Sour Heart: Stories by Jenny Zhang

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“She looked like an alien. (But then again, I was an alien, too; that was the box I had to check on every form. Did aliens have unalienable rights? Were we entitled to liberty and justice?)”

Let’s get this out of the way, there are a couple of stories at the start of the collection that some readers may find disturbing, particularly the sexual encounters between Lucy and Francine and the horrible treatment of Frangie. In fact, some people will stop reading there. But not all the stories carry on in that vein and it would be a shame to miss out of Zhang’s solid writing. Too, the children running wild on the streets of Shanghai, coming into power, turning in parents, abusing and punishing their elders, naming any and everyone at their whim as a counterrevolutionary is beyond humiliating and horrific. History is not pretty. I will revisit this collection in coming months, because it’s not out until the fall of 2017 and I want to wait to finish my review when it’s closer to the release date. But I was riveted by their struggles against poverty, trying to acclimate to a completely new culture and how it touched the lives of their children. Every immigrant experience is different,  I have much more to say when we’re closer to the actual release date. These are not light stories. When I got deeper into the book, they changed tone- the characters were fascinating. Watch this space.

Publication Date: August 1, 2o17

Random House Publishing

Lenny

Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages

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“She intends to be a good girl, but shrubs and sheds and unlocked cupboards beckon.  In photographs, her eyes sparkle with unspent mischief; the corner of her mouth quirks in a grin. She is energy that cannot abide fences. When she sleeps, her mother smooths a hand over her cheek in affection and relief.”

I am not going to be alone in loving the first story  The Education Of A Witch in this collection.. In fact, is it crazy to cling to some malingering hope that Klages might be inspired to write a full novel about this wicked little girl?  In another story a girl tumbles into Clue and other childhood games and dice plays a wicked “ROLL” , another two little girls have a sleepover and explore a place in the closest with a strange man named Hollis. All of these stories have a strange little bend in them but the magic isn’t overwhelming, they are ‘curiouser and curiouser’ still. None are as fantastic to me as the first but all are playful in their own right.

In Singing on a Star one could easily manipulate the story, look deeper into it. Could it all be a fantasy a little girl conjured about the sleepover to explain what happened to her friend? That’s the fun part in reading these sort of tales. We can put any meaning we want on them or just enjoy their playfulness. The lovers in Echoes of Aurora filled me with tenderness. Is she in love with a real person or her youth? “Everything was as familiar at it was alien, and in that setting, in the early spring twilight, logic and Rory could not co-exist. Rory smiled, and logic lost.” Logic truly is the murderer of our fantastical childhood. I enjoyed the originality of this collection. So many lyrical/magical stories try too hard, just throwing in weird happenings for the sake of being weird. Not so here. They aren’t outlandish in the telling-they sit just right in their strangeness.

Publication Date: May 23, 2017

Tachyon Publications

The Stone Collection (The Debwe Series) by Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm

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“We’re all relations you know. We got that blood, that same blood. Remember that. And remember the land don’t belong to anybody. We belong to her.”

The Debwe Series features Indigenous writing by authors in Canada. The Stone Collection has stories are about the modern day Anishinaabe.  There is loss, violence, death,  and stones. Stones that are full of spirit. The horror that happens to an old woman, who is like a grandmother to all the children is strange, and the suicide attempt isn’t the point in Justin Root’s tale- it’s what led him there. Salvation could be the earth, in a tree’s ‘weakness’. Some of the stories didn’t hold my attention and then I would read one that moved me. The story Chloe made me think about houses all over the world, the ones you stay away from, the poor children that are trapped in them and the world turns a blind eye to. I thought too about the men who ‘make your hair stand on end’. Men who have access to children, be them their fathers, stepfather, etc.  A brother who is looking for his sister he wasn’t strong enough to leave with, knowing she may have come to a terrible end. It’s a story the traverses all cultures, isn’t it? It’s a fast read and was a break from the short stories I’ve read lately. There is a taste of a different culture I knew nothing about. Stories about life on and off the rez. My favorite was Mashkii- akii because sometimes it’s beautiful to be saved by something outside yourself, like a tree.

Available Now

Portage & Main Press

HighWater Press

How To Behave In A Crowd: A Novel by Camille Bordas

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“Because what goes on in your head when you step out of the present is always richer and more satisfying than what you come back to when you’re done. That’s the sad part. That’s what’s at the core of melancholy, not the things you actually imagine. The present is disappointing in a way you can’t act upon while it’s happening. But once you’ve made a memory of something, you can throw away the meaningless parts and write better versions of it.” 

