What Counts as Love by Marian Crotty

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Jenny was divorced with two kids. She had many theories about relationships, most of which came from the Oprah Network that she watched on small monitors at the dental office while she cleaned teeth. “I couldn’t tell you his love language, but I’d guess it’s not words of affirmation. Does he buy you gifts?” 

Love, all we think we know and all we guess at, the insecurities, regrets, longings. Love as friendships, physical love, broken love, rough love, love as a haven- Marian Crotty has written stories about love in all it’s faces, ugly, beautiful, tortured- you name it. “Crazy For You” was fantastic, girls on the verge of sexual awakening, the dawning of awareness of their effect on grown men (welcome or not), witness to the ugly truth of love before they’ve even scratched the surface of their sexuality, while spying on a beautiful neighbor’s sexual exploits. In “A New Life” the tragedy of loss consuming a woman, her husband’s seeming ease with getting over it, moving on. Love spent, broken, and bled dry- terrified of her marriage ending at any moment, instead moving to Abu Dhabi and discovering betrayal. Some characters are fledglings, others battered veterans of love leaving abuse, recovering from loss, but each are trying to find something solid to anchor them. Sometimes the reader will laugh at their characters, other times feel their crushing defeat. There are so many stories about love, not all of them happy and safe. Some take whatever they can get and others discard the garbage they never should have let in! An insightful collection!

Publication Date: October 15, 2017

University of Iowa Press

John Simmons Short Fiction Award

Outside is the Ocean by Mathew Lansburgh

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Part of him wanted something terrible to happen to Banjo and to her, to everyone involved. He wanted the guilty to be punished.

Stewart’s mother Heike, a German immigrant who came to start fresh in America at the age of 21, should be punished for putting her long suffering son through the ringers, but she can’t help her ‘intractable’ nature. A woman who knows no boundaries, exasperated with everyone else’s stinginess, wondering at how anything can be owned really- be it living quarters, swimming pools, and even pets. Heike has done everything she could to make a living for her beloved son, and if her love is suffocating him, well shame on him for not appreciating all the sacrifices she makes. Didn’t she try to be fit and beautiful for Stewart’s father, breaker of promises? If her natural state of being, in revealing clothes or no clothes at all embarrasses her son, well it’s just the fault of  him being American born. People outta ease up!

We follow Heike first raising her son, who is struggling with his sexuality and the distance between he and his father. Stewart, pulled in his mother’s never ending dramas, and maddening histrionics must get out if he is to have his own identity. Heike has a way of stealing the air from any room! She is, later, in his love life! Heike is distraught over the strain between her and Stewart, but the reality of having adopted a disabled Russian daughter, whom she was sure would appreciate being saved from that cold country more than her son seemed to appreciate all she did for him, comes crashing down. So much for teaching Stewart a lesson, Galina schools her instead. Galina is violent, acts out, disrupts Heike’s life, makes her more vulnerable, exposes her as a terrible mother, betrays her to neighbors!  It’s so unfair! Galina is nothing like calm, quiet Stewart whom often felt as inconsequential as his slight essence. Heike is losing it, and the letters she writes to Stewart are heartbreaking, but sometimes endearingly humorous.

Heike never gives up, unlike other people! She is the type that would say ‘you want to know suffering, I’ll tell you about suffering’. There is no room for any other stories but her own, she is a one woman show, the rest are all just co-stars. Through marriages, relationships, friendship with a cat hoarder, borrowing dogs, and driving her children and partners nuts, Heike is a character you won’t soon forget. She’s exhausting, and it’s a beautifully written story because the reader can’t help but empathize with every character. I shouldn’t, but I loved Heike- would I want her as my mother, that’s another story. I look forward to Lansburgh’s next novel!

Publication Date: October 15, 2017

University of Iowa Press

 

Where the Sun Shines Out: A Novel By Kevin Catalano

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But there was nothing. No amount of summoning or pleading or weeping or shouting brought him back. His brother was absolutely stricken from existence. 

Two brothers are abducted from an Oz festival, among munchkins and hordes of people. Their father simply stepped away, can he be faulted for that? They are taken to a cabin by the woods, but only one returns alive, the eldest (Dean) spotted swimming with his dead  little brother Jason’s body.  Something dark and twisted intoxicates him, never healing from the trauma. He is the wrong brother, the one without promise or hope. The weaker of the two, the failure. The brother who never spoke up, the one cursed to survive, unwanted. He hasn’t really come back, and won’t for decades.

