Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly

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I come from a long line of modest achievers.

This book is delicious, I mean it. It’s comprised of micro-memoirs, some a few paragraphs, others a sentence. Fennelly has so much to say in condensed form. It seems it would require pages of purging to get to the heart of your life, your stories, but this book is evidence to the contrary. I laughed, I related… whether she was telling stories from the time she and her husband were young and ‘dumb with love’ or writing one long sentence to express how tiring motherhood is using a children’s song, Beth Ann Fennelly has nailed the art of micro-memoir!

I kept reading passages to people, it just tickled my brain over and over. I was sad when it ended, I still wanted more. There are hum drum days and more memorable ones. It’s amazing how a few words can hit your heart or your funny bone. I devoured it, but savored the flavor.

Publication Date: October 10, 2017

W.W. Norton & Company

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Red Clocks: A Novel by Leni Zumas

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“Everyone wants charms, but thirty-two years on earth have convinced the mender charms are purely for show.”

In this novel, abortion is illegal, in-vitro fertilization is banned and soon single people won’t be allowed to adopt. The Personhood Ammendment grants rights to embryos (that cannot possibly give permission to be born) and desperate women seek help, anywhere they can. For some, it is in the hands of  the mender (Gin). Gin, the forest dwelling healer, understands roots and herbs, how women used nature for centuries for healing and ridding themselves of unwanted ‘problems’. But there is a witch hunt built on lies, and it’s illegal to help women end their pregnancies. Is it also illegal to save women from brutal abuse?

Ro is a high school teacher, single and desperate to have a child of her own. The ideal partner hasn’t materialized, and pretty soon her options will run out as it will no longer be legal for her, as a would be single mother, to have a child legally. She is struggling too with fertility, trying to get pregnant before the laws change. Gin may be able to help her with her fertility or hormones or something, certainly the doctor she’s been seeing for treatment isn’t doing such a hot job! Her friends ( Didier and Susan) live the high life, a beautiful big home (Ro doesn’t envy them that), children but they are convinced Ro needs a partner. They are an example, children need both parents, and who will Ro turn to when she needs help, child-rearing can be rough! But for Susan, it may well be time for she and Didier to be ‘single’ again, there is a fault line in their marriage that she isn’t sure she can ignore any longer. Susan is disenchanted with her life, numb with the demands being a mother and wife make on her. Mattie is a young high school student, adopted by wonderful parents who certainly would not be proud to discover their cherished daughter is pregnant. Her boyfriend is useless, and she is desperate for a solution, her last resort may be in the hands of the odd witch, Gin. There is so much more to Gin than Mattie understands, and they may be more alike than she could have ever guessed. But her plan to save herself may come undone when Gin is arrested, and the fates of the women are tied. Gin tries to protect another woman, one who may well have turned on her with bitter lies. Everything is in chaos when the mender is locked up, who will the women turn to now? Maybe each-other.

Gin (the mender) is my favorite character. I can’t help it, I fancy stories about healers, forest dwellers, heck- throw some mountain fiction my way and I am happy. Before the sterilization of medicine, women turned to women for healing, not just for birthing or ending pregnancies but also for herbs/root medicine to treat illnesses (feminine and otherwise). People will debate this until they are blue, because each feels their truth is all that matters. But this is a provocative novel, because it raises a lot of questions that can lead to a healthy debate, and likely some unhealthy ones too. What happens when women have nowhere to turn? It’s not just about physical health, it’s spiritual too. You cannot separate the two. It’s interesting, Ro is desperate to be a mother, while young Mattie would give anything not to be and Susan is drained by it all.

This doesn’t just touch on abortion, but in Ro (who is writing a  biography of Eivør, a little-known 19th-century female polar explorer) it expresses the limits society’s laws on women’s health would put on so many lives. Ro, with the clock ticking, may never know motherhood. Where would we put all the young criminals, that seek to end unwanted pregnancies, if they were lucky enough to survive ending them? As Ro gives snippets of the explorer’s life, it’s easy to see how much she admires her bravery. “Eivør Minervudottir did things she wasn’t supposed to. Took plunges.”  Ro is opposed to the traditional way of things, and hates that you must have romantic companionship to be seen as whole, to be approved for motherhood. The new laws as they stand don’t leave room for those who shirk the traditional family setting. It’s strange that women in this novel are in some ways as limited now as they were in Eivør’s time. 

