Just One Look: A Novel by Joanne Kukanza Easley

“No, I don’t love him. My heart is granite. No one can get in. Not after John.”

I was born in 1975, the year the Vietnam War ended, but it echoed for years after with so much senseless loss. For fictional character Dani Marek, it took away her future and love of her life, John Nagy. Thirteen-years-old in 1965, Dani first sets eyes on her soulmate and seals her love with a glorious kiss at her first make out party. Throughout high school she spends more time becoming a part of John’s family, Hungarian immigrants who moved from Tennessee to Chicago, than her own. While John works afternoons in his family’s car repair business, she happily spends hours in the garage alongside he and his father. Adored by John’s mother Mrs. Nagy, who endearingly calls her Lánya (her daughter) she feels just as loved as a true daughter ever could. Upon meeting this young man who has their daughter’s complete devotion, her own parents believe it’s only ‘puppy love’, that it won’t last a week. Little do they know Dani’s heart is in it for a lifetime.

Dani isn’t concerned about what is happening in the rest of the world, preoccupied as she is with passion. She gives herself to John never imagining what is waiting around the bend, ready to upset all their hopes and dreams. As she is planning for her future, her own family crashes and burns forcing her to get a job if she is ever going to go beyond high school. With her family drifting from each other, a great divide opens. Worse, John’s won the worst sort of lottery, his number is called for the draft. She bides her time with work, school and endless waiting. As it happened to so many men, John is killed in action. This love will haunt Dani and infect her future relationships.

As her mother and sister Paige try to pull Dani from the depths of her grief, she becomes Paige’s project. Pushing her into modeling, forcing a social life upon her and encouraging her to meet men. Dani has a heart of granite now, a dead zone in the center of her chest. Her young heart only ever beat for John. What is the point in love now? She will be a hard woman and to hell with any man who comes her way expecting devotion. Then she meets a man whose middle name should be persistence, chasing her until she dates him. His arrogance is vile, it’s no surprise she shuns his love, tells him lies. Other men are fun for a while but are deceptive, and the bar scene gets old fast. Worn down she finally accepts his offer of marriage, the financial help is a reality she must face, needs even. Like most gifts, it comes with strings, making her feel like nothing but her husband’s possession. He isn’t who she thought he was, his family isn’t the warm nest that the Nagy’s home was, not by far. This spouse will never warm her heart nor measure up to her memory of John. In her quest to harden her heart, she bites off so much more than she can chew, dooming herself to an abusive marriage. A black cloud settles over her life. So much between she and her husband is forced, not even the birth of their child can soften his heart. No amount of pretending can make this life tolerable. It’s brutal, the years that follow and again fate deals her a shock. The aftermath will leave her a widow at 24 and a single mother caring for her baby girl.

Facing the wreckage of her life, Dani must own what she believes is her rightful guilt to bear. Money is no longer a worry, and she is able to have a career but the woman she has become is not the Dani John loved. It’s time to confront herself, to be better for the one thing that means the world to her, her little girl. Dragging ghosts from the past, can she let go and love anew? Can she forgive herself for each step that led her on such a damning journey? She isn’t the only who has changed, the dynamics in her own splintered family has altered roles. Old hurts, jealousies no longer singe her soul. Bridges are being built, but will she ever be open to love, will her granite heart ever melt again?

The time period this takes place was loaded with change, on a grand scale. Dani, like every single one of us, must take stock of her life, every choice, every mistake and decide if she will choose happiness or sorrow. A tale of love, loss and the trajectory of grief- how it burns everything it touches.

Yes, read it.

Published June 24th, 2021

Available Now

Black Rose Writing

The Glimpse: A Novel by Lis Bensley

Even if Liza stretched herself as far as she could go, she could not touch her daughter now. There was too much distance.

There are two sentences towards the end of the novel that I love, “Daughter, mother. Such difference in the forms, yet such similarities.” It stayed with me. It’s 1951 and Liza Baker is studying art at The Han’s Hofmann School, under the “modernist of Europe.” The new work has changed so much in the art world, full of courage and energy she flows with, that fills her with passion. Liza feels awake and alive knowing that she has “found her community”, at last! She wants nothing more than to shed the life her father led, a respected doctor in New Hampshire, having a colorless, bland, ordinary existence. A place of rules and falling into line, never searching for meaning, never questioning. She still feels shocked that she was accepted, that her work is good enough.

