The Waters & The Wild: A Novel by DeSales Harrison

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We were all in over our heads, you said.  Everything was too much, our lives were too much. Too many temptations, allurements, false starts, false promises. Too much pain. Too much grief. And there was nothing to be said about this: some griefs, you said, outstripped all consolation. 

As for the explannations, we would never be satisfied.

Daniel Abend is a successful psychoanalyst and single parent to a teenage girl. Life is wonderful, until it isn’t. His work with patient, Jessica Burke, was successful and returned her to her life and family, her future potential back on track with college. Then it falls apart when she dies. While sitting in the pews, waiting for Rector Nelson Spurlock to give the eulogy, Daniel thinks about the patients he has lost and struggles with the stunning shock that it seemed impossible that of them all, Jessica could be dead. When it is Daniel who is dead, his daughter seeks Spurlock out to inform him all missives from her father now belong to her. But the clergyman is rattled, with no idea who she is talking about, who Daniel is. So begins the story. The ‘confessional’ arrives after Daniel’s death and in it a mystery, the reader and Spurlock dissect everything that happened together. This is Daniel’s last confession, and he asks in his letter “will you hear it”?

Daniel passes his days in a sort of haze until his daughter, Clementine brings to his attention a strange envelope with a key inside. Led to a post office box, he discovers a poem assigned in a night class Jessica was taking. Now, with the poem sent before her death he knows it was no accident, her death was very much intended. It is a heavy weight to bear, this knowing. Then, through a photograph that horrifies with its mystery, the claws will pull him down. Spurlock is drawn into the story, though beyond giving a eulogy for the deceased Jessica, he never knew either she nor Daniel, but Abend was so moved by his words that he clung to them. Who is Abend? Does anyone truly know?

The picture serves to terrorize Daniel, like a threat to his own daughter, to all daughters of the world. Clementine knows so little about her own mother, just another lie he contains, until he can’t. His life seems to be a series of women begging, remember me“with the past so much longer than the future.”  Each woman gone and now Clementine too, or maybe missing, which? The slippery truth found its way to his daughter, and all because of his protective lies, he has nothing and deceptions even for good reason can’t be tolerated by the one betrayed. But what is the truth, just what lies has he invented?

It is fact he loved a woman named Miriam, that the way of her demise is more story, one Clementine had to tell herself, because what she believes of her mother is a safer fiction than the true horror story. Someone else knows though, the very person who could have had a hand in Jessica’s tragic end. Someone else is making sure Daniel ‘remembers’ his discarded past involving the tragedy of Miriam who is now morphing with Jessica’s strange final moments. This is a mystery, a quiet thriller but much more a beautiful literary tale. Daniel helps his patients cling to life long enough to see their way out of darkness, and yet what of his own? Is it possible to reinvent the past, change the story to a cleaner version? What of the sickness of the sinner?

When the reader reaches the rotten center, they’re not sure what to feel- maybe horrified and yet exhausted by the decisions and deceptions, much as Daniel must be. Heartsick, because nothing is worse than being abandoned by your child. Is anyone ever truly ours? What of abandoning yourself? It’s so hard to express why I felt so many conflicting emotions reading the story without ruining the mystery. All I could think is, “My God, what have you done?” Every character has meaning, even when we (like Clementine) are oblivious to their importance. That the dead are present, an ever watchful eye, that a reckoning is never quite how one imagines it to be. A tale we all take part in, because you can arrange a life, your own, someone else’s, with the precision of a God and your ‘creation/invention’ will turn on you, demand its pound of flesh. What of intentions, selfless vs selfish, does it make a difference? As if any sort of ‘arranging’ can be right, or wrong. The universe has an account of your every transgression, against others, or yourself. The dead rise, at their own will, if only through the tormented memories of those left behind to grieve.

The characters have their reasons for everything, how toxic our ‘reasoning’, how blindly we move through our lives and each others, infecting those we love most with our choices. I imagine every reader will feel different emotions, certainly it seems damnation would be fair, if you are moved to justice. Everyone is a mystery, or a tragedy about to happen. How is Spurlock, a godly man, to unravel such inhumanity? How did he find himself a key player in a story of deception and fatherly love? The writing about Daniel’s job as a ‘therapist’ is gorgeous and humbling. In chapter 29, he tells of his years in practice dealing with his patients ‘astonishing disclosures’ and how little, in the end, they ‘alter the fabric of the patients life.’ These happenings that rupture the veil of our ordered life somehow always spit us back out to where we were. Everything changes, and yet nothing. Our lack of awareness is usually suspect, because all too often on some level we did know. All of it stood out to me, because it is a strange effect when something rocks our world, it may reverberate but does it change the past? That can be applied to any big moment, good or bad, if you can even label the things in a life as such. The world and all it’s inhabitants hurtle towards the future, unchanged by our victories and miseries. Life moves on much the same.