I am in love with this novel. There, I said it. At 11 years old, Isidore “Izzie”  Maza is the youngest of six children, all whose intelligent far surpasses his own. In fact, their intelligence surpasses most people, children and adults alike. Simone and he share a room, and though she isn’t much older, she is years ahead of him in school and already has plans for her success and has put Isidore in charge of collecting information about her to write her biography one day. While his siblings are in pursuit of vast knowledge and defending their dissertations, getting doctorates he is busy noticing all the details in life that are overlooked. Tragedy falls upon the family, but he is the only one that truly notices how it affects everyone. The siblings seem to go about life as usual, but there are cracks and Izzie is slipping in. Though he comes from a large family the house has never been one of excitement with his siblings living in their rooms in self-imposed exile. They have all the answers, but most of what Izzie knows are things his siblings don’t even realize they have missed. It’s a beautiful exploration on real intelligence and how striving to be the best comes at a cost.

When Izzie and Denise (another social outcast at school) become friends, the novel intensifies and breaks your heart at the conclusion. I felt sad for days after reading this gorgeous novel. It’s one of those stories that I don’t really care if anyone gets why I loved it. I think there is a bit of Izzie in all of us. He doesn’t know which way is up sometimes but he understands so much more than his older siblings do, yet he doesn’t even know he knows. I was thinking the author was going to fix people, and GOD I hate that. Real people know there aren’t any quick fixes for the big issues we face- death, depression, mental illness, old age. There is only learning how to go on carrying that weight, maybe hoping someone will come along and relieve it now and then. What happens with Denise was very well written, and terribly heart-wrenching. I read it two nights in a row, and losing sleep was no loss at all.

There is a charater named Daphné in the novel, so old young children are terrified of her but she is popular and celebrated for living so long. His encounters with her are a gem too, and the saddest quote in the book is how she describes living so long. I caught my breath, because it is what I imagine one who has outlived so many loved ones would feel. Of course, I can’t share that quote because this novel isn’t out here until August 15th of this year and I read an uncorrected proof. For me, this novel is perfection. Everyone in it is awful and beautiful. There is snobbery and a coldness in his siblings brilliance, but they haven’t really touched life yet, so buried in their books, music, etc. Much of what meaning they strive for crumbles in eldest sister (the one everyone looks up to and tries to be) Berenice’s life in Paris. But only Izzy is privy to the decline.

There isn’t much I can write without ruining the story. It is a beautiful dissection of one gifted family, and there are so many flaws in their perfection. Izzie humanizes each of his siblings simply by being different from them all. While he may not have an ease with educational pursuits, he is brilliant in his humanity and has things to teach his siblings that professors and books never will. I can’t gush about this novel enough. Read it! I can’t wait to get my hands on more of Camille’s writing! I think I have a new favorite author.

Publication Date: August 15, 2017

Crown Publishing

Tim Duggan Books

 

 

Extraordinary Adventures: A Novel by Daniel Wallace

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“You’ve always been exactly who you are. Hesitant. A second-guesser of second guesses.” 

This story starts off very slowly, so slowly the reader begins to feel they too are trapped in Edsel Broffman’s colorless life. Nothing happens to or for him, and it seems he lives life in suspended time. He doesn’t make anything happen, as so many others would at least attempt to do in a dull existence. Then, something finally does, he gets a phone call informing him he has won a free week in a beachfront condo in Destin, Fl but the catch? He has to bring a partner as it’s only for couples. This is a kick in the arse that Edsel needed to finally slink out of his loneliness. He has finally won something! Let the adventures begin.

Edsel is awkward and conflicted, and being a second-guesser has kept him from actually doing anything. His mother is slowly losing it, in fact I think she was the most interesting character. Her antics are both funny and achingly sad. Maybe it is true though, a little, that she should have ‘pushed you out of the nest with more vigor.’ Edsel is a kind man, but he is bland. Every other character is full of life, and I understand that is the intention. Edsel needs to find his fire. Fire comes in the form of Shelia, who starts as a friend. But Shelia isn’t everything she seems to be. I know some people are going to hate this about her. I think it was wonderful, someone like Edsel isn’t going to be savvy when it comes to women or men, honestly. He is the sort who can be and gets taken. Not everyone in the world has everyone around them pegged, though we like to think we do. Shelia, with all her issues, isn’t any better or worse than Edsel. What are but a collection of our successes and our failings? Edsel’s biggest demon is his lack of faith in himself.

