak is in realizing she would have loved to know them, how much fun it would have been to be friends with her mother, to see the light in her father’s eyes when he was in his element, as strangers knew him. But it’s never to be. All she has is the remains of the past.

It’s a struggle, in loss people gasp when someone confesses that they didn’t feel the expected emotions to their parent’s passing. Maybe that’s because so many people have intimate relationships with their parents, or a gentler, safer upbringing. Others are left to struggle with conflicting emotions, particularly in abusive relationships. Taking care of a drunk parent is a form of abuse, distance is a form of abuse. Yet, through her search she knows there were reasons why her mother couldn’t keep things together, why her father chose to ‘run’ from her sorrow. There is still love but it’s a different sort. Anya, through excavating the ruins of her parent’s life and marriage, is able to forgive and maybe find some peace, solve some of the mystery of who they were as people. This is a deeply sad, moving memoir. Some answers still leave many questions. Was he murdered? Was his death just an unlucky accident? Some questions never have a solid answer, especially in countries where truth is a slippery beast.

Publication Date: March 27, 2018

Crown Publishing

Beneath The Water by Sarah Painter

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We’re all dying one minute at a time, it’s just some of us are more aware of it.

Stella Jackson has lived with serious health complications, recently having a successful surgery but still has lingering reminders, breathlessness, lack of energy. Lucky to be healing and alive, she isn’t as lucky in love. Her beloved fiance and long time friend Ben has broken her heart, the only thing left for her to do is leave London. She decides to retreat to Scotland with her dear friends Caitlin and Rob, licking her wounds. She hasn’t much enthusiasm for anything, still trying to adjust to her loss but Caitlin decides to push her friend into a job.

When Stella begins working at Munro House for its master Jamie Munro, she wonders at his eccentric behaviors. The locals think he is crazy, and she is shocked he failed to divulge there was a death before she took the job. When she finds letters by a Victorian wife who suffered her husband’s (Dr. James Lockheart) creepy ‘medical genius’ experiments, they seem eerily similar to Jamie’s own ‘research’. No stranger to the incredible advances of medicine and it’s benefits herself, she is still uneasy with his tests and plans. Certainly he is pushing himself too far, taking too many dangerous risks. The novel promises a curse, the old letters reveal a woman who declines after giving birth, but therein lies the mystery. Stella feels a tie to Jessie, despite the passage of time. Is there truly some curse or is it something more? Just what was her husband doing?

Jamie’s own parents accident is clouded by mystery and rumors. Just what did happen that ill-fated day? Why does Rob seem so angered by Jamie? Does the village really know what happened? Jamie seems to be as much in the dark about his family tragedy as Stella is, but what will he risk to uncover the truth of the tragedy?

I enjoyed the novel but the romance wasn’t very exciting. I also felt things were sort of skimmed over, such as Jamie’s parent’s antics, etc. It just didn’t feel personal enough to me as a reader. Stella needed to be a lot angrier about many things, I kept wanting some fire out of her. Ben is thrown in here and there and that seemed pointless, I don’t know, I could have done without him showing his face at all later in the novel. I think I just wanted Stella to have more life to her, react like another woman would maybe? I was expecting a gothic curse, something more malevolent. All in all it was a decent novel, I think I was expecting something darker though.

Publication Date: February 8, 2018

Lake Union Publishing

Watch Me by Jody Gehrman

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The world’s started depriving me, year by year, of this particular pleasure: the hungry way boys watch from across classrooms, parties, nightclubs. I’d forgotten how delicious it feels, the way your skin prickles under the heat of their gaze.

Kate Youngblood’s first novel was a success, but now with her second, an abysmal failure, her husband having left her for someone younger, and her writing dried up it’s hard to resist the attentions of Sam Grist,  an intense, talented, attractive young student. Surely it’s foolish of her to entertain the idea of welcoming his seduction. What woman, though, wouldn’t be flustered under the intense gaze of his beautiful eyes. He could be a literary gem, she could nurture his raw talent into greatness. The line between professor and student blurs, she finds herself trying to do the right thing, date men her own age as is ‘appropriate’, but fate has other plans.

