The Secrets She Keeps: A Novel by Michael Robotham

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“Jack and I had skirmishes rather than battles. We are like Cold War diplomats who say nice things to each other while secretly stockpiling ammunition. When do couples run out of things to say, I wonder. When does the passion wane?”

When do secrets become the norm in a marriage? And how was the dazzling Meghan to know that her secrets will become dangerous to her child? What about the secrets we keep in order to lie to ourselves, to build a life we want but don’t truly have? How do delusions overtake reality so viciously that it endangers strangers? When you first decide to deceive, the moment you involve others, you’ve already lost control.

Two women are pregnant but their worlds are vastly different. Meghan has a seemingly charmed life, one of wealth, beauty,  chic friends, a handsome husband, beautiful children and a popular blog. Agatha is her polar opposite, pregnant and alone, working in a cruddy job stocking goods in a grocery store (a job she desperately needs) barely surviving, uninteresting, unloved, nearly invisible. Her one joy is the chance to witness Meghan’s beautiful life, Meghan is the one fresh breeze that sweeps through the depressing store. Imagine Agatha’s joy when she discovers that Meghan and her are both pregnant, share due dates close together and become friends. Agatha doesn’t know Meghan’s dream life is falling apart, that everything that appears perfect and beautiful from afar may have severe cracks upon closer inspection. Agatha has secrets of her own, some devastating, others horrifying. She spends her free time waiting for her reluctant boyfriend away at sea in the Royal Navy to call,and denying to see the bleak reality of her unpromising future. That is when she isn’t busy spying on Meghan and her perfect world in her secret hiding place. How much does she truly know from all her ‘watching’, what doesn’t she see?  Both Meghan and Agatha are liars, but some lies are far more poisonous than others.

When a baby goes missing… the reader is privy to a declining mind, as much as a declining marriage, both Agatha and Meghan step in their own mess over and over again. Some mistakes cannot be fixed, some make a mother look downright guilty… where is the baby? No one behaves as you expect, not even when they suspect something untoward is happening. This is any mother’s worst nightmare, and yet the reader feels sorry for the perpetrator.  What happens when you’re mind is breaking and no one is there to hear? What do you do when your lies are coming to a head and your life is on the verge of collapsing?

Who can guess that a moment of female camaraderie will open someone to danger beyond their wildest dreams? The terror of this novel is in the plausibility. We’ve seen stranger stories ripped right out of the headlines. What is more terrifying than a story that could be a true crime horror? Yet, it also manages to provoke feelings of tenderness and invite questions about the state of mental health. It reminds us when unthinkable things happen to someone, they carry it in their cells, that human beings should be far more involved  in the healing  and others held accountable for what happens to victims. Sadly, that isn’t the reality. The truth is, so many people are on their own, cast out when they should be heard, supported, and healed.  This novel is disturbing, yet all the characters made me feel it’s more than just a thriller/horror. Horror? Yes, because what people do to each other is far more horrible than any imagined monster.

I couldn’t put it down, I found myself in both Agatha and Meghan’s shoes. Though living in two separate worlds, they have one vital truth in common- neither woman is what she seems, and their lies are going to change both their lives. Everything will be exposed.

Publication Date: July 11, 2017

Scribner

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Carnivalesque by Neil Jordan

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“And the thing that was not Andy walked outside to be swept up into his mother’s arms, and he was in the mirror now.”

This is a bizarre story. When Andy walks into Burleigh’s Amazing Hall of Mirrors, his reflection steps out, going home to live his life with his parents and poor Andy is trapped inside of the the mirrors, a silent reflection of his former self. A girl (Mona) finds him  in the mirrors and pulls him out, into a strange carnival world. He is hers to keep, she found him, no one else! Her hands… though she looks young, ‘There was something either very old, that should have died a long time ago, or something very new, that had not yet been born, about those hands.”  She doesn’t have a true age, she is a talented trapeze artist yet not the sort his world is familiar with.  Everything is different here, even time itself.  He will come to understand the eerie truth about her and all the inhabitants of this mysterious world. They are myths, stories…  Is this where all the changelings go, or is it where the come from entering our own world? Andy’s mother feels something is different about her son on their way home, his father imagines the boy is just growing up. It made me feel terribly sad, because teenagers can feel like changelings, as they shake off the skin of their youth, no longer needing you quite in the same way. Naturally here, it’s more fantastical and Andy isn’t Andy, not really. Deep in her being, his mother knows it- but will she ever be reunited with the true Andy? And just how does his father play into everything? Is this a story about growing up, is the ‘changeling’ aspect simply a splitting of sorts- to represent the moment Andy departs his boyhood and steps onto the path of adulthood? Everything exists as is, and questions aren’t really meant to be answered. It’s a story you can take away meaning or simply enjoy the fantasy of it.