The first half didn’t engage me as much as the second half. I didn’t love this, but there were things about all the characters that tickled me. I think a younger audience needs far more excitement in a novel that has the title extraordinary in it. What is extraordinary is that this man, so set in his slow life, breaks out and finally sees the light of day. It is extraordinary to change, we are creatures of habit. We come to accept all manner of things we shouldn’t. I took me ages to learn that because we always wonder why people put up with, or stay stuck in so many different situations. It’s because it’s easier to know what to expect, it’s the rotten truth that to change any situation requires responsibility. You are your salvation. So while his adventures are small such as encountering the underbelly of our times in his own slum-like apartment complex, attempting to date, and connect with people, they are still adventures with a capital A to someone as rejected from life as Edsel. If you have read Wallace before, you know strange unlikely things happen. It’s what has made some of his other work so unique. Who knows, life is stranger than fiction, you certainly notice these things as you collect years. Who knows, maybe women helping you have faith in the… errr…size of your manhood isn’t so ridiculous. Good but not my favorite Wallace. Again, I think it is better geared towards an older generation because they know that life knocks you about.

 

Publication Date: May 30, 2017

St. Martin’s Press

 

All The Galaxies by Phillip Miller

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He had the shape of a memory, but it was pale, uncolored.

This is a hard novel to describe because it is Sci-Fi, mystical,  but with an oppressive world thrown in, full of the sort of questions we ask ourselves hoping for and fearing the answers. The questions that swallow us, life and death and everything gooey in between. It is apocalyptic and dark, but I loved the father/son story. John Fallon  is a single father, a journalist, miserable. Scotland has fallen apart, those taking charge are corrupt, the future of Scotland , separated into states, looks bleak. Fallon’s son Roland has gone missing after student protests against the police have soured and become violent. Parallel to their story, a boy and his dog (spirit guide) traverse the universe, the afterlife looking for his mother. Is he real? How does the story of the young boy and his dog tie into the father/son? When do journeys begin and end? What do we understand of the world and each other?

It’s about a father’s failure in relation to his son, as much as the world around him is falling, failing. It’s about so much that I can’t even find the words to describe it. It engages the reader, leaving you a bit numb wondering about life, meaning. Time controls so much, we make so many mistakes with our loved ones. Can love traverse chaos, corruption, galaxies, time or death? This was sadder than I expected when I got to the end. It seems nothing is solid here, and what you think you know and understand shifts. Perfect for readers who like to question the universe and every creature inside and outside of it. While it is Sci-Fi there is a supernatural flavoring too.
Lovely.

Publication Date: April 6, 2o17

Freight Books

Sunshine State by Sara Gerard

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“Every day. Bob’s parent’s sued people- the city, other motorists, etc.- for a living.”

Essays, memoir, environmental… all these things make up this collection. BFF is a fantastic choice to start the book. It’s a raw, brutal bloodletting on friendship. It’s a give and take, it’s envy and love, it’s everything crazy, young girls are made of- it’s not sugar and spice my friends. Florida grown myself, having left, lived in other countries and traveled, I too have left people behind. The Florida I returned to is never the same one I left. It is a strange world made up of transplants (people) and fierce creatures that are like throwbacks from the prehistoric age. Reading about the cult like spiritual community her parents fell into for a spell, I too scratched my head in wonder as to why they fell for it? But then, why do we fall for anything? I vaguely remember hearing murmurings in my youth about Christian Science, as much as mystery to me then as Scientology is now and how the heck are the two the same and different? My knowledge, both have roots in Clearwater, Florida. Again, you can’t live in Florida and not hear rumors or stories about both. This up close account is enthralling, and people get a high from their beliefs. Everything has something positive, why else do people turn to it?

Then her parents get involved with Amway, and they’re prey to hope, seduced by a better life.  Which got me thinking about a friend of mine and her parents getting involved with some Malacca selling scheme in the late 80’s, but that’s another story. This is one of the strangest collections I’ve read. It’s not that Gerard is strange, just life, particularly here in the Sunshine State. The bad girl high school years, her drug and alcohol didn’t ruin her as it does other kids, which makes warnings sort of fall flat doesn’t it? Some people still come out of the muck of such things unscathed, it seems. Makes those after school specials a bit suspect eh? But friends, it’s not just a Florida thing. Drugs are in all corners of this country.