There is a disjointed feel to the novel in the first chapter or so, but it flows and comes together if you stick with it. I was curious about the novel but didn’t think I would enjoy it nearly as much as I did. Again, it’s the mender who drew me in deeply but each character’s perception is vital to the novel. It’s not simply about the freedom of choices, it’s also about how women are hemmed in, limited. Told in alternating views, Mattie shares the tormented mind of a young pregnant teenager hunting for a solution. Ro expresses the hopelessness of a grown woman who simply wants to be a mother without all the trimmings of a traditional family. Susan exposes the stresses of a frazzled, harried life of a mother and wife who no longer has much faith in her husband, and longs to free herself. Gin is the mender who just wants to live her life without being harassed, healing women who need her and maybe herself included.

A surprising gem of a forth-coming novel.

This will be published in January, add it to your reading pile! I will revisit it when it’s released.

Publication Date: January 16, 2018

Little, Brown and Company

Lee Boudreaux Books

 

 

Hap and Hazard and the End of the World: A Novel by Diane DeSanders

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“Aunt Lee Always said you couldn’t love things that could’t love you back. But in our family we did.”

Texas after World War II, Dick and Jane are full of hope and promise, air-conditioning is there to cool their summer hot skin and maybe Daddy’s temper. This is the story told through the eyes of Dick and Jane’s eldest daughter. In a time when parents were to be obeyed, only naughty children were curious and begging answers to things they had no business knowing. But she is desperate to know if Santa is real, and her friend Nathan is bad news but so exciting, and maybe she enjoys the things boys get up to more than she should. So what if she is a bit feral, or is always half listening to the grown ups and trying to assemble answers to the mysterious workings of the grown up world! Why is daddy so angry, always clumping around on his damaged feet? Everything changed when he came home from the war, injured, and suddenly Mama no longer seemed to like her much anymore. The war didn’t just change Daddy, according to her Mama it drained all the fun, carefree, charmed times  they once shared, when they had danced the lindy and ended up in newspapers. All that vanished with the war. Sometimes he tells her things, Mommy downright refuses, why doesn’t Mama want her to know anything?

Why does Daddy get so upset around his family, after all, he too works in their business (A Cadillac dealership). The world was a different place during the war when it was just she and mama. Now she can’t even crawl into bed and curl into her, Daddy has taken her place, and so too had her new baby sister. Annie, the middle sister, knows how to be cute, but not her, she just stirs up trouble, has a nature just like her Daddy’s. Nana prefers Ted, Daddy’s brother. Nana has class, is the ‘brains’ of the family business. But why is daddy less loved? Is he really ‘just awful’? Why is Mama so sad, and Daddy so strong about all his opinions, obstinate to change? Daddy seems always on the verge of snapping, everything irritates and unsettles him. Mama is so tense, always waiting for his next blow up.

But when Daddy shows her the starry sky and explains the universe, she may just decide she likes him, ‘on a trial basis’, naturally.  The beauty of this novel is our narrator is a child, not quite understanding everything that is broken nor why. She is hungry for knowledge, awakening in a sense and later in the novel when she finds herself in a heat-breaking, disturbing situation it seems to be an ending to her beautiful spirit. It’s like time traveling too, there was a naivete back then that is lost on children today. One of the chapters is titled ‘The Age of Reason’ and it’s fitting because there is a slow dawn of understanding creeping into our young narrator’s mind.  Boys seem to know all the naughty things, this is back when kids learned all the forbidden secrets from their playmates. Kids spent more time with skinned knees and running around in packs. These days we tell children everything, and with technology- they find out anyway. Family dynamics were different, the man was unquestionably the head of the household, though women found ways to manage them or attempt to. A simple line in the novel speaks volumes ‘ Mama’s keeping what she has to say to herself.’ Seems there was a lot of that back then, dare not add fuel to the fire. This silence when her husband is getting worked up about the ugliness of a Lincoln (car), from the beginning the reader feels the tension between Dick and Jane, no matter how good things are, regardless of having hired help and a stable job with the family business.

It may just be the end of the world, or at least- the end of her childhood innocence.

Publication Date: January 9, 2018

Bellevue Literary Press

 

 

I Wish I Were Here by Erin Lavan

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Being a painter was like being a domesticated dog. I’d give birth to a litter,  only to watch the pups be given away to neighbors, or total strangers. I’d never see them again.