The real Andy is living in a strange world transforming into a carny himself, becoming strong and capable until he almost feels that other life never existed, as if it were a dream. He is privy to the secrets, the strange mysteries of the people and their seemingly endless lives. There is a mysterious mold they scrape, vital to their survival… And what of Burleigh, the creator of ‘mirrors’- the man Andy’s mother had a strange encounter with? Just why isn’t he a part of the carnival anymore? When Andy has the chance to go back, does he? Can we ever go back to being a beloved little child?

There is a fairy-tale quality, even though most carnival or ‘freak show’ stories are usually magical realism, this one has an ancient feel to it, not magical and not fairy-tale but sort of both, I didn’t feel like I was in modern times, which was nice. But I didn’t expect to feel heavy and sad, I know- how many genuine, original fairy-tales have happy endings? How many characters go on to capture their butterflies of happiness? Not many. Andy wants to know what ‘the Land of Spices’ they talk about it is, now that he is ‘part of the story’. ‘You can be part of the story.’ Mona was saying, and never know the whole of it.’ Just what is his part? How did he stumble into this place? Is he meant to remain in the carnival where instead of memories, which living people like him carry inside of them, they have stories. Stories are the places they come from. Is this a lifeless place?

It was a strange read, and there were times I had to push myself through, but I am curious and wanted to know how it would end. It’s a uniquely written novel, not like anything I’ve read before. I love, love LOVE “The Company of Wolves”- I own the DVD! I’ve made my kids watch it, and this novel has a similar feel. You don’t really know what ‘you know’.  It’s a strange film, if you haven’t seen it- I urge you too, if you have weird taste like me. The famous Angela Lansbury was in it, and it was written by Angela Carter-I mention it because this author, Neil Jordan directed it. With that said, I can feel a similar oddness in Carnival. Much like the film I mentioned, with this novel I walked away picking it apart and losing threads of meaning, because you can’t quite pin it down. Maybe that’s the point.

Publication Date: June 6, 2017

Bloomsbury USA

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore: A Novel by Matthew Sullivan

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“He was a shattered young man, Lydia often thought, haunted but harmless- a dust bunny blowing through the corners of the store.”

Lydia Smith isn’t just the keeper of the books in the bookstore where she works, but of the collection of customers and the lonely, BookFrogs. The BookFrogs, the ones who come into the store to escape from the ruins of their lives, to find comfort within the pages of books, seeking acceptance in a world where they are shunned. Little does she know that one in particular, her favorite, is about to rip her quiet comfortable world wide open. Joey McGinty has always liked Lydia best of all the clerks, “the wooden floors around his feet would be spread with books about subjects as far-reaching as his thoughts”, it crushes her when he commits suicide by hanging himself, more so because she is the one who finds him, in the store. More than the grief, she is left spinning when she inherits everything he owned, and it isn’t much. Curiously, there is a mystery within his books, strange messages, unless she is seeing something that simply isn’t there. What if these ‘messages’ were no more than a quiet unraveling? What about Lyle, just where is he? How curious that the man, though so much Joey’s opposite, that was always glued to Joey is suddenly missing in action. Joey was like a bird, taken under the wise, decades older British man, fellow BookFrog’s wing. The constant presence, always to be found beside Joey “folded into corners for hours at a time”, with an enviable, beautiful affectionate friendship. If she finds him, can he see the reason in the suicide?

As she rummages through Joey’s belongings, her violent past creeps back into her life, a world she has made safe, unassuming, and simple. Her past begs the question, how much of a violent encounter during her childhood did she really understand? Just who was Hammerman? Why did he do what he did? Was she truly spared, or did her life end on that night too, just in a different way?

Lydia may be living in a safe bubble, hiding with her books, her customers but the Hammerman has never released his bloody claim on her. The tragedy of Joey’s suicide serves as breadcrumbs leading the past straight to her. When her childhood friend, Raj, happens upon her, she can no longer deny the hands of the past reaching, pulling her back home to unmask a killer. Estranged from her father, is it safe to return to the man whose behavior was increasingly bizarre? The man she abandoned to save her own sanity, family or not? What a child remembers and leaves for the adult self to sift through is often at odds with the truth, none more so than in Lydia’s mind.

