Orphans of the Carnival by: Carol Birch



“When you think about it- every person’s like a museum of their life.”


Oh my heart! My heart is still healing from this novel. Julia Pastrana was a born ‘freak’, but an accomplished very talented one who was a dancer, a performer, could speak several languages and could both charm and horrify people. But like many women, all she wanted was to be loved for who she was beneath her ‘animal countenance’. Everyone knows no man could ever look upon such ugliness and find love, it is unheard of, surely. She feels cursed, could her mother have gone out under a full moon and her punishment was this monster infant? Julia finds a shaman and what she wants to know is as human a question as any other  warm-blooded girl’s, will she be loved?  Is she Incredibly the shaman informs her she will be loved within a year. Sure enough, as soon as Theodore Lent enters her life and offers her the chance to see the world it doesn’t take much convincing but getting over her fear. They become more than business partners but Theo is both disturbed by and hungry for Julia. She is a money-maker for these strange times, when curiousities were all the rage. But this story takes readers past her stage persona and finds a lonely woman that suffers the cruelties of her face. Walking the streets veiled in generally a must, and when she is ‘uncovered’ the cruelty and meanness of others exposes the ugliness in the hearts of the average person, begging the question ‘who is the real monster?’ Theo himself is often suspect, and is this love? Is this a love worthy of Julia? I can’t go into detail about what fortunes come to light, or how it broke my heart except to say maybe preserving curiosities can be a monstrous perversity. Theo finds Julia to be a marvel, a rare exotic gift but he struggles too with his feelings. 

I don’t want to give anything away, but this story is about humanity and inhumanity at the same time. It’s about our perceptions, and how true beauty is sometimes hidden in the least likely places. I felt shame for the abuse of Julia and people like her (yes this is fictionalized  account but she did exist). On the one hand people think ‘well at least she was able to make a career of her ‘misfortune of birth’, but on the other why must someone deemed flawed become a side-show for the rest of the world? How horrifying, the hungry eyes paying to see the ‘oddity’, how heart-wrenching to read of one’s own shocking ‘ugliness’. How terrible to love a man who is also an opportunist, even depriving you of your final rest… well without giving much away, by the end my heart was carrying such heaviness that I am still thinking about her today. Not often fiction stays with me, but it’s beautiful when it does. 

I loved the ‘little doll’ story that goes along present day alongside Julia’s tale, the woman who collects things and how it all tied together in the end. What a gorgeously told story!  Darn you Carol Birch for making me care! When Theo needs another money maker (the stink of opportunity never escapes him) he will find another like Julia. But there is a fight in Marie! Marie isn’t Julia though she looks similar.  Theo grows older, and the things Julia was told so long ago do come true, just not quite the way one would have imagined. It ends as it should, and it clings to the reader. This book is haunting, and it’s good to have your heart haunted once in a great book. 


Double Day Books

Double Day

Pub Date 08 Nov 2016


Little Nothing: A novel by Marisa Silver


“Here it is: one of you will be brave, one of you will be a coward. One of you will believe. One of you will doubt.”

This is a bizarre novel with a magical, dreamlike quality. As stated in the summary Pavla is born to peasants who took part in gypsy tonics, archaic prescriptions. Per the gypsy’s instructions ‘bathing in the piss of a newborn piglet.” When she is born ‘ugly’ to the small minded peasant parents and ignorant village Pavla is simply ‘the thing’, ‘no one mentions that the baby has hair the color of her dead grandmother, Ljuba”…Pavla is marked as an outcast, like all things different. Eventually her mother will love her, her heart ‘will expand to make room for the brew of awe and heartache that she has come to identify as happiness.” The writing has a folktale vibe which feeds the atmosphere of the village. Little Nothing is what Pavla is called but she isn’t always an outsider. There is more to her that makes her ‘strange’ than just being a ‘dwarf’. Per the Doctor’s instructions, planting her in the ground like a bad seed won’t make her grow into a tall sunflower anymore than any of the strange remedies and potions have ‘cured’ her of her strangeness. In fact she becomes more infected with ‘otherness’. Becoming instead “two things men have a need to routinely destroy: animals and women” she is soon a ‘freak’ of sorts.
Danilo is wrapped up in Pavla protecting and maybe hurting her (though his intentions were good). Where others see ‘ugliness’ he is drawn into it, fascinated even- championing her. Is she real? Is Pavla a dwarf, a woman, a wolf or all those things and more? This novel is about her transformations, about belief and disbelief. It is by far the strangest novel I have read all year and it may not be everyone’s taste. Like any ‘folktale’ there is heavy meaning in the odd telling. It is funny, crude, heartbreaking- just as odd a mixture as a gypsy’s potion. But there is something that kept my on this journey. Through war, imprisonment she is ‘there and not there’ and Danilo is simply the cowardly man who may or may not have her love. Dizzying fun for those who enjoy strange stories. I realize my review is odd, but I am still dazed from the tale.

