The Education of Dixie Dupree by Donna Everhart

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“I liked her soft voice in my ear, but I had a grasp of this whole situation better than her. I envisioned me and Mama like a glass dropped on the floor, broken into millions of fragments, impossible to put back into any semblance of what we’d been, albeit not perfect to start with.”

 

Childhood is something some of us survive through a miracle but with war wounds. For Dixie Dupree, she is going to get an education no child should ever be exposed to, be so many are. Running a bit wild in Alabama with her brother AJ, wary of her mother and father’s declining marriage, Evie has sharpened her tongue on countless lies. Lies for fun, some just because, but most for survival. She may have dirty knees and be a bit of a savage at play, but what child isn’t? Family can be brutal, and for this little spitfire heroine trying to navigate the adults in hers is like swallowing poison. Why is her beautiful broken mother so sad? Why is Daddy drinking too much? Dixie seems to infuriate her mother just by being her natural self. Her mother won’t stop yearning for her  old life with her own family back in New Hampshire, and Dixie wonders why? Why did she marry Daddy knowing it meant living in Alabama if she hates it so much? The family in New Hampshire are strangers to Dixie and her brother, and it’s strange considering how much her mother claims to miss them. Why does her mother never seem to fit in with her in-laws?

As the fighting escalates everyone in town seems to know, and have their own opinion of the sort of folks her kin is. Maybe her exaggerations force her mother’s hand sometimes. Maybe she is just a bad kid but how can she not want to stir the pot with her mother ? Dixie is torn between resentment and hungry want of motherly love and comfort. When terrible things happen, she begins to wonder if she is white trash, even if the meaning is lost on her, it won’t be for long.

When her father takes off, she feels some of the blame is on her shoulders and when Uncle Ray (her mother’s flashy brother) arrives to ‘save the day’ Dixie becomes a skeleton of sorts in her own family’s closet, unearthing the buried secrets all the adults have kept. It costs so much to have a full belly and stability. When she needs help, even her brother thinks she’s full of nothing but lies, but the silence can’t last forever.  The things happening to Dixie are overlooked, and one has to wonder how the adults are culpable. From the novel’s start, they step in but not enough. Her mother’s own torturous mind forces Dixie to fight for herself, but how to do that with so much clever manipulation coming from every direction?

Broken adults are aplenty, and the brutality of the past is like a parasite for future generations. Where does it end? Dixie is a child the reader wants to rescue. It’s a heavy story, it is disturbingly hard to read. Not lighthearted and yet Dixie is sunshine anyway, the sort of kid that can’t contain her spirit- even if it puts her in the path of danger. She will have to be brave if she hopes to solve her problems, and get answers to the questions her family seems to dodge. Beautiful and wounding.

Release Date: October 25, 2016

Kensington   Fiction/Coming of Age

 

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Always Happy Hour: Stories by Mary Miller

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She thinks about the things that have hurt her and she thinks about beauty and how little of it she sees in even beautiful things. She wonders if people who’ve been hurt more see more beauty. She wonders how a few strung-together words can seem so meaningful when she doesn’t believe them at all.”

 

She could be me, or you, or any woman we know. I love the writing in each of these heavy and sometimes disturbing stories. They are gritty, stones in the soul! Miller says so much in the actions and situations each character finds herself living. Most people who read my reviews know I am not the biggest aficionado of short stories but over the past two years, that is changing. Mary Miller had me so absorbed that I was up late finishing them and the next morning trying to shake them off. Speaking of shaking off, this small excerpt is beautifully true. “When you grow up poor, even if you do everything thereafter to be not-poor, there’s no way to shake it completely.”  Loaded with meaning, just delicious. I felt like Miller was in my own thoughts, cynical and otherwise. I can’t continue inserting all the sentences I highlighted, because then I would give the short stories away- but my God how she nails it! Not all women get the princess treatment, most aren’t born under lucky stars with indiscriminate beauty bestowed upon them. They take what they can get in life, sometimes scraps. Going through the motions, giving people what they want, even if it leaves a girl lacking.

I won’t break down each story, but they are from all walks of life. I particularly enjoyed the story  At One Time This Was The Longest Covered Walkway In The World, because the woman dating the divorced father comes off at times disinterested in his little boy and then adoring him. Walking into a broken situation with exes, well… she sometimes seems selfish and other times what she feels makes perfect sense. It’s a sort of half love, isn’t it? Someone comes into ready made families and hasn’t had time to adjust to the splits that happen in the heart when children are born. There is no longer room for undivided attention for new lovers.

