Pure Hollywood: And Other Stories by Christine Schutt

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But who could blame the girl Cecilia? Cecilia was a girl, and Jonathan was a restless, fully mended little boy. One minute he was in the bedroom watching tv, and the next, he was gone to the terrace.

I wasn’t always a fan of short stories, though having stumbled upon the brilliance of several writers, I am much more likely to pick them up and devour them now. Pure Hollywood is a well written collection but I really wanted to feel closer to the characters, which is strange considering I really enjoyed The Hedges, where it seems the reader is not meant to be that close to the young couple. It’s a strange experience for those of us with unusual names to find our name in a story, as the character Lolly shares mine. Lolly is miserable, exasperated with her sickly son Jonathan, bored by her beautiful surroundings, superior to the other vacationers (so it seems) and just one moment away from disaster. Maybe she has slipped away before, into sleep, into the distance, but this time she will be punished. The reader never dives too deeply in Lolly’s nind, yet it actually works in this story to have the cold distance, you feel just like the other vacationers trying to understand the young couple.

Where You Live, When You Need Me is so weird and short, I love it. Ella, a child care worker of unknown origins, during a time when mothers should be extra cautious of strangers around their children, appears as if from nowhere. But everyone wants her, so great with the kids. Why aren’t the mothers worried? Why is it the opposite reaction can be born in moments of danger? The last sentence in the story expresses such a beautiful defense for the carelessness of letting Ella in, which I won’t write here because it gives away the tale.

Some of the stories are short but hit me between the eyes, others I wasn’t really feeling but as a collection, the writing is solid. Schutt is one to watch,

Publication Date: March 18, 2018

Grove Atlantic, Grove Press

 

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In the Midst of Winter: A Novel by Isabel Allende

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“These things happen in life, Richard.”

“Not in mine.”

“Yes, I’ve realized that. But see how life refuses to leave us in peace? Sooner or later it catches up with us.”

Many readers may think this is going to be a stuffy love story between the old folks, it’s not. It’s good for the young to remember that even those of us past our days of blushing youth still feel many of the same yearnings and longing for love as bright eyed youngsters. Richard Bowmaster, a 60 year old human rights lawyer puts too many obstacles in front of any possibility of romance, when he isn’t busy boring himself keeping everything in it’s place and pushing Lucia, his tenant, away he finds himself offending his tenant. He’ll not fall into any trap of romanticism, too busy suffering bowel problems and other illnesses. Lucia Maraz, a lecturer from Chile, was once attracted to Richard but beyond academics, the two are completely different personalities. His shyness that once seemed to hint at a deeper, sexy hidden side proved over time to be just a fantasy of Lucia’s creation. A deep intimacy between them seemed an impossibility, and no amount of flirtation could rattle the man into taking initiative.

A traffic accident creates a chain of events that pulls Lucia and Richard together, as a young, undocumented immigrant from Guatemala named Evelyn will make them a part of her dangerous story. There will be gangs, murders, and a body.  All three have faced terrible tragedies in their lives and Evelyn, despite her youth, may top them all. As Richard and Lucia are involved in the darker problems facing Evelyn, their love blossoms. One thing is certain, age isn’t a refuge from the whims of fate.

Eveyln’s grandmother did her best to raise her grandchildren to be good, respectful people. But poverty and struggle wasn’t for Evelyn’s eldest brother. Gregorio quits school and wanders the streets high on glue until he finds a family of his own choosing, the MS-13. This is the catalyst for everything that happens to Evelyn before crashing into Richard’s life. It’s a dangerous world she must escape, but in America caring for a disabled boy, she seems to be caught in a strange crime possibly involving the family she works for. Just what are they involved in? What has the master of the house done?

It touches on the topic of immigrants and the difficulties they face back home and in America. Lucia knows all too well the trauma heaped on Evelyn, for her past is one rife with suffering, having endured the brutality of loss within her own family, watching it ravage her own mother. Love hasn’t been any better, now with a full grown daughter, she longs for the touch of a man but for women her age, the sad reality seems to be full of slim pickings. If Richard could just stop being reclusive, could let life touch him once again and move past his own deeply painful losses, then maybe there could be something…. It’s going to take a damaged young girl to break through Richard’s shell, and breathe life into both he and Lucia’s world, if they can survive the danger.

Publication Date: October 31, 2017

Atria Books

 

 

 

Brass: A Novel by Xhenet Aliu

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“One look at my stringy White Rain hair and yeah right I’d ever be the girlfriend of a boy named Laird or Lawrence or Anything the III.”

There are so many stories about girls full of sunshine and promise ,which can be wonderful, reading about their struggles with which ivy league college to pick, or which country to start their European vacation in but this isn’t about the haves. Elsie works as a waitress at the Betsy Ross Diner, her upbringing and surroundings have jaded her but even with her sarcasm and hope to get out of the dreary life she seems destined for she still find herself destroyed by love. Bashkim, an Albanian immigrant has come to the land of opportunity, but all Elsie can see is that it’s ‘the crappiest place on earth.’ Bashkim is far more schooled in the disturbances of the world, has seen things and lived in poverty that no amount of national geographic pictures can educate Elsie on.  It isn’t long before she is seduced by this seasoned man, impregnated and dizzy with shock that Bashkim’s wife may not be as far from his thoughts as she once seemed. Elsie’s plan to earn enough to escape this dying town becomes muddled through the choices she makes. She isn’t sure this rawboned existence is going to work, where Bashkim is satisfied with meager surroundings, Elsie knows this is the dead end she feared.