Never seeing her beautiful babies (art) is bad enough, but when one is a nude self-portrait, things get messy fast. Savannah Waters loses her ex to a drug overdose, and certainly his family and friends blame her. She didn’t break his heart, she pulverized it, she may as well be a murderer. His mother takes ownership of her self-potrait and sells it to a wealthy buyer (for far more than she herself has ever earned on her own sales) on the Isle de Brêhat. She is going to get it back!

Her life is running away from her, and her cousin is going to form an intervention. It’s time to stop drinking, gather herself in, go see a therapist. Here comes more trouble! A professional line will be crossed when the sexy older doctor (Jake) offers her the trip of a lifetime, biking on his Harley through the Alps. What could go wrong? The chemistry is undeniable, and maybe there are signs that give her pause, but that’s the old her. Maybe it’s time to give love a real chance. Why not run around Europe, eating heavenly food, having a passionate love affair- it’s better than her currently stale state in life. But little does she know there will be a group of mad people joining them. Jake really takes his profession seriously, maybe too seriously. Who the hell is Natasha and just why does she need him so desperately? Why are there people in the group seeing people who aren’t there, terrified of aliens, of all manner of things? Why are these odd folks slowly becoming more interesting to her than Jake?

Just what is his story anyway, Jake the professional stonewalling therapist, giving nothing of his inner emotions away. Does he have secrets? Does it matter when his touch takes her to such pleasures that her mind goes numb? Who the hell has her painting? Maybe in the midst of madness she will find an anchor, and return to sanity herself?

This novel is such a strange mix, it’s a messy journey. Savannah isn’t really a killer, but she feels like one. She is a sinking stone, rash in her decision making, but hungry for life in spite of her hard luck. It’s sort of a romance (but not entirely) because how romantic is a hot affair surrounded by oddballs? Curious what this author will write next. Imagine a woman blindfolded, sort of just meandering after a shock to her system (the loss of her ex) waking up and trying to put herself back together. What better place to heal than Europe?

Available Now

Amazon

 

 

The Storyteller by Kate Armstrong

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You are both mutually unhappy. But that in itself need not be a problem. Let’s face it, happiness is usually boring. This way you both have something interesting to say.

This is a strange novel, literary fiction into madness but whose? How reliable is the storyteller? I feel like I spent the majority of this novel in a fog. Two women, Iris and Rachel. Rachel has slowly awakened after a suicide attempt, and her story is being retold- but by Iris (romance author, madwoman, old woman). Peter is on the periphery, as Rachel had just begun to become involved with him. Of course he visits at first, pulled into her mental breakdown, her life disaster, but he isn’t in love- is he? Iris imagines a wild love triangle, invents stories, because what is there to live for if not stories, if you can’t take realities material and twist and warp it, make it more exciting. Or is it just Iris’s mind that is twisted, warped? How do the two women, one at the start of her life, the other closer to the end, find themselves like sisters of the mind?

Both women have slipped out of reality. Iris has been a patient in the psychiatric hospital for so long trapped in her insanity, she is a lady, having her tea. She imagines a different reality. Here is where the reader feels they are attending their own mad tea party, Iris is going to be writing the biography of Rachel’s life, her breakdown. Incoherence, unreliability,  and if Rachel is more like a captive to the old woman, then so is the reader. Just what is Lady Buchanan’s story? In Peter, there is the shock of those who are not cracked, the curious horror of being party to self-destruction.

Rachel, “you have woken up. You have seen the shadow, seen your hand, and now finally you have remembered. You have remembered that you want to die.” Will she recover? How will her life story end, in Iris’s hands? As she tries to find stable footing in the aftermath of her breakdown, she has to disconnect from the ‘before’, start fresh. But can you ever abandon yourself, shed the old life and in hope, find stability? How does a beggar with her ‘junk shop ring’ play into everything? Close the book, end the tale…

This is a novel in disassociation, I felt a bit unhinged and lost myself. It’s not for people that can’t bear stream of consciousness or unreliable second person stories, because you don’t really have solid footing, and though it feeds the madness, not every reader fancies this style. Good, but I had moments of frustration too. It’s an unraveling and a desperate scramble to try and create a semblance of reality.

Available Now

Holland House

 

 

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