Small Country: A Novel by Gaël Faye

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I sway between two shores, and this is the disease of my soul.

Before ‘something in the air had changed’, ten-year old Gabriel led a charmed life. Ruling the neighborhood with his pals,getting up to antics like stealing delicious mangoes from their neighbors, one in particular who they would sell them back to unbeknownst to her, they were a brotherhood. Days spent playing football, dodging a bully or swimming in the river seemed like endless happiness. There would come a day when the boys would begin to think differently about many things, including each other. Gabriel and his sister Ana are children of a French father and a Rwandan mother. Their lives are safe, comfortable due to their father, living in a ex-pat community, comapred to the poverty surrounding them, including their own hired help. Gabriel isn’t always the most aware of the differences between his place in the country compared to the locals. He will never really be one of them. The story begins as a carefree coming of age and quickly descends into the horrors of violence, war.

His parents have a malfunction of some sort in their marriage. His mother Yvonne knows what it’s like to be a refugee, to always be aware she is nothing but a foreigner. Where Gabriel’s father Michel sees beauty, comfort, she can ony see the poverty and struggle. She would love nothing more than to leave for Europe, but Michel knows back in his home they would be just ordinary people, in a city without the wilds of Africa. Where Yvonne sees safety, a place to raise her children without the threat of death looming over them all if she could just get to Europe, Michel thinks she is thankless, doesn’t recognize the blessings of the comfortable life he affords her. She knows all too well the reality of what could happen, what is always brewing beyond the beauty of the rolling hills. He thinks a French passport can save her, she knows better.

At the French school he attends in Bujumbura, he has a French pen pal, a girl named Laure, and the letters they share lend to the early sweetness, the spirited boy he is before the clouds darken and he is infected by his country’s horror. The saddest letter he pens is to Christian (you have to read).

In a breath it all changes. There are whispers about Hutsi and Tutsi people (like his mother) , nothing Gabby quite understands except they are different ethnic groups and you can tell who is who by their features. There are less Tutsi than Hutu, the Tutsi are tall the Hutu have short noses and if they are the same, share the same country, why then why the hatred? It will take a slaughter to make the differences a reality and his childhood will vanish as if overnight. After the night of a coup, the death of presidents his mother knows her family is in trouble. The Tutsi are blamed for the assassination, the Hutu are told to take up arms, families are being massacred. Only the Westerners will be evacuated, hell has broken loose. Gabby’s Maman waits, frantic, sick with fear until finally she is able to leave for Rwanda in search of her family.

Some of Gabriel’s friends are leaving with their family for the safety of France. The brotherhood is cracking, Gino is turning their innocent band of brothers into a violent gang. If they aren’t willing to take part in the bloodshed to protect their own streets, they will all die! Gabriel has had enough of senseless killings,  wants no part in it. Why does he have to prove loyalty as Hutu or Tutsi, they are just children! Can’t they just go back to what they once were, to boyish antics? But he will have to chose, he may be forced into committing a horror swallowed by fear and he will never be able to return to the innocence of his carefree youth. The help is dying off, just like that, found in ditches.  With schools closing and everything intensifying his father knows he must see to his children’s safety, get them out of there. The family will forever be split.

He tells us, now an adult living in France, that he was from a place surrounded by family, friends, acquaintances and warmth…but that place is long gone. It’s not just the land the makes a place your homeland. Upon his return the reader learns what became of his mother and father and all the people from the life he was in exile from. That his sister wants nothing but to forget all of it is her way of coping with the unbearable. It’s shocking, what fear can make us do, that brother turns against brother. There is a moment in the novel when Yvonne breaks down, shocked by what happened to her family and it is one of the most gut wrenching narratives I’ve ever read about death.

It’s hard to write a review about Africa’s not so distant history (1992) and the same could be said for any country, we can read about genocide, war, political upheaval in books but never scratch the surface of what it was like for the people who lived through it. Reading can never be a way to fully absorb what it means to be in fear of your life based on your ethnicity, to watch those you love slaughtered, to be cut from the roots of your birthplace, torn from the arms of your parents, lose the carefree innocence of childhood but it can be a voice, an echo of those lost. This was a tough read, and I thank my lucky stars for my place in the world, it could easily have been me born to horror.

Publication Date: June 5, 2018

Crown Publishing

Hogarth

 

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Familiar Things by Hwang Sok-yong, Sora Kim-Russell

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“People live here, just like anywhere else.” She said.

“People? All I see are flies and garbage.  It stinks.”

It may be garbage now, but they say it turns to gold.” His mother said playfully.