17 years later, the reader meets Luljeta (LuLu), Elsie’s daughter. LuLu is learning being smart isn’t enough, everything she has worked hard for is slipping through her fingers like sand. She knows to some she is just a fatherless daughter, a lifelong recipient of free lunches… but she has always been good, has a high IQ, she shows promise. Everything is different now, and she is ready to mess up big! Maybe failing is in her DNA, maybe she should simply stop trying!  She has just been rejected by NYU, it was her only escape plan, she isn’t so special after-all. How could she have thought she could compete with exceptional students going to expensive private schools whose education eclipses her own sub-par learning?  Could it really be, is she going to be stuck with her mother in this dead end life?

Now that her plan has unraveled, it’s time to sift through her mothers secrets and omissions about her father. In this novel, everyone’s skin is too tight, they all want out in different ways. For the immigrant experience isn’t always paved with gold american streets and sometimes just surviving is enough for some, it’s better than the hell they left behind in the motherland.  It’s a desperate straining, against the reality of your opportunities, because despite all the Hollywood endings many times lack of money and class will keep you pinned to a life neither you, nor your mother wanted. Sometimes when you go searching for answers, you’re left with just more questions. Some of our stories never settle like the dust in some seedy diner. Could there be family members wondering about LuLu nearby, maybe her father is closer than she thinks?

This isn’t a happy little story, it has bite and it’s painful but I find it far more easy to recognize than stories about people who have everything they want and never face rejection. It’s the American dream sold at a discount because it expired yesterday. Just what I needed to read. Add it to your reading list for 2018. 

Publication Date: January 30, 2018

Random House

The Rules of Magic: A Novel by Alice Hoffman

 

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They sat in the garden where Maria Owens had planted seeds so long ago. Life was short, it was over in an instant, but some things lasted. Hate and love, kindness and cruelty, all lingered and, in their case all had been passed on.

First, a funny thing happened while I was reading The Rules of Magic. I have this thing where birds love to visit me, I can’t say how many times I’ve had them fly into my house (even when I lived in Japan and England), nor the time I was nervous before surgery and a hawk swooped down and caught a snake. I took this to mean I’d be fine, coincidentally it was the only surgery I ever woke up from and I wasn’t violently sick. Franny has Lewis the crow, I had Edgar. He visited me the day I began this novel, kept coming all day long for weeks begging for food, and reading about Franny’s familiar I teased my family and said “Edgar must be mine.” I bombarded friends on Facebook with videos of my feathered pal. I was smitten, the synchronicity wasn’t lost on me and made the book so much more fun. Enough about my love affair with Edgar… but pictures follow!

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Susanna Owens rules won’t save her three children (Vincent, Franny and Jet)  from magic, nor the family curse. There is more to Ancestor Maria’s story, and through the forbidden love between Jet and Levi more is revealed about the Owens family and what makes them special and why they are doomed. Of all the tragedy and love within, my favorite moments were between Jet and the Reverend, which I will do well to keep my mouth shut about and let you, dear reader, enjoy for yourselves. Franny is a mess, as is Vincent- confused and lost, love leads to disaster and tragic ends. Any man who loves an Owens will meet his death. Can the curse be broken? What about Vincent? How does the curse affect a male born Owens?

April, the cousin, brings out the wild in the Owens siblings and Franny can’t warm to her, even with her cousin’s curiosity about the family’s deep dark secrets. Franny resents that her brother and sister fawn all over her cousin, she refuses to be charmed. April knows that their lives are tied, even if Franny refuses to see it. For fans of Practical Magic, you will be welcomed back into the fold of the bewitching family. I didn’t want the story to end, but I adore that within the seeds of tragedy, hope and beauty are birthed. I love the turns Vincent’s story takes. Yes, there is magic but even with their gifts, the difficulty of love and family cannot be avoided. Is it really the curse that takes the lives of their loved ones? If so, aren’t we cursed, all of us who dare to love?

Franny wants her heart to be hard and cold as stone, she cannot love anyone. Love isn’t possible and she knows it. Her relationship with Haylin is beautiful and safe, were she to chance anything more, Hay would not survive. There will be a remedy for her love in the end. Love will slip in the hardest of hearts, and love isn’t always romantic. The time period is perfect for witchery in the 60’s, rife with political and cultural change and turmoil. Misfits and outcasts were finding a platform, and Vincent’s talents fit in perfectly. Vincent, however, feels the darker side of magic pulling him away. Will he have to cut ties with his family to have a love of his own? I was particularly happy that Alice Hoffman conjured a male family member in the Owens clan. Fans of Practical Magic get more fulfillment through April, more story into the aunts pasts and will delight in everything that led to Sally and Gillian’s existence. I read this book twice, and I wish I could read both Practical Magic and The Rules of Magic for the first time again. For fans, you won’t be disappointed and for all others, if Magical Realism tickles your fancy, I highly recommend Hoffman’s latest, and her other books as well. The only downside is now I have to wait until her next novel is released… sigh.