Hank, fellow student and lover, is just one of many men that reminds her of her place. Women don’t become great artists without a far greater sacrifice than men. Women can’t have love nor a family and still expect to burst onto the scene like a shooting star. Such things stifle talent and creativity if you’re a female and you dare to make a name for yourself. Yet, she does it! She and Hank are both selected for an exhibition, drawing in a big crowd, she has impressed a very important artist and naturally Hank is left in a cloud of jealousy and unfair assumptions. She is on top of the world and then bam, it’s 1966 and the reader meets Rouge, her daughter.

Rouge’s feelings for her mother are evident immediately, all too familiar with her mother’s drinking and the sleepless nights spent attempting to create art. Worse, Rouge is disgusted by the many lovers that tumble out of bed and out the door. She is shocked when one of her mother’s men, Ben Fuller, makes her acquaintance. A photographer, she is dismayed to realize he is likable. More, he has quite a bit to teach her. She couldn’t have invented this man, nor the importance he will have in her life and the feelings he will evoke between she and her mother. She doesn’t see eye to eye with Liza when it comes to her creations, and her mother has stopped asking for her opinions. Rouge has always dealt with her mother’s passing depressions but through Ben, the world of photography is opened and she may well discover a gift of her own. Something to make her feel alive, to escape being Liza’s daughter.

There was a choice, when Liza got pregnant, she could make it all go away and run through all the doors opening before her or have the child, teach and raise her while making art. She chose Rouge, and nursed the pain of watching Hank rise in a world that should have been her own. Now witness to Rouge’s growing talent, there is envy, she has the freedom to walk any path, unlike Liza. Rouge doesn’t want to share this thing between she and Ben with Liza, and yet somehow, as always, she is at the center! A suggestion about who her subject should be stings her budding ego, but she accepts the invitation and it will lend clarity to her relationship with her mother. Liza is good at disappointing her girl, and risks ruining Rouge’s turn at art.

The beauty of this book is the knowledge of art in all it’s stages and forms but more important are the ever changing forms of mother (Liza) and daughter (Rouge). Light lends clarity to more than paintings, so does space- that enhances or subtracts. The hunger for our dreams and crashing into a wall of reality, the ‘self-sabotage’, it’s all here. The fact that motherhood is a threat to talent, certainly in the 50’s, is evident in every thought and interaction Liza shares. That when you have the demands of a child/pregnancy you aren’t free to sell yourself, your image is already loaded with judgement and meaning. You don’t have the luxury of time to ‘play the scene’ and make connections. I’m not an artist, my kids both are, but it truly takes a lot of drive and self promotion in any field relating to the arts, even now. The art scene, dominated by men, is impossible enough without ‘being saddled with a child’, the thought of the times. Maybe life won’t be what she once envisioned, Liza knows about failure, feels like she is failing Rouge too but sometimes life offers us other chances. It’s a beautiful book about the fight to fuel your dreams while juggling motherhood, a career. It is also about the distance between mothers and daughters, the need to push away and create the woman you want to be. Mistakes, choices, sacrifice, love and coming into one’s own.

Published June 28th, 2021

Available Now


Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket: Stories by Hilma Wolitzer, Foreword by Elizabeth Strout

But there was no one to protect me from my own bad decisions, no one to lead me from the back seats of cars.

Old stories don’t really exist, not when it comes to human relationships, responsibilities, the load we carry simply by being alive. The space we inhabit whether we’ve abandoned someone or are a fixture in the landscape of their lives has a heartbeat, a life of its very own. Some things never change, some aches are timeless, universal. We can go mad in a supermarket or feel empathy for someone who does, so many of us have been there, or will be. What makes Hilma Wolitzer a ‘masterful writer’ is her eye for all our little lives, pulsing into the universe with banal thoughts- we all have them. No one escapes the stress of not being good enough, of having to keep your head up and keep on moving despite the burdens of our responsibilities. We all have longings we cast out into the world, even a child who has grown up fatherless and envies all those other selfish girls who get to sit next to real fathers at the movies. Life is unfair, we all know it! Yet, there is strength and heart in the home with her mother and grandmother’s support, holding up her universe. There are variations of family, then as now.

Like the witness to the supermarket madness, sometimes we just can’t do anything but fill our role as spectator. “Of course, I’m too sophisticated in things psychological (isn’t everyone today?) to think that one goes mad at a moment’s notice. There are insipid beginnings to a nervous breakdown.” It’s the collection of failures, pressures, disappointments, wounds, that make one lose heart or mind. Written in the past (60’s-70’s and currently as well), how often were women and their little ‘episodes’ minimized, leaving them to feel ridiculous? I’m fine, everything is swell, don’t mind the tears! If there are great mysteries to solve, in being a human, no one has done it yet. Each life is large to the person living it out.