The part of the book dealing with substance abuse and homelessness is eye-opening. Painfully so. Safe Harbor and the many people waiting for disability bouncing from shelter to shelter is like a nightmare to someone like me, whose never gone hungry nor lived on the streets. Reading about the sort of women that end up in shelters… victims mostly sat with me for sometime. The Sunshine State is about a sanctuary gone awry, as best intentions often do. Ralph seems a strange, fascinating bird himself. How does hoarding come into it? Read on…

Aside from BFF I adored her writing on Rabbit about her grandparents and her husbands own medical struggles. Again the Velveteen Rabbit appears in my reading… it’s beautiful, just the very pacts made. This collection is strange, just as life is. A talent to watch!

Available April 11, 2017

Harper Collins

 

 

The Chalk Artist: A Novel by Allegra Goodman

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“He grew so intent on capturing her that sometimes he felt he had to get away from her.”

Some books remind you of things happening in your own life. With a daughter in college for Graphic Design and a son in college studying Game Design, the characters all felt familiar. Collin James is a chalk artist, he wipes away his art and it doesn’t last- nor does much else in his life. Naturally when Nina comes on the scene, love isn’t so easy to wash off. She sees in him so much potential and the need to change him, but for his own good. Isn’t it time he uses his amazing talent to his own benefit? I remember a discussion from class my daughter shared with me about how the moment art is saved it will never be fresh, new. It alters the creation, particularly when it’s reproduced, commercialized. Certainly there was more to the conversation, but most of us cringe thinking of art being erased. It reminds me of the beautiful sand mandalas the Buddhist monks create and destroy, of course that has to do with enlightenment, so I digress. Collin creates without demands and expectations attached, until Nina- the daughter of a tech mogul who has the edge on virtual reality gaming, knows she can help him get in the door. While it’s who you know, he has a gift, a very useful one in creating anything that can be drawn.

Nina is a school teacher, and while it’s true she could easily give up and still be safe with her family wealth, she truly cares about the job, the students. The problem is her freshness is the very thing students can smell and turn against. Enthusiastic or not, she isn’t reaching them, but Collin frees her and helps her find a new approach. He’s good for her, even if he doesn’t have ambitions, even if his apartment is squalid. Pushing him to work for her family company may sour their love, but if it’s helps him use his talent to make a life for himself, then it’s worth the risk. Nina doesn’t count on how much he will dive into the job, or the interest he will have in like minded co-workers. The company itself is like a wild beast, that may devour everything in it’s path, including the lovers.

Now for the students. Aidan and Diana are twins, and understand each other in ways not even their mother can divine. So while her brother is able to fool others, nothing gets past his sister, especially his addiction to the very virtual world that Nina wants her boyfriend Collin to work for, that her father’s company created. His addiction is growing like a disease, and he is not just being manipulated by virtual beings. Diana and her brother have always protected each other but can she save him now? Particularly when she is so lost herself and wants nothing more than to disappear. Once the twins were both full of energy and involved in sports until Diana changed, her body growing out as Aidan grew up. No amount of her mother Kerry’s wishing can change the heaviness that has settled over her body, and her heart. “Words could not change anything. ‘You’re a beautiful girl’ was like saying God is good. You didn’t say these things because they were true, you said them because you hoped the universe would take pity on you.’  Will it? Will the universe take pity on any of the characters within?

Using the students in this story works beautifully. It’s easy to cast your character as an idealistic teacher but better to show how her freshness rubs against the reality of students from backgrounds vastly different from her own. The ideal of a thing is always terrific, it’s the obstacles that are the problem. In fact, the same can be said for her vision for Collin. As Vikram Seth said, “God save us from people who mean well.” We step in it enough in our own lives to be thinking we can manage everyone else’s. Will Collin grow up? Will he use his artistry to finally be able to stand on his own or will he continue to wash away his days? Has Nina found her true calling in teaching, can she really reach these teens disinterested in dusty old literature, arts? Can you die of gaming addiction? Will Diana disappear or find herself? You’ll have to read to find out. For artists, gamers, misfits and anyone related to them.

Publication Date: June 13, 2017

Random House

The Dial Press

Perennials: A Novel by Mandy Berman

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“This was the underbelly of responsibility: When things went wrong, the fingers turned back at you.”