As an aside… the cover is absolutely beautiful.

Publication Date: October 10, 2017

Simon and Schuster

 

 

All Things Bright and Strange: A Novel by James Markert

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“This town is different. You’ll be welcomed here.”

Black and white alike, side by side, dancing together- can it be? Can Bellhaven truly be real? Ellsworth is prepared to die, ravaged by the war, broken by the loss of his wife, why shouldn’t he end things with his Smith & Wesson? Anne Belle Roper won’t let him, it seems, bringing him breakfast and the care he needs. Ellsworth is too young to feel and look so old. He will never be a professional baseball player, never be a father, never again know Eliza’s love. He puts the blame on the strange boy with no last name. There is something special about a little boy named Raphael, aside from his gifted piano playing skills. The beautiful soul has kept Anna Belle sane while the men were away at war. Cardinals are hanging around, strange things are happening, but Ellsworth can only remember the misery of his stillborn son Erik and his wife Eliza. The town is changing and if he can stop himself from committing suicide, he just might have to get to the bottom of things.

Why is everything blooming? What does the once hidden chapel have to do with everything that is happening? Is the healing floor good or evil? This magical place, can it be trusted? Just who or what do you pray to there, beautiful or not, is it safe? “Beautiful don’t always mean safe, is all.”  Ellsworth remembers his mother’s words. How are they talking to the dead, is it possible?

The people of Bellhaven are turning to the chapel far more than they should. Ellsworth has woken from his depressed state, but can he save the people as they turn against each other? What are the secrets of the chapel? Who is more consumed by evil thoughts than Ellsworth, wanting nothing more than to kill himself after all his dreams turned to ash? What is going on with the preachers?

This is a strange supernatural tale dusted with the wounds war leaves behind, it is about faith and evil. Will Ellsworth be able to save them all with the help of his dear friend and Raphael? Should he trust in Raphael? Eerie and maybe not so beautiful a place, or is it?

Publication Date: January 30, 2018

Thomas Nelson Fiction

 

 

 

The Ghost: A Cultural History by Susan Owens

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These dead refused to stay in their tombs and insisted on climbing out and stalking back to their towns and villages, night after night, to attack the living. But what was the background to these stories?

Death comes to us all, and it would seem ghostly beings do as well, regardless of what country you live in or what time period. Ghosts certainly seem to be a tie that binds, be it harbingers of pending doom, terrorizing haunts, revenants bent on revenge- why is it that there are so many encounters and stories about something that ‘doesn’t exist’ and that science denies. This book is a fascinating look at the history of ghosts. Was it true that the English Reformation and religious reform did away with all our ‘haints’? Spirits kept appearing, they continued to walk the nights despite the cleanliness of religion. Maybe ghosts were simply optical illusions? How did witchcraft and ingrained habits and beliefs come into sightings and stories of ghosts? Maybe it’s madness of one’s mind? What does purgatory have to do with any of this?

Are ghosts simply ‘refugees from the after-life’? I like that, refugees from the afterlife! It wasn’t just uneducated peasants that told tales, were visited by apparitions and passed around ghostly tales. The middle class and upper crust were just as enthralled by the subject. If literature is any proof, certainly much was written and in fact, still lines our shelves today. How many ghostly themed reality shows can you count? Let’s not forget our fascination with shows about mediums talking to ‘ghosts’ that aren’t supposed to exist. Remember all that table tapping, the seances fine ladies took part in during the Victorian age?

Ghosts, it seems, even entered the political arena, art, church… is there anywhere they don’t ‘haunt’ us? Susan Owens has written a well researched work, be you a believer or skeptic, there is meat for anyone to chew on. Ghosts have evolved with our changing world, look at us now using meters and special instruments to capture that other realm. Are they real, simply a product of our own minds (some guilty)? Will we ever truly know? The walk through our cultural history of ghosts is fascinating and strange. Just in time for Halloween.

Publication Date: October 3, 2017

Abrams

Tate Publishing

 

 

 

 

Hurricane Irma My Last Update

I promised reviews but with clean up, working ourselves into dehydration and the 7 day power outage it became a huge obstacle. My husband ended up admitted to the hospital and when I went to get him the next day I got sick and ended up in urgent care with an iv. We decided upon his release to escape to a hotel and got much needed air conditioning, naturally next to the theme parks they had power but unbelievably the next morning on a whim I opened the curtains to…. a tour bus on fire underneath the power lines (I have photos). No one was on it, we called 911, but I kept praying ‘please don’t explode and please… please do not take out the power.’ Stranger things do happen folks. Back home, all is well and I promise reviews tomorrow! Sigh…. I have to admit I spoke too soon last week about everything being good.

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