What happens in this novel goes from heartbreaking, to downright brutal! I really had a hard time putting this book down when I was reading it. I held my fingers back for months as it isn’t out until June, burning to review it because I enjoyed this book for so many different reasons. The start of the novel eviscerated me, I hated Joey’s suicide so much more by the novels end and I was wounded and limping through everything that happened to all the characters from Lydia’s childhood. The senselessness tragedy of the crime, the terrifying fear of a young child and later, her father- how one moment of chance destroys more than one future, there is too heavy a reality here. Without going into details about my private life, this novel was read not long after something horrific happened to two people I knew and it made it seem less fictional. How could so brutal a story manage to make my heart tender too? With gorgeous talent, Matthew Sullivan took what could have been a horror story and turned it literary fiction. Often, thrillers have a way of making the reader feel detached, this is the opposite. I put the book down and felt a stony sorrow in my heart for quite some time after. Violence is a monster that stalks it’s victims, and all the bystanders, long after horrific acts are committed. How many lives are destroyed?  In the end, even with the truth unmasked, does it ever truly settle us? It opens other wounds, and reminds us that sometimes reason is a hollow excuse. I kept thinking ‘there is no why’ to these terrible acts in the end. Oh so sad! Yes- add this to your summer reading list!

Publication Date: June 13, 2017

Scribner

Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation Michael Chabon, Ayelet Waldman

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“When laws are irrational, and paranoia is rampant, and ancient hatreds undergird both, life becomes a series of frustrations and humiliations, and humiliated people are either broken spiritless or, with nothing to lose, are driven to acts of violent desperation. The young people tasked with enforcing these dehumanizing laws and regulations become, too,  less human- they become callous, irrational, finding perverse pleasure in the willful exercise of power.”  

As someone that grew up in America, I can’t begin to scratch the surface of understanding the conflict between Israel and Palestine. That former Israeli soldiers break their silence, speaking up about injustices they witnessed while serving in occupied territories is nothing short of moving and of vital importance in understanding what is going on. I had to read these stories in spurts because it was too disturbing, and how lucky for me that I can remove myself, unlike the people living under occupation. The closest I have come to understanding how occupation affects people is through my own father and his family, who fled communism. What happens when you’re on the land that is occupied, simply by the happenstance of your birth and the world doesn’t listen, or if they do, doesn’t seem to be able to change much? How do we get to the point where we dehumanize each other? At the heart of all human beings, we want to build families, to see our children educated, healthy… simply to thrive, to worship as we see fit and yet, we deny others that human right.

I was shocked, nothing short of shocked and horrified by what I read. It truly is grim, and who better to give voice than those living within’ the chaos? I felt numb, but I feel it’s vital to try and listen to people, to understand, to open our eyes. What good are words if we cannot speak them, our stories are witness to all human experience, there isn’t a story in the world that doesn’t have something to teach us about ourselves, and each other. That on both sides there are people that want peace, that see the wrong and are willing to stand up for what they believe is right gives me hope for humanity as a whole. There was so much I didn’t know, and putting myself, my family in the stories of the people within,  I spent quite a few sleepless nights  wondering how do they survive? Resilience is a necessity, one even children seem to have. Children for me is always the gut punch, I had to catch my breath at times. I don’t want to dissect any of the essays in this collection, I feel people need to experience what they read in their own way. I am reeling, and wondering what is the answer? What can be done? What role does the Western World have in all of this? It’s an incredibly detailed insight into the occupation. In The End Of Reason by Eimear McBride, this really stood out to me. ‘But “I don’t need your tears” a woman in Nabi Saleh said, after I’d watched a home video of one of her relatives dying horribly, bloodily, from a tear gas canister being fired in his face. And it’s true, the emotion of well meaning outsiders like me is of no worth.” It’s something that can be applied to so much of the world, what good are tears? It won’t fix anything.  This is heavy reading, it weighs on me still though I am a fast reader, I found myself at times needing a break, luckily for someone far removed from the realities others live with I could put the reading down and tune out.  Writers that contributed to Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Colum McCann, Jacqueline Woodson, Colm Toibin, Geraldine Brooks, Dave Eggers, Hari Kunzru, Raja Shehadeh, Mario Vargas Llosa and Assaf Gavron,  editors Chabon and Waldman  

Publication Date May 30, 2017

Harper Perennial

Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

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“In 2014, there were about 6,000 searches for the exact phrase “how to kill your girlfriend” and 400 murders of girlfriends.” 