PENGUIN GROUP Blue Rider Press & Plume
Pub Date: Sep 13 2016 

Stephen King and Philosophy by Jacob M. Held (Editor)


I don’t know anyone who hasn’t a clue who Stephen King is. If they haven’t read any of his work, certainly they have seen something. This is dissecting his work, but nothing macabre about it. While I confess to being disturbed by his horror stories it’s a strangely fulfilling panic. Carrie is so much more than a misfit who takes her revenge as much as every story King has written holds more meaning than simply to frighten or thrill us. Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption is a short story that lodged in my throat, thick with emotion. It’s proof that while he is the master of horror, he can create beautiful stories about human beings too. His characters can be low lives or weirdos but never just that. To think of his work as fast food for readers doesn’t ring true and in Stephen King and Philosophy there is evidence why his writing is full of meaning. Fan or not, it is an interesting read. I found myself thinking about what he is telling the reader, intentionally or not. Naturally, we all read a different story when handed the same book. Our own life experiences, where we are in life, everything merges with our reading so no one has the same exact perception nor emotions. I think the same can be said of writing. Our stories take on lives of their own, sometimes authors (just like artists) may even unintentionally be saying something they hadn’t set out to say. It sneaks it’s way out through the pen and when it’s pointed out they think ‘hmmm, I am saying something here.”
I particularly enjoyed reading Held’s thoughts on Carrie and it’s rich symbolism of coming into womanhood. I also thought about the male friendships in the stories The Body (which Lean On Me was based on) and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. I remember feeling so many different emotions because of The Body. How is it he can write about boys looking for a dead boy (which is in itself horrifying) and yet conjure this emotional journey where they are free to express their feelings (something certainly not encouraged in those days)? Held has done a much better job of exploring the meaning and depths of King’s work and I spent time pondering things I never considered, somehow neglected to absorb. This book is incredibly engaging and I can’t wait to read reviews by die hard King fans.

Rowan and Littlefiled

Publication Date: August 15, 2016


People Who Knew Me by Kim Hooper


“Whenever women run, they’re running away from something,” she said .”Every time I see a woman jogging , I pity her. I want to stop her and have a heart to heart with her and ask, What the hell are you running from?”
Well maybe her mother-in-law was on to something in Emily/Connie’s case.
This was strange. I did not sympathize with Emily’s life changing (and somewhat cruel, in my thinking) decision, though I believe People Who Knew Me gives an unflinching glimpse into the resentment, frustration and stress put upon a marriage when a couple becomes caregivers. It’s no mystery to me that people caring for the ill long term have a tendency to become sick themselves over time. Stress is a killer of health and relationships. In sickness and health is easy to speak, but what if the sickness comes in the form of an in-law? Does that count? Do you have to stay? What do you do when the man you love is becoming miserable and losing the joyful light that made you love him? How can you voice your needs when you’re meant to put yourself aside because ‘someone needs us’?
What bothered me? Not the affair, that wasn’t shocking, a woman hungry for love and attention, you can moralize til the cows come home or pigs fly but it won’t change neediness. Slipping off an identity (in a cowardly manner) and leaving behind loved ones, now that’s a different thing altogether. It was a very punishing choice to make. Did Drew deserve that? It was wrong on so many levels. It’s not as though this is a woman escaping an abusive husband (I think I’d have much more empathy in that situation). There is still a seed of selfishness in her choice to ‘confront her past’ in the end too.
We could say she was in shock from losing happiness she finally found, or couldn’t stomach going back to a life she was ready to abandon, either way it’s a novel worthy of conversation. Readers can wonder what they would do, but I had a hard time feeling sorry for her because all I could imagine is Drew left behind sick with grief. This is hard to review without giving everything away… sigh… enjoyed it, even if I wanted to shake Emily/Connie.

St. Martins Press

Publication date May 24, 2016


A Perfect Square by Isobel Blackthorn


“The Seventies, that accursed decade when the hippies took hold of the occult and turned it into fairy floss.”

That line tickled me! “They were three difficult years. Harriet called it her Persephone period and she broke away from abstract art and produced a series of moody landscapes in pen and ink…” Isobel Blackthorn is a clever author, I very much enjoyed her biting wit. There is almost a dreamlike quality here, with a synaesthetic mother (whose outlet is her art) having the grand idea to collaborate with her pianist daughter. But there are problems between them, and with her bum of a boyfriend costing her a job Ginny must move back in with her mother. Bad love chases her friends and future away but there may be hope yet. Harriet is attuned to happenstance and all things esoteric, in their collaboration even something as simple as the number of paintings can set off unease in her gut. Harriet also fears her daughter’s true reason for returning is to “taunt her mother with the past”. After-all, Ginny wants to know where her daddy is as much now as she did when she was just a 7 yr old little girl. Symbolism through dreams, artistic vision and a father that cannot be talked about because maybe he is a shadow himself, all of this makes for one strangely unique story. Some mysteries are better left unsolved, some skeletons better left dancing in your closet but maybe Ginny can’t help her obsession with needing her father.
How are Judith and Madeline’s stories intertwined with theirs? What does Madeline have to do with Ginny’s father? Maybe Harriet’s silence about her father all these years will finally make terrible sense. This is a mystically strange tale.