Brutality pulses inside of him, violence, deviance, warped sexuality that disgusts his mother and the searing memory of a ‘different’ mother’s milk. A mother who is still out there, probably hunting other children. Strange, twisted friendships cemented in blood and power struggles. What is it about damaged people that draw goodness towards it, as Brett is drawn into Dean’s dark history? Brett sees in Dean that little boy who came home, broken. Dean is shattered, how do you truly go back to who you were, to the untouched innocence stolen? Who would understand it, something most will never know? Fractured families, drug addictions, a lust for violence- this book is brutal. Dean is filled with self-loathing, unable to defend his kid brother against bigger bullies just before his death, a father who hated him before and more so after the tragedy. No one saves Dean. No visits from the dead to ease his loss, only haunting memories. A mother that cannot save her son and is terrified of him, spiraling through the years until she meets a ‘confetti of feathers’.

I realize my review is disjointed, but the novel is everywhere and Dean’s terrible life in the aftermath of abduction just goes deeper into darkness, even when he tries. Will he find his tormentor? Will there ever be punishment? Certainly Dean’s entire life seems like a sentence, and maybe his father damaged his sweet boy before those sick people got to him! Why does his father get a new start? Erasure of sorts, an obliteration of his kid brother, his memory, his dad’s ‘original’ family- where is Dean’s fresh start? Somewhere over the rainbow sure as hell doesn’t exist in this dark tale. If you are ready to be disturbed, read away. I’m still trying to recover from the image of Dean’s escape in the water. Sad!

Publication Date: October 3, 2017

Skyhorse Publishing

Through the Sad Wood Our Corpses Will Hang by Ava Farmehri

 

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That’s how memories and knowledge were preserved in my house. They had to be smothered to stay alive.

Iranian Sheyda Porrouya knows how she will die. She will be hung, and as she says “I’ll submit to my destiny without a struggle. I will show them. I don’t like surprises. At least I know how and when. How many people have that luxury?” Growing up in an Iran cleansed of all things Western, to parents who remember their freedoms makes for a strange story. From the start the reader is well aware that Sheyda has murdered her mother, but the why isn’t solid. Much like her mind, we don’t land on anything stable- it is a tricky path we walk in her fractured telling. Through the past we learn of disturbing behaviors, from small thefts to bed wetting- something was deeply wrong from the start but why? At some point love sends her into a mad black hole, and what a strange love, first seeing him when she was only 10. If only the tranquility she felt with her ‘crush’ could save her from herself. Euphoric with love for the crippled man, Mustafa, who she has private classes with, her hungry need is doomed from the start. His tragedy seeps into her, poisoning her future. In repression, what else is there but fantasy?

Birds follow her through life, a symbol of what? Freedom she will never have. She spends too much time in therapy pretending, playing mind games. Is she a consummate liar or too intelligent? Deaths that take away not just her father, damaging an already bent mind, but expose her and her mother to her father’s secret life. The doctor not even aware when she is serious about her comments, or joking. Her hungry love seen as crushes, rather than soul defining passions, as with Mustafa -more infatuation, unhealthy obsession, fantasy. Is she suffering from madness? Is the madness just escapism, a way to survive the confinement women in Iran suffer?

Was it the solitude that created a strange girl? Was it the restrictions of Iran? Was it her parents own hunger for a more vibrant past? If only imagining yourself into a different life, into being a different person could truly happen. Maybe a split was necessary to escape her polluted mind, maybe repression creates monsters. Sheyda lives in fantasy, supplanting Mustafa’s dear face on other men, creating her own reality when any threat tries to claim what’s hers. If only she could believe in love others have for her. Maybe her father wasn’t so different in his deceptions, his other life…  maybe her family is made of ‘storytellers’ and that’s a disease.

Her mother isn’t any less damaged for the wanting in her life, for the sacrifice of having a child and loving the wrong man and being trapped in the harsh world of Iran. Is Sheyda a murderous devil worshiper as she’s been pegged? Or is she, like her mother, resolved to find freedom within the loving sleep of death?

I was looking for something different to read, Sheyda’s misleading narrative is like a nightmare, or a fall into the void of self-delusions and then a light and your led to the truth. It took a while to enjoy the flow, because the beginning is like jumping into someone’s tormented mind but it begins to come together, and the final moments really moved me. In the end, Shyeda teaches that the truth is slippery, and for some a lie may be your only escape. The novel is as uniquely strange as the cover. Was she a blessing or a curse?  It was a welcome break from my usual reading. From flinching in embarrassment over Sheyda’s odd behaviors and her mortifying passion for Mustafa to feeling empathy for a caged life, it’s hard not to understand why she would follow her mother’s ‘flight’.

Publication Date: October 1, 2017

Guernica Editions

 

 

Mikey and Me: Life with my exceptional sister by Teresa Sullivan

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“As I look back, I realize that I never saw other children like Mikey in public places. Many were in institutions, and perhaps the families who kept them chose not to venture into the outside world.”