Big Bad Love kept chewing on my heart. This isn’t a sweet version of orphans or children with messed up parents looking like that puppy in the window, all sweet and sloppy with happy love for anyone who will take them. These kids have seen things. The interactions between Diamond and her caretaker made me laugh and ache. “Diamond is preoccupied with ugly. She wants to know if she’s ugly, if I’m ugly, if the baby full of scars and fungus is ugly. I tell her we are all beautiful. I tell her we are children of God.” It’s so easy to not think about the reality of other people. This story hurt the most, just imagining what life must be like for children that didn’t have the things they should, the love and care and the people who step in to help that have their hearts broken again and again in investing in all of them. The endless stream of suffering, the horror that there is always another broken child out there to replace the one you just set back out into the brutal world.

 

There is so much depth if you pay attention, one could just sink. Gorgeous, it’s wonderful to find characters that have bitter thoughts here and there, that gather the courage to live whatever hand they’ve been dealt, that go on and hope regardless of how the world has soured them. Loved it.

Publication Date: January 10, 2017

W.W. Norton & Company

Liveright

 

 

Everything Love Is by Claire King

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“But no one ever ends at the ending. After the lovers kiss and the last page is turned, their lives barrel on messily towards the grave and maintaining some kind of happy ending is an ongoing battle. If you don’t keep that in mind, happiness will slip through your fingers like water.”

Baptiste is a therapist who lives on a houseboat (named Candice, who is a character as much as the living breathing people), which charmed me because isn’t there something about houseboats and water that would soothe most people rather than stuffy offices? He helps others, he lives a life of contentment until Amandine steps on Candice. Soon the patient is asking questions and opening his heart, shaking up his simple, routine life. One rich with clients and his cafe, his boat. We know he was born on a train as the story opens, and it’s heartbreaking for both child and mother what happens. He knows so little about his birth mother, and while he is lucky to have loving parents who took him in, there has always been a hunger, a wanting for the past. “When you have such sparse information, too much weight is given to the little you have.” To then wonder about the small things, what was her favorite color? Her personality like? All the little things so many of us that know our parents take for granted, a void for Baptiste.

Sophie is his wonderful young friend, but who is she? What is she to him? Young men are jealous of Sophie and Baptiste’s intimate relationship. It’s strange how she mothers him in her own way too. Misunderstandings could just as much be a title, such a human thing to misinterpret the situations in our friends and strangers lives, in our own.  The person anchored in his hungry heart is Amandine, who wants more than simple love. She wants connection, and that isn’t the easiest thing for anyone to find in such a world greedy for what passes as happiness. Is allowing ourselves to be consumed by one person the real path to genuine love? Merging souls so deeply that we don’t know where one begins and the other ends? Amandine is intense, mysterious but she is also frustratingly complex. Something is happening to Baptiste, there is so much confusion circling his life, people wrong about who he loves, about his relationships with others. None worse than the slippage of his own memories and mind. People seem to disappear as much as some memories fade. How do we hold on to people we love when love migrates?  How do we find the bravery to chose love when illness is chasing us, shortening our days, stealing who we are?

The story quietly renders the heart to open, and bleed slowly with so much sadness amidst love, endings within beginnings. Real love isn’t the formula in typical love stories- not family love nor romantic love. We are all twisted up in misunderstandings, the confusion of our choices, our missteps, how the whims of fate alters how we chose to go forward. You cannot truly love any person or thing without exposing yourself to the elements of grief, loss. Everything we feel, hold dear is temporary. Love is sacred because it is fragile, you jump on the creature’s back with no idea where you will go and how it will end, if you will be discarded, wounded, eaten by it.  So many of us try to play it safe and make choices ‘for the better of our beloved’ and what damage we do. Love is waking to the possibility of catastrophic wounds everyday knowing anything can happen to your children, your partner, your family and friends.

King’s writing is gorgeous and though the story can confuse with who is doing the telling, once the reader finds a quiet place to sink in, they will begin to figure out which character is narrating as it changes. I feel tender after finishing the novel, happy and sorry for everyone, though it is fiction- these are realistic circumstances. Well done.

Publication Date in the USA: December 6, 2016

Bloomsbury USA

 

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

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“How he has fallen. How deflated. How reduced. Cobbling together this bare existence, living in a hovel, ignored..”

“It rankles. It festers. It brews vengefulness. If only…”  Atwood is the perfect author for the Shakespeare series. Taking place in a correctional facility, inmates are the players in The Tempest that Felix is going to use for revenge and somehow shake off his mortal grief! Having lost his wife and then years later his beloved child Miranda, being betrayed when he was at the top of his career, the most artistic period of his life he is now reduced and obsessed with revenge. This play is going to be one no one will ever forget! When he begins working with the gruff bunch, Atwood’s clever writing of the interactions between the men and Felix captivated me. This is just one taste.

“Now,” says Felix, “let’s talk about Ariel. Who thinks he might like the part?”

