The Whole Town’s Talking by Fannie Flagg

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…and everyone was singing and dancing to the new tune “Lucky Lindy.”

Simpler times when happiness meant building a family, a community, when love sometimes had to be found through mail order brides, because there just wasn’t enough women to go around. Farmer Lordor Norstrom , the father of the town Elmwood Springs, Missouri finds love just this way with  Katrina, and through his land is the seed that feeds the mysterious cemetery. The oddness starts when he is buried there. Each town member is tied together, and when the end comes- they may find bliss in a town they may never have to entirely leave. The reader will come to know every member of the budding community as it grows over time. Were people ever really this nice, did they once really come together in such ways? Sometimes it’s hard to believe, but it’s a sweet reminder of the beautiful ‘ideal’ that towns were once founded on.

There are ticklish moments, such as the soldier who ends up in the wrong cemetery. There seems to be no end to the talking, to the reminiscing of the dead.  And just what is Michael J .Vincent’s intentions toward sweet Hanna Marie? The man who ‘loved her so much’ that he, a non-deaf person, learned sign language just for her.  You have to join the living and deceased of Elmwood Springs to find out.

The stories are snippets that takes us all through the lives of the townsfolk. Sometimes you just need a story that sets things right, in the end. If only real life played out as charmingly.

Publication Date: November 29, 2016

Random House Publishing Group  Random House

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Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

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“How easily we come apart. How quickly someone else’s life can enter through the cracks we don’t know are there until this foreign thing is inside of us. We are more porous than we know.”

Each character in this quietly violent novel seeps in through the reader’s pores. The story begins with Ann in 2004 explaining that her husband Wade and his ex-wife Jenny never drove the truck except once or twice a year to collect firewood, and her life with Wade follows that same pattern. Something soured in that truck, something violently beyond reason. Much of what happens horrifies and perplexes in equal amounts. Ann seems to live with the ghost of Jenny and the tragedy that occurred more than she lives with Wade’s waxing and waning mind, trying to understand his past before his memory is eclipsed. The men in Wade’s family suffer a form of dementia, and the incidents she suffers at his hands are humiliatingly cruel, and yet one feels sorry for Wade, as much as Ann. Not all ‘ghosts’ in a person’s life are in the ground.

What happened to June and May, Wade and Jenny’s beautiful daughters? The what we understand with shocking clarity, the why is a fog. The literary prose is gorgeous, and plants bitter seeds inside the mind of the reader. Ann is a music teacher, someone a song connects to the horror that happened on a tragic day. There is something heartbreaking about the bits and pieces left behind by Wade’s wife and children, as if they refuse to be erased. “Because Wade had thrown everything away- drawings, clothes, toys- each accidental remnant loomed in Anne’s mind with unspeakable importance. Four moldy dolls buried in the sawdust of a rotten stump. A high-heeled Barbie shoe that fell from the drainpipe. A neon toothbrush in a doghouse.”  These little ‘treasures’ that pop up like cruel hellos from the past is such a tender spot in the novel, links to stories that should have remained in Wade’s head‘ . Ann becomes a keeper of the stories, ones she doesn’t truly understand, memories too painful for Wade to tell, memories that are dying with his early-onset dementia.  IN a sense, his dementia is a gift, to blot out tragedy. Ann is haunted by Jenny as much as she is by Wade’s children. “Even the raspberry bushes that Ann didn’t plant. For a long time they came back every year to haunt her..” 

I spent much of the novel mystified. Why?  Why can’t always be understood, there are dark corners in a life that remain inexplicable. Jenny is elsewhere and we meet Elizabeth through her. Elizabeth equally horrifies and mystifies the reader, her life before, her actions are splintered and leave the reader spinning. There are gentle moments, beautiful interactions between the sisters May and June. As one slowly shucks off her childhood, the youngest feels shattered and rejected but there are moments June is the ‘old’ June that was a fun sister, who played dolls with May. June’s childhood now lives on in its vivid paralysis.” It happens to all of us, this paralysis… this moment in time that is frozen and far from us. There are glimpses of happiness, as much as the tender heartbreak of a mother who watches over and mourns for her  eldest shucking off her youth ,which makes what has happened all the more confusing. From the student Ann was moved by, to prisoners with their own murky pasts, everyone seems to connect and yet you don’t get the answers, much as Wade’s mind slowly runs through his fingers, so too does explanation. There are holes in everything. What does a song mean in a horrific moment? Is the song to blame? We just won’t know.

