A House of Sticks by Belinda Vasquez Garcia

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“Mommy regrets only two things in her life- her missing eyebrows and ever marrying Daddy.”

I expected this to be a gloom and doom memoir, it’s not. Listen, bad things happen, there are hungry bellies and hearts, embarrassment, shame, deception, regrets but somehow I was laughing while clutching my warm little gut. Belinda is a kid after my own heart! I felt young again, but with an adult’s wisdom. I was a ghost in the halls of her memories. Her siblings all are living, breathing, spitting, kicking colorful characters! The adults are lunatics but the sort many of us can recognize in our own families, I mean- we all have a little dysfunction climbing about our bent old family tree somewhere right? The style of writing worked beautifully for me, I swear I missed being a kid. How did Garcia get so solidly planted back in the shoes of her youth? Her parents have some secrets, oh boy! But we most loved the damaged ones, don’t we?

From the fear of her Uncle’s visit with a dead body, I remembered the ridiculous nightmares that prey on children. We believe the garbage our older siblings say to scare us, the ‘harmless’ teasing. It was sort of fun though, wasn’t it? All the children have vastly different personalities and I couldn’t help but laugh at the antics each of them got up to. Please know that in the darkest moments, there is love and laughter too. It is sad and disturbing, but I don’t know much about perfect families- so I wasn’t necessarily horrified by her parents. Take the heavy parts, things that happened to Belinda, her reactions are very raw, honest and there are moments you will be disturbed. This is a life, and you have to find the laughter in the storms.

Her writing is lovely, “Once a week, a garbage truck barrels down our street, hitting potholes and farting garbage.” I was born in the mid seventies and grew up in the 80’s but we still played outside and were free to get into all sorts of trouble, something about the sentence with the garbage truck just reminded me of watching the adult-world going about their business  as we children were like street urchins until it was time to go home. It was a time you could feel like a parentless savage, and darn if we didn’t sometimes end up the victim in the schemes of older kids. This memoir is about Belinda’s world when she was young and yet the adults are very much present with so much brewing beneath the surface. Kids understand, and they don’t. It’s a confusing time.

On the one hand, her mother and father have a very bad relationship- he is not completely solid and Belinda’s mother suffers for it. I felt so much pain for what her mother dealt with, and hunger pangs when the kids didn’t have much, and anger that a man can be such a mess. Don’t get me wrong, there is heaviness in their steps- but I honestly spent more time laughing. I think I just fell in love with little Belinda. This is a favorite memoir now, it will be interesting to read what other people feel about it. The horror of that other family her father abandoned … the slow fading of her father who one day just vanishes from her life as well, why is he unable to be still? Why can he not be pinned down? And her mother lives the saying ‘I made my bed, now I must lay in it’.  As Belinda inhales what remains of her father (the Pinocchio man) I am hungry to know what happened after he left.  It will be continued in “After Daddy Left Us” and I can’t wait!  Fantastic!

Available Now

 

 

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The Fortune’s by Peter Ho Davies

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“It’s not hungry spirits you should pray for, it’s the hungry living.”

This novel is about Chinese Culture as it evolves alongside the American immigrant’s experience. Is it a slow death of tradition and family, or a birth of something lasting and new? The story begins with Ling, a young fatherless  boy ready to prove himself working in the opium and sex trade. Chosen to make his way to America, Ling eventually works in a laundries which are more brothels. He moves on to work as a valet and then for the Central Pacific Railway. The story between Ling and “Little Sister” is my favorite part of the book. The feelings she has  about her own people,why she sleeps with ‘ghosts’, how her father chose to dispose of her  in the search for Gold shows a darker side of the immigrant experience for Chinese women. The next section of the novel is about a America’s first Chinese movie star. How much does she fictionalize herself, what sort of roles were forced on her due to her ethnicity. What does she gain and lose in seducing viewers, as all movie stars must. She struggles between being too Chinese and too American as well. Her life isn’t free of tragedy either, and fame is there one day and fading the next. Her being Chinese helps and hinders in her roles, that change with the times. The chapter Jade deals with a tragic incident in a bar during the 80’s, such a sick moment written beautifully- particularly why the chapter is called Jade, I caught my breath.  In Pearl a writer with Chinese heritage married to a Caucasian woman  goes to China to adopt a child.  Is there prejudice in this novel? Certainly, how could there not be if the author is to tell a story about the Chinese American experience?  There is also humor, intelligence and love. It is engaging and honest, painfully so. The treatment of women ‘those soiled doves’ in the first section isn’t a cultural thing alone, let’s face it. Rend my heart this novel did, but silently. I found myself thinking about America and our boiling pot of cultures, how far we’ve come, how much further we still have left to go. I loved this book. I wish I could share all the passages I underlined, because the sentences are loaded with meaning. Must read.