Not long into the novel, it’s obvious Sam stalks her, has worshipped her since her first novel, clinging to it in times of darkness in his own sad life. Just what happened in his past that torments him still? As the reader gets into his mind, and deeper into the seduction one wonders, is he suffering from erotomania? But… Kate does fall for him, against her will until everything spirals out of control. Sam is too intense, unhinged, when a murder happens, surely he couldn’t possibly have a hand in it? Could he?

Can you really call it obsession, a sickness when Kate herself vacillates between attraction and repulsion? Could she be guilty of leading Sam on? What lonely woman wouldn’t enjoy feeling the youthful freshness of adoration, the tingling giddiness of compliments and someone watching your every move?

Without giving too much away, Sam can feel and see nothing but Kate, he is consumed with a hunger and ‘love’ for her. He knows she is his fate, they are destined to live the life of artists (writers) in New York, it’s just a matter of pulling her out of her funk, changing her mind about the quiet, dull life she has fallen into as if like a trap. She just needs convincing! If Sam needs to do something about other competitors for her affections, so what? All is fair in love and war when your very destiny is on the line! Kate knows this can’t happen, and if she flirts with her desires, she must remain in control. But who can control a man who can’t even control himself?

Love is dangerous…

Publication Date: January 23, 2018

St. Martin’s Press

Twice The Speed Of Dark by Lulu Allison

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Caitlin’s death caused a split, a warp that skewed Anna so she no longer fit the smooth planes of her life. She was changed by her loss. But so was everything. Grief shone a different spectrum of light; it revealed the well-formed, polished facets of normality as flawed, deceitful. The world did not respond in a way that made sense. Her daughter had been killed and no one beyond a small circle of family and close friends seemed to care.

Mother Anna and deceased beloved daughter Caitlin are both trapped, by grief in this life, and shock in the afterlife. Cailtin’s brutal end by the hands of her ex-boyfriend is a story that must be told, even if no one can hear it. Anna finds comfort in remembering the people who die daily in war-torn countries, inventing stories for them, a keeper of their lives so they won’t be forgotten. That the sun still rises, the world forges on when others, like her, suffer ill fate of death and loss has turned her entire life upside down. That a killer can walk, that her murder can be labeled ‘accidental’ twists her insides, sours her heart as she longs for her daughter who will never see another day.

The distance of years mean nothing to Anna, the wounds of her loss, her despair are as fresh today as the were the day she lost Caitlin. She cannot let go, move on, so her life moved on without her, husband included. In another realm, Caitlin divulges the sorry end of her life, what led to the fatal blow. Just a bright, hopeful girl like any other, in love with someone she should have cut and release from her life, but a nature that clung to the best in others, listening to her tale is like witnessing someone walk a plank. Both mother and daughter abandon themselves, for different reasons. By unraveling the tale, maybe she can find release, maybe she can’t stop haunting her mother with memory and pain.

Grief becomes a torturous madness for Anna, and leads her to an unexpected confrontation that changes everything. Here, I feel, is where my heart sank hardest. It’s easier to rage when you sit only with one person’s wounds, but two mothers aching, howling with all the horror of what came to pass really moved me.

With that said, the ‘ghosts’ Anna writes about is moving and it’s the anchor that keeps her sane, present, but there were also moments it slowed too much for me. Other than that, this is a beautiful story on grief and shame, shame that in our own demise we may have had a hand. As a mother, it crushed me and as a woman, when we are young we are quick to forgive those things we shouldn’t and take on the blame for behaviors we should truly run from.

Available Now

Unbound

 

Self-Potrait With Boy: A Novel by Rachel Lyon

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Tragedy is insignifigant, banal.

Is it? Lu Rile is hungry, to be something in the art world, to make her mark no matter what. Art is to be seen, be it disturbing or not. Is it her fault if the photo that could make her career happens to be another woman’s all consumning tragedy? When she accidentally captures a young boy falling to his death in a photograph of herself, she has to decide whether betrayal is a worthy price to pay in the name of art. By chance, the boy lives in the same riverside warehouse she does, a place that smells of rat poisoning and turpentine, the only place she can afford in New York. Working in a health food store where she is treated poorly is the only way she can work on her picture a day plan, but time is of the essence, she has to be taken seriously if she will ever make a name for herself. When she forms an intensely close bond with Kate, Max’s greiving mother, the photo and the boy begin to haunt her, wreaking havoc on her sanity. This is her future, the gold, the meat and yet her love for Kate causes pause. She knows if she moves forward to show the photograph, it will be the ruin of everything she has built. There is a choice, or is there? Kate’s husband Steve is an artist, surely they understand art above all else belongs to the world? It cannot be denied that the photo is beautiful in it’s horror. It’s amazing what we convince ourselves of when it comes to our own wants.