There are things Wade mentions that make no sense to Ann but as we sift through his memories, the reader knows. Jenny and Wade’s love story is told through snippets of the past, everything is a tug of war from past to present to future. Jenny and Ann are tied, forever tied, and may be married to the horrors of the past and each other through Wade. This debut has left me reeling, unraveled, angry with tender spots in my heart. I was angry, I wanted to shake certain characters into a coma! I didn’t want to understand or feel sympathy. Everything was unexpected, and left my heart raw. Idaho is one of the most moving and depressing literary fiction debuts I have ever read but to dissect why I felt as I did would give away the story. Who knew piano music could be tangled in such a tragedy. Gorgeously stunning debut!

Publication Date: January 3, 2017

Random House Publishing Group, Random House

 

Mischling by Affinity Konar

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“Materials were extracted from us and colored with dye and placed between slides, set to whorl and fluoresce and live beneath the perspective of a microscope.

Late at night, when Pearl was fast asleep, her consciousness a safe distance from my own, I’d think of these tiny pieces of us and wonder if our feelings remained in them, even though they were mere particles. I wondered if the pieces hated themselves for their participation in the experiments. I imagined that they did. And I longed to tell them that it wasn’t their fault, that the collaboration wasn’t a willing one, that they’d been stolen, coerced, made to suffer. But then I’d realize how little influence I have over these pieces- after we’d been parted, they answered only to nature and science and the man who called himself Uncle. There was nothing I could do on their numerous, microscopic behalf.”

This novel is brutal and from the start my heart fell to the pit of my gut. Written in the vein of literary fiction, about twin sisters Pearl and Stasha chosen because they are ‘special’ to be in Mengele’s Zoo- forced into his horrific medical experiments, their thoughts and imaginings run along as I imagine they would for the young. Each twin copes with the horrors with different truths to feed on, one believing her participation will help her sister, grandfather and mother- the other unable to fool herself with the sort of monster Dr. Mengele is. The other children, that they had seen ‘come and go like minutes’ have their own horror stories and yet even in a place devoid of humanity, there is still fight, resistance, hunger to live.

Slowly both Pearl and Stasha cease to feel human as their bond is streched to the snapping point. They are losing their twinship as much as losing everything that makes human beings what they are. The experiments are more than physical torture, but a twisted withering of the soul, of the very essence of what it means to be human at all. Everything that fed their young lives, the special connection they shared that they could no longer rely on for survival seems to be a goal of Mengele, to destroy hope, love, to rip out of children everything pure. The cold, cruel, detached eye he uses in his ‘experiments’ become monstrous to the bitter end.

When Pearl disappears, Stasha withers, and yet clings still to the hope that her sister isn’t dead. When the Russians arrive, salvation has a different taste. Once again children are marching, but now where? Half dying, tortured, ill, made to feel like an animal thing- how can these survivors trust their freedom? How do you come back to life when brought lower than even death- in limbo? Feliks is vital to Stasha’s survival, and as the two fight of starvation after liberation they encounter different horrors outside of Auschwitz. She had once played nurse to the boy, now returned, and yet he seems to keep the fight in her in a role reversal. No one has been spared, everywhere there are fighters remaining, parents searching for the stolen children- so many that are likely dead. They stay alive for vengeance alone, but revenge is a bitter pill to swallow.