I will be thinking about this for days. It starts off slowly, but by the novels conclusion I was gutted. There are heartbreaking moments, and brutality that is shocking. It’s hard not to hold Daniel accountable, and yet impossible not to find compassion too. Are we all so disfigured? Maybe.

Publication Date: April 3, 2018

Random House Publishing

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The Hawkman: A Fairy Tale of the Great War by Jane Rosenberg LaForge

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Yet it was his eye, or both of them, that attracted the most notice and gossip- their unnerving brilliance. It was hungry and restless; and it earned him his nickname.

In this fairytale for grownups, an American schoolteacher (spinster, nay old maid)  Miss Eva Williams, falls under the spell of the Hawkman, Mr. Michael Evan Sheehan. Sheehan is suffering from the torments of the war, including his time of imprisonment. His vagabond ways have damned him as an outcast, and his yellowing, ‘hungry and restless’ eyes make him more birdlike than human. Mrs. Sheehan knows there is more to the man, tormented by children’s taunts, rocks and even attempts at poisoning. He is more than a scavenger, certainly not a threat when he doesn’t fight back, though the children’s cruelty would deserve a firm punishment in a better world. She herself is a misfit in England, a foreigner, teaching at a lady’s college, horror of all horrors she is on the shelf and unmarrie, progressive (never a welcome trait in a woman bygone times). He becomes her cause.

Lord Thornton wants nothing more than his world to return to the normality of before the war. The Hawkman is a reminder, a constant stench of war and all its horrors. To make his village safe and ‘clean’ for it’s young ladies seems to be his sole purpose, ridding it of such scavengers as Sheehan. The villagers, especially his son Christopher( recovering after his own war wounds) are in compliance to Lord Thornton’s plans, but not Miss Williams. Even Thornton’s wife, Lady Margaret wants nothing more than to be ‘ride’ of the Hawkman. Miss Williams has a far better understanding of the ‘protagonist’ of various countries and sees in the Hawkman no difference. Sifting through the fears and myths, she sees past the ‘filth’ and reclusive behaviors for what they are the reactions of a broken, damaged man.

Eyes wide open, Eva invites Mr. Sheehan into her world with empathy and compassion. She goes gently with him, as one might a wounded animal. She sees the man, not the myth. Hiding him in the cottage won’t last, but she will not be cowed or bullied into giving up on him. When she comes to need him, one wonders just who needs salvation. With war weaved into the story, it is a unique twist on modern fairy tales and the true shame and horror is that people always find ways to invent monsters, to condemn those who need the most help to the shadows.

A quiet, yet moving tale.

Publication Date: June 5, 2018

Amberjack Publishing

School Of Velocity by Eric Beck Rubin

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I saw Dirk before I met him. I saw him several times before I even knew his name. He was like a new word that, once learned, you heard spoken everywhere. Compelling attention. Mine, yours, anyone’s.

Jan is a virtuoso pianist, consumed by strange unwelcome music, sounds screaming through his head when he is meant to be playing other pieces. Something is going frighteningly wrong, then there are the memories of the most compelling friend he ever had, Dirk. Their abrupt parting was strange, and the confusion still haunts his thoughts. Every person from their past seems to have stories to tell of what Dirk has been doing, each of his successes, his failures and all are surprised Jan knows so little. The two were never apart, impossible to separate in the minds of their peers. There are moments through the years where their paths cross, but somehow, Dirk always vanishes again, inexplicably. The crumbs he throws to Jan never fill his belly, the confidences never tell the entire story of his adult life. Jan is too wrapped up in his career, his performances and plans to realize everything is not as it seems, that something is always absent from what Dirk shares.