Odyssey Books  Pub Date 29 Aug 2016


Faithful: A Novel by Alice Hoffman


“She has an eye for tragedy and sorrow.”

What is the worse thing about an Alice Hoffman book? When it’s over and you have to wait for her next novel. That’s how I feel anyway.Over the moon happy to have received this arc. It’s no secret to people who know me well that I love Alice Hoffman, and if anyone mentions another author ‘writes like Hoffman’ I read that too. But there is no one that truly writes ‘just like her’. The best thing about her characters is even with their messy hearts and heads they still pull you in. They screw up, they make mistakes, they hurt people but no one more than themselves. Like many of us, when it comes to love (of every variety) Hoffman’s characters have a push and pull fight going on. There is doubt (is this how love should feel) and shame (do I even deserve this love) and that mysterious heavy baggage they drag along full foul creatures. Do I relate to that? Of course.
This book tells the story of Shelby Richmond, who by the random act of fate or the intervention of an angel survives a horrific accident that changes the life of her best friend forever. She walks away but who really lost themselves at the scene? Survivors guilt will feast on her for many years as we come of age beside her. She doesn’t want much anymore, doesn’t feel worthy but as it goes ‘we cannot escape life’ and people will insert themselves into her heart. She doesn’t hold on when she should, she chases what is wrong for her, and grudgingly finds herself opening to the world. It doesn’t matter what she does or how she tries to hide from life, any living breathing thing knows life will shake your world even if you live under a rock. She will be shaken and disturbed, and she will step in where angels fear to tread (I couldn’t resist) in the lives of her friend’s children.
There is a gorgeous mother/daughter story in here too but I don’t want to give away anything. Her mother is a bridge to the ‘angel’ that has been keeping watch over our darling girl throughout the story. I was surprised the turn the novel took, and I loved it for that reason. I think most people reading will assume they know who she will end up with. You’re likely wrong. More than ‘who will she love’ I felt the story was more about growth and getting past the things about ourselves that shame us most. We all have our own dead horse, our skeletons dancing in the closet and it effects what we allow ourselves to have, to do, to be. It’s heartbreaking, but with all of Hoffman’s stories- the characters are human beings and every single breathing inch of them is always becoming, altered by the cause and effect of every moment of their living. This line in particular hit me ‘Shelby finally agreed to live with him because she is fairly certain she is a victim of space and location and time, and all she needs is to get out of town in order to escape her past.’ It’s true for many people we think location will change everything, certainly there is a better life elsewhere going on without us? Yes? Maybe? And sometimes there is, but you are still the sum of everything you have done, of every hunger you had- you take you with you, wounds and all, wherever you may roam. Life has an aimless quality when tragedy strikes, it steals your breath and that future you envisioned but does that mean there is nothing better?
Shelby’s life will go on, and she will not remain safe and untouched from messes and mistakes. But she may just find gold along the way too. And rather than being saved, maybe she will do the saving. I loved this. And now I wait until Alice Hoffman has her next novel out. I admit, she is an author whose books I enjoy re-reading. I always feel my heart grows younger with her touch of magical realism.

Simon and Schuster

Publication Date: November 1, 2016


Before the Feast by Saša Stanišić (translated by Anthea Bell)

Before the Feast Cover Galley.indd

Before the Feast reminds me of the feeling you get when you are in a dream that keeps shifting. You’re seeing snippets of things that make sense and then your in another story and your dizzy because you aren’t sure what is going on or where you are or if you’re talking to yourself or if someone else is talking to you. This style isn’t for everyone- literary fiction with a bend. The characters are strange, the stories are bizarre, there is a ‘folktale’ feel, particularly when we are given snippets of the village through the past. The villagers themselves ARE the fables, and I felt like I was sitting with the villagers getting drunk on their stories and homemade hooch.
The stories they have to tell escape the readers grasp, and at the end I shook myself out of my stupor and knew I had to read something grounded, solid and not at all strange. The stories may not have a point or maybe you are missing it. That is for the reader to decide. If you are the sort of reader that wants to be led from beginning to end through a sensible story, skip this. It will just frustrate you. For those of you that love to get lost and feel you didn’t just fall down the rabbits hole but may be shacking up with said rabbit- this is it! I felt like someone was holding my hand through a giant maze and let go- where am I?
Reads like a dream you’re having on a night of restless sleep, half-awake, half- dead…
Why is Anna being burned? Will Herr Schramm kill himself before the night is through? Why is the ferryman dead? How can you protect chickens from a ravenous fox? Why is mama so overweight, heavier with her worries?
Strange tales on a strange night in any old village.

Tin House Books
Pub Date: Jun 13 2016