Here the theme is domestic life, plans that stretch into a million tomorrows, pregnancy, partnership, and like giving birth how we have to learn to ‘just breathe’ through it all. Where do our dreams go, some so small we can keep them in our pocket? How do we protect our marriage from threats, interlopers? How do we measure happiness, what does it look like when you have children and not a moment of solitude to ponder it? Isn’t it good to know we are all restless, how else would we find the energy to show up every single day? Too, we drag our childhoods behind us, people growing up and learning to ‘get used to the ironies of life’. Learning not just how to love, but to accept love and likely screwing things up.

We all are tormented by the ‘minds mutterings’, hearts will be broken and mend, no one we love is a blank slate anymore than we ourselves are. Through insomnia, outside threats (even sex maniacs on the loose), ex-wives, an evil virus, death, grief, rotten childhoods and the bodies we occupy- these are stories most anyone can relate to. Maybe our lives aren’t all great fodder for Hollywood movies, but it’s ours with all its mess and glory. Nothing spectacular has to happen, the reward is in connecting. It truly is, in the end, all the little things that make up a life. How we betray our hearts and each other, what we do with our pain, how we can still be happy despite knowing the worst. Time allows for so much forgiveness, and maybe time itself is the nourishment so many marriages require. The final story is a last breath, and tender. Yes, read it- this an intelligent collection.

Publication Date: August 31, 2021

Bloomsbury USA

Ghost Forest: A Novel by Pik-Shuen Fung

The day after my dad died, my mom told me, The soul returns home seven days after passing.

So Dad is coming back? I asked:

This book truly is full of grace, tenderness, beauty and pain. As an Astronaut family that immigrated to Vancouver, Canada our narrator spills her family’s story and her guts in snippets. With a father who works in Hong Kong, she lives with her mother and grandparents with both feet planted firmly in the Western World. She tells us, this was never an unusual existence, as there were so many other families just like hers, with father’s that came and went, working hard to support their families and give them a better, more secure future. But this too has created, in her own relationship with her father, distance further than the miles between them. He did not want to leave his manufacturing job behind, but it costs him family bonds.

Early in the telling, when she was just a little girl, she learns her father was sad to lose her baby brother. He is a traditional Chinese father, who most revere sons. She promises to be better than a son but as time passes, it’s not an easy promise to keep. Once she starts school, the glaring differences between east and west become more apparent. It is in the stories, memories that we watch her grow and become more Canadian than Chinese, a fact that is hard for her father to digest. When he does have time with her, she isn’t the respectful daughter she would have been had she grown roots in her homeland. When they are together, there seems to be a coldness, his face reads disappointment in his children and he never speaks of love. When they are in the same space, every moment seems wasted, still just as separate as they are when apart. The longed for connections never seem to be born. The differences between them becomes a wall, and when her father is seriously ill, there is much to confront. Without understanding the past how can she understand the present, or the future? With cultural clashes, misunderstandings and assumptions abound. Eastern parents love just as deeply as Western parents, but it is the expressions that differ. How do you comprehend what the heart feels when so much is lost in translation? How can we forgive our parent’s failures if we don’t understand them?

Her father owes much to women in his life, and if anything it is their stories that really drive the novel and engage the reader. Three generations under one roof with her grandmother lending a playfully wise spirit to the telling. She carries much of their history, her own a heavy one, and is trying to keep their Chinese traditions alive. Her presence feels even stronger than the narrator’s mother, but throughout her father’s absence is the one constant. It is also the hole in her heart that she struggles to fill. With his dying days, she finally has the chance to meet him, in a sense. When he is gone she is able to, maybe, forgive him for not being the sort of father who said I love you.

It’s a difficult review to write because there isn’t one particular meaning to pin down. It’s more the poetry of the past, floating by, family stories that are often heartbreaking but attempt to lend clarity to behaviors, choices. I think it’s a gorgeous read. Particularly, the hunger to reach her father on an intimate level is an ache so many children, of all ages and ethnicity, have. With an immigrant’s background you are measuring your loved ones against a country whose traditions and expressions are sometimes wildly foreign. They’re doomed to failure. It is an interesting exploration about the meaning of love, how we weigh it, what we require from others to feel it. Yes, read it.

Published July 13, 2021

One World

Random House Publishing

The Ophelia Girls: A Novel by Jane Healey

It was then that my body first felt alive, my own.

