Alternative Remedies For Loss: A Novel by Joanna Cantor

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It felt like an iconic moment in the movie of her life gone sour. She knew she should go home- it was just one regrettable night of drinks, nothing that couldn’t be washed off. 

Olivia left Vassar to be with her mother during her final days, and something inside of her withers with the immense loss. Everyone else in her family is coping far better than her. Olivia’s father is dating a woman named June, who seems a bit ‘too comfortable’ for Olivia’s liking, inviting her on a family trip that was meant to be a healing after her mother’s death. “Her anger was a poison that wouldn’t stop spreading until it had infected every part of that trip.” It’s hard not to understand her emotional

She knows she should be putting her life in some semblance of order, instead she allows herself to rebel, to make men ‘earn’ her time. This pivotal moment will rear its ugly head later, because sometimes when you roll in the dirt, it leaves stains. Olivia is young and crashing along, making mistakes, very self-centered but the young often are. That’s not an accusation, when we’re young everything tends to revolve around us, because we don’t have other things pulling us away, we’re so focused on trying to figure out not just who we are and who we want to be but also, how to attain the future we want. You throw relationships and loss into that mix, and it can spell disaster. Olivia can’t see past her nose sometimes, but as the only daughter she has a different way of relating in the family dynamic. Mothers and daughters have a unique bond, there is never enough time to take away everything we need.

Finding letters to her mother from the mysterious F is not something she can let go of, and it puts her on a sort of spiritual quest, that ends up giving her more questions than answers. Her mother was the spiritual one, not her. This is default, this is a way to connect to her mother. That she was a person, with her own longings and needs, not just a mother, that she had her own choice to make about her illness, will leave Olivia rocking. The truth is, she can’t move forward without looking back. Maybe we never fully understand our family anymore than we can dissect the things we do to ourselves.

As Olivia unravels, she falls pretty low, but somewhere inside of her remains the smart, hopeful, strong woman she has yet become.

Publication Date: May 8, 2018

Bloomsbury USA

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Social Creature: A Novel by Tara Isabella Burton

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Louise doesn’t know whether she’s terrified or terrible or triumphant, whether she is in love or just surviving. All she knows is that the world has ended but that it is also so turning.

As her mind is turning, whirling… said to be a Talented Mr. Ripley for the digital age, it started off slow for me until… until… the downward spiral began. Manipulation, lies, stealing (not just money either) this is a disturbed mind. Greedy for a better life, desperate to conquer her small-town past, Louise Wilson meets glamorous, wealthy  Lavinia Williams and wants everything she has, and to become everything she is. Is it possible to re-invent oneself, to smooth and polish every rough edge of your being? Is going to the right places, exposing yourself to culture, attending the right parties, surrounding yourself with the ‘best’ people and dressing the part a way to obtain all that the ‘haves’ come by naturally? Louise is going to change her luck, she will do anything! She emerges from her cocoon and begins to take on similarities to Lavinia, yet there is an elusive ‘something’ she can’t quite mimic.  She will take any abuses slung her way just to be close to Lavinia’s essence. But what is Louise but a hanger-on? Disposable? What will she do if Lavinia tires of her, as she is prone to do with her ‘projects’, her ‘pets’? Maybe Louise is getting too comfortable!

Louise cannot wrap her mind around the why of it all. Why does Lavinia deserve every blessing in life, none that has been earned? She is unflinchingly cruel on a whim, selfish, entitled and coldly beautiful and yet this is what makes every man and woman want her. What is wrong with wanting to remain in the world Lavinia has dangled before her? Louise cannot return to nothing, not after nesting in Lavinia’s home but her acts, her lies are an avalanche she can’t outrun. With every deception, more follow until she doesn’t know what’s real anymore. How much of herself will she have to shed to remain afloat? Just who will she become in the end? Will it all be for nothing?

The reader can’t stop what’s happening, anymore than Louise seems to be able to stop herself. How easily Louise turns chameleon. There were similarities to The Talented Mr. Ripley, but more of a YA feel. It’s good once it begins to sink into horror but the beginning didn’t grab me. I think twenty somethings will devour it and those of us that enjoyed Highsmith’s novel will weigh this against it. It has its appeal!