 

As a chapter tells us, ALL THE WORLD’S A LAB. The data collected and shared by Seth Stephens- Davidowitz is downright disturbing at times. That there are dark sexual proclivities isn’t shocking so much as what they are, based on research. Also, who knew that your neighbor winning the lottery can have a strange impact on your own life. How odd human nature, what bizarre subjects human beings become, and subjects of research, it seems, we all are. What the heck does google searches reveal about us? A lot, actually. I spent a few chapters of this book with my moth hanging open, catching flies. Ethical questions certainly give rise to much of the research, just where is the ‘internet’ taking us all? Just who is watching, why? Well, read on my fellow test subjects. Do we think in strange ways? Naturally. I struggle with the methods of collecting data and yet, it’s true that while it can be used for nefarious purposes, just like anything else, there can be great benefits too.

How can we know what is real? How can anyone trust searches as solid fact? Data makes some of us cross eyed with boredom, but here Seth Stephens-Davidowitz presents it in a manner most people can understand and also be humored and at times shocked by. I will never think about strawberry pop tarts without thinking about hurricanes. A strange comment, but that’s what this book is all about- the bizarre data we provide, whether we realize it or not. Are we really just a bunch of liars? Do we all just masquerade online? Is the world so twisted? Just how much can you really measure to determine the future of what’s hot, what will sell, what stocks will rise and fall? How did one man predict the success of the horse American Pharoah? Who gives corporations the right to use collected data, and should they?

How do interests and fun tests measure IQ on facebook?  Just what is our doppelganger and why does it matter? And hilariously, how many of the readers finish books? What about this one? Well, I did. I particularly enjoyed the chapter “Was Freud Right?” I wonder, were he alive today, how much of his theories would stand up to actual research. The Banana dream data is food for thought and yes I’m trying to be punny here, I wonder what that means about me, according to research.

The information isn’t overbearing, and most of it is fascinating. Statistically, you may well finish this book too.

Publication Date: May 9, 2017

Dey Street Books

A Winter’s Love: A Novel by Madeleine L’Engle

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She opened her eyes and looked at his face close up, seeing and loving with a great rush of tenderness the tired lines beneath the eyes, and the delicate, high-bridged nose, and the mouth, the mouth she had been kissing with such abandon; and she had never noticed before that the teeth were just slightly protruding, like a rabbits, and in her mind she said- My bunny, oh, my darling bunny, and then she half laughed as he touched his nose gently against hers and kissed her again. pushing back passion with playfulness.

Madeleine L’Engle’s novel, A Winter’s Love was first published in 1957, this must be noted because to the modern reader the ‘forbidden’ situations within’ are common place today. Lovers living together in sin, older and unmarried- these things were shocking at one time. Affairs are the stuff of soap operas and talk shows, but there was still a naivete in full grown women, such as we encounter with Emily Bowen. With her marriage as frigid as her surroundings, her husband  Courtney (Court) reeling from the loss of his teaching job as a professor and focused on writing a novel on a ‘forced’ sabbatical in Switzerland, the family is drifting. Rather than turning to his wife, admitting his failings, he chooses instead to lick his wounds in privacy and erect a wall keeping his children and wife out. Being the ‘good little woman’ she’s been raised to be, Emily tries to go accept this farce as normal but deep down she is resentful. How better things would be if he would just let her in, after-all,  for any marriage to work both partners must embrace the good. the bad and the ugly between them. 

Still beautiful and vibrant, she is a woman of passions and finds a soft place to fall in the arms of Abe, someone whose meant something to her in the past, but this thing between is growing stronger, harder to hide when her eldest daughter is visiting with her friend in tow.  It isn’t long before Emily is seeing herself as wanton, realizing she isn’t much different from women like Gertrude when it comes to her needs and desires. Women she once judged as shameful, those whom flaunt convention. What happens when she too must make a choice? How can she take what her heart wants when it would cost her family, and worse likely devastate her broken, deeply unhappy husband?

The reader is privy to her inner turmoil and is present as she carries on an ‘illicit’ affair under the watchful eyes of others. Regardless of the times, there will always be a hunger for human beings to connect emotionally. The moment one spouse turns away from another, severing intimacy becomes like a poison in any marriage. Emily has been a staunch defender of her husband, despite his failures but she is lonely, angry, conflicted. While Abe is able to give her more than her husband can, currently swallowed  by his depression, is it real? Can she truly cut her husband out, like some cancer, rather than hoping he will once again come alive to her, be present in their marriage? How much of our happiness must we sacrifice, is it any more selfish to want to be loved than it is to for our partner to denies us basic emotional needs?