I don’t normally mention the ending of a novel early in my review, but this one spoke to me. It was a moment of strength, of taking power back and yet nothing explosive nor out of the ordinary. A quiet moment loaded with meaning at an exhibition. It is the summer of 1973, teenagers Ruth, Joan, Linda, Sarah and Camille spend their free days photographing each other floating along the frigid waters of a river in the woods, striking tragic poses. Draped in ethereal dresses, embracing the cold lick of the river, there is power and beauty in the art they are creating. Flirting with death as they imitate the drowning of Ophelia, they become The Ophelia Girls. It is the one place they are free of the restrictions the world and their parents put on them. A place away from the gaze of teenage boys, who would never understand why this world they’ve created empowers them and would only lust after the erotic scene. No one is as free to be her natural self as Ruth, unlike her friends whose families summer at the surrounding houses, she is a permanent resident. A “well off” resident, raised by her strict, emotionally distant father who pressures her to be more of a lady, less of a tomboy and think about the future. Without her mother to guide her, there doesn’t seem to be much warmth nor understanding in her home, not a lick of loving attention from her father since she turned nine. In the river, she can escape the person he wishes she could be, and instead seek solace in the unique sisterhood they’ve created. It is also the only place her body comes alive, and belongs to her. It is in the arms of the river where they find glorious abandon. The Ophelia Girls are blooming, friendships forming tight as knots but the world and it’s tragedies isn’t as far away as the girls believe. Soon, they won’t have to feign tragic airs.

Stuart lives with his dad, the groundskeeper working for Ruth’s father, when he isn’t back in London with his mother. Straight away he is enamored of Ruth. Her father is grooming him for a career in law, naturally she is jealous of their time together, longing for Stuart’s undivided attention. Lacking the courage to confide to her father that she wishes to study art, there is comfort in Stuart’s friendship, always admiring and supporting her dreams. She doesn’t love him though, not like that. He is present that tragic summer that begins with the first photograph, taken by Ruth. There are secrets and confusions Ruth herself doesn’t understand, a death that follows her twenty-four years into the future, now married to Alex, the friend she and Stuart made at university. Their lives took separate paths, Stuart becoming a celebrated war photographer and Ruth and Alex married with three children- their six-year-old twins Michael and Iza and their seventeen-year-old daughter, Maeve. They are spending the summer back at Ruth’s home, after Maeve’s grandfather’s death, a place with twenty-seven rooms in the countryside which will be good for her. Maeve knows more about the shadow of death than most seventeen-year-old girls, having emerged from cancer. She has been schooled on the fragility of life and the struggle to see another day more than even most adults have faced. She may be in remission, but the fears, habits of illness seem to follow her with each waking day. Darkness isn’t so easy to shake off, how do you learn to live again and trust that the next day is waiting when you lay your head down and sleep? She knows far too much about how easily it all can end, how tenuous the link between life and death truly is. How can she fathom her own future, when it wasn’t promised before? What if she comes out of remission? What if she can’t build back her strength? Still so much a child, robbed of the freedom healthy children are afforded, and yet on the cusp of womanhood, she longs for something, what she can’t name nor explain. She is back at the place her mother had a whole other life, and with it a friend named Stuart who is about to turn their world upside down. He is just the eye she needs as a witness to being alive, someone who she can become someone else with, not just a former sick girl nor an average teenager but someone coming into herself, rooted in a mind and body desperate to bloom. A solid, beautiful thing. She also is beginning to push away from her parents, as the young do, as a means to discover who they are as an individual. Not quite a child, not yet an adult, but nestled in that space between.

That long ago summer, Camille once asked “How long do you think it would take for someone to come looking for us if we stayed here forever?”, the truth being that a part of Ruth has remained rooted there, had never stepped out of the river. Guilty over what happened, unsure how much of the cross is hers to bear, she feels forever underwater. There is a heaviness she carries, and now that her family has watched their girl suffer and heal, a miracle in and of itself, it’s hard to believe misfortune has left their door. Having spent every moment attentive to Maeve’s need, watchful over her health, terrified of losing her, she has a hard time letting go and believing they are done with the worst. She knows that you can’t stop the hand of fate, that you can’t outwit death. Her husband Alex’s reminder about their daughter, that “she’s fine” echoing in her head isn’t enough to comfort her. Now returned to her family home, the past is back and Stuart with it, his presence a reminder of who she once was and making her question the woman she tries her hardest, at present, to be. How has she become such a liar?

Something shockingly tragic happened one summer twenty-four years ago, and something transformative will happen again, but will it also have an air of tragedy? Of death? What does it mean for Maeve’s marriage, her friendship with Stuart, and more importantly, her bond with her beautiful, hungry daughter? How could she have forgotten how famished the young are and ready to fill themselves with the first experience that presents itself, often dangerous and forbidden? Some moments change entire lives, no one understands this better than her. There is a choice, to embrace your desires or deny them. Maybe Maeve isn’t the only one who has to figure out who she is and what she wants, nor is she the only one that needs to leave the shadow of death behind.