Publication Date: June 5 ,2018

Doubleday

 

Eventide: A Novel by Therese Bohman

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She had, however, quickly grown accustomed to the pitying looks that said: “Women in their forties don’t dump their partner. You’ve really made a mess of things now.”

Karoline Andersson, art history professor at Stockholm University, has ended her 11 relationship with her partner, growing accustomed to living alone once again. In a period of ‘aimless confusion’, she meets a young post-graduate student Anton Strömberg whom brings to her attention a female artist Ebba Ellis, whose art was erotic, prolific and progressive for her time. Not only that, he claims to have letters and this could be a big break in the world of visual arts. Anton’s confidence is infectious, his youth alluring. Life once seemed to have a sort of purpose with her ex Karl, that soon became a sort of apathy. Now she is adjusting to loneliness and missing that which she shed. The time is ripe to forge ahead, to dig into her work. She’s always felt her best absorbed in her career, less ‘crowded’. There is competitiveness in her field, and she encounters the smug arrogance of one Lennart. Irritated that things require his interest and approval to be ‘worthy’ she is delighted when she has the upper hand with Anton.

Anton and Karoline’s interest in each other goes beyond the Ellis discoveries. Karoline feels illuminated by Anton’s attention, his youth awakens her, and the attraction between them is intoxicating. That he chose her, over all the younger women he could easily have,  proves she isn’t immune to that flattery. If everything is a game, what is her position? Is she safe from deception, betrayal, humiliation? Trouble could follow being involved with someone so young.

This is a story about a woman who never had children, isn’t married and whose entire life has been about work over creating a family. A life of poorly chosen affairs with different types of men and feeling adrift, tired of games in career and her personal life. There is a distance, though, that Karoline feels with men and in many ways the reader too experiences in trying to understand why Karoline is so crushed by life. In her feelings of forced shame, for being unattached, one wonders why it has to be an issue for the rest of the world at all? Karoline opens her eyes, and ‘life goes on.’

It isn’t a novel to make you feel uplifted, and the young hate relating to women like her because they may well fear going through men and life on auto-pilot, aging out, being fooled, disappointed. Who wants to stew in that when you’re fresh with the blush of youth? As to the rest of us, a little more chewed on by the world, Karoline can seem somewhat familiar.

Publication Date: April 10. 2018

Other Press

Pretend I’m Dead: A Novel by Jen Beagin

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“Sorry,” he said. “I’ve made you uncomfortable with my creepy honesty.” He shook his head again.

“Not at all,” she said. “I’m actually a fan of creepy honesty.”

Mona is in her early twenties, minus all the bright-eyed ambition she’s ‘supposed’ to be filled with. When she isn’t cleaning houses she is handing out clean needles to drug addicts and falling hard for one, a man she calls ‘Mr. Disgusting’  Sharing an elevator in his building with a couple of crackheads should be enough to deter her, but instead she feels like a gift sent down just for him. Of course the ‘older and wiser’ in us thinks, no Mona- what are you doing?! Wayward child! But everyone must be free to make their own mistakes. He has a lot to teach her, full of his own ancient pain, their time together is raw and when it comes to its dramatic conclusion, his vision of her in Taos is the push she needs to head there.

In New Mexico she meets a New Age couple she calls Yoko and Yoko, as they welcome her into their lives she is surrounded by wisdom, healing energy and a lot of passionate hunger in their eyes, or is she reading the signs wrong? Being around both Nigel and Shiori (Yoko and Yoko) and listening to their stories gives rise to her own childhood memories and family. Her father, a man she long ago tried to close off out of her life, is in her head again. Mona finds work again as a cleaner, and among her clients are a woman who collects angels, a ‘supposed’ psychic in a trailer and a single father with a teen daughter she snoops around, confusing everything until she is sure he is guilty of all perverse acts.

Through it all, she is strangely inspired to make an effort, to join the world of the living, to get off her belly and stop feeling sorry for herself. In the beginning Mona is dangerously adrift, too ready to let another lead her, and it’s lucky for her that Mr. Disgusting’s vision of where she belongs forces her on an inner journey of sorts. The characters are all interesting and fun, they are the kind of people who give you pause, who seem so incredibly out there, and yet make more sense than ‘practical folks.’ The sort of people who come into a life just when they are needed most, there is hope. Maybe Mona isn’t doomed to drift through her entire life, after all.