I knew from the moment the girls encounter the other children, kept much like animals, that this story was going to break my heart. That there aren’t enough words to convey certain horrors, that sometimes it requires beautiful prose to dilute the atrocities so the children could survive it and the reader as well,  is what worked best for me.  The twins personalities undergo a metamorphosis as they drift away from each other, what does it take to escape such place, to shed the shadow of an evil man that seems to be following you forever? Is escape possible through only death, or clinging to life- what little of it remains from the ashes? It is a brutal story to get through, and while Dr. Josef Mengele remains much a mystery the novel certainly paints him as a terrifying figure, a monster out of the deepest recesses of anyone’s nightmarish imaginings. That such a person actually lived and breathed is downright horrifying.

Mischling ( German word for “half-breed” or Jews of mixed ancestry) felt like being trapped in a child’s terrifying nightmare. When I thought about the children’s ages, the separation from families, the ripping apart the twins suffer, the constant fear of the unknown- a place where your worse imaginable horror is a reality, I couldn’t get rid of that weight in the pit of my gut. It is just beyond imagination, as most horrors are, that such things were ever a reality. It isn’t a mystery to me that the novel is about a bond that will never be broken, that the most evil couldn’t extinguish love, even while snuffing out lives. I am not better for having read it, I am not worse, but I didn’t finish the story unaffected. We can empathize, but we cannot understand ever, not really- and one story is never the same as another. Each experience, each nightmare has it’s own unique life and that is why the telling will never be enough.

This novel is cruel, and yet there are glimpses of love and light, and there is still fight to the bitter end. Will there be anything left of either twin, is it possible to ever be free from such a place, such a monstrous man, a time when humanity proved the devil is in man?There is still so much hunger for living, what human being cannot relate to that?  A dark-side of human history that is better forgotten and yet can never be.

Available now

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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“The dead move on,” he had said, coiled in his armchair, hands between his thighs. “But the living, we just stay here.”

My American adolescence was filled with tales of woe like this, all of them proof of what my mother said, that we did not belong here. In a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories.

The immigrant experience is one of displacement, one foot in their homeland the other in the country they have fled to. There is more than cultural struggles and differences, it is as if when you are uprooted, you take the soil that fed you wherever you go. It can be said of every immigrant experience, you can never fully erase your origins, and though you can grow where you have been planted, you will always carry the past with you. It’s a strange existance, being between two worlds and regardless of the years between, it remains like a second skin… the memories, the history of your family, the news of your old country. Culture is a fascinating character, for all of us, and some families won’t let you forget what used to be, what is so different from your adopted land compared to the place you came from.

The first story got me the most. A ghostwriter who is similar yet different from her mother, both have an affinity for words- one, written and the other, spoken. The ghost that visits is one that won’t harm and yet, the reader aches with the tenderness and brutality of loss. “Never turn your back on a ghost.” It is much like never forget, never turn your back on your history. Those left behind hurt so much more, and just who dies? The ghosts we carry live on in our memories of what happened, in our regrets and our longings. The horrible thing that changed her life, that took her brother’s is a different truth for one immigrant family and yet it isn’t her tale alone. How many such experiences? How unjust and violent, how many? Such things happen, but it doesn’t lessen the pain, it doesn’t make it any easier to accept and live with.

Each story in the collection is different from the next, and much to absorb and ponder. The wife who is tormented by her husband’s dementia and his confusion about an old lover of his, the son in another story is 13 and just beginning to understand that parents aren’t right all the time, don’t know everything. Though the stories his mother tells about starvation, war is hard to digest for someone who only knows of it second-hand. When Mrs. Hoa wants support, fighting the communists, money isn’t free flowing but the threat of being seen as communist rattles his mother who won’t throw away what little money they have on a ‘lost cause.’ The humiliation his parents undergo that he witnesses with a break in is poignant because as he says ‘this was neither the first nor last time someone would humiliate them like this.’ I am reminded of the stories my father has shared with me over the years from his youth of his own humiliations when he was a young boy just learning English, and those of his parents, some I witnessed in how my grandparents were treated as ‘stupid’ for their accents even after decades as American citizens. It changes you, and yet there are those who helped too, let that be said. How do our own people push us, how are we influenced, almost bullied into giving or not?