Flower Island may as well be another world existing outside the city in South Korea. A landfill where families and single people dig through the trash for recyclable goods for their survival, Flower Island certainly doesn’t live up to its pretty name. Stinking of the rot around them, empty bellied and looked down upon by the citizens, 14-year-old Bugeye and his mother find themselves living in a shack after his father’s internment. There is little hope, and even less food. He is quick to learn that the ‘rich’, fortunate city people throw away food that is still good, even if he has to fight the flies for it. The things they throw away are so beautiful and new that people are quick to accuse the inhabitants of the trash heap of theft. Oh to be so rich, so wasteful, he can’t even imagine it. It isn’t long before he befriends an unusual boy with problems of his own. Baldspot is the son of the crew leader (Baron) and tells him his father thinks he is stupid, noting the boy seems a little slow, Bugeye is wise enough to understand it benefits him to get on the good side of this odd boy.  When Baldspot shows him mysterious blue lights, there is something spooky about them, and maybe something magical too, but he isn’t sure he is ready to find out.

The boys will become as close as brothers and find the lights are spirits that live in a sort of parallel world to their own only without the horrors they face, the trash or ugly shacks. But why are they here, what do they want? As good fortune lands on Bugeye, it’s hard to trust whether it’s a gift or his doom. Bugeye is well aware of how other people live, with their clean clothes, education, and plenty of food. There are many shaming encounters, especially when he goes into the city with Baldspot with money in his pocket, trying to give the younger boy a little joy. Even charity, and free food from the church has a way of making the poverty striken children feel shame. The smell that follows them is one city people can’t abide, and maybe the good women care more for being seen giving charity than being around the urchins. But food is food, pride won’t keep your belly fully.

Can ancient spirits change Bugeye and Baldspot’s dismal futures, or will life continue to strip the boys until they are nothing but bones? This novel hits you in the gut, it’s hard to imagine this is actually the life other people live, particularly from our beautiful homes full of stuff we don’t really need for survival. Bugeye and his mother are down to the basics, and barely that. To my mind, the scariest horror story is a life without basic necessities and that through the joy of Baldspot, there is still happiness to be had is humbling. This is the sort of story that makes you feel so far removed from true suffering that it induces shame for having so much. It’s a quick read with a gut punch at the end. Folklore meets tragic existance.

Publication Date: June 8, 2018

Scribe Publications

 

Paper Ghosts: A Novel of Suspense by Julia Heaberlin

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Lying is a delightful thing, for it leads to truth. That’s Dostoyevsky.

This is a heck of a suspense story about a serial killer who may or may not have dementia. Can you ever really trust a killer? Sure, he’s an old man but isn’t dementia a convenient illness for someone with a lot of sins to hide? Carl Louis Feldman was a celebrated photographer, but it’s the girls he photographed that captivates the young woman who arrives at the half-way house where he lives claiming to be his daughter. She is going to take him on a trip to ‘dig up’ his lost memories of his darkness, and find out what happened to her beloved sister Rachel who disappeared when she herself was just a kid.  “Death came to her like a summer’s dream.” Her years have been haunted by not knowing what happened, if she is dead or alive. An adult now, her obsession has driven her to deceive old Carl, but is his mind really filled with holes or is it just another deception in a dark life? He isn’t a fool, nor does he trust her. Her sister climbed out of a grave once, just what will Carl reveal, will she rise again?

With photographs as clues and with Carl in tow, she is going to unravel the great horrific mystery of her life. Though during his trial for another crime he was found not guilty and went into hiding, she always knew he’d ‘crawl out.’ Never could she have imagined she would become his ‘daughter’. He wants things, and only then will he help her. He tells her it’s an exercise in madness, he doesn’t remember! Then he gives her the list, and she will give in to his demands. He starts playing with her, leaving her little gifts meant to frighten her, and it works. There are flashbacks to her memories of Rachel, and now with Carl sharing her space, she is remembering things that once seemed inconsequential. She won’t be cowed by Carl, she knows her power is in never showing her fear, never flinching in his presence, never letting him know his effect on her. With two fingers on her flesh he says, “Bump, bump. That’s your carotid.” It just shows how he loves mind games, and a woman’s fear. She plays the game right back.

She wants to know everything, even if she risks her own neck. I didn’t have a clue how this story would end, not what I expected at all. It’s scores points for originality with the dementia angle. I really liked Black-Eyed Susans by Heaberlin, this one is a bit slower but still an interesting story. He is a killer, how the hell do you cozy up to a killer who plays the liar’s game so much better than you? They are both screwed up, and is strange to see how much she has in common with him. The story is more about their psyche than any of his victims, her sister included. Sometimes the answer is worse than what you thought you knew. The memories of a chid are distorted to begin with, colored by rage and grief carried into adulthood and truth becomes a murky diseased artifact. What has Carl done? Does he really have no memory of her sister because of his dementia, or is there something else?