This is a book for the young as much as the old. For the disaffected and the harmonious, for the sarcastic and the courtesy, the healthy and the wounded… okay, okay… just add it to your summer reading list!

Publication Date: May 18, 2018

Scribner

The Which Way Tree: A Novel by Elizabeth Crook

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The fact that she was so hard on me and on Samantha makes it all the more curious the way she laid her life down, in such a bloody fashion, in defense of Samantha the day a panther came calling.

I usually don’t read a lot of novels set in the Civil War era but this story is written in such a way that the reader feels they’ve traveled back in time. The language feels authentic, I marvel at authors with the ability to place the proper drawl in their writing. The mother of Benjamin died after his birth, in the hard scrabble existence of the times, his father needed a woman so he found a mate in Juda, a ‘borrowed’ black woman whom he decided to love or keep, depending how you look at the situation. She birthed a daughter, his half-sister Sam. Mean to the bone, she fast showed young Benjamin who was boss of the house, but the meanness was born of hardness she must have experienced, as one night when she disrobed to show Ben he has already been beat in ‘leaving his mark on her flesh’. She certainly doesn’t take kindly to threats, especially from young boys. When a panther comes calling, she sacrifices herself to save her daughter Sam, but the panther can’t be bested by Juda’s grit. The attack on Sam can’t be stopped, leaving her face ravaged. A taste for vengeance is born in her, as her mother is dragged off by the big cat. It’s too late by the time their father returns to save Juda.

Through letters to a judge, Jim is testifying about the deaths of prisoners  one Clarence Hanlin may have a part in, but this becomes for the reader the story itself. “For six years, Sam had been waiting in a way that was eager. It seemed sometimes that all she did was wait, and watch for that panther.” Her obsession among other hardships they face force them to venture out after their father dies. They interfere with a Secesh named Hanlin, saving one Lorenzo Pacheco (the Mexican) . Taking a finger off with a hell of a shot, they discover that Hanlin’s uncle, Preacher Dob owns a dog that is a great tracker of… panthers. Hanlin is a bad seed, as the preacher is fast to remind with stories of his childhood deeds. The dog decides to help the children hence, the preacher joins them on their journey. Things don’t pan out as Hanlin thought they would, he wants his money, and he will stalk them as they stalk the devil panther and get his horse back too!

Life is more than hardscrabble, in fact Sam has grown to be as hard as her own mother was, minus the work ethics. She isn’t the most likable person, but if you explore what you learn about her, it’s hard to imagine her any other way. A face wrecked by a wild animal that killed her mother, her mother was ‘given’ to her father so there is her mixed race to contend with, the environment, the hardscrabble existence, what’s to be so dang happy about anyway? Ben, where does Ben get his light? He doesn’t seem to carry the same poison inside of him his wounded, angry half-sister does. He too lost his mother, though he never knew her. The only touch of a mother he ever knew had been through Juda, and based on the prologue we know she was mean to the marrow of her bones yet somehow manages to maintain a natural peace. By simply writing his letters, he encounters everything from rattlesnakes, to back-breaking work, hunger, not to mention the hassle of his spitfire sister who can’t seem to be bothered, to the point even Sam’s mare would be happy to see her elsewhere. It’s simply the state of his life, not one he complains about. He charms the judge through their correspondence, and receives help without ever asking for it. Sam is a different story entirely, and she makes her own ending, one Benjamin hears much later.

Do they kill the panther, avenging Juda’s death? Can they survive the threat of the Secesh, the Comanches, and all the hard luck things that befall them? Will the truth of just how bad Clarence Hanlin is ever be proven? You have to read.

I don’t usually read western novels, but I wanted a break from my usual reads. I wasn’t disappointed.

Publication Date: February 6, 2018

Little, Brown and Company

Fruit of the Drunken Tree: A Novel by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

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 Mamá said Papá had to work far away because there were no jobs in Bogotá, but all I knew was sometimes we told Papá about things, and sometimes we didn’t. 