Their friendship was heavy with intimacy, thrills and denial in the daylight hours. Even now, from a distant with the maturity and wisdom of the passing years Jan doesn’t understand everything that happened, or all the feelings knotted inside of him. Dirk was an event, able to charm and seduce everyone in his path, even stealing Jan’s girlfriend but more crucial, stealing Jan’s loyalty and affection. Dirk is a fish he either cut loose, or who got himself off the hook years ago. Jan keeps secrets from his beloved Lena, about his health, his past. But he can’t hide what’s happening forever, anymore than he can neglect to confront Dirk and the past they shared. But has Dirk remained suspended in time, the same person Jan loved so dearly, just waiting for his friend to find him again?

This is a novel about music, love, and the overwhelmingly blind confusion of ourselves. It’s a young man coming of age whom may be a virtuoso pianist but can’t heart the music of his own heart. Strange, how everyone else around us sees us far more clearly, understands our lives and the people we orbit better than we do. Time has teeth, can we go back? It ends with a gasp.

Publication Date: June 5, 2018

Pushkin Press

Invitation To A Bonfire: A Novel by Adrienne Celt

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“My aim, anyway, is not posterity, but instead to take a sharp, bright pin and use it to bore a hole- one might say a pinprick- in the swollen history that rests on my shoulders. If I don’t let out some of that air, I think I will go mad, or at the very least confess to someone unwise.”

Zoya Andropova is an orphaned refugee from the Soviet Union, 1920s. She is placed in an ‘elite’ all girls boarding school in New Jersey, smack dab in the middle of the milk and honey spoiled American girls from bubble safe worlds. Wealthy and entitled girls untouched by the tragedy of an outcast refugee like Zoya, who give her hell, who tweak and abuse her. Zoya is much like a specimen, and doesn’t fit, could never fit into their American landscape. She studies them, one student in particular, her roommate Margaret with her beautiful easy happiness. Hungry to learn American habits, as if through intense focus and study she could ease her way into the affection and acceptance of her peers. Instead, it’s one of the many things that leave her naked, that expose her as ‘different’. She could never escape her ‘Europeanness’. She has her uses, her intensity a reason girls seek her out, and she is willing, hungry for connection, even at the cost of ‘pretending’ along with their little game, communicating with the dead, not much different than engaging in memories of her parents, the land she left, just as dead to her.

When she graduates, Zoya doesn’t have the luxury of further education, nor marriage. Instead, she finds herself working at the school in the greenhouse, discovering an intense passion for the plants. She is fast to learn the difference between the ‘help’ and the ‘students’, the girls are quick to turn their meanness on her. She learns to fear the ‘squeak of saddle shoes’, to know the ‘cruelty of rich youth’. No bother, because her mind has been captivated by the Russian writers, the voice of home she so misses. When her favorite author Leo Orlov (Lev) arrives as professor at the school, she is already infatuated, seduced by his writing. A man who writes of ‘worlds of invaded women‘, invades Zoya through every cell of her being, to her very soul. That his elegant wife Vera’s life has run parallel to her own, that they once met, somehow creates an entanglement for Lev. The two seem to become one, though Zoya’s irresistibility is the peasant world she threw off. Zoya tells the reader (her confidant) that, “I took her husband. Or at the very least I tried.” Zoya’s so hungry for touch, lonely, her heart a hostage of Lev’s attentions that she is almost sick with love. There is a darkness that lurks at the edge of their affair, threatening to swallow Zoya.

Vera is Lev’s northern star, but he resents that too. She keeps his career flourishing, she knows him to the bottom of his soul.  But deep inside Lev bucks at being managed, known and she once wounded him deeply early in their relationship; an anger he has fiercely clung to. Vera, in the eyes of observers, is cold and aloof, and Zoya knows all too well she is a better match for him. How much can Zoya know about their marriage, dependent only on Lev’s side? She is almost as obsessed with Vera as she is with Lev. Two women from the same country (though different worlds, socially), both in love with the same man, but for whom does Lev’s Russian heart truly beat? Who deserves him, who ever really gets what they deserve or really understands what they are getting?

I devoured this novel, and highlighted passages with a madness that the best of books drive me to. I believe I tend to grab at novels with refugees from Europe, maybe because of the many tales (light and dark) that have lived in my ears told by my own father and grandparents. There is always a mysterious edge to the characters that I find relatable. Zoya standing on the outside of all that golden American wealth and beauty, both desiring that right of ‘happenstance’ they take for granted and wanting to reject it, births a desperate need in me to mother her. Zoya is a fast study, but still her heart is a bottomless maw, starved for everything she has been denied. She is engulfed by her infatuation, and yet could it really be any other way? The novel turns and twists, and left me stunned. Zoya isn’t always likable, neither is Vera but both are fascinating in the spaces they occupy in Lev’s world.