Publication Date: September 16 2016 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

 

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker

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“There’s the feeling that it’s either saved us or ruined us.”

Don’t think the story of two girls meeting in college is going to be a sweet little ‘coming into adulthood’. Nope, these girls take each others hands and jump head first down the rabbits hole. Where they end up is in a bohemian life full of art and passion, jealousy, loyalty and love. How did someone named Sharon Kisses a ‘little nothing’ from rural Kentucky find herself at an east coast private college meant for the gifted? It’s only fitting she bonds with another misfit with a broken past. Wanting to shuck off her dysfunction, Sharon learns through Mel Vaught that maybe embracing what separates your from the average folk might just be the key to creation.

Mel is less apologetic for her thoughts, behavior, lifestyle than Sharon and while both are reacting to their upbringing in different ways, there is something far more alive in Mel. In fact, I loved her- she is the sort of person that won’t let you bullshit her, or yourself. Sometimes, you need someone to shake your world, to push guide you to the edge of your fears and say ‘Jump!’ But Mel too needs someone to calm her chaos, because her bravado may be the only defense to hide the broken bones of her childhood.

I highlighted madly, as I do with books I love, but I can’t share the quotes because it’s not out yet 😦 The writing, for a debut novel, is wonderful! These characters are an emotional mess that let the wreckage of their lives bleed through the animations they create. It is raw exposure and not everyone is ready for that. This bloodletting leads to success of some measure, but can the two keep it together when it’s time to explore Sharon’s dark past? Is art a cathartic way to escape your boogeyman, or does focusing on such horrors only cause those tumors to grow in astronomical proportions? How much does letting others into your most broken places benefit you? Just how vulnerable should we allow ourselves to be in friendships, love, art? Is it ever enough? Is it too much?

There is more than one tragedy in this novel. When I first jumped in, I thought ‘oh, it’s a story about two outcasts who find each-other and everything will be right with the world.’ HA, then the story turned on me with one incident after another. I thought, in the case of Sharon ‘what? I didn’t see that coming.’ I love this! I love what happens with her just when they start making a name for themselves, how like life! Just when you get going, it punches you in the head! Who is the truly gifted one, is Sharon Kisses (of the fabulously sexy name) just piggybacking a much more talented Mel? You have to read to find out. This novel isn’t just about Mel and Sharon, I particularly enjoyed the effects their families (each so different) imprinted their screwiness on them. I don’t care if you come from a family of backwoods hicks or privileged politicians, all families have their own brand of madness that can’t be shed. Rather you run from your family’s ideas and behaviors, embrace it, or make art out of it, you are infected by them as much as healed.

Friends are a family we create. They know us, they pay attention to the things we don’t even want to see about ourselves. We can grow to resent being known so well, because honesty hurts. There is so much to feast on in The Animators. Sharon seems to mother Meg, so we think, but is that true? Mel herself  has many more faces than we initially notice. Sharon is hungry too, and just as willing to go along (for the sake of her art) with exploring a part of her past that includes someone who was once so very important to her lonely younger self. Choices can be like a bomb, but the hunger for an artist can’t always take a backseat. I was mad by what happens, but I also thought it was perfectly necessary. Some people will think of Mel and Sharon as selfish, but there is a drive in artists that is a beast that must be fed, even if the cost is everything you love. Yes people, grab this one when it is released on November 29, 2016. This is one hell of a debut!

 

Random House Publishing Group- Random House

Publication Date: November 29, 2016

The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

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“As a little girl I’d tried to please, tried to live by the simple refrain my mother repeated like a desperate prayer in my ear: be good be good. But I’d known even then it wouldn’t work, went against something dark inside me. A mean streak that came to the surface more often as I grew.”

