White Houses: A Novel by Amy Bloom

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I never envied a wife or a husband, until I met Eleanor. Then, I would have traded everything I ever had, every limo ride, every skinny-dip, every byline and carefree stroll for what Franklin had, polio and all. 

I never thought I would find a fictional novel about Eleanor Roosevelt and her “scandalous love” for her friend Lorena Hickok ( Hick) to be so romantic. It’s not Eleanor though, it’s Hick’s life that I couldn’t get enough of. By turns horrifying and exciting, I wanted to save her from her disturbingly abusive, poverty-stricken upbringing and celebrate every success and thrill she worked so hard for later in life. Hick’s musings about Eleanor’s children rang true, mothers aren’t real people in the eyes of their kids, even as they grow into adulthood. Mothers take care of things, and certainly weren’t expected to be sexual beings with needs, more so back in the day. Women were meant to be proper, Eleanor seems to be forgiven nothing yet Franklin certainly was indulged by his children, for his passions be they women or anything else. Eleanor seemed to belong to a different time, how different things could have played out in our modern times. One thing that was certain then, her children were needy, it was she who carried them and who was betrayed by their loyalties. Hick’s life has made her perceptive, and she is the eye into the marriage of the Roosevelt’s. Hick tells the story of Eleanor’s motherhood too, and the resentment she feels in the treatment she often witnessed that Eleanor received as the children aged.

Eleanor’s desire to know ‘once upon a time’ tales from Lorena’s childhood was crushing, and the differences in their suffering vast. Eleanor may have been a disappointment to her mother, for lack of beauty but Lorena’s life is a nightmare by comparison, one that makes any tale of woe in Eleanor’s memory seem golden. Though similar loses are shared between the ‘companions’ the differences are extreme. Suffering is a strange best, but it’s hard to feel sorry for the wounds that seem so miniscule when held up against what Lorena has survived. There is a part in the novel where Eleanor is doing the proper thing of a first lady, dining as only those during the depression should, bland food, nothing of pleasure that her grand status can certainly afford and Lorena’s thought “…Eleanor, you have never eaten food like this in your life, except when you wanted to,” expresses perfectly how those with nothing would feel. Eleanor means well, she wants to relate to the people, to be deserving of her place in history, and yet there is something so funny, a little condescending about it. It comes off as ridiculous and yet there is something tender and delicate about Eleanor, who looked like a bruiser, how deceiving our bodies are.

This is a beautiful love story, Hick’s is there when Eleanor loses Franklin, and even grieves herself with the country for the loss of a great man. She is there to feel the wounds Eleanor suffers when her children are disloyal, as she tells it “Eleanor’s body is the landscape of my true home.”  It’s fascinating someone who came from dirt was able to make her way into the household of the White House, and into the heart of Eleanor. That Franklin tolerated it seems very progressive considering the times, and of course he had his freedom to devour the ladies, which he did with gusto but one wonders what sort of man he must have been, to allow this affair to flourish under his roof. Yes, theirs was a marriage of convenience, nothing shocking there really, but someone with his power, particularly in those days, could easily deny his wife her romantic freedoms.

What a read! I adored Hick. I don’t always devour fictional novels about real people, in fact the idea often horrifies me because the liberty fiction gives the author seems to rob people of their truth. Yet I’ve read a few that have really moved me and I add this one to that list of favorites. This is one to add to your TBR pile in 2018!

Publication Date: February 13, 2018

Random House

 

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I Found My Tribe: A Memoir by Ruth Fitzmaurice

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I hold his hand but he doesn’t hold back. His darting eyes are the only windows left.

Ruth’s Tribe is a beautiful intimate memoir not just about husband Simon’s ALS (a motor neuron disease) nor is it focused on her friends, and fellow “Tragic Wives Swimming Club” tales and woes. It’s about everything that happens before and after disease decides to become a permanent family member. It’s the desperation to believe in and try every remedy or treatment on God’s green earth! It’s the torturous crawl as ALS steals Ruth’s beloved from her and their young children, much as the tide erodes the land. Each loss Simon suffers, the deterioration of every function, is a fresh gutting of the family. Before the gravity of their new reality struck Ruth, there was hope and belief that it could be fought! This line moved me “Alternative diagnoses seek unconventional cures. It’s a road that Simon is compelled to limp and trip upon.” Anyone who has ever dealt with illness knows too well the search, the desperation for answers, for ‘fixes’ and it’s not just the patient who lives with the despair. The healthy pass so much time angry that all they can do is watch in helpless horror as their loved one’s health is in decline. Those doctors are a last resort, they aren’t making it better! That journey, with the strength of friends, won’t change the outcome but the sick aren’t the only ones who need to be healed. Love and friends who can bear some of the burden, people who are solid, who can bring life and joy if only to still the chaos for a moment sometimes that is all you can ask of the universe. Ruth is lucky, and blessed with the best people in her life.

