The Girl in the Garden by Melanie Wallace

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“More important, Roland quietly observed one evening, is that June has Luke to anchor her. Mabel disagreed. Anchors weigh, she reminded him.

And Moor, came his reply.”

When June and her baby Luke are abandoned by Ward- an older guy, the child’s father at a seaside motel in New England, the story is just beginning. Mabel, the widow who owns the place knew from the start that Ward wasn’t on the up and up. It is obvious this won’t end well… for the girl and her poor baby. June, of course, is naive and hungry for love and security. She has faith and hope in Ward, but it’s misplaced and when he leaves her there is no other choice but to turn to the mercy of Mabel. June doesn’t have enough money to remain, nor any other options.  She comes from a ‘nowhere place’. “A nowhere place, Roland later mused, doesn’t strike me as somewhere she can return.” Fortunately for her, through some twist of fate she has been dumped in a place where the people will come to the rescue in helping her build a life for herself and her son. I kept thinking ‘it really  does take a village’, which is fantastic if you are without family and support. If only every abandoned person were so lucky.

The village I speak of is a cast of characters that are all intertwined. I was more enthralled by the story between Claire and her mother Iris. Why did Claire, at such a young age, no longer live with her mother but lived in a cottage behind the house? Claire who feels she is only the ‘spawn’ of her mother and father. Why did her father’s death cause an ocean of distance between Claire and her mother? If not for her passion for photography, Claire would sink in confusion and pain, but she is bright, talented, and independent. Duncan’s role in her life is so much more than just the trusted (lawyer) guardian. Claire is the character I preferred, with her purposeful manner, her strength and righteous anger. Iris has turned her back on everyone, society- but more importantly her daughter. She has retreated into herself, deeply and has her reasons. Mabel knows Iris has a perfect place for June and Luke with Claire gone.

Luke brings Iris out of herself over time, in fact Luke seems to be a link for more than just Claire and Iris. Sam is a wounded vet and yet Luke becomes dear to him, their interactions are the sweetest moments in the novel. Luke is a precious lovable child as he grows up, one that reclusive Iris even enjoys spending time with, demands it even! When Claire returns things still never become clear, and the story disturbed me as a mother. Here Iris is bonding with Luke and making sure both his and June’s future is secure yet the one person who needed her was neglected, regardless of her future successes. It made it impossible for me, regardless of the ‘reasoning’ to relate to a mother freezing her child out. As Claire struggles with how her mother once was (before her father died) and is now in her frailty doesn’t change the fact that the middle is an abyss of absence, of nothing.

This novel has damaged people who still reach out and uplift, but I was left wondering what could have been different between Claire and Iris, and why Duncan got in his own way to both he and Claire’s detriment. That is people though, isn’t it? Getting in their own way, letting terrible situations cloud the present, freezing their hearts, turning their backs but these same people can also be a stranger’s salvation. What a strange story.

I liked it, certainly reading from each characters perspective enriches any story. I just couldn’t feel for Iris, and I wonder what other readers will think of her. Claire may have been brusque but I think life did that to her, she had to have crocodile skin and strength. June may have been the one the reader is supposed to ache and hope for, but Claire captured me. This is quietly sad and lovely both.

Publication Date: January 31, 2017

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

 

Lilli De Jong: A Novel by Janet Benton

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“So little for a woman is permissible- yet on her back every human climbs to adulthood.”

If ever a sentence was loaded, the one above wins. The past isn’t as far away as it seems, certainly if you look around the world there are still women living with restrictions that lead to abuse and even death if she ‘disobeys’. It is 1883, and choices for a woman are limited by far more if she happens to find herself ‘in the family way’ and is unmarried, add to that a Quaker and you know this is going to be trouble. Such situations lead to banishment, and so Lilli must go to a home for unwed women where she is meant to give up her child as soon as it is born. What else can a woman do, live a life of shame and poverty with her ‘bastard’ child, become a beggar? What else is there to do when the man she fell in love with has disappeared and not kept his promise? Lilli De Jong is going to do everything she can for the love of her baby girl, everything- even if it means being an example of moral shame, giving her body if needs be, caring for other people’s babies- she will take whatever stones life throws at her just to be able to keep her child.

In order to work, certainly women couldn’t bring their babies along so the answer is having to leave her child in the care of others as she scrimps and saves. While the world was wide, and America was growing, a woman’s place was still narrow. Lily spills her life in her diary as she makes her way through a time unwelcoming to fallen women like her. She encounters those who would ‘help’ her by using her even more, but sometimes shame can be endured for the love between mother and child. Disillusioned by love, there is no man to depend on- not even her brother. Lilli has only herself, and women who walk the path today can certainly feel the suffering she encounters just trying to survive. Any woman can be Lilli, it’s all circumstance.