“No way, man,” says a voice from the back of the room. “Not playing a fairy, that’s final. Like I said. “SnakeEye, a man of definite opinions.

A universal sentiment: no hands go up, all faces close. He can hear what they’re thinking: as with Miranda, so with Ariel. Too weak. Too gay. Out of the question.

 

The initial reactions the prisoners have is genuine and funny but the clever way Felix  manages to ‘school them’ about the meaning behind the play and every character is brilliant! I was reminded of my high school years, the plays I was in and how the guys never wanted to be associated with any character that came off as feminine. In a correctional facility regardless of the severity of the crime, it’s hard to fathom faces not closing up, refusing to play such a part. I love Atwood’s spin on The Tempest!

Felix, my heart went out to him and how he is dealing with the loss of his sweet beloved child, Miranda. Is he keeping her close, grounding her to earth? There are many prisoners here, in the play, in the actual facility, prisoners of loss, grief, revenge. We are all prisoners of something, aren’t we? Will Felix be able to have his day? How, how to be a success when his play must be taped on video (can’t have prisoners see it any other way, too dangerous).  Can he regain some of the life he lost, get back what was taken? Deviltry ensues, but the fun kind! Hag-Seed played in my head like a film, I was putting faces to everyone. It begins lightly and then gains momentum, 12 years of stewing in bitterness and pain can do a lot to a man! The magic is the changes in the prisoners, how Shakespeare enters their souls and thought processes. I still feel tickled by the ‘gay’ comment and how Felix removes labels  and broadens the tunnel vision the men have, to brew excitement about characters that would have otherwise been dismissed and uh….dissed. It takes passion to chip through that macho take on life… Imagine… Shakespeare in prison! I promise it’s a fun ride, and maybe Felix was have his day. Maybe he can be released from his cloak of grief and escape the hovel his life has become. Sure, a few people may be made to look like fools, but some need such a lesson in humility!

Delightful! Atwood at her best.

Publication Date: October 11, 2o16  Crown Publishing, Hogarth

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mortifications by Derek Palacio

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“Ulises considered the history of his mother’s sex life: he assumed that, since they’d arrived in the States, she’d not been with a man until Willems. That was five years of physical famine followed now by two months of feast.”

 

When Soledad flees Cuba and her husband’s revolutionary ideas with their two children, rather than settling in a familiar place like Miami, she chooses the brutal cold of Connecticut. Ulises assumed they would make a ‘large, loud Cuban family’ together with his mother’s distant cousins in Miami. Soledad instead will purge her old Cuban life, even speaking Spanish only to each other but English everywhere else. To shed her life, what better place than somewhere cold? She flourishes here but cannot seem to forget her husband, Uxbal Encarnación. Isabel too clings to the memory of her father, who has faded in Ulises mind, after all his father  took far more interest in her, planting ravenous hunger for meaning, leaving her consumed by a religious fervor. When their mother Soledad falls for the Dutchman Henri Willems (horticulturalist) she tells her son ‘He’s a very confident man, and when he talks about tobacco-I don’t know- it’s ravishing.” While different from her husband, the tomato farmer rebel- Henri is like ‘the best version of the love of her life.” Uxbal is like a ghost in the house, never fully out of their lives, a shadow between the love Henri and Soledad share, but Henri will have her anyway. Their lives in New England alter them in different ways, sending each in strange directions. Ulises doesn’t remember his father nor cling to his memory as his mother and sister do, but he fears his fate is tied to him, that he will ‘assume his identity’ as sons do. His father, a man holding nothing but his ideas, a man who lost his family because of his faith and revolutionary leanings. Henri Willems serves as a stand in father, one Ulises emulates in learning about tobacco. But he has his own superstitions tied into beliefs his own father had, ‘I’ve inherited my father’s fear, Willems said, but also my grandfather’s constitution.’ Ulises sees in this that no man truly escapes his father. Isabel’s religious beliefs will change everything, taking her further away from her mother and brother. The convent is calling to her soul, God becoming a wall keeping her family out. Isabel is losing her daughter, who believes herself to be chosen as a sort of guide to the dying. Soledad goes along with much of what Isabel wants, the only way to keep her. It isn’t long before she herself flees,  and the abandonment a wound in her mother, who is fighting a new battle herself, with her health. Is life coming full circle?  A letter finds them, becoming as solid as the presence of Uxbal himself. Cuba is calling them back, and where is dear Isabel?