In The Other Man, the misunderstandings that happen when  Vietnamese Liem comes to live with a gay couple in San Francisco tickled me to the core. I can relate with the language and cultural barriers because when I lived in Okinawa I was the outsider that was clueless. Sure, sometimes they laugh at you, but sometimes with you. Some experiences are eye opening, and as he goes forward in his ‘Americanization’ it is strange to think how vastly different life is from one country to another.  It is less heavy than the other’s in the collection but a welcome diversion from the emotional tales.

Someone Else Besides You was another I enjoyed, which is strange since Thomas has a father that seems distant and dishonest until you read further along. He doesn’t really know the full story about his father nor his time in the war, his father seems severe and strong and still carries a dangerous air yet somehow he wants to push Thomas back into Sam’s arms but his actions are questionable and criminal. I smiled a strange smile reading about the father and son.

It’s no mystery after having read The Refugees why Viet Thanh Nguyen is a Pulitzer Prize Winning author. I go further and think about the conversation between Sam and Mr. P after Sam talks about having gone to visit Vietnam. “I will never go back.” He rapped his bottle of beer on the coffee table. “You do not know the Communists. I know the Communists.”

“They’re not so bad. They just want to move on with their lives.”

My father shook his head emphatically, “You are a foreigner. You know nothing. They take your money and say nice things to you.”

Those who haven’t lived through it, whatever it may be, whatever war… the foreigners can never truly understand how hollow a thing it is to tell someone to go back, to get closure, etc. It’s a different country for those who have left, even after it seems ‘safe’ to go back, not so for those that fled. Some of us will only ever be tourists… as close as we can get is through stories, much as children of refugees have. The past is full of ghosts for them, both living and dead, including ghost selves which are not so easily put to rest. Moving collection from a gifted prized writer.

Available February 7, 2017

Grove Atlantic

Grove Press

Nineveh by Henrietta Rose-Innes

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 Between her and the walls of Nineveh, the mud is alive. It whispers and it clicks. She feels the touch on top of her bare foot, the tentative brush of a feeler. Things scuttle over her toes. The whole surface is alive with tiny creatures, stirring. 

Katya walks out among them. The lamps flicker on, off, on and stay steady.

She hadn’t expected the beauty.

Not every woman is terrified of creepy crawlies. Katya has a soft spot for the unlovely, the unloved. Unlike her father, who had raised her as an exterminator- she runs her service as humane pest removal with much respect for any creature that can survive. Where her father wouldn’t ‘bend to the world’ nor nature, with his hardened, impatient nature Katya comes off as fragile in his perception, but she is anything but. Early on she, alongside her sister, suffered knocks and bruises to the body and soul. “He never could respect the fragility of bones.”  Much like the ‘pests’ she handles, Katya herself was relocated many times, never finding solid ground and permanence in her early life with her father. Len’s pride was often the cause of much difficulty for his daughters, and it’s no wonder the family is split, the daughters estranged from their father. Yet, it was her father who taught her what she knows.

Nineveh is a property development for  the wealthy, meant to tame it’s surroundings, a perfect dwelling in South Africa, one that is escape from the wilds, and certainly not welcoming to ‘unlovely’ creatures, human or otherwise. But is Mr. Brand’s visions for such a great, safe, sterile place doomed? What are the goggas, and can they be conquered? What part does Katya’s father play in it all? What does it mean to have ‘insurance’ as her father does with the places he ‘helps?’ Katya lives in the beautiful home, not unlike a insect herself. Katya with her life experience, her scars internal and external, is much like the unwelcome critters. It’s a study in nature, human, insects… everything we occupy and flee, nothing is really in our control.