This is an intelligent novel about young girls and what they kill off in themselves for acceptance. It also about where they find power and how they decide to move forward, what they chose to build their lives upon. The most important story, I think, is between Ruth and her daughter Maeve. It is through her own daughter’s choices, the exploration of her budding sexuality, that she must face herself. Why does she feel like she is failing Maeve, as she has failed another before, dangerously so? There is also abuse of power and manipulation, vulnerability and misguided ideas. Innocence, awakenings, love, shame, guilt, confusion, and the journey into adulthood filled with secrets. Girls as victims of their desires, or the masters of them. Powerful stuff here. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: August 10th, 2021

Mariner Books

Magma: A Novel by Thora Hjörleifsdóttir, Meg Matich (Translator)

If you talk about what happens within a relationship, everything gets tangled, and it’s easy for an outsider to judge- I don’t want them to write him off completely. They don’t know what it is like to be as in love as I am right now.

This novel is truly a gut punch, a reminder of how we nurse sick love. The excuses we make for cruelty, the perception of the ‘outsider’ we ignore because we aren’t ready to confront the truth. Not all young women go through this, or if they do, such love may not torment them as badly but there is always humiliations and a seed low in the belly that something is off. Is it society’s conditioning, is it low self-esteem, a too forgiving nature? Also, it isn’t just ‘young’ woman who accept such brutal love, women from all walks of life ignore the monster in their arms if I am honest. Married and single alike, there are a lot of excuses made for behavior that, quite frankly, is inexcusable and unacceptable. Age doesn’t always lend wisdom either, when it comes to the heart, but god willing experience at least can make us dodge bullets! As the author states, this book is about shame and isolation and dedicated to those who have spoken out. Slut shaming opens the novel, an excavation of twenty-year old Lilja’s sexual history, the ‘boys’ she’s been with torments her man. They aren’t together anymore yet she is still fully available to him, body, heart and soul. She compares herself to his ex, and he shoves that clever beauty down her throat. Manipulations that on the surface can be brushed off as ‘harmless’, that she is simply over-reacting to, are the theme of their days.

She promises herself she will be tough, after he wrongs her over and over again, and she is- but it never lasts when he knows how to lure her back. He is always the victim of every circumstance in his life, the women are the rot. She will do anything to please him, she loves him so much, even sexual acts she finds vile. All the women clean up after him, even his mother, though he is long past the age that she should be. Lilja’s girlfriends don’t like him, but what do outsiders really know about their love? Only the people in the relationship understand the rhythm of their hearts, the why and how of their interactions, the good the bad and the ugly. No one else could possibly understand how in love she is, how much he means! Surely, no one loves another as much as she loves him!

He is a master at turning her words against her, and because he is handsome and smart, he knows how to use that to his advantage. Other woman far more clever and beautiful than Lilja want him, he must be a catch, right? He doesn’t bother himself with her wants, and if she doesn’t like pornographic sex, then something is wrong with her, plenty of women are more than willing to give him what he wants. Sex is messy, she just doesn’t know what she likes, he will seduce her to ‘his ways’. If she doesn’t like it, she’ll get used to it because she loves him so much!

Lilja convinces herself that this love is real, it’s deep and abiding, on her end anyway. She knows, with time, she can get him to love her back just as deeply as she loves him. She can’t be pushy, no man would ever desire a pushy girl. Life is meaningless without him, he has become her purpose, her northern star! She wants nothing more than to love him, what’s wrong with that? This love is psychological warfare, he knows just how tender to be to so she ‘feels the sting of gratitude.’ Lilja is unraveling, as he peels every layer of her being, making her smaller and smaller, cutting her off from life, from her very self while promising her so little in return. When she finally has him, it drains her to keep him thriving. How many compromises must she make? Why is she making them when joy is leaking out of her, when he will always be a locked door she slams her head against while she must always remain open, accommodating? Why must love cost her every bit of her worth, every ounce of her dignity?

What shame delivered Lilja here? Will she ever wake up, find the strength to end this unhealthy obsession with him? Does she hate herself so much? This is a hell of a read translated from Icelandic by Meg Matich. It’s brutal, what the wrong type of love tricks us into allowing, the transgressions, the shame, the degradation. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: July 13, 2021

Grove Atlantic

Fish Heads and Duck Skin: A Novel by Lindsey Salatka

My head hurts from all the foreign sounds flying around it.