Without a doubt one of the strangest books about a killer I’ve read in a long time.

Publication Date: May 15, 2018

Random House

Ballantine Books

 

You Think It, I’ll Say It: Stories by Curtis Sittenfeld

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When she’s in a bad mood, she doesn’t hide it, and I’m not sure if I’m jealous or appalled.

Of all the stories in Sittenfeld’s collection, I loved The World Has Many Butterflies. Julie plays a game, which the title of the collection comes from, with her friend Graham.  Who knew sharing snarky comments about the people around them could explode into a flirtation. Where will it lead? It’s too real, too raw and oh the shame. I wish I could go on and on about how funny it was to me, but it would ruin the story. Her characters are perfect, they think inappropriate thoughts, are flawed like the rest of us and either thave wonderful clarity or lose the plot in their own lives. A Regular Couple is fantastic, what makes for a better story than a run-in with an old ‘evil’ girl from your school years? You know that girl, every school had one. The girl everyone adored for her beauty, who walked the halls wreaking havoc in everyone’s lives, who knew how to take power and she did, apparently from Maggie. But Maggie is high-powered herself these days, she is no longer an awkward nor clueless girl and how is it that all those high school memories are coming back? Why is she on the defensive, shrinking again? Ashley brings up the subject of the trial Maggie was involved in, already a ‘touchy’ subject, and Maggie has had enough! Getting called out by feminists is bad enough, but she isn’t going to take being called out by Ashley! Is her Honeymoon with Jason ruined?

Volunteers Are Shining Stars was another story in the collection that I really liked. The word volunteer brings to mind for most people feelings of love, harmony and brotherhood. Frances volunteers with children at New Day House, everything has its rhythm until a new volunteer named Alaina decides to dive in, and make waves. She is crawling under Frances skin in no time with her fresh ideas and her ‘insights’. Strange the how the most  innocuous person can make us lose it.

These stories are full of simple interactions that are loaded with taut moments causing undue distress. Some are little humiliations, oh how wrongly we perceive what’s happening to us, so much harder to see with clarity just what is going on beneath the surface when we are in the way. I liked the collection for its mundane periods, the slightest friction and off we go with our emotional chaos. Nothing big has to happen, it’s the little things, isn’t it?

Publication Date: April 24, 2018

Random House

 

Orchid & The Wasp: A Novel by Caoilinn Hughes

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Her only brother. She’d imagined lesions on the soft tissues of his personality.

In Caoilinn Hughes’ debut novel, we are introduced to Gael Foess an intelligent, tough young woman who is good at lots of things. Gael knows it takes more than talent, skills to make a rich life. Her brother Guthrie suffers from an unusual illness his choices narrow his life, dull his talent, his brilliance. Gael refuses to let him sink in mediocrity, she will force all the good things she knows he deserves on him, whether he wants it or not. They have seen how their parents were reduced when life hit them, her father left, her mother’s luster dimmed out, no longer the amazing orchestral conductor she once was. It doesn’t have to be this way, she refuses to let Guthrie or herself submit to the mechanisms of fate. They won’t be victims!

When Gael leaves Dublin for the art scene in London and Manhattan, she has a plan. She knows how to work people, how to level the playing field. If it means success for her brother, what does it matter if she deceives? Artist, illness… it’s exactly what the wealthy hunger for. The further,longer she is away from her home and family the more she loses herself. She has to work the gallery scene, and it’s a jungle. Like any business, it requires decpetion. Just how much of her brother is she willing to sell, if it’s for the best? At what cost? There is tenderness in the telling of Guthrie’s childhood difficulties and the affection she gave him. But he is no longer a child.

For all of Gael’s shrewdness, she is blind when it comes to her family. Sometimes you can’t conquer every problem through sheer will, sometimes you have to accept the state of things and move forward. When we attempt to ‘fix’ our loved ones, sometimes we end up breaking them. It takes a sober mind to see oneself with clarity, Gael spends most of her days plowing through life, sure she knows what’s best for everyone, when she is sober. She gets tangled up in Occupy on Wall Street, works the galleries with a talent similar to her father’s, has run ins with love and remains sealed off to becoming truly close to anyone. She knows best, though, when it comes to her family. Or does she?