The Santiago’s lives behind a gated community may as well be a different world entirely from where their new, thirteen year old maid Petrona comes from. Despite their differences, or perhaps because of them, Chula is drawn into a friendship with her. Where Chula and her sister Cassandra spend their days full of mischief, harassing the local ‘witch’ and letting their wild imaginations run free, Petrona’s life is spent working for her poverty striken family, consumed with fears about her brothers and sister, all too aware of the drug lords that swallow young men, seducing the poor with food, televisions (even if they don’t work), and promises of power. The threat of danger, of death is nothing for a boy to fear when compared to the present suffering and humiliation of their circumstances. A hungry belly is a beast, a desire for respect and strength is a lure used to tempt the young into a life of crime. Petrona will protect her siblings, she must, even though she must sacrifice her youth, her happiness. Even if her brother spits at her, shames her.

Kidnappings by guerrillas for ransom are a constant threat, everyone knows someone who has been kidnapped even Chula’s own sister nearly fell victim in her infancy to abduction. Chula’s Mamá extends help to that other world, similar to the place she herself hails from, by hiring young girls desperate to feed their families. She knows that not all can be trusted, however, that the ‘help’ is more often than not linked to criminal activity. Petrona surely won’t last, not with her silent ways, her fearful eyes. The sisters begin to watch her, like big game, but it’s Chula who wonders at the thoughts in Petrona’s head. Charmed by the mystery, could her silence be a ‘spell’, the youthful fancies of their minds makes for many antics through the novel, getting them into dangerous situations.  The playfulness of their days makes the dreariness and shock of Petrona’s missing childhood freedoms that much more harsh. Watched over by an astute mistress, Petrona mustn’t fail, she needs every bit of her earnings to feed her family, to be the ‘head’ of the house that her brothers have failed at.

Chula’s parents are rarely together, with her father away working hard. Mamá is a beautiful woman, one every man notices, a woman with her own needs and desires. A woman who runs the house differently when  ‘Because Mamá grew up in an invasion she prided herself in being openly combative, so people who pretended to be weak disgusted her.’ Both parents are wrapped up in wars and politics that Chula is too young to understand, even if she finds herself interested, longing to be as informed and clever as her father. Petrona’s existence is nothing like theirs, she lives in a home made of garabge.

The day her ‘bleeding’ came, her mother informed her she was to marry or go to work. Raised to be the little mama of the house, her life is surrounded by worn out women, broken people, those worse off driven to begging. Boys are meant to focus on an education, the girls are meant to support them with hard work. Some end up drug addicted or working for druglords, others dead. She knows she must work her fingers to the bone, be brave so the Santiagos keep her on as maid. Petrona’s family is interested in everything she has to confide about the wealth of the Santiagos from what they eat to the size of their home. Despite her promise to keep their hungry bellies fed, she knows it may not be enough to keep her little brother from the comforts that the encapotado (covered ones) can seduce him with. Violence and shame will come to her home, despite the sweat on her brow from her hard work.

The Santiagos aren’t as immune to the threat of violence as they think, and it escalates. Mamá’s burning sage to ward off evil may not be enough to keep her girls safe nor will the tall retaining walls the government built to keep the rich safe from poor people like Petrona. Car bombs, the threat of Pablo Escobar, all of it is creeping closer and closer to the rich, proving it cannot be contained, escaped. Superstitions dominate Chula and Cassandra, belief that protection from witches and all evils of the world are possible but Petrona knows of no spells to afford her protection. Petrona’s desperation leads her to the flowers of the drunken tree; a wonderful tie to the title of the novel.

Petrona’s state of despair after a loss makes her heart ripe for first love in the shape of a man named Gorrión. Is he salvation? Destruction? Her choices and entanglements lead to consequences that touch them all. Just what will a young woman do to crawl out of the slums, to attempt to conquer the pit of misery that has stolen so much from her. Where has hard work and loyalty gotten her? Two families have to find ways to survive as the extreme violence of Colombia escalates each day, but can they? Following Petrona was far more fascinating than Chula’s life, but that is the point. Chula is seduced herself by the mystery of the young maids existence. Petrona’s youth and innocence betrays her, but with limited choices how could she have done anything differently, how could have the wisdom to know what the cost will be? How could she know if she’ll be saved or find backs turned on her?