A friendship that begins at summer camp as children carries two young women back to camp as counselors. The story opens at Camp Marigold , Rachel Rivkin and Fiona Larkin become childhood friends bonded by their shared experiences there. As is often the case in the most lasting friendships, the two come from completely different homes and worlds.  Rachel’s raised by a single mother, her father absent- a chunk of her life a secret. Where her mother comes off as a train wreck, and her life less sheltered than Fiona’s, there is love. Denise’s set up with Rachel’s father is complicated and she pulled the short stick but he has means, and not much else to give their daughter. Growing up in a home where a beautiful mother has only herself to rely on  can leave edges on a kid but it also can make them stronger, more outgoing. Rachel has spunk, ease with friends and boys as the girls hit their teens. Her life is full of experience, simply by where she comes from. Her secrets are always bigger than Fiona’s, and there is envy as much as their is love in their friendship. Fiona is another story, where Rachel is fun and worldly, attractive- Fiona feels average and boring. Her side of the friendship is being the ‘responsible one’, always sober about everything in life, in every moment. Can you love and hate your best friend at the same time?

Along with their story, the year the friends return as camp counselors, Fiona’s pretty, shy little sister Helen joins the camp. In many ways, she doesn’t have the same ambition of her siblings, never one to do anything but what she chooses. There is a strain between the sisters, and Fiona often seems negative and sour, so much so that Helen wonders how in the world she and the vibrant Rachel are friends. How can college be so wonderful when her sister is gloomy? Helen is drawn to kids from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ which is anyone less fortunate than her family. Lucky for her, Rachel is in charge of her cabin.

A lot of what hit me is how Fiona victimizes herself despite her privilege and Rachel has much more in her life to whine about and yet doesn’t. Both exhaust each other as they grow, one being more wild the other too tame. There are more stories about counselors and campers, the parents, but the main focus is on Fiona and Rachel. People change, and friendships can be a weight as much as they can uplift you. Life is precious and the universe can seem random, and this final summer at camp is going to change all of them.

I never went to camp, I spent my summers on the beach or swimming in my pool, going to Disney World with whichever relative came around.. but I got a taste of it reading this novel. It’s not just about camp though, in fact it’s more about the pain of shedding our skin as we come of age, drifting away from friends and family. It’s about envy of friends and even siblings, how our parent’s disastrous love molds us and why we need people different from ourselves to grow. The end was sad, didn’t expect that. For those hungry to walk down memory lane of their summers at camp and those who never went and wondered about it. This will be out just in time for summer reading.

Publication Date: June 6, 2017

Random House

My Life As A Bench by Jaq Hazzel

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Why dump me here? It’s where the old people sit.

Seventeen year old Ren Miller is dead, stuck haunting a park bench memorial by the River Thames, London. Nothing haunts her more than her longing to see Gabe, her boyfriend while she was alive. Surprisingly while it may annoy some readers, thinking of teenagers and the obsessive all consuming love, I think some have forgotten what it early love is like. Ren and Gabe forever, right? What could be worse than being stuck riverside with so much life left to live? Being 17, and barely having lived any life at all. Ren meets a fellow spirit Lionel that has been riverside for much longer. It is through him that she is able to slowly dissect the life she no longer has.

People come and go, but not Gabe. All she wants is Gabe to visit her bench. She dismisses most of her loved ones, wanting no one but him. Self-centered, her longings clouded by hungry love. But when she catches in conversation between her mother and younger brother Jay that Gabriel is certainly the reason she is dead, she is obsessed with proving he isn’t. How do you prove anything when you’re dead and no one can hear you? Or can they? Can she haunt someone, isn’t she haunting this bench, in a sense? Could she be wrong about her beloved? Did he kill her?  She doesn’t want to believe it. She can’t believe it. All she wants is to connect with one of the living, to get to the truth, to keep her beloved from being blamed. But is she blinded by love or was someone else involved?

That she only met her father recently having fled her home after a different relationship soured, it’s tragic how little time she had with him too. We journey back and forth through her life, seeing the end of her dreams for becoming a singer with her death. Life is short and it’s brutal letting go, more so at Seventeen. That Lionel is older is a lovely idea, because much like speaking different languages, time in itself is similar. Inventions, pop culture, slang… is like a foreign country. It was a clever to remember that Lionel wouldn’t know slang nor all the devices we use. Ren came off like most young people do to their elders. Most people are self-centered, it’s our only real experience, and certainly so much more when we’re in our formative years. I was waiting for something to hit me in the gut at the end but it didn’t happen. Then again, maybe the intention of the author wasn’t meant to be shocking and dark. I’d expect more anger from a seventeen year old who just lost her life, is anything more horrifying to imagine, well aside from being dead and stuck riverside?

It’s a good story, there were times I felt we didn’t need to hear her go on about Gabe but if I am honest I have to remember when someone is in love, and especially young people before bitterness and experience poisons their soul,  it’s all they can annoy the rest of us with. This is one a much younger crowd may enjoy.

Publication Date: May 2, 2o17

Nowness Books