With everything so bleak, they decide to try for more children. The family grows and grows, Simon is there and yet not. The beauty of this novel is in the memories Ruth shares, from before she knew Simon and was just a young girl, to their early love when everything was so much easier to control, to the present when she admits she isn’t always kind and resents the things his family does for her. So often illness is wrapped up into a beautiful present, not so here. There is anger and fear. The children trickle in and out, one a worrier, another a ‘war baby’ all of them learning to have a father that cannot interact as ‘normal’ father’s do. Somehow it should feel more tragic, and it does, but there are moments so deliciously tender or silly that makes the reader feel a deeper connection to them all.

It’s tragic, of course it is! But life forges ahead, children grow up, there is no alternative to living with what the universe gave you. People talk a lot about love, but this is a genuine love story. There wasn’t a moment when I questioned the love Ruth has for her husband. I wish we could get into Simon’s mind though. I really wish there was a whole chapter about his thoughts and emotions, I cannot imagine the stillness, watching life spinning fast around you, unable to interact as much as your mind longs to.

It’s a poetic, honest, unflinching confessional of loving a man with MND, loving the children you have together and commiserating with other women, swimming to keep your sanity, swimming too against the disease. Some of her choices make their life harder, I’m stumped, but that’s how we human beings are. We want to change direction, because maybe tweaking the plan can change the outcome? The book is dizzying at times, and I thought it was perfect for a mind consumed by the weight of illness.

Incurable… disease isn’t the only incurable thing we have to bear. Life itself is incurable, and so we go with the tide….

Publication Date: March 6, 2018

Bloomsbury USA

The Glitch: A Novel by Elisabeth Cohen

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I gazed at the girl. There was something peculiar about her, about meeting her.  My Conch buzzed in an alert pattern. “Say hello,” it said, “To Shelley Stone.”

Shelley Stone has been running Conch from it’s start-up, a company that manufactures a device worn in the ear that gives advice, prompts much like one’s “inner voice” only better! She and her husband Rafe are raising two children, who of course were meant to be geniuses! Four year old Nova sings, plays soccer, is learning Chinese, likes to draw and if she isn’t showing any special gifts, well there is time. At the novel’s beginig she also shows a proclivity for vanishing. Do not be alarmed, this isn’t that sort of tragic story, but in that disappearance so much is evident by Shelley and Rafe’s reactions. Shelley may be a high flying, innovative powerhouse of a woman in a highly competitive tech career but she is completely absent from the present. Unable to find pleasure in anything but working, a worshiper of Mondays, pill popping to keep the energy to stay ahead of…well everything, controlling her entire existence in the world, and ‘planning’ happiness as if it can be ‘scheduled” she is about to meet her young self, in the flesh! Is this a scheme to bring down her technology, her career, her life? Could she really have crossed over into some alternate reality that made it possible to meet herself for a purpose? Maybe she is on the verge of a breakdown. More likely she is losing it and soon there are even bigger problems with the company. Just what is happening, why? Is she to blame?

What made me like this novel so much is daughter Nova, who just by being herself exposes the cracks in Shelley’s life. “Youtubing absense seisures”, that just tickled me! Shelley is clueless when it comes to her kid, forging ahead as if she can ‘will’ her child, as she has willed her great success with Conch, to be a model child. Even youngest, her son Blazer, isn’t free from exposure to a top education with languages and outings. Luckily she has a nanny to help assure her children will have bright futures! This novel is odd, Shelley isn’t the most nurturing woman out there, but isn’t it always more forgivable for a man to be all about his career than a woman? She talks to her children as mini-adults, of course they respond as children will, which is funny. Shelley is modern with a captial M but husband Rafe is sick of innovation, he just wants his wife, more time to be actualy hands on parents and some sleep! She just cannot let go of the hunger for success and wasn’t it Rafe who urged her to take this oppurtunity to begin with?

The Conch is an interesting idea too and not far fetched, come to think of it. There is something creepy about it, as if surrendering control is something so many desire, even if it’s just a voice in your ear or buzzing alerts. The idea that making money, launching a product on time to stay ahead even if it isn’t ready, even if it could be dangerous  is more important than the safety of customers is terrifying. Hmm, like most things we buy.

