Freshwater: A Novel by Akwaeke Emezi

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Humans often pray and forget what their mouths can do, forget that every ear is listening, that when you direct your longing to the gods, they can take that personally.

This is one splintered read, which is the intention to convey a shattering mind. It took a bit of time for me to get into the many voices, in fact I held off on writing a review because it’s such a strange take on mental illness or spiritual madness (depending on what you chose to call it). The gates are open, and what comes out is disturbing. Ada has been conjured through prayers, a badly wanted child but it isn’t long after her birth that her parent’s know something is wrong. In her first ‘slow years’ of infancy, she was ‘moody, bright, a heaving sun. Violent.’ As she slips into many selves, Ada begins to fade away.

From Nigeria to America, the ‘others’ are always within, taking over. They are her strength, her terror, her power- but where is Ada? Are they guiding and protecting her, or is she hostage to these supernatural spirits? This is genre bending, and a fascinating surrealist exploration of mental illness. Is it all scientific, can it ever be supernatural, beyond our grasp? Reading it was like being enraptured by madness, it’s the sort of strange book I had to take breaks from. I haven’t read anything like it before.

It does often seem there is a blur between science/religion, mental illness/mysticism- I won’t go on about that here, lord knows there are enough books about saints and mystics that explore if it was ‘mental illness’ or truly encounters with god(s). There is a struggle of self, and we don’t hear as much from Ada as we do from her many others, she is there, but she is a diluted self.

This isn’t going to be your average read, based on ‘the authors own personal experiences’ it is a unique unfolding. How do you put to paper the chaos within’ your tornado mind? Though most people believe themselves to be stable beings, there are moments in ever life when solid ground abandons the mind, many moments of identity crisis, luckily for the majority of us these are fleeting moments. What, who am I? In a sense, we all house many selves, but when you can’t differentiate or put forth the core ‘me’, an unraveling occurs.

Which Ada is she? The seductress, the volatile and violent,  the fearful? Is she full of gods? Which reality is the most real? The one we live in our minds, or the outside world? An ‘easily bruised child’ that takes all the wounds of her life into adulthood, will she ever be Ada, will she merge with the others and decide to plant both feet in the ‘other-world’, check out of her own? The veil between our world, and the spiritual is a wispy cobweb for Ada.

This is like no book you will ever read, if it were a painting, it would have many faces and you wouldn’t be able to explain it, nor whether you’re looking at a human,  monster or god. Some readers will be brain numbed and lost, others will devour it. Curious to see what this author will cook up next.

Publication Date: February 13, 2018

Grove Atlantic

Grove Press

 

The Stolen Marriage: A Novel by Diane Chamberlain

 

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That night with Henry Kraft was all I could think about, and each time it filled my mind, I felt the same nausea I’d fought all that morning.

The Stolen Marriage begins with a tragedy, and takes us back to the start- a change of direction in  young Italian Tess DeMello’s love life. Sworn to marry her beloved childhood sweetheart, Vincent Russo, there is nothing she wants more. Close and destined for each other their entire lives, both are deeply connected to each other’s families. Studying to be a nurse, Vincent a doctor- the dream is to share a future together in medicine. When Vincent leaves Tess, promising only to be gone for a short time, doubt enters her mind. Could he be seeing someone else? Just how long should a woman wait and keep her faith? With doubts creeping in, when her friend Gina talks her into a weekend away in Washington, her wild friend encourages her into letting loose, and it will change the future she and Vincent had intricately planned.

Shamed into a marriage of necessity, she becomes Henry Kraft’s wife. A wealthy, successful prominent ‘catch’ to the people in his community, his own family had plans of their own for their noble son. Tess is a life-crasher of sorts, and Henry is full of his own secrets, the night they shared is now eclipsed by his cold withdrawal. He promises rto take care of her, she’ll want for nothing, one day they’ll have their own home, so just be respectful of ‘mother’ and accept he has a busy life. He seems to be a good man, if disinterested in her. Occupied with his furniture business, leaving Tess alone night after night, shunned by her sister-in-law, the society ladies and her Henry’s mother- she knows she will need more to fill her life. But Henry is controlling, no wife of his will ever work, though Tess still burns to see part of her life dream fulfilled, that of nurse.