Lev begins as a shameless flirt, a practiced seducer (he is a writer, after all) and yet through his wife we see him weakened, childlike. In Zoya’s eyes his writing is genius, he is passionate and deep. Each character is multifaceted, trustworthy one minute, deceptive the next. They are all three driven by their passions, even if Vera’s are cool and controlled. Vera’s intelligence and beauty seems more like a spell that other’s can’t resist, male or female. We often want that which glimmers just out of reach.

The ending gave me a strange feeling, a reminder to be careful with your plans, people are not so easily managed. The writing is beautiful, and Zoya’s memories, ‘coming of age’, and slow seduction are a gorgeous creation. I have a new favorite novel! Way to heat up the summer!

Publication Date: June 5, 2018

Bloomsbury USA

 

The Madonna of the Mountains: A Novel by Elise Valmorbida

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Her heart is trapped. Her mouth is dry. Words spill out before she knows it. “Please, dear God, make him good and handsome.”

“Stupid girl, ” her mother says. “When the children are hungry, they won’t cry Papà, belo, they’ll cry Papà, pan!” 

Yes, its bread they’ll want, not looks, but Maria can’t help herself. She has waited so long.

Men are scarce and at twenty-five Maria is fast arriving at a nearly unmarriageable age. The story begins with her father leaving on his mule with food and her photograph to find her a good husband. She is a pretty, strong, healthy and a good, pious daughter- everything worthy of having as a wife. With so many men absent due to the war, he has no choice but to look elsewhere. Living in the Italian countryside is hard, the war is on and Mussolini rules with an ‘iron-fist’, people go hungry. Marriage for love isn’t vital to survive, in a sense it is a business deal so when Maria sets eyes on her husband to be she is happy to learn he is strong and easy on the eyes. There will be no hunchback for her, praise God! She will keep home and make children, all will be happy and right with the world. She no longer has to fear becoming La Delfina, the madwoman who “howls to the moon like a wild dog”. Oh no, she will have a husband, a family, a future! She will not be a mad wandering spinster. With lines like “show him your teeth”, when meeting her suitor, it’s easy to rebel at the reality women faced in a patriarchy.

Each choice made by Maria Vittoria and her husband Achille, a veteran of war with scars and tales of his own, are for the betterment and survival of their children to come. The more children they have, the more money they make. They move, open a grocery store and fall into disgrace. When Maria is in a desperate situation, she will do anything to save her husband, to keep food in her children’s bellies. There is a cousin, one she once had tender feelings for who may be able to help her. But that too is a dangerous decision, and from there his own darkness, and her feelings expose the struggle during times of war, when no one is to be trusted and neighbors whispered suspicions can be life or death, freedom or imprisonment and disrupt love between husband and wife.

Imprisonment, brutality, and broken men returned who will never again be head of the household, young daughters that ache for a different life, who want to marry for love, not caring for family approval, the terror and hope of immigrating, of escape, our Maria will know all of these things. She will be tested as a wife, and as a mother. Discovering secrets of her husband’s past are enough to wound her, are truths she will never be able to ‘not know’. It’s a coming of age in a sense, a hopeful young woman with a hunger from romance that is forced to grow up and lose so much (her dreams, her children). Times of war don’t allow for selfishness, for romantic liaisons nor salvation, because everything costs you something, someone is always watching and no one is judged more than a woman, a mother.

There is no such thing as lying low, as not chosing sides. Who do you trust, your own people, those who invade, others who liberate you? How do you save face with a husband you betrayed in order to save? Can praying to the Madonna of the mountains protect and heal Maria? Will she be forgiven her sins? Can she keep a bowed head while suffering abuse? Does she deserve it for the sins she committed? Miscarriages, births, deaths, love, lies, motherhood -there is a lot going on in this novel. Through war, there is still family complications, and everything is about survival. It’s a harsh reality about an Italian woman during a horrible period of hunger and war; how she loses innocence and hope but stays alive, with sin and without, and keeps her family safe, but it costs her plenty, and her soul is often under scrutiny, by others as much as herself.