I often wonder about the person behind the public persona of the most successful people, women and men like Shelley. Surely no one can be that ‘together’ all the time. Oh their poor children, all that pushing and pulling to give birth to their best self! How much sacrifice is worth your sanity, safety? It’s about ‘pressures’ but here is hoping no one’s life veers into her sort of problems. Truthfully, Shelley got on my nerves, she is the sort of person that would have far too much energy in the mornings, Monday through Sunday. I could never abide people who can’t simply relax into a moment. For once it seems the husband (Rafe) has a far better insight into what the family needs. But will Shelley be willing jump off the mountain of success she has built? And then what? What would she do if she didn’t have Conch to consume her every thought? Will  her ‘younger self’ be a revelation, open her eyes to the dirty side of business?

It’s original but not the time trip I expected, still it’s a good read. People certainly go pretty far in this story to succeed, it’s much more manipulation. Motherhood, career, marriage, maybe she should have it all, but it’s not so easy. If only she would see things and people for who they really are, then maybe things would make sense. Maybe failure can be as much the way as success.

This is an advanced readers edition, and it won’t be out until May.

Publication Date: May 22, 2018

Doubleday

 

Girl Unknown: A Novel by Karen Perry

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But that was when I first felt her shadow falling over me. The first time I felt the ripples of a new presence within my home, like a dye entering water, already changing it’s chemisty.

This is gorgeously written, it somehow manages to encompass how every one is changed by Zoë Barry crashing into Professor David Connolly’s life, claiming to be his daughter. It is not just a game of is she or isn’t she his daughter, it’s a reminder of the deep love he was once consumned by for her mother Linda, a name that burns his wife today. Surely he doesn’t still love her, afterall it’s Caroline who shares his life and that of their beloved children. Can he contain this knowledge until he knows for sure? A daughter! It’s about the existing children and how it could change the very dynamics of their place, the eldest no longer so. The daughter no longer his lone female child. Caroline catches him at his omission, is it a lie when you’re just trying to feel your way to the truth before devastating your family?

Caroline knows what Linda was to David, letting her in will unleash the past and cause rifts in their marriage but just how strong are they to begin with? Just what do you do when doing the right thing exposes your children to danger? What to do when your wife feels stripped of your love, robbed of all the truths she is no longer sure of? Soon, they begin keeping things from each other, looking into Zoë leads to discoveries about instability, but does that mean she can’t be trusted? David is letting the past seduce him, remembering just how alive Linda made him feel, a much less stable love than what he has with Caroline, who feels the distance opening between them. Who wonders how she measures up and is terrified she already knows.

Caroline has made her own mistakes in the marriage, but she is still punishing herself, and maybe this shame makes her susceptible to the manipulation of what is begining to feel like an interloper. Or maybe she is just paranoid, threatened by Zoë’s presence, blooming like a new passion in David, diluting the strength of love that should be reserved for she and their children. Where do the children, Robbie and Holly, rate in this revelation? Both react differently to Zoë, and there will be consequences- maybe fatal ones.

Reader, do you trust Zoë? What of the innocence of children? Do you place your faith in the bonds of marriage? Can a family simply expand to let someone in that may well have been robbed of a father all this time? I really enjoyed this thriller, it overthrew me and I honestly usually figure everything out long before I made sense of this one. What is disturbing is the quiet threat of such a situation. Throw monsters at us, killers, but it’s the possibilities of life altering moments that are far more terrifying than anything monstrous. What’s more disturbing than people who threaten the very life, the precious family you have created?

We soak in thoughts, fears, and hopes of both husband and wife. “All those years spent thinking about Linda, wondering what she might have been like, trying to imagine her- now I felt as if I had finally met her. And I didn’t like her. She unnerved me.”  And David, “Such a death is like a sudden pull in the heart, a brief awakening, and the realization that the lost lover’s life had continued all that time you were apart.” But what will Caroline’s resentment and the giddiness of David’s ‘awakening’ cost the entire family?

I think it’s time to check out more  under this pen name. Written by authors, Paul Perry and Karen Gillece, this is a smoothly written read and I never would have imagined two people wrote it together. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: February 6, 2018

Henry Holt & Company

 

The Immortalists: A Novel by Chloe Benjamin

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Maybe the prophecy did plant inside him like a germ.