Tina Martin works far too hard, life is wearing her down and all she wants is some calm in her life. Reeled into attending a SIS event with her friend Jennifer, where neighborhood “mompreneurs” inspire one another, sell their wares and network, Tina is encouraged to get a reading from a psychic. Laughing at the woman, she tempers her hilarity long enough to ask a question. Fresh from her fight with husband Daniel, she wonders if they will be getting a divorce. When the cards are flipped, she discovers that her journey with Daniel has “only just begun.” A big choice is about to be made, life altering changes, one that require leaps and bounds. Returning home that night, high on possibilities, she seduces her husband with a vision. What if they moved somewhere exotic, somewhere she could write and he could work with robots or whatever tickled his fancy? Their girls could thrive under the love and attention of their mother, finally!

The winds of fate blow in, Daniel is offered a position in Shanghai, China. The silly, five dollar psychic’s words begins to come true! Together, they fly to Shanghai where the ‘exotic journey’ is about to begin. She just knows in this foreign, mystical land she will reach an inner peace, become a better version of herself, no longer worn down by the demands of the American life. The flight itself doesn’t bode well as she and the girls are seated separately from Daniel. It’s not enough to swap turns and trade seats, the girls are unhinged! It goes from bad to worse. Nothing improves when they land at their destination after a horrid 14 hour flight. The culture shock is immediate from the taxi ride to the only hotel their budget affords their little family.

The city is bustling, full of foreign noises, roads full of traffic that will run you down in a split second. The store has their American treats but then an incident overwhelms Tina, and the universe can’t even spare a moment on a patch of grass to allow her to collect her sanity. Luckily, an Ayi 阿姨 comes to their rescue- even if she isn’t sure what exactly the grandma does. An Ayi is not a grandma but a nanny referred to as an Aunt as a form of respect. Nothing comes easy, not even finding a place to live. Learning how to order coffee is yet another learning experience, one where she makes her first friend. How did Tina get them all into this mess? In her first email to her friend Jennifer, she unloads with her observations of her host country- not even attempting to be generous to the locals. Her rosy tinted glasses are off, and she regrets this journey already.

Her reactions to the customs of the locals clash with her western views, seeing only the worse. She admits, “I’m too rigid to adapt.” She feels like a failure already. When an older man helps her daughter Piper off the monkey bars in the park, she doesn’t yet know he will become a rock in the days that follow, and a spiritual mentor of sorts. One she sorely needs as she seems to do everything wrong, leading to no end of personal disasters. It’s a learning experience, at times brutal, but she just may discover her passion, if she can just get her footing right.

Americans often imagine foreign places with our ‘westernized eyes’ and have a difficult time embracing the differences, instead comparing back home to the place we find ourselves. That never bodes well. It takes an open mind and flexibility to adjust. So many people want the exotic dream rather than the reality. Tina gets a big wake up call, but in the end she discovers a purpose and that makes the world of difference. I spent a lot of time laughing at her deflated optimism and enjoyed her daughters the most. They actually behave like children, causing scenes, voicing their endless demands and yet adjusting far better to the new world than the adults. Tina is often ridiculous, she says herself she is too rigid to adapt, and at times it’s true. She is as ignorant as other expats, neglecting to see how bountiful their lives are. It is a different culture, a separate history and events that form us are not shared- they can’t be, not truly. It’s all in one’s perspective. We often can only see through our own experience. Those from the west seem spoiled, but to be fair, we only know our way of living too, based on our own customs and culture.

It’s a humorous read with honest reactions and reflections. I have lived overseas, I remember in Japan hearing other Americans shriek in restaurants over seeing a fish (fully cooked) served with it’s head still attached. No big deal for me, but for some reason it’s a shock to others when food looks like, well what it resembles when it’s alive. Poverty is always one of the hardest realities to face, and so many of us are sheltered from it. We’re sheltered from many other things too, but when you travel you have to be open to differences and not judge from your Western beliefs- it’s often easier said than done. We idealize what a trip, or a move, is going to be like- but reality loves to challenge us. Tina will be challenged and feel like a lame duck. Will she ever find an anchor? I sure never had a mentor of my own, would have been a blessing to be sure!

Publication Date: July 20th, 2021

She Writes Press

Shoulder Season: A Novel by Christina Clancy

All her life she’d wanted to be initiated into something.

I’m showing my age here, but this book took me back to the movie A Bunny’s Tale in which Kristy Alley portrays Gloria Steinman, journalist and feminist who went undercover exposing the darkness of life in the Playboy Clubs. Different timeline, I know, but the friendships with other bunnies in this novel also takes the sting out of the demands small town, Wisconsin native Sherri faces- much as Steinman came to like the camaraderie and support of her fellow bunnies. Sherri never had the chance to misbehave, raised by older parents, working alongside her German father in their family clock repair shop below stairs of their home, life was sweet, quiet. Then he died, leaving Sheri and her mother with a business they could no longer run. While other people Sherri’s age were going off to college and finding themselves, she was left behind caring for her mother, who was stricken with a neurological disorder that soon takes her life.