I was pulled into earlier times, I think it’s easy for modern women to forget the degradation women suffered. Choices are somewhat easier today by comparison, but there is still so much judgement placed upon a woman, particularly one raising a child on her own. We like to think we’re progressive, but there is always someone ready to question a woman’s morals, find her lacking. Janet Benton did a beautiful job putting the reader into Lilli’s shoes and setting the atmosphere of the past. It manages to be heavy and yet hopeful. Perfect for those who love historical fiction, women’s literature, literary fiction… I think they cover is beautiful too.

Available May 16, 2017

Doubleday Books

Abandon Me by Melissa Febos

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“You’re not even hungry! she’d say. You can’t be. But I was hungry. For food, for approval, for secrets, for my legs’ push against the ground, for the ocean, for words. For none of these things at all., but for the brief satisfaction of filling myself with them.”

What do we all have in common when it comes to love, regardless of our sexual preferences? It devours us, picks it’s teeth clean with our bones! It makes fools of us as we wait for returns when abandoned, a god/goddess when adored, vengeful when burned but most of all we are hungry for it, our mouths forever open for more! It isn’t any easier if you’re gay, or young, or rich… what stupid things to say. Love is a wound sometimes too. Melissa Febos opens her soul to the reader, purging emotions and thoughts that we can all relate to. You should read it whether you are male, female, gay, straight, foreign, alien… you get it. Love, this greedy hungry creature, where does it rise from within us, how does our upbringing prepare or damage us for future partners.

This is how one woman makes sense of her upside down heart, her compulsion to both eat and spit out love, you know- that compulsion that drives us all into the arms of someone, hoping to fill, be filled and at the same time emptied out. Love is insane, our childhoods are insane… how the heck do we survive it all? As Melissa writes about her father (The Captain) and her mother’s seperation, his ‘stepping away from them’,  it is poignant how it also her own love story in a sense. We take the beginings of our own story, which starts with our parents, and build a skeleton with it, on which we add our future and what a home it is! She rebels, she experiments, she stumbles and on and on she goes, as we all do.

Beautiful writing dripping with raw emotion, salt in wounds words. Yes, yes… me too! I have felt that, I have done that, it’s me, it’s you! From the quote I shared at the start of this review- “you’re not even hungry” we are always hungry! Our past is never completely behind us, every single person that we love or learn about love from we carry on our backs, we all need to be the adored and to adore. Love shifts, things end, and falling in love is both an ascension to heaven and a sacrifice to some terrifying demon.  As Melisa Febos says “Though a clumsy child, I was a scrupulous keeper of secrets.” And lucky for us that is true, because what are memoirs really but a divulging of secrets, be they thoughts or stories that live inside our minds? Gorgeous.

Publication Date: February 28, 2017

Bloomsbury USA

I Found You by Lisa Jewell

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“There’s something worrying about him; not quite scruffy enough to be a drifter, not quite strange enough to be a mental health patient from the day care center in town. He looks too healthy to be a junkie and he hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol. He just looks… Alice searches her mind for the right word and then it comes to her. He looks lost. “

So begins the mystery of the man sitting on the beach outside of single mom Alice’s house. Against the better judgement of someone with children should have, she lets the amnesiac man into her home. Pausing here, I have had about all I could take lately of stories where characters forget their memories, be it to trauma, disease, all an act or what have you but Lisa Jewell’s novel The House We Grew Up In took my breath away with it’s terrible family heartbreak. Admittedly, this novel doesn’t let you down on the drama and… well, trauma. As one young woman, and new bride is distraught when her husband doesn’t return home, she goes off to search for him but who is he and how does he connect to the man on the beach and Alice?  A Ukrainian married to Carl, it isn’t easy to get help with the language and cultural barrier. How far she is today from that blushing bride, a woman who has just discovered that her husband doesn’t even exist. How can someone cease to exist? Why has he left her? Who is he? It’s a waking nightmare, new to the country, new to marriage and adrift in a sea of confusion. In and out of the chapters we reach into the past where teenagers Gray and Kirsty (siblings) are on a summer vacation at the seaside with their parents, and as the first blush of love blooms on sweet, innocent Kirsty’s cheeks, her brother isn’t so trusting of this unexpected turn their boring holiday takes. The older guy  honing in on Kirsty may be well to do, but something doesn’t sit right  with Gray and it’s not just because he is the big protective older brother, truly it’s not… it’s not jealousy or anything of the such! And why are his parents happy about his sister dating an older guy? Is money so spectacular that rules fly away with the seabirds?