Times were different when Teresa was growing up. Inclusion was nothing like it is today, and let’s face it, it could be better now too. This is an intimately painful revelation into what it was like growing up with an exceptional sister, one with severe disabilities. The family was admirable in their efforts to keep their beloved daughter Mikey in the family home as long as they could, but it wasn’t without hardship on each family member. The hardest parts of the book to read involved the abuses that happened to Mikey while she was institutionalized, despite her family’s fight- the reality is the person who can’t speak for what occurs suffers the most and is blamed for the disturbing sickness inside others. We don’t often speak of the difficulty on siblings, because in a sense, Teresa and other children like her are born into care-taking. It’s a grown up responsibility that many adults shirk. The struggle of loving your sibling and resenting them is incredibly heartbreaking. Teresa didn’t have the attention so many children need, and as much as she understood why on a mature level, it absolutely had damaging effects. It’s no one’s fault, the parents certainly tried their hardest, but caring for someone such as Mikey is a never ending job, it requires the family to be constantly on alert, more than two steps ahead. You cannot doubt their love, but it was obviously mentally and physically exhausting. I cannot imagine how much harder in times with less compassion. Back then, it was still somewhat hidden, treated like a shameful issue, families treated to freak show mentality.

How can the reader not be touched by Mikey? What sort of life is it, unable to truly communicate your needs, suffering?  Trying to navigate a world you can’t understand, abused by other patients, and lashing out against those who love you for reasons you truly cannot help. The marriage between Teresa’s parents was beyond strain, the demands of their life didn’t leave time for romance, intimacy any relationship beyond worrying and caring for their daughter. A poignant moment was the fantasy young Teresa had, watching the Helen Keller movie, the hope that maybe she could just teach her in the same way, breach the communication barrier and then the plummeting depression of reality, too much to bear. It’s no wonder that later in life Teresa plummeted herself. Drugs as escape, running away from the calm of home, where no one seemed much invested. A best friend like a sister she wished Mikey could have been later souring, bringing out the worst in her and later- an injury that terrifies her, that brings her  own brain closer to Mikey’s. The terror of losing her own function! This isn’t pretty friends but it is unflinchingly raw!

I think of the courage it takes for such a family, and the horrific reality of how it feels to have to give your child over, a parent’s true nightmare. Mikey kept them bonded and the calm is almost louder than the noise when she is no longer home. How do people keep faith? Where do you find hope when doctors have nothing to offer, when you know more about your child/siblings needs than any facility? For some people, the happy ending never comes, there aren’t any trail blazing medical breakthroughs that save them. This was the truth for Mikey and Teresa. Take heart, Teresa did glimpse happiness in her sister, be it the spinning, or moments of laughter. Never doubt Mikey’s family loved her, but this is a real look into what the family went through, Mikey included, back when no one bothered to understand only stared and judged. You didn’t have the internet to connect easily with other families like yours, nor support. Society just put them away, out of sight, out of mind but this is a family that handled what they were given in life with much grace. Such a sad story.

Publication Date: August 29, 2017

She Writes Press

 

 

Above Us Only Sky: A Novel by Michele Young-Stone

Before I go into sharing my old review, for a book that was out in 2015, I wanted mention that if the title doesn’t change, it appears that Michele Young- Stone will have a new novel out in April of 2018, “Lost In The Beehive” and from the summary on goodreads, it has me hungry to read it.  A girl living with the hum of bees? Fortune tellers, love, sent to an institute that promises to ‘cure’ people and make them ‘better’. From New Jersey to New York and the swamps of North Carolina- can April come sooner? If you get a chance, head to goodreads.com and add it your reading list, there isn’t a cover to share yet but the book is on there!

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“When I was born, the doctor said, “I’m sorry.” 

This is the review I shared in 2015, my greedy little bookworm hands had stumbled on an arc a few years ago (2014) and while I wasn’t officially reviewing it back then, I still gushed about it.  I have a love of novels about immigrants (because of my own family history) maybe too from living outside the country with my own husband and children through the years.  You sprinkle some magical realism in there, and I’ll devour it. There is just something special about Prudence and her ‘ghost’ wings. “On September 10, 1973, my wings were surgically removed. They weren’t biopsied, stored in formaldehyde, or shipped to a freak show. They were discarded as medical waste.”  That line stayed with me, loaded as a gun. ‘Discarded as medical waste.’ My review follows.