With her humble origins, and her Italian blood the community finds her ethnicity vile, that their southern son would chose such a creature boils the blood of many, and the women won’t let her forget that she will never fit in. She is nothing but a usurper! A marriage thief! She feels much more comfortable with ‘the help’. Everyone knows you don’t mingle with the help! Tess feels an affinity for the maid, and this is 1944 when the race divide was wide. This is not how either Henry nor Tess’s lives were meant to unfold. Both need each other, her reasons are open, impossible to hide but Henry would risk too much in revealing his reasoning.  It’s vital Tess remains in the dark. Is he as self-sacrificing as he seems? Or does Tess serve a purpose she has yet to learn?

When a polio epidemic reaches the people of Hickory, North Carolina- Henry can’t deny Tess’s skills to those in desperate need. But the past will rear it’s ugly head, in suffering and loss- the truth will out. Love can’t be denied, and sometimes you have to burn the bridges of your present, watch your life turn to ash before you can meet your destiny.

The beauty of this novel is the emotional mess Tess makes, how one misstep can change your entire life. As she struggles to make the best of her unwanted situation, she finds herself torn- attacked from all sides (community, her new family) and with Henry turning away from her, she must search herself to discover her strength and decide on the life she wants.  She carries with her the regret of having betrayed her first love, and his family. Nothing happens as you expect. I spent a lot of time wondering what Henry was caught up in, why he was so closed off. The accident in the beginning was a shock, and the story that followed was heart-breaking. People hurt others sometimes to get what they want in life, some could say necessary evil, others may not be so forgiving. These characters are true to life, faced with complicated choices, messy and burdened by expectations. This is a lesson in what happens when you manipulate your loved ones, rather than just letting nature take it’s course. Love where and who you will, in a perfect world it wouldn’t be so dangerous. Expectations can beat the life out of our children, can destroy their chances at happiness.

The only certainty in any life is that you will get where you’re going, but there will be many forks in the road, many diversions. Life isn’t usually as you imagined it would be and you may ask yourself ‘how did I get to this place’. It’s the beauty and horror for us all, the what ifs, the lack of guarantees, the unknown. I found this novel engaging, terribly sad, hopeful and unique. A love story and yet an un-love story too. You have to read it to understand.

Publication Date: October 3, 2017

St. Martin’s Press

Milk Teeth: And Other Fairy Tales With Bite by Lizella Prescott

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Cinderella’s mental state is fixed somewhere between empty pain and smoldering rage. She holds two embers, one in each palm, and coaxes them to grow.

In Prescott’s collection of biting, dark fairy tales the reader never knows what darkness awaits. At 58 pages it’s a condensed escape into strange, dark tales. As the author plays with classic fairy tales, the characters are much more feral and the perfect blend of beautiful and dangerous. From a starving mermaid to a burning girl, these short tales are for the grown ups. Gretel sacrifices and the witches she meets are nothing like the witch trying to fatten children up in other versions. Maybe, just maybe some of the ‘evil’ women within conjure have their own rhyme and reason. They are short and not so sweet, easily read in one sitting. Just what are curses, really? What if you don’t want to be the giver of kisses, or would rather be eaten by bugs than be some man’s play-thing, king or not?

A mention has to be made about the cover too, it’s a beauty.

Available Now

Hungry Lizard Press

 

 

 

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstances: A Novel by Ruth Emmie Lang

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“Why do you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Take something beautiful and vandalize it with skepticism?”