“Berta”, her childhood best friend, ascended from the pits of their shared Nerdom to become cool, beautiful, popular, and tough during high school. Sherri hadn’t emerged from such a cocoon, and though left behind in the dust, Roberta still protected her friend so the others wouldn’t torment her. Sure, they weren’t hanging out anymore, Roberta’s reputation couldn’t afford that dent, but she still cared. It’s 1981 now and all of that is behind them. Sherri’s mother is gone and Berta’s year working in Milwaukee is finished so she convinces Sherri to apply alongside her at the Playboy Lake Geneva Resort. Shari is free now from the demands of her mother’s illness, she can do anything, though she feels remnants of guilt after the loss. Fearful of what being a bunny would do to her reputation in their small town, she has doubts she can stomach such work. Berta makes her see reason, the benefits. Besides, Sherri has no prospects and even less money. They can make thousands there… in a week! Despite her reservations about the sort of girls who work there, as well as her perception about the types of men who frequent the place, she can’t say no to “Berta”. Sherri doesn’t really believe she’ll be picked anyway, as dowdy as she feels. As luck would have it, she gets great advice before her interview from a bunny, and her lack of an edge is exactly what seals the deal and lands her the job. What was supposed to be an opportunity the best friends could share, drives them apart and a new Sherri is born.

She gets a shocking awakening and is finally initiated, desperate to do whatever it takes to fill the high heels of her new life. Sure, experience will cost her that wholesome persona, but we all have to grow up sometime. She no longer has to hide, she ‘takes up space’ in every room she enters, embraces her sexuality and acing the bunny thing. She befriends her fellow bunnies, living the dorm life similar to college but without the dual books and boring classes. For her, it’s mixing drinks and learning how to uphold to the bunny brand while making good money. Finally, she is enjoying ‘top shelf’ living, even inspiring jealousy in Berta, who was always the one who showed up for life. The men are exciting, handsome, wealthy and connected. Her old life no longer seems to fit, living as she does now in two worlds. Celebrities, sex, drugs, and open doors to high class living- Sherri finally feels alive but it’s only a matter of time before the cracks appear, before she notices how degrading this scene can become. Her naiveté has her taking what men say at face value to her detriment and embracing the flippant attitude other bunnies have towards drugs and lovers, but how much does she truly understand about liberation?

As her star rises, she finds love but doesn’t have a clue that tragedy is waiting around the corner. Everything she has worked so hard for, changed her very personality to become, is on the verge of going over a cliff. Can she truly live as wild and free as she wants without consequences? Is this really a rung on a ladder worth climbing, a career that has a future? Don’t the bunnies age out fast? She feels larger than life until she finds other Playboy locations have higher standards. She is making messes, poor choices and some that are life or death consequences, tying her to people and life altering decisions she may not have otherwise made. We meet her older, wiser and still tending to oozing wounds of her wayward past. How much guilt is truly Sherri’s to bear?

Sherri gets a bit full of herself, of course she does, desirable, finally allowed to ‘let her hair down’, it’s what one would expect but it isn’t endearing- it’s not meant to be. Maybe times have changed, but in her case, she is used and loses her way, men do crummy things, that happens when one person holds the power. She lives two extremes, but she may well get the chance to truly be the architect of her own life- it just won’t be what her young heart assumed. Best laid plans often do go awry, especially when you’re slipping and no one is there to help you steer.

Publication Date: July 6, 2021

St. Martin’s Press

Nobody, Somebody, Anybody: A Novel by Kelly McClorey

Over the past few years, I’d grown used to being with only me. I’d learned how to talk to myself, and apart from the occasional breakdown, I was generally receptive to my ideas and at ease in my company.

Amy Harney gets “dizzy with inspiration” reading Florence Nightingale’s biography. She feeds on her quotes, because Amy wants to be an EMT. Her current work as a chambermaid is only a summer job but she is resolved to do her best taking everything she learns and applying it to her future career. What better training to deal with the horrors of medical emergencies than working in an industry that deals with the everyday filth of people’s lives? Nightingale believed in cleanliness and Amy takes her current job seriously, ‘baptizing toothbrushes in hydrogen peroxide’. The wealthy clientele expect the best, and she strives to give it. August 25th marks the date of the EMT exam, and her last chance to pass. Failure is okay when you’re still young. It’s perfectly fine living alone in her apartment, she has her book to study, just the company she needs!