One thing is certain, people don’t like to think about infidelity too much. It casts far too many shadows on our own relationships.  No one wants to be the one betrayed, and yet it’s hard not to understand the loneliness of being in a marriage when your spouse has absented themselves. It’s always said women are ‘feeling creatures’ but truly, we all are. Everyone needs communion with another, or else- why marry at all? Why be in any sort of relationship? Outsiders will always gossip and judge what they will, because it’s easier than examining your own marriage. Emily is loyal, but she is falling in love with another man, deeply. He is giving her everything Court is denying her but is that enough reason to leap into the unknown? To divorce even?

While this is slow at times, considering it’s original publication date it’s much easier to immerse oneself into the heaviness of the subject. Shame, betrayal, choices, mistakes and all the what ifs… is the glory in remaining loyal and denying yourself happiness? Is there more glory in taking what the heart wants, even if it costs others dearly, maybe your own children? Just what will Emily do?

Publication Date: May 2, 2017

Open Road Integrated Media

 

The Girl Between: A Novel by Lisa Strømme

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“My own temptation got the better of me, and the grip my mother held on my conscience once again began to slip.”

Inspired by Edvard Munch’s painting, The Scream, Lisa Strømme has conjured a tormented love affair between Edvard Munch and an Admiral’s daughter, the beautiful Tullik Iheln. Johanne Lien is the eyes and ears of the story, hired to work for the Iheln family as a housemaid, her strawberry picking days are limited. A budding artist at heart, drawn to Edvard Munch’s presence and gift, with an affinity to his wandering loneliness, she becomes privy to the desire Munch and Tullik let devour them. Johanne’s mother shares the opinions of most people, that the paintings of Edvard Munch are like a disease, medical doctors said they cause illness and it’s filth! Johanne loves nothing more than painting and has an artist’s soul. She often sneaks to paint with the complicated artist. Where others despise him, she cares deeply for the tortured man.

Soon, she is forced to shirk her chores, duties and accompany Tullik on her trysts with the much older artist, one whose ‘name is like poison, salt on a wound in this family’ after something shockingly illicit happened in the past. This only makes him more desirable to Tullik. The lines between hired help and friendship blur as Johanne covers for the illicit affair, herself hungry for the desires and freedom Tullik’s status in life affords her. As she escapes her duties, she finds herself angering the rest of the ‘help’ in the home. Johanne has her own lover, in a young man named Thomas and enjoys moments of passion, but is unable to sink into the moment, her mind focused on keeping Tullik’s name free of any smears.

Johanne was once an artist’s inspiration herself, when she was a young child. Known as The Strawberry Girl from a painting, inspired by her real life strawberry picking, she has been a part of the art world since she was a little girl. It’s no mystery why she is passionate about painting and drawn to Munch, who is an outcast himself. His mind fascinates her. The story touches on what captures the eye of painters, be it poverty, common folk, working class or beautiful wealthy sirens like Tullik. Could Munch’s secret love affair have inspired his famous painting, The Scream? Munch kept so much of himself hidden, he carried a heavy sadness and a life of many losses, evident in his paintings. Could love have caused a howling torture in his soul? Tullik drives herself mad with the paintings he gifts her, unsure if the woman in the paintings is really her, or someone much closer to her in looks. Through her obsession and insecurity, her youth robbing her confidence, her pampered life is obvious. Johanne is a friend and yet, there are moments when Tullik reminds her, coldly, she must do as she is ordered, for she is nothing but a maid! There are boundaries the help must never cross, Johanne knows it’s dangerous to get too comfortable within the family. Yet, their friendship outlasts even love, in the end.

Strømme has researched thoroughly, and though this is fiction, she has used facts to create a curious love story. Could it be? Artists bleed on their canvases, art is an expression of their inner lives, sometimes as loud as a scream or as erotic as the touch of moonlight on a beautiful woman’s skin. I’ve been to an exhibition of Munch’s work, and having seen his paintings Strømme’s Edvard seems to be exactly as I would imagine him. Fiction about real people is a heavy task, sometimes people get it wrong, but not Strømme. I felt a part of his world, for a short time, and could well imagine how being shunned must have felt, how he had to paint, regardless of the foul things people said about him and his work. But too, I was able to be in both Tullik and Johanne’s shoes, though vastly different, one pampered, the other hard working- both have constraints upon them, simply for being women. Was Tullik terribly spoiled, absolutely but wealth and prestige can be a prison cell too and can we blame her for her attitude, when she is a product of the world she belongs to? What’s worse than being unable to embrace your true nature, explore what the heart wants, be it art or a man? Rich or poor, all women had a common obstacle, and that’s being a woman. A lovely, sensual historical fiction.

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