Oh so good. I picked this arc up hoping it would be the sort of magical realism that would fill the reader up and it does. So many emotions between the pages of this beautiful story about a young girl, Prudence Vilkas, who is born with wings just like her paternal great Aunt. Her parents have them removed, but the wings have a way of showing themselves to a certain boy with a special sight. The wings themselves, or scars of them, will bring to life the story of her estranged Lithuanian paternal Grandfather, Frederick. This isn’t light and sweet, as the reader is buried in the brutal suffering of her ancestors during the occupation. Having my own father and grandparents escaping Hungary during the Russian occupation there, I could relate to the sorrows. From Soviets to Nazis, where is the lesser of two evils for those deemed inferior? This story is so tender and full of loss, particularly the distance her grandfather feels towards his own son, spoiled in the ways only American freedoms can afford the children of immigrants. But the young can only live their own story, and while tragedy can cling to a family and cause rifts, too it can bring them back together.
Prudence’s mother leaves her father, never having felt first in his life as music is his love. Family is no longer the three of them, and now Prudence is adrift longing for the warmth and love, wondering why her mother couldn’t just be happy loving. A boy will change her life, the only person who sees the wings that were removed long ago, but he too may drift away from her. Little does she know, fate is going to bring her grandfather into her life, a man she will come to love deeply. The story expresses how with each loss, it is replaced by other love, and some people are never entirely lost to us in the end.
The tragic truths that Frederick has known about his murdered family are about to change when he demands a chance to know his grandchild, in spite of what his own son and the child’s mother wants. Family is what matters!
This novel is more than just a sweet story about a unique girl with winged ancestors, it is magical realism with history and makes it much better than so many ‘magical’ stories out there. This may be one of my favorite reads of the year!

Originally published March 2015 by Simon Schuster

Available now-  this is an author to watch!

All Is Beauty Now: A Novel by Sarah Faber

 

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If she didn’t have to be his echo. What would it be like if she wasn’t tethered to him, always calculating his distance from earth’s flat surfaces, predicting when he might next wheel away or plummet. Then retrieving him, reviving him.

This is a heartbreaking story, as a family decides to leave the lush freedom of Brazil  in the 1960’s for the restricting skin of Canada after the drowning of their eldest daughter, each family member unravels. Without a body, how can anyone accept the vanishing of  Luiza, their fragile, beautiful girl? In the wake of tragedy, the allure of the  Maurer  family that captivated everyone, locals and friends alike, turns bitter. Luiza was an ‘odd girl’, and patriarch Hugo- Hugo and his madness, that excessive lust for life fatiguing others- it was bound to come crashing down. They aren’t so special in the end! His wife Dora, the great beauty, together they were the admired, passionate couple but beneath their pride, Hugo’s mental illness, his breakdowns coming and going like storms have been washing away the foundation of their glorious lives. The children too young or too tormented to comprehend the ruptures. That this paradise has been a place Hugo’s emotional nature is accepted, it may also have been feeding his boundless wildness. A change of environment is needed, a place with more stability, regardless of how restraining it will be on Hugo.

Luiza has found herself caught in the waves of her father’s mania, how much better he is when not dulled by pills and treatments. Who is the real Hugo? Is it her mother’s fault, trying to fix the very things about her father that makes him a bright sun in the world? Luiza is Hugo’s girl, she too has a storm inside of her both terrifying and mesmerizing. Dora is the true head of the family, keeping Hugo’s chaos contained, but blind to the effects on her daughters. Evie’s veil of youth is thinning, she is beginning to see the darkness overtaking her family, desperate to understand the secrets her naive mind can’t make sense of. Broken by the loss of her sister, both parents unavailable, outsiders interfering and taking her mother away when she and her father need her most. The house is divided and half packed, the Maurer family is in a self-imposed purgatory. Will they ever leave this paradise and the horror of everything that happened? Will they dig up Luiza’s secrets? How are her last days tied to her mother’s deceptions?

This is an interesting story, because on the one hand it exposes the heartbreaking reality of mental illness on an entire family, not simply the ugly side but the beauty and enchantment of it. Hugo and Dora’s love is deep, abiding but his illness asks much of Dora, and she is a woman with her own hungry needs. Dora’s affair in the past has punishing consequences, and there is nothing just about it. Hugo knows what life with him is like, but he cannot change who he is, but lord he tries! He has always been determined to be solid, better, to return whole to his beloved. The reader is privy to Hugo’s thoughts about his Bipolar disorder, which is important as much as those trying to hold him up. There is a seductive power in mania- the unbridled energy, the brilliance that makes it so appealing but too it is toxic in the destructive forces on innocence. Life, such as this, can also be a prison. Sometimes amputation from the family is the only form of escape. Love can be a destructive force, even when it doesn’t mean to be. A heartbreaking novel about mental illness and a family scrambling to pull themselves back together.

Publication Date: August 8, 2017

Little, Brown and Company