 

I am not at liberty to quote this darkly disturbing novel as much as I’d like. It will not be published until February 17, 2017 by Crown Publishing. I thought I’d be reading a sweet story about a family of girls who step into some sort of mess or another. This is a black mass running through all of their veins, but who is to blame? Who indeed?

After her mother’s suicide Lane Roanoke returns to her family’s estate in Kentucky. There she will fall under the spell of her vivacious cousin Allegra and wonder at the quietly cold beautiful demeanor of her grandmother. Her grandfather welcomes her with warmth and with his handsome looks and magnetic allure she soon begins to want to ‘be good be good’, for what girl doesn’t want to be loved and adored. Fast- forward  a decade later and Allegra is missing, Lane is long gone but her grandfather lures her back using the love and guilt she has for the cousin she spent so brief a time with.

Against her better judgement, she knows she must return and find out if Allegra abandoned the family as she herself chose to or if something far more sinister is at play. All the secrets she’s left in the past are waiting to sink their teeth into her. Will the love of a boy she left behind be able to help her through the mysteries, or did she keep too much of her true self from him? This novel explores love, in it’s many twisted forms.

If the Roanoke girls are roses, they are thorny wilting ones. These rich, seemingly spoiled girls of privilege shouldn’t carry such tragedy with them. Each girl has her own  dark forest of nightmares to walk through with one common thread tangling them up in each-other, and while the thread may be made of gold- it can hang them. I was disturbed, who wouldn’t be? But still I wanted to know, what is going to happen? Then, how could this happen? Mark my words, it’s going to leave a foul aftertaste. So as a novel, it sticks and it’s a hell of a disturbing story. Not all monsters are otherworldly, and what makes some people run straight for them?

Publication Date March 7, 2017  Crown Publishing

 

 

The Question of Red by Laksmi Pamuntjak

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“She had a cat’s eyes, piercing and disarmingly almond shaped, and all her power was in that pillowy, firecracker mouth. Besides, what was the use for self-pity? She always knew that beauty is more a curse than a blessing. It exalts and entraps.”

 

Set in Indonesia during the Communist purges, this is a tale of war, slaughter, love, family, loyalties, tradition, motherhood and so much more. The prologue begins with a tale from the Mahabharata about a king with three daughters ‘as precious as diamonds”. Amba, is the eldest and the namesake of our main character. The Javanese are careful choosing their children’s names, we are told. “They understand all too well the great burden and history of a name.” Thus begins the fateful life of Amba.

The stabbing of a beautiful older woman sets of a curious story rich in culture and fate. Amba has fallen for two men. She never had the silliness of other girls about boys. Her mind is the most vital organ that needs to be seduced. Salwa will protect her, is the honorable choice for her future, and has her family’s approval. But Amba has a hunger to set out and become educated. Salwa isn’t much for showing his emotions. Her dreams are bigger than that of abiding wife. She wants passion. When she meets sophisticated  Bhisma, (European taught doctor) her world expands through his eyes. Bhisma fills the hungry pit inside her soul, but unlike Salwa he cannot keep her safe and a life with him could be forever an interrupted, rocky path. As the love triangle grows, it is entangled in the chaos of revolution. This isn’t a simple romance, there is so much loss and confusion. It brings into question not just the heart’s destiny, but what we owe our children and parents. We make choices, every step we take, that effects everyone we love. Sometimes we have to hurt others, there is no way around it, and it can have lasting consequences. “Here I am, so captive to this new, treacherous feeling that I prefer to be with a man who sets me agog with his exciting stories, rather than a man with whom I may only be able to trade boring cleverness each day but who will keep me safe?” The heart wants what is wants and sometimes brings down upon us an altered fate.

Amba will find herself alone as much as she has passionate encounters, and the ‘3 great loves’ explores that one may be safe, another transcendent and a third salvation. Sometimes a woman just needs a safe place to land, but there are things in her heart that she will never purge.  I didn’t know a lot about the communist eradication, the bloodiest in, so it was a bit of a history lesson too. It’s always interesting to read about the struggles of one’s culture and how their approach to love differs based on family and religion. The stabbing at the start is one heck of a way to begin a strange tale. A rich story steeped in a fascinating culture I knew so little about.

Available Now from Amazon Crossing

 

Ghost Songs: A Memoir by Regina McBride

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“Je reviens,” I imagine him saying. I shall return to you.