Romaine, Kai, Jasmine and mother Alice with their dogs welcome the stranger into their home, even naming him much like a stray dog. Romaine is good at naming things, according to Alice and christens the man-Frank. Into the warm home of the quirky family living at Ridinghouse Bay, Frank may be taking his first steps to regain his memory. Or maybe he won’t. I’m not telling you. Suffice to say there is something about the stranger, aka Frank that Alice knows he can be trusted.

There is frustration, and surprise at how trusting parents can be based on appearances. Appearances get so many of us in trouble, don’t they? Even those of us who pride ourselves on our cleverness, on seeing right through people. Kirsty is the girl all women can relate to, and if you’re a mother, doubly so. We’ve been Kirsty at some point, how we get so stupefied with love and crushes, the excitement and fleeing sense that comes with knowing a guy you fancy is interested in little old you. Easy to remember how a  girl’s body starts asking for things they don’t yet understand nor know how to manage anymore than boys do. And mothers, mothers can relate to the reckless, headfirst plunges a girl takes as her heart is singing a boy’s name before she is even sure of him. What about the older guys that swag on in and dazzle a young girl’s heart? Who can say which way the w

How is an abandoned bride, an amnesiac man, and single mother, her children, her dogs and a brother and sister from the past tangled by the seaside in each other’s lives? How indeed? I didn’t expect the ending in quite the way it developed. Lisa Jewell, just how do the cogs in the wheels of your mind turn? Sometimes I think… fiction is bizarre and then I remember, life is too! Yes read it, and check out her other novels too! But you have to wait until April 2017.

Public Release Date: April 25, 2017

Atria Books

Ashes by Steven Manchester

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He’s fat as a wood tick now, he thought, grinning, and he looks like he’s ready to pop. Jason looked straight at him, as if reading his mind. Tom immediately looked away, his rapid heartbeat starting to pound in his ears, intensifying his physical pain. Unbelievable, he thought. After all the years and all the distance, his elder brother- by only two years- still scared the hell out of him.”

Some stories are about siblings as thick as thieves, but not all siblings live in the world of picket fence sitcoms. Jason and Tom Prendergast are still recovering from a childhood with their abusive father and have spent the past years avoiding each-other. One is a prison guard, one an intellectual (a college professor) and both can reduce each other to a childlike state in seconds. What is it about families that as far as you go in life, as successful as you become once you see them the old you returns with a vengeance. It’s far worse with brothers and sisters, particularly ones you have a difficult relationship with. Tom and Jason become sniveling boys again on their cross country road trip to find out what good old dad has left them in the sealed envelope. How dare their father make a last demand upon his sons, forcing the estranged brothers to come together again? Each pick at each other, they may be middle aged but maturity is out the car window with these two.

Rotten memories of their now deceased father crawl into their head-space, and both have problems within their own families, love lives that are along for the journey. As the ‘boys’ travel, their mutual disgust for one another changes and there may just be a chance to move beyond past betrayals and a monster of a father into a semblance of brotherhood. I laughed at the biting insults the brothers give and take, it’s raw and genuine, somehow their age made it that much more realistic. Both Tom and Jason will learn as much about themselves and their place in their lives as they do about each other. There is change on the horizon and sometimes the distance between two brothers can be the father.

Publication Date: February 21, 2017

The Story Plant

 

The Futures: A Novel by Anna Pitoniak

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“Fantasy is the only escape valve- what’s all the pain worth without it? But not for me. I’d screw my eyes shut and try to imagine it, what the future would look like, what alchemy might transform our current situation. But nothing came. There was no thread of hope.”

Life eats you up, how can we expect love to survive- young and fresh, asking to be destroyed? Evan has made a success of himself, an Ivy League undergraduate, just like his girlfriend, he is on the verge of greatness working with a hedge fund, his beginnings are far more humble than his beloved Julia’s. He’s had to work far harder than her. There is a hunger and direction that seems to be consuming him, leaving directionless Julia on a shelf. Not unlike many women before, and after her, ‘how did I get here and who is this man I am sleeping next too me’ are questions that are souring her once fresh love. Evan is on his way up, excited about this time in his life, who can blame him? But what happens when one partner’s star is rising and the other is falling? Love needs balance, and is rarely fair. There are plenty of people waiting to test it, waiting to dissect the lives we build before we understand anything about ourselves and the world.