A professor from her past was invested in the placebo effect, one that she decides will help her see her dream become a reality. Just like expecting a pill to take effect, expectation is the key! With this in mind, she concocts her own plan. But where does hope become self-delusion? Does telling people you are living your best life, that everything is falling into place, make it reality?

Amy’s days have been solitary for too long, still carrying grief from her mother’s death, she longs for connection and hates the empty apartment that waits for her at the end of each day. Her landlord Gary has a plan of his own to cure his loneliness, a Ukrainian fiancé, Irina. With the beauty poised to come to America, he needs to polish his skills, cooking in particular. Amy is just the person to test his culinary progress. Invited for dinners, she is ecstatic to finally have made a friend, of sorts. That she already knows more than she lets on about her landlord and his relationship is just the tip of the iceberg. She is crossing lines in every corner of her life, but what is at the core of her need to get closer to Gary? Is she getting comfortable too fast in their friendship? Why is she so weird? Lost and trying to be game, she encompasses the saying ‘fake it till you make it’ but what if that whole envisioning everything is as you wish it were doesn’t work? What if instead you come off as a misunderstood, lying fool? Why is everything so hard for some people and for others it seems so easy?

What are modern people to do when every trail has already been blazed and finding your own fire is impossible? In this day and age, you can’t always muster the energy it takes to feed your ambition if you don’t really believe in the successful self you’re trying to sell. It was a decent read as you can feel the frustration of failure and the madness of self-delusion but I wanted a different ending. We can’t all shoot for the stars and skip through life. If only! There is humor and cringe moments due to overstepping boundaries but from the start the reader learns Amy doesn’t make the best choices when she is up against a wall. This book is a long suffering sigh, if only life was as easy as make believe. Amy is no Florence Nightingale, but she tries.

Publication Date: July 6, 2021


Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead: A Novel by Emily Austin

I exit the church like I am escaping a crime scene.

If your twenties are supposed to be about discovery and building the future you want, an adventure into adulthood, then Gilda is failing miserably. She is ‘trapped inside her fragile body’, as we all are. Impermanent, just an animal like any other that will someday be dead. It’s hard to think much about happiness and the life you could be living when it all seems so fruitless. Break ups, job loss, the sheer confusion of adulthood, of being alive- so much buries her. Then she gets into a small accident and has to go to the hospital, a familiar place as lately she has been having ‘breathing troubles’ and a racing heart- panic attacks. She just feels sick, sure… sick of fears, worries, the inevitable end. Gilda knows all too well how ‘the train of human thought can derail’, and is it really so shocking that through a simple misunderstanding she lands a job? She never did like being the center of attention, and correcting a mistake takes too much effort, better to just play along when it suits her needs. It’s so easy to slip into a lie, to become a character in your own life. A lesbian, atheist working for a catholic church, not such a big deal so long as no one finds out. All she wanted was free mental health support, imagine her surprise when the address leads her to a gothic church and the priest assumes she is there to apply for the administrative position.

Pretending to be a catholic is one thing, she does have rent to pay and like all living organisms, must eat to survive but pretending to be Grace, the person she was hired to replace, that’s a whole other story. It all begins when she checks Grace’s correspondence and decides to respond via email to her friend Rosemary. It would have been so easy to inform Rosemary that Grace has passed away, but she can’t do that! No way, she can’t add another misery, another loss to the strangers life. So she responds as Grace instead, what could go wrong?

Inserting herself in yet another place she doesn’t belong, how long can she pretend in order to fit in? It can’t be that hard to pass oneself off as a devout catholic, can it? People pretend they believe in all sorts of things. Hasn’t she been an imposter all her life, aren’t we all in small measures just pretending? She has always felt like the ‘foreign object’ in every setting, just waiting to be rejected. She hides, pretends to be catholic, dates a man because she is supposed to be heterosexual in this farce that is spinning out of her control. It’s depressing, funny, clever, and horrifying. She is doing everything she can to keep the façade from crumbling. Why? The ever present question. She wanted something to distract her mind from all the crippling thoughts of existence, instead there is more to worry about. Horror of it all, Grace’s death may not be so easy to ignore when questions about how she died arise and so the plot thickens.

Then there is her brother, who is falling apart, drinking himself sick and her parents who prefer to keep up appearances and bury their heads in the ground. Just more evidence that everything is rotten. Is everything pointless or is her mind invaded by negativity and depression? Everything she tries just makes the spill of her life spread, she can’t make sense of life nor other people. Worse, she doesn’t know how to inhabit herself, let alone invite happiness in.

This is an intelligent, strange little read about a life that has derailed. Maybe something will force her out of this strange role she is playing. Maybe she and everybody will just die like Grace. Yes, read it.

Publication Date: July 6, 2021

Atria Books