This memoir has a disjointed quality that works beautifully. Somehow, this makes the reader feel as if they too are experiencing McBride’s state of mind. I caught my breath thinking of the loss of her parents to the ‘sin’ of suicide. I felt consumed by the beast of grief that was weighing on her soul. Time jumps, and the telling isn’t a clear timeline- which makes the chaos of memory and feeling more vivid. Childhood memories flicker in and out, as they do for most people. We don’t often think in a timely order, and when tragedy strikes we can’t control what we remember of our loved ones. I think of her mother’s ‘upsets’ and how it sits with a child even into adulthood when we shuck off our youth. It’s heavy… love.

Regina is struggling out of an abyss. She is visited by her parent’s ghosts, but aren’t our memories ghosts too?  She is searching but for what? To understand? To find her parents and know they aren’t damned?  Breaking inside, disconnecting from the loved ones that remain, fighting beliefs, trying to make sense of the senseless- it is more than loss. Regina takes not just a physical journey, but an internal one. Who is to blame for what happened? Does it matter when it’s done? I found the many incidents heartbreaking,  imaging the people who are supposed to be your rock losing their grip. Be it illness or circumstance, and I do feel for the parents too, but it’s different for children. It changes you living with unstable parents, and the love, there is still this intense love that is a mass of confusion in the mind. Love, resentment, hurt, shame… we love the damaged sometimes more intensely, because we spend so much time trying to understand. Reading that her father was a dreamer, how did he get from there to such a dark place. It’s all moments, isn’t it? Life. Moments.

It is a hard review to write. This is an emotional memoir, it is heavy and yet somehow promising too. She is absent, but she knows… there is still love, living to be done, a family… she still has a family.

Tin House Books  Publication Date: October 4, 2016

Fractured by Catherine McKenzie

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“But then there was this: I met Heather Stanhope for the first time, my mind clanged like a bell. It gave me a warning, but I befriended her anyway.”

Aw yes, those internal warnings so many of us ignore- luckily for most of us it won’t lead to being stalked. We join Julie Prentice and her family in their new community, her book The Murder Game is a bestseller and she is living with the after effects of having been relentlessly stalked by a woman from her past. However, this isn’t your normal obsessed fan, oh no! There is a history and one wonders, who is the crazy one? Julie knew she should have kept to herself, but as with any neighborhood, people want in. There are always busybodies, friendships and attractions- certainly if you have children, you can’t fence in your entire life.

On her morning run, she decides to speak to her neighbor John and that changes the course of her hope for a quiet safe life. Married people all have boundaries, spoken and otherwise, it’s a fine line that we can cross so easily. Curiosity can get the best of us, and our sniffing around in someone’s life can cause a ripple effect. The neighbors… Cindy is by far the one we all recognize! I imagine her outfits starched, her make-up overdone as to hide all the cracks in her nature.. or maybe that’s an image that stuck with me to represent all the ‘head mothers’ I have met in my life, with all our moves. The judge, the one with her foot in everyone’s door as if it’s HER neighborhood, HER job to tell everyone else how to parent. The sort of neighbor you dodge, with a group of people behind her rolling their eyes, and somehow she always has her followers, doesn’t she? We can not forget the wrung out husband, and seemingly perfectly behaved children that are just waiting for the day to tell her how they really feel, the day they are free of her. There is one in every town, every school, sport, club… Children will love who they will, slip under the radar of even the most suffocating hovering parents. You can’t keep them in the lines you’ve created anymore than you can fence in your spouse.

You’re not reading a story that is non-stop stalking, aren’t there enough of those out there already? This is more about something simmering just at the surface, of not trusting anyone, not even Julie because maybe with her novel, there is more truth than fiction. Could she be a liar? Paranoid? Who can the reader have trust in? What do we really know to be true in the recesses of our memory? Could we be mistaken in the evidence of our own lives? Can we always know what happened, trust our own eyes and logic?  It’s a unique mix of family, marriage, neighborhood dynamics, young love, escape, and how we can never make the right choice. Everything we do, every step we take pulses through the lives of our loved ones, friends and even strangers. The ending… well, unexpected and believable. I enjoy the quiet chaos.

Fractured will be released by Lake Union Publishing in October 2016