Both stumble through the strange time of early adulthood where one is meant to be trail blazing their way to the future, bleeding to make their dreams come true, and how much more complicated things are when love is part of the equation.  How many apartments with couples, just like them, are being wrung out? Situations press us to do things against our beliefs, and often it seems life comes back for it’s pound of flesh we didn’t know we offered. With Evan obsessed with his career, blind to the problems brewing at home as much as oblivious to what is truly happening at work, someone from their past is ready to make them question more than just their love for each-other. Is loneliness something another can truly ‘fix’?

The Futures are for none of us guaranteed, and trajectory you were sure you were on sometimes goes in a different direction entirely. Before you know it, it’s too late to return and get your footing on solid ground, and when you start to fall, everything is broken or upside down. This is growing up. You step out greedy for that future, your hand about to grasp the dream, everything in it’s place only to step in messes of your own making, as if you’re eyes were closed the entire time. There are just as many brutal lessons of the heart as their are in business.

Ivy League isn’t a ticket to perfection… what is? Evan and Julia have a lot to learn about life, loyalty and love- regardless of how ‘smart and learned’ they are. Those bruises and scars  we all collect early on are requirements for entrance into the world of grown ups whether your origins are humble or grand.

January 17, 2017

Little, Brown and Company

Lee Boudeaux Books

 

To The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

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“I cannot see my own words, but write as I can by moonlight as to record my first thoughts. In the morning I may deem it outlandish. For now I am slightly shaken.”

Reading this novel made me feel like an early explorer but it took a while to really bond with the characters. Sophie is a misfit in a sense, hungry to explore but stuck having to content herself with letters between she and her husband Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester, because she is pregnant. For such a curious, intelligent woman stuck with her bird watching and photography when her soul hungers to conquer the unknown, it made me think about how in the 1800s such a woman would be ripe for gossip and ugliness. Women weren’t meant for such brilliance, nor to see the bright edge of the world.  It’s an interesting existence being the explorer and being hungry for those experiences but left behind. The art of letter writing is said to be dead, and this novel reminded me of the romance of such correspondence. Letters have a way of revealing parts of ourselves we wouldn’t otherwise, as does distance between lovers.

The story telling through records, letters and diaries is a difficult art to master for any author, and at times I felt I was reading historical non-fiction. There are the slow moments too, but in unexplored territory in the Alaskan wilderness  wouldn’t there naturally be slow times? It sets the atmosphere, the quiet dragging days and nights. Forester’s adventures are often bizarre and inexplicable, and I am a sucker for mysterious happenings. What a better place for strangeness than uncharted territory?

There is a team of men with Forrester, and the Old Man was a heck of a character. “Samuelson says the natives believe the Old Man can change the weather, make people sick or cure them, as suits his mood. Years ago, they say, he stole an Eyak’s wife & the husband shot him. The Old Man just coughed up the bullet, spat it on the ground, & went on unharmed.”

“Most of all, he says, the Old Man is unpredictable. Today he’ll rob you blind, but tomorrow he might give you a warm blanket when you need it most. ” Is he just a rascal?  The pictures and clippings within the novel is why, despite a free eBook for review, I went out and bought a copy.

How could the reader not love Sophie with her bird imitations upon meeting MacGillivray? Her “churry churry churry choo’ call? I admit to being a bit of a bird stalker myself, and she won me over. It was much easier to warm to her than her husband because by comparison he is more reserved, but such was the nature of men in bygone times. How reserved could you really be at heart, plunging into unknown situations? But from his records it was fascinating thinking about the native culture. From the descriptions of their belongings “spoons formed of animal horn” to the touch of the outside world upon them I felt I was a part of the expedition. Too, I thought about how outsiders encroached upon not only an uncharted land, but upon the people too. Again, To The Bright Edge of the World reads more like non-fiction, I was reminded of a book (the title escapes me now) I read that was a non-fiction collection of women’s diary entries. One story was about an Inuit woman left to give birth alone (I can’t even imagine)  in a similar place, using a seal she had to kill to feed herself and  keep her newborn alive, to survive through harsh conditions. This novel felt as real as that.

 

“Have you ever seen the nest of a hummingbird? She would march to Kingdom Come in search of one, the Colonel says. He is bemused & clumsy in his affection.”

How does this novel manage to be a romance full of science, independent, strong characters,wild exploration and yet contain magical realism too? How it smoothly merges the past and present with the Colonel’s great nephew Walt’s decision to share his family’s legacy was charming. I am not sure how the author cooked this up but it’s a delight! When Josh, the curator, takes an interest in the family’s effects (photos, journals, letters, personal items) a friendship is birthed and he is as seduced as the reader by Colonel Allen Forrester and Sophie.  Could the men even discover the true story behind the rascally mystical Old Man?

You have to read to find out. And remember it is fiction, it just feels that real that you forget.

Available Now

Little, Brown and Company