I love magical realism, and as much as I hate comparing authors, this novel had a similar feel to Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions by Daniel Wallace. I absolutely adore the beginning with Roarke’s story. The ‘Old Spider Man’, it just tickled my fancy to no end, it’s fantastical and exactly the sort of magical spice I love. The novel is about the lives of all the people crossing paths with Weylyn Grey, a boy and later a man both of this world and not. Strange things happen around him, strange curious things, but the biggest curiosity is him.  Are his gifts a blessing or a curse? He is dangerous, but could the love of Mary save him? Can love save any of us? Aren’t we all dangerous in our nature, all of us slipping in some mess, hurting others unintentionally, a beacon for some, a misery for others? Isn’t love, friendship, all of it a complete mystery and adventure?

He is a fleeting beauty to some, a rip in the safe universe for others, but no one remains untouched after being in his presence. Inside the heart of a the wild boy raised by wolves, there is tragedy, disasters that have left him the biggest victim of all. It’s a strange and wonderful journey, there is an intelligence in the ‘fantasy’ that touched me. He is, like many of us, afraid of himself, in his own way because of his extraordinary gifts that aren’t always leading to rainbows and happy endings. Everything costs him, even helping others, much as it does the rest of us.  Misery and happiness are conjoined twins for anyone alive and kicking.

Of course we are all of nature, though we forget with our creature comforts, but Weylyn is connected in a mysterious way even he can’t understand. He isn’t the only character, the people he touches or scratches with his wildness are beautifully written even in their rottenness. Lydia Kramer’s story broke my heart, the sixth daughter of a beautiful brood of girls, the least remarkable one according to her vain mother, but she has such fire and bite. This is a captivating novel, I miss these sort of stories terribly because to me, the most mysterious thing of all is human nature and the environment the surrounds us. Does Lang spin a fantastical web, sure- but there is so much painful reality within to keep you anchored. What an achingly lovely novel. I cannot wait to read her next novel! I have a new favorite author! This won’t be out until November, hence I didn’t divulge much, I really don’t want to ruin the novel. I didn’t share all the things I highlighted, wish I could!

Publication Date: November 7, 2017

St. Martin’s Press

 

Stay With Me: A Novel by Ayobami Adebayo

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The things that matter are inside me, locked up below my breast as though in a grave, a place of permanence, my coffin-like treasure chest.

When I first began reading Stay With Me, I wasn’t captivated (at first) but had heard so much about it and wanted to give it a chance. I wasn’t disappointed, this book changed from what I thought it was going to be about, it grabbed me by the throat! There is nothing more interesting than our cultural differences and too, the commonalities that are ever present, such as love and loss, family and the truth that all of us must face difficulties. When Yejide and Akin fell deeply in love at University, they both agreed  that Akin would never take another wife, as is the custom. Akin knew from the moment he saw her, that she was all he needed, no other could be enough. Yejide has strong resentment towards polygamy, which comes to light through the stories of her past and her many ‘step-mothers’. With her womb empty of child, his family will not let go of their hunger for their eldest to produce grandchildren, harassing Yejide until Akin has no choice but to take a second wife. A child is how we live on, how dare she deny their beloved son his future!  For me, quite a bit of hilarity ensues with the ‘jealousy’, there is no way Yejide will welcome this ‘sister’ with open arms. The things women the whole world over are forced to tolerate is shocking. I know American women will smirk, imagine in Yejide shoes they’d like to strangle Akin and his family- but we have different expectations. The old traditions get downright disturbing, I went from laughter to gut wrenching pain as I read further along, from watching Yejide wish a baby into existence to all the wretched tragedy that befalls each of her blessings. The glimpses into her own cold upbringing as a sort ‘orphan, outcast’ within a large Nigerian polygamous family ripped me to the core, human cruelty can be quiet, it doesn’t have to be physical. What is more painful than a child outside closed doors as life is bursting behind them, hungering for connection, spying stories from the outside? How can I help but think tradition isn’t always something to be preserved?