Perhaps prophecy is like an infection, if you cling to it, empower it, and give it your lifeblood. The Immortalists is a question and an answer, do you believe or not? Does it make a difference? 1969, New York City and the Gold children (Daniel, Varya, Klara and Simon) seek a mystic to find out what day they will die. Not everyone is promised a long life, and some are far too short to make anything of. Is it self-fulfilling, poisoned by the lies of a fraud, or is it fate that leads the siblings on their paths?

Each siblings embraces their death date and makes life changing decisions, sometimes against logic, sometimes not fully believing yet afraid not to, and builds a life upon it. Actions pull some closer, and divide others. The baby of the family, Simon takes off with Klara to the West Coast, where he lives with the shadow of death chasing him. He knows time isn’t a guarantee, and must give life to his true self. Klara lives and breathes magic, she and Simon are the misfits, out of step with her siblings and the expectations their mother Gertie places upon the “Gold” name. There is madness in her otherworldly ideas, but one thing is certain, she could never plant herself in an average life. Aiding and abetting her brother to shirk duty, both Daniel and Varya point blame in her direction. Daniel is against the rishika’s prediction, as far is he is concerned it’s ludicrous, he has a plan and becomes an army doctor. Order and control is the key, and he knows no one control his fate except for him. Varya seems to be the most retreating of them all, still and waiting and the one with the longest fate, if the ‘foreseer’ is to be trusted. She puts her faith in the future and research into the aging process. She is also the character that felt out of my reach. Maybe because her story is last?

Benjamin did a wonderful job creating siblings who are different from one another. Simon and Klara have the most fire, and the wildest urges. They are somehow present and absent at the same time, fleeting beings. Daniel and Varya are solid rocks, but less alive. The meat of the novel is in the idea of thoughts, the threat of them, the force and power over us as we allow them to guide or sink us. It’s often true we remember the ugly things people say more vividly than we do the kindnesses, not quite the same idea here but the heavy stuff, it can poison or on the flip side, it can push us to greatness! How differently would the lives of the Gold children have been had they never gone to see the mystic? It’s fruitless to entertain the thought as much as it is to wonder at the direction any of our choices take us and yet what an idea to play with! How much power do we put in others hands, when it comes to who we are, what we become whether we cower and give in to the demands and expectations of others or stake our faith carelessly in the whisperings of ‘prophets’ (fraudulent, or genuine)? We can be just as directionless with our free will as we can in grasping at the visions of fortune tellers! I could go on forever and beat this thing to death, but we can be as dangerous as anything we put our faith in. We can let a thought born in our own mind paralyse us, stunt our growth as much as any ‘omen’ can.

All lives are self-fulfilling, in the end, aren’t they?

Throwing caution to the wind, scattering,  grasping every sparkling bit of life one can before your last breath, attempting to correct wrongs, dazzling the world with magic and flirting with the veil between past and presen, or turning to science to give life meaning, the Gold siblings have no idea what they are starting when their curiosity about a fortune-teller has them sneaking out into the night. The ending had me a bit bummed, again- it may well be my lack of bonding with Varya, but I do like it.

A unique novel that manages to be magic realism and yet not. It’s a freshly provocative story about psychic belief and family bonds. I really like this author,  Anatomy of Dreams was a fun book for me too and I can’t  wait to see what she ‘conjures’ next.

Publication Date: January 9, 2018

Penguin Group

G.P. Putnam’s Sons

 

 

The Tree House by Glen Haybittle

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‘Past tense, present tense, future tense- what does it matter? When you reach my age they all become muddled anyway. Differentiating tenses- it’s all just another form of housekeeping.’

Ten-year-olds Max and Ada have created an universe for themselves within a tree house in Paris when the Nazi’s arrive to occupy the country and cause a rupture in their private world. Both are doomed by the happenstance of their birth, Max the product of rape and Ada, Jewish. Nothing touches them in their treehouse, working spells, and giving birth to a pure love affair that will remain with Max for the entirity of his life. No one escapes the ugly realities of the world, as Max and Ada learn, but not even the nightmares a child conjures could ever compare with the horrors of man, the tragedy of a damned future.

Grandson Mark is called to be the keeper of his grandfather’s dark shame, and to join him on a journey to discover the end of his and Ada’s story, which Mark doesn’t fully believe. Then there is Max’s mother, who discarded him like an old coat- a woman he never really knew.  Just what is hidden in her past? His grandfather has always been different, has never really reached out to him before, a strange man who is keeping a mannequin in his garden, living in a shed with scraps like memories tacked the walls, he tells him “If I lose the past I’ll be homeless”. He is terrified of losing memories of Ada, all that he tells her in his mind has been an anchor to this world, as if living for them both. But to forget, no sin would be greater! Mark himself is floating off, unable to face day to day living, breaking out in a cold sweat at the thought of leaving the house, it’s nearly impossible to focus on his grandfather let alone consider helping him on his mission. In the agitated state Mark is in, it would be madness! How can he cross the English Channel, possibly the only and last thing Max will ever ask of him, when he can barely leave the home he lives in?