Gael can be a bit much but her actions are born out of love. The problem is she isn’t dealing with her own inner turmoil nor is she aware that her brother is his own person, with his own needs, desires. In fact, I think there is a little of Gael in all of us as we want to push our loved ones to strive for the best self they can. There is something maniacal in the ways we shadow our friends and family. It’s so much easier to fix others, isn’t it? It takes leaving Dublin and returning home to confront the reality she has been unable to discern in order to move forward. Love itself is all we can give, loving people enough to let them be who they are, and make their own choices, even if it’s against the life we imagined they deserve.

Publication Date: July 10, 2018

Crown Publishing

Hogarth

My German Brother: A Novel by Chico Buarque ( translated by Alison Entrekin)

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It wasn’t an arugument between parents, which a child never forgets; rather, it was like a whisper behind a wall, a quick exhange of words that, by rights, I couldn’t have heard, or couldn’t have heard right.

When Ciccio filched a book, The Golden Bough, from his father’s precious, forbidden library he found a letter inside. He can’t read the German words, only understand the beginning and the end. It is written to his father, from a German woman named Anne. He must return the book,  before his mother catches him, the person who tends the library like a garden. The letter will slip from his mind but only for a short time. Then he is off to his friend Thelonious’s house, where they will meet, roam the streets of San Paola, steal a car and slip into the houses of wealthy people. No one loves books as much as his father, whose collection in the end, was over 20,000. Distanced from his father, he spends most of us time getting up to criminal activity, chasing women, hanging with troublesom friends because he gets the same thrill from his antics as his father must get when he opens a book.While coming of age in 1960’s Brazil, his imagined or real half-brother is always haunting the edges of his mind. He spends most of his life trying to understand his father, and missing so much.

Did his father have a child when he worked in Germany, before the Nazi’s took power? Who was his father before he was Ciccio’s dad? Who is Anne? It is in his imagination he attempts to understand what happened during the love affair, where a son (his nameless half-brother) was created? Did his father abandon the woman and child, did she simply give up on him when he married someone else (his mother) and deny him his child?  What of that brother, is he like their father, consumed by books, literature? Ciccio mixes up fact with fiction, even telling his friends he has a German brother, but embellishing the details with fanciful stories. His friend Udo, translates the mysterious communication. Just how close to the truth is he?

His father is an intellectual, Ciccio flirts with it, bragging about the writers his father has met, the signed books. He tries to dig into great literary works, he finds himself during political upheavals amongst students who take part in anti-dictatorship protests (though never one to carry a banner himself, he ‘acquires a taste for it.’) He attempts to nudge his father or mother to reveal tidbits about this German brother, but they never fall for it, and he can’t come right out and ask. Surely his mother must know something, as nothing gets past her, she manages his father’s life, he’d be lost without her. Does she know about the love child?  How could she not, she knows his father better than anyone. He fears his father a little, an aloof man who takes little notice of him, ‘shipwrecked’ in his books, rather than tending to the bonds of his family. His brother Mimmo lives for comic books and soon does voice-overs. His friend gets busted for crimes.Ciccio comes of age, gets better looking, fancies women, but never stops longing for his German brother.

His life becomes a puzzle, he is just as consumed with this phantom brother as his father is by his literature. The novel is fiction flavored with the autobiography of its author (be sure to read the Author’s Note). The ending itself is tender, ‘ And perhaps my eyes will mist over as they fix on the black and white image…’.  Toward his mother’s end, she let’s slip her own comment that confirms she knew everything. It was an engaging novel, about the curious sins of the father and while focused on the mystery of Sergio (his half-brother), Mimmo( the only brother he shared his life with) slips through Ciccio’s fingers. Years pass and with age some questions are answered while others remain.

Publication Date: June 12, 2018

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 

Gods of Howl Mountain: A Novel by Taylor Brown

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Granny sucked her teeth, wearing the sneer she always did when forced to come down off the mountain.

Outsiders aren’t welcome on this Howl Mountain, home to moonshiners, stock-car racing and  the wood witch Maybeline “Granny May” Docherty. She keeps her secrets as close as the mountain does, some darker than others. She can get rid of the troubles girls find themselves “carrying”, cure the sick, she knows the secrets of nature and some of the locals. Yet the biggest secret remains as locked up in her daughter Bonnie’s mind as she herself is, trapped in a mental institution after a violent attack.When her grandson is besotted by the snake-handling preacher’s daughter, no good can come of it. Granny knows plants and roots, makes tinctures and potions, she has knowledge that can make you reach spiritual realms, heal wounds, or kill but none of this could stop what happened