Kate has taken Lu Rile into her home and heart, confiding the intimate struggles of her marriage, sharing the abyss of grief for her beloved,late gifted son Max, not once imagining Lu Rile is keeping the secret of her son’s final moments from her. That back in her own crummy apartment is a devastating photograph of his fall. Lu struggles just to survive, working in a health food store, her father depends on her and needs an expensive surgery, she simply is not making enough to maintain their lives. Kate knows the right people, everything is falling into place, this is the chance Lu must take, finally an oppurtunity to push her art out there. Can’t this be a blessing that blossoms out of grief and tragedy? Lu would be insane not to take advantage of the chances her friendship with Kate affords her. How much of her love and compassion, her tenderness for the deeply wounded, broken Kate is selfless? Can’t she take care of Kate but also look out for her own needs too? Why is it so wrong?

Who is this Lu? “There are so many people I had not yet become.” It seems there are so many versions of ourselves that haunt us, so many different people within us begging to be born. Is hunger and a drive to be someone reason enough to betray? Are there moral grounds that should never be tramped upon, even for the sake of art? It’s stunning the lengths people go to to make something of themselves, and what works wonderfully in this novel is the internal tug of war Lu is having within herself to do what is right, for her or for Kate, whom she’s come to love. How a novel can break your heart one moment and make you furious the next is a wonder.

I devoured this novel, it was ugly and beautiful, much like everything going on inside of Lu. It made me spitting mad at times too.

Publication Date: February 6, 2018

Scribner

 

Girls Burn Brighter: A Novel by Shobha Rao

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“But what about love?”

“What is love, Poori?” Savitha said. “What is love if not a hunger?”

When Poornima’s mother dies, her father hires a young girl named Savitha to work the sari loom her mother once toiled at. Though far more poverty-striken than Poori, her passion for life burns brighter than seems possible in such drudgery. Poornima is stunned by the conditions Savitha lives in, piles of trash near the huts, stray dogs sniffing around, cow dung walls, discarded tin for roof, by comparison she and her father live in a palace. That despite these conditions Savitha has a loving bond with her father surprises her. Love isn’t enough, though, in this world that rages against girls and poverty robs families of any hope for the security of their daughter’s future. A deep bond forms between the girls, who become like beloved sisters more than friends. Savitha’s full of wisdom, never one to let her circumstances tarnish her soul until one ill-fated moment, while making a beautiful sari for her beloved friend’s upcoming arranged marriage, a cruel act destroys all hope and causes her to flee. Poornima is left behind, with no other choice than to be a good wife and daughter-in-law too learns what it means to be swallowed by others expectations and cruel demands. She finds out being female is a price to pay, a punishment, a curse. She has never forgotten her dear Savitha, and goes to great extremes to find her.

Savitha’s life takes shocking turns, beyond anything her once sunny disposition would lead her to imagine. Too, the appalling transgressions against women the world over becomes a nightmare Savitha will know too well. In order to escape cruelty, young women find themselves cornered, deceived and trapped. America is the place to start over, but this isn’t the usual immigrant’s tale of hope and freedom. Poornima will do everything she can to find out what happened to Savitha, but will she be able to save herself in the process?

While a tale of friendship,  and strength in the face of adversity it also encompasses terrible cruelties. Much as Poornima was protected when her mother was alive and told to ‘look away’ from the very places Savitha comes from, she quickly learns the world harbors far more horrifying fates. It’s not an easy read so if you are looking for a tale of happy fate, this isn’t for you. It’s at turns humbling and heartbreaking. Wonderfully written, a lot for any book club to chew on.

Publication Date: March 6, 2018

Flatiron Books