Both are damned by vanishings in their life. Mark’s in crisis, five years after one poor decision, “It was as if everything I knew about myself was coming to an end.” It cost him more than life on stage, in the spotlight- lead singer in his band. It cost him his beautiful girlfriend, a dancer named Katie. He is living in the ruins of his choice, with a fractured mind but maybe by helping his grandfather resurrect the past, he will find footing in his own future.

I could hear Ada’s heart breaking, there is terrible cruelty in our cowardice. To be damned by choices, seemingly cursed by the history in which we as children have no control over, is devastating. Not knowing is torture, you can imagine all manner of terrible things, but knowing is it’s own fresh hell. Max’s confusion and longing for his mother is as putrid a wound as his betrayal of Ada. Mark has his own shame, caged in himself, refusing to reach out and explain… They are painfully alike, so who a better caretaker of his grandfather’s past than Mark?

Sad to the end!

Publication Date: January 18, 2018

Cheyne Walk

 

Oliver Loving: A Novel by Stefan Merrill Block

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Spooky Action at a Distance:  it wasn’t only your family or the people of your town that were tangled up with you in that vexing physics.

A young man commits an act that sucks Oliver Loving, full of passionate unrequited love for one Rebekkah Sterling, into a black abyss of half existance. The is he, isn’t he there question plagues his family, and haunts the girl he never had the chance to love. His brother, his parents, the community and Rebekkah never truly move on from that tragic November night when a simple dance turned to nightmare. There aren’t enough miles to escape the gravity of Oliver’s bed-bound presence, but is there enough faith for a miracle?

A decade has come and gone, or remained a stillness as Oliver lives in Crockett State Assisted Care Facility, unable to communicate, with no way to determine just how much of his mind is alive. His mother Eve has never given up on him, his father is an absence though just as chained to that bed as his beloved son, his brother Charlie an escapee  living in New York, destined to return when a new medical test promises to be key in contacting Oliver. Will it bring Rebekkah back? Charlie has always known there was more to that ill fated night than she let on. Just what did she know? Why won’t she speak of it?

There is so much sorrow tangled in the before and after. the measure we give time that is just an illusion. The now, it is always now and what comes to pass begins at the same point as it ends. Each character is trapped in a destiny poisoned by choices, small fissures that appeared long before a gunmen chose to take lives. Lingering, so much lingers in this novel. There is devastation for Charlie in the hopeless longing his mother has (her attention riveted on his brother’s lifeless form), in his attempts to be the son Eve needs him to be the one his brother perfected and his father’s decision to absent himself from the family. There is something sickeningly casual in the way his father Jed sinks welcomingly into his dark sorry moods, unable to face work, Oliver, life… Eve has always had to be the solid presence, by default when Jed subtracted himself, and after the tragedy he becomes more phantom than husband and father.

The reader gets the full effect Oliver’s precarious existance has over the town, more importantly over his family and his first serious love, his only love. Just how did Oliver end up where he was that night? What led to the shooting? Secrets refuse to remain silent forever, but just who will reveal everything? How can Oliver possibly be the catalyst to answers, when he lies silent as death? It’s a novel about becoming, and wonder, the sheer wrongness of fates whims and love, always love. It is the whisper of thoughts and scream of actions, the seemingly randomness of terror when it lands upon bystanders. But none of us are bystanders, not really. Existenance isn’t a housebroken animal, an act is never on a leash, love and hatred can both be contagions and cures. I do realize I am running away with my thoughts here. It’s just the sort of book that reminds you there is no such thing as seperate, and yet could Oliver be any further from his loved ones?

This, I think, will be a different book to the old than it is to the young. At the end, I felt release and sorrowful happiness and yet it is not a happy book. What happens is horrific, unjust! I was so sad when I figured out the why of it all but it was beautiful too. People let you down and pull you up. Those in our lives hold on when they should let go and give up when they should fight- how flawed we are. The pause in the trajectory of Oliver’s life, tragedy is such a weak word, but there it is.

Publication Date: January 16, 2018

Flatiron Books