Publication Date: June 12, 2018

Random House

Spiegel & Grau

 

Alternative Remedies For Loss: A Novel by Joanna Cantor

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It felt like an iconic moment in the movie of her life gone sour. She knew she should go home- it was just one regrettable night of drinks, nothing that couldn’t be washed off. 

Olivia left Vassar to be with her mother during her final days, and something inside of her withers with the immense loss. Everyone else in her family is coping far better than her. Olivia’s father is dating a woman named June, who seems a bit ‘too comfortable’ for Olivia’s liking, inviting her on a family trip that was meant to be a healing after her mother’s death. “Her anger was a poison that wouldn’t stop spreading until it had infected every part of that trip.” It’s hard not to understand her emotional

She knows she should be putting her life in some semblance of order, instead she allows herself to rebel, to make men ‘earn’ her time. This pivotal moment will rear its ugly head later, because sometimes when you roll in the dirt, it leaves stains. Olivia is young and crashing along, making mistakes, very self-centered but the young often are. That’s not an accusation, when we’re young everything tends to revolve around us, because we don’t have other things pulling us away, we’re so focused on trying to figure out not just who we are and who we want to be but also, how to attain the future we want. You throw relationships and loss into that mix, and it can spell disaster. Olivia can’t see past her nose sometimes, but as the only daughter she has a different way of relating in the family dynamic. Mothers and daughters have a unique bond, there is never enough time to take away everything we need.

Finding letters to her mother from the mysterious F is not something she can let go of, and it puts her on a sort of spiritual quest, that ends up giving her more questions than answers. Her mother was the spiritual one, not her. This is default, this is a way to connect to her mother. That she was a person, with her own longings and needs, not just a mother, that she had her own choice to make about her illness, will leave Olivia rocking. The truth is, she can’t move forward without looking back. Maybe we never fully understand our family anymore than we can dissect the things we do to ourselves.

As Olivia unravels, she falls pretty low, but somewhere inside of her remains the smart, hopeful, strong woman she has yet become.

Publication Date: May 8, 2018

Bloomsbury USA

Social Creature: A Novel by Tara Isabella Burton

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Louise doesn’t know whether she’s terrified or terrible or triumphant, whether she is in love or just surviving. All she knows is that the world has ended but that it is also so turning.

As her mind is turning, whirling… said to be a Talented Mr. Ripley for the digital age, it started off slow for me until… until… the downward spiral began. Manipulation, lies, stealing (not just money either) this is a disturbed mind. Greedy for a better life, desperate to conquer her small-town past, Louise Wilson meets glamorous, wealthy  Lavinia Williams and wants everything she has, and to become everything she is. Is it possible to re-invent oneself, to smooth and polish every rough edge of your being? Is going to the right places, exposing yourself to culture, attending the right parties, surrounding yourself with the ‘best’ people and dressing the part a way to obtain all that the ‘haves’ come by naturally? Louise is going to change her luck, she will do anything! She emerges from her cocoon and begins to take on similarities to Lavinia, yet there is an elusive ‘something’ she can’t quite mimic.  She will take any abuses slung her way just to be close to Lavinia’s essence. But what is Louise but a hanger-on? Disposable? What will she do if Lavinia tires of her, as she is prone to do with her ‘projects’, her ‘pets’? Maybe Louise is getting too comfortable!

Louise cannot wrap her mind around the why of it all. Why does Lavinia deserve every blessing in life, none that has been earned? She is unflinchingly cruel on a whim, selfish, entitled and coldly beautiful and yet this is what makes every man and woman want her. What is wrong with wanting to remain in the world Lavinia has dangled before her? Louise cannot return to nothing, not after nesting in Lavinia’s home but her acts, her lies are an avalanche she can’t outrun. With every deception, more follow until she doesn’t know what’s real anymore. How much of herself will she have to shed to remain afloat? Just who will she become in the end? Will it all be for nothing?

The reader can’t stop what’s happening, anymore than Louise seems to be able to stop herself. How easily Louise turns chameleon. There were similarities to The Talented Mr. Ripley, but more of a YA feel. It’s good once it begins to sink into horror but the beginning didn’t grab me. I think twenty somethings will devour it and those of us that enjoyed Highsmith’s novel will weigh this against it. It has its appeal!

Publication Date: June 5 ,2018

Doubleday