The bugs themselves, through Katya’s eyes, are beautiful creatures. The comparison between the human body and Nineveh towards the end rang true, and I would quote it but I’d rather not give anything away. As  she grapples with the creatures her past bites harder than any critters that scar her body, and nothing is lost on a perceptive reader. Henrietta Rose-Innes had me hearing the bugs, smelling the murk and yet seeing the beauty too. Katya is a character that may seem gruff to those with soft hands who distance themselves from the reality of nature, but I loved every bit of grit in her. I have lived around bugs my entire life, from Florida to the Island of Okinawa and yet I think South Africa has me beat. Unique read that takes it’s time with you.

USA release date November 15, 2016

Gallic Books

Aardvark Bureau

Never Let You Go by Chevy Stevens

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“I splashed cold water on my face, let the rivulets run down my neck and onto my shirt. I stared into the mirror. Tried to remember how to rearrange my lips so I didn’t look so scared, softened the muscles around my eyes, rubbed at the smeared mascara.”

Having read and really enjoyed Those Girls, I was interested in reading Chevy Steven’s latest thriller. Told through each character’s perception, we peel back the layers of everything that has come to pass from eleven years ago when Lindsay escaped with her life from her abusive ex-husband, along with her child. He is being released, her fear is back but has he changed, as he claims? Early on in the novel the reader learns how insidious abuse is, the slow creep to it becoming a normal thing that the victim covers up, learns to function through. That in itself is the most terrifying part of any story, in my mind. Years later, Lindsay hires women who are putting their lives back together and she herself is in a relationship with a man named Greg- a man who is certainly tough, looks rough but is nothing like her ex. Her ex is the shadow in her life, and as she says ‘He’s going to make me pay for every year he spent behind bars.” But is she right?

Sophie begins writing letters to her father, opening her wounds for him about how ‘that night’ affected her. What she doesn’t expect is tender and conflicting feelings to blossom inside of her when  he replies. An artist, much of her expressive, emotional state finds release through her work. Some things she should relate to her mother, she doesn’t. Her father has her questioning the truths she was so sure of, fed by her mom. The memories of a young child though, aren’t always the most reliable.

Just who is telling the truth, who is lying? What really happened? The characters are a complicated mess and nothing is as clear cut as they can be in these novels. Does Lindsay really have something to be afraid of, is she being stalked or is it all in her head? Can perception distort reality? Did her husband really love her and Sophie? You won’t know until the end. It kept me up last night turning the pages, and I was very happy with the ending.

Available March 14, 2017

St. Martin’s Press

Hindsight by Mindy Tarquini

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“My last life, I got to be Greek. But not in actual Greece. I got to be Greek in Northeast Philadelphia, a life almost exactly like the one I’m living now. Except I crossed myself in the opposite direction when I prayed.”

This novel has just the right amount of humor that I needed. There have been many novels about psychics and women with different mystical gifts, but not quite like Hindsight. Eugenia isn’t Greek this time, but Italian American and she can see many of her past lives, which becomes more fantastical when those she has been connected with before manage to be in her life again. The Virgin Mary (yes, you read that right) can’t seem to stop meddling and give her the only thing she prays for- the life that fits her, a good happy life, one as she wishes to live it. Currently she is keeping things simple, living unattached, trying to avoid a difficult tangled life- but is there ever such a thing? Life always finds it’s way in, doesn’t it?  She can refuse love all she wants, but you can’t be alive and remain unaffected.

A student soon reveals to Eugenia that the gift isn’t hers alone, there are others like her! She starts a support group and finds that hiding never works for anyone. Is each life more than another chance at perfecting herself? The people of the past, does she see them as they really were, the whole picture? Was reality colored? Can we ever really see people or ourselves fully, understand every action, thought, feeling, moment? All we have is our perception and even that is deeply flawed.  Every life has been a chance to be better, but what is better? Misunderstandings are something we all suffer from, like a blindness, whether we have a million lives or one. Hindsight is a funny gift, at some point we all have it, and can rue the mistakes we’ve made unintentional or not.

This novel is both comical and thought provoking. It is certainly uniquely entertaining, so if you are on the search for something different and humorous while also insightful, this is it.

Publication Date: November 8, 2016

SparkPress