The story begins as a fresh start, a twist in fate through escape but one can never truly bury the past nor sever the ties of the heart. Uxbal is inside each of them, and more than anyone the seeds planted in Isabel seem to rot. Everything she believed about her father, all the ideas she clung to may be destroyed. Everyone is broken. The story leads up to the return to their homeland, and the journey is peculiar. Tracking Isabel, Ulises finds seduction and trouble but he also finds family. “Fate is family, and family is fate.” What is love, what is family? The story changes and becomes rich when Ulises is in Cuba again. These are people who make a multitude of poor choices and mistakes. Their passions, be it rebel camps, farming, God,lovemaking, orgiastic encounters… all seem to pull at them and like a hurricane leave behind destruction. So much is shrouded in secrecy, but all secrets beg to be revealed, every past will rise and in the end, Ulises might just learn it’s better to give solid ground to history rather than camouflage the past. Isabel frustrated me, and it made her more real for her madness, because in a sense her religious hunger does verge on the insane. Her character made me think about how other people can lead us so far from where we should be, how ideas can be implanted (even accidentally) and take on a life so far from what should have been. Was she fated to this higher calling truly?  Oh how moments manipulate us! Soledad is a passionate woman, her fleeing Cuba and Uxbal was the path to finding her own strength- but one has to wonder the sort of adults Isabel and Ulises would have become had they never fled. It is necessary to sink into the story and pay attention to every small moment, as much as the big things that happen. It is about culture, because whether you shuck it or embrace it, your beginning will always cling like a second skin. Your roots still nourish or poison you, it’s all in how you chose to go on.

Immigrants live in two worlds, one of their making and one of the past. The homeland is alive in dreams, memories and even strange new places can  have reminders. Sometimes those reminders are in objects, tastes, smells, and often even new people. You don’t have to return home, to see it still. We never return to that time, every place and person changes in our absence, but it can still call to us. The Mortifications is about how one family clings to their homeland even when trying to purge it, how it changes them, and what happens when your blood longs to return to it’s origins. There is heartbreak and many strange choices, I spent a lot of time thinking about every character. Cuba is a family member in it’s own way too. The Encarnación’s  are all over the place, and their choices have many traps. The ending hit me between the eyes a bit, because it’s so odd yet just right because I can’t imagine a simple ending for such passionate people.

Publication Date: October 4, 2o16

Crown Publishing

Tim Duggan Books

Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks Dalton

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“Just hunger and sleepiness. And desire, it it was the right time of year, but never love, never guilt, never hope. An animal built for survival, not reflection. The idea almost made him smile, but Augustine was not in the habit of bending his mouth in that direction.”

This novel begins as quietly as the fall of snow. It’s reflective more than anything else. A literary eye on a catastrophic event. Augustine, a man who doesn’t really seem to need or love anyone, focused on the hunger for understanding the universe and it’s origins in the remote corners of the world is going to have an emotional bond with a strange abandoned child. Who is she, where did she come from, is she real? Iris may be the only true bond to humanity he has ever had, as the world around them has fallen away, and through her he thinks back on his cold choices.

On a mission in Space, Sullivan and crew have lost all contact with mission control. She looks back on her life, her divorce and hungers for her daughter who may no longer exist. The beauty here is the memories of the mother who encouraged and fed her curiosity. What happened to that intelligent mother, who closed her mind to studies and her own child? My heart was touched and aching for her.

At times feeling disgusted by the selfishness of Augustine, the way he went through women there was something beautiful to see him change through the presence of Iris. Then the struggle and guilt mothers have choosing a career that requires leaving a child behind, the other option of giving that up to be a good mommy as we see in Sullivan and her own memories of her mother sank heavy in me. I know that isn’t the story, but it shook me- the not knowing if there is anyone left to come home to, the guilt a mother would feel choosing her passion when her own mother seemed to die when she gave her own career up, well that part of the novel meant more to me.

Somehow this story manages to be terrible and beautiful, but it takes it’s time with the reader. There is light in the sadness, but it is a very sad story. It’s not my usual sort of read, but I wanted something different. It delivered.

 

Available Now

Random House Publishing Group

Random House

The Witch House of Persimmon Point by Suzanne Palmieri

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I am not officially reviewing this wonderfully disturbing novel, but I can’t resist sharing my thoughts. Palmieri’s other books are lovely but this one is far darker, rich with broken characters. The creepiest parts to me are the evil in the hearts of man. Even when you root for the women in the family line, they go and do something selfish and you get knocked back. I know those who want to read sweet little gentle witch stories will be stung by the actions of everyone in here, but that makes it delicious! Palmieri has her hooks in me far deeper now and I cannot wait to see what she conjures next! If you are going to write a book about a witch house, than by God it should have a rich story behind it, and this one does. Oh my! I will write a full review when it’s out. Loved it but if you want a tender little breeze of a story go find a beach read, this one is a hurricane of chaos! I spent the past two days with my nose buried in it. The circles under my eyes are well worth it. I can’t wait to see what everyone has to say. The evil isn’t always in the women of Witch House, there is plenty of badness in the hearts of others…