Power struggles carry the novel, not just in politics and crime but within ones own family, within the class system. What is left when you start with nothing, everyone you love is taken from you? A beaten people, forced to bend to those who have everything. A place where hero and criminals are hard to tell apart for people who are suffering and everyone slowly disappearing. What is left when you had everything and are forced to abandon your home and country? Forced to start all over again, separated from your husband, with no idea if he is dead or alive.

This is a unique novel that is a coming of age for two girls from completely different worlds. It is a story of survival, of upheaval. The novel crawls at times, but it’s interesting how everything that is happening is perceived in different ways not just between Chula and Petrona but between Chula, her sister and their mother. We don’t understand things the same way as the ‘grown ups’, certainly not the scope of danger. Nothing can return to what it once was, not even when the family is ‘together’, and Chula’s reaction to her father is genuine. I wish I could go into that more, even though it’s such a short part of the novel, it effected me as much as the horrors that occur for Petrona, but I don’t want to ruin the novel.

The ending is as it should be, it isn’t seamless. There remains a lost feeling but it works for me.

Publication Date: July 31, 2018

Doubleday Books

The Bad Daughter: A Novel by Joy Fielding

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Melanie was calling for a reason, and whatever that reason was, it wasn’t good. The sisters had barely exchanged two words since their mother died, and none at all since Robin had left Red Bluff for good after their father’s hasty remarriage.

The news isn’t good, Robin’s father, his wife and her young step-sister have been in a horrific attack during a home invasion. Despite her years as a trained therapist, it’s hard to put what she has learned into practice when it comes to her own dysfunctional family. A philandering father who destroyed any bond they had, stealing her best friend Tara in the process, is on the edge of death. Who could possibly have had a reason to want to kill them? Maybe the real question is, who didn’t have a reason to kill them? What will the little girl remember from that ill-fated night, if she ever wakes up?

Then there is Melanie, Robin’s older sister who has resented her since birth. Melanie who still lives at home with her teenage autistic son. Why does her sister blame her for her own failings? She left, didn’t she? Isn’t that enough to please Melanie?

Melanie is a blunt character, maybe the only one whose true emotions are evident. Robin’s love life seems to be falling apart, based on fears her own dear daddy put on her with his many betrayals. Ever since losing the one person she felt closest too, best friend Tara, she hasn’t had anyone she is genuinely close with to share all her joys and sorrows. She also doesn’t have a reason to trust men, and her fiance seems to be ‘distracted’, hence she has put distance between them. Just another thing going wrong in her structured life. Her brother is as distant as she is, licking his wounds far away from the family. Wounds caused by his father’s disgusting transgression against him. He hasn’t spoken to dear old dad in a long time, in fact his father’s demise would be welcome, one imagines. He has a very strong reason to want to kill his father and Tara, but could he really be capable of harming Tara’s sweet little girl Cassidy too? Robin doesn’t think so.

Then there is her nephew Max, whose behaviors can’t help but raise suspicions, in the town and in Robin’s mind. Naturally, as his mother, Melanie is protective of him but why is she so angry all the time, and why is she hesitant to care about what will happen with Cassidy? It seems she wouldn’t care if she never came home, certainly doesn’t want to take on the responsibility of raising her if the worse happens to their father.

Cassidy takes an immediate liking to Robin, in fact asking to see her and not Melanie, strange considering she hasn’t known Robin and has lived around Melanie all her life. Something is seriously wrong! Suddenly her real father, a criminal, is sniffing around. There are too many possibilities, but the answers she is looking for may be closer to home than she thinks.

The relationships are great, it seems true that we return to the people our family expects us to be when we’re home. Melanie has a natural gift for knocking her sister down, regardless of her successes and Robin lets her. Melanie has a lot on her shoulders, her defensiveness about her son  Landon is relatable. I’m not supposed to like Melanie, but I do, at least you know what to expect when dealing with her. Here is another story where if I delve into the characters too much I give away the whodunit. I wish Landon was more of a character and less text-book. However, the way others perceive his behavior as suspect is close to reality.

Just who is the bad daughter here? You’ll know soon enough!

Publication Date: February 27, 2018

Random House

Ballantine Books