Akin’s mother, do you despise or pity her? This is how superstitions and ‘tradition’ poison the mind, detaching you from children as if when fate picks them off one by one you just ‘erase them’. There are politics within, but for me- this story is so incredibly rich about womanhood and motherhood.  There is despair in searching for cures, be it foul herbs, rocking a goat as much as in hiding your shame and abusing someone’s naivety. This novel has so much betrayal, darkness,  and lies but all for love, love is always at the core. Fear is the biggest character and fate is the mean god. Men don’t have it easy here either, what a mess everyone makes.

I want to write more about the climax, but it would ruin all the secrets- darn it! Why is everyone forced to betray each other and themselves? Why is a woman nothing without a child, why is she the one to blame? The writing is beautiful. “See, we are not asking you to stand up from your place in his life, we are just saying you should shift so that someone else can sit down.” Can you imagine, reader? Would you see red? Oh the dangerous intentions of family, the very unraveling of Yejide is laid at their feet.  Yejide is broken on the rocks of destiny again and again.

This story is not focused as much on the ‘second wife’ as you think, she has her time but this book is about motherhood more than anything else, and love- love as salvation and destruction. This is a fantastic debut novel by Nigerian born  Ayobami Adebayo, I certainly want to add her short story collection Spent Lives to my reading pile. This is not just beautifully written, but with keen intelligence. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: August 22, 2017

Knopf Doubleday Publishing

Manhattan Beach: A Novel by Jennifer Egan

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The day with Tabatha and Mr. Styles became like one of those dreams that shreds and vanishes even as you try to gather it up.

The setting during the Great Depression, New York is initially the reason I wanted to read this novel. I think I was waiting for more excitement, because with everything happening during that time period a writer could do a lot with it. It seems for me it just fell flat at times. Anna’s diving experience was interesting but I had a hard time really falling for Anna as a character. Lydia, I have mixed feelings here because she sort of felt like a non-entity, I wanted her story to develop more. There was beauty in the love Anna and her mother felt for her, the care they gave her but I wondered why she left us so soon. In a time when ‘men ran the world’ certainly Anna comes into her own, shows strength and bravery. Historical fiction can be extremely difficult to tackle, particularly when you touch on gangsters. There are fantastic novels about organized crime so if you’re going to take that on, you have to know expectations will be high. Eddie’s story is important, and why he was involved in the criminal world matters but here I go complaining again- Lydia could have been such a solid driving force had she remained in the story. However, I did enjoy that she ‘comes’ to Anna during a big life decision. I think that is a beautiful moment.

I was hooked at first, Chapter One as Anna and her father Eddie are driving to Mr. Stlyes’s house stirred me. The comparison between his pampered child and the Flossie Flirt doll that Anna remembers wanting ‘violently’ beautifully shows the difference between their worlds, it also introduces the child that is still alive inside Anna as she is maturing into a young lady. Anna on the shore, wanting to feel the cold, a instinctual wildness, the strength in her had me thinking with the power of the ocean, her hunger for it is a great way to introduce a free spirit, someone that will not be tamed by her times. Then through the novel I thought ‘is this going for romance?’ because with Dexter it could have gone so much darker, richer. I am not sure if maybe there was too much so that nothing specific (aside from the Diving) was explored better or what? I felt confused, sort of thrown off the plot. I felt the beginning was such a strong start but then it veered off in too many directions and nowhere I wanted it to go.  I don’t know if there was a fog of mystery for me that I cared enough about. I had to put the novel down for days at a time.

Eddie is a damaged but well written character, desperate to see his disabled daughter get the chair she needs but then, he makes terrible choices, he vanishes- I wonder what a different sort of novel it would be if he had stuck around with trouble on his heels. I think more than anything I am just left confused. The ending isn’t what I expected, it leaves me scratching my head. I don’t feel anything big happened, aside from Anna and her diving, the sexism, that women in the end run her world more than any man- but other than that I am not sure what I am taking from this. It isn’t that the writing is bad, it’s just the story drifts off all over the place so that I couldn’t invest in any character with my entire heart.

It may just be that I am not the right fit. Egan can certainly write, but I think the story just isn’t for me.

Publication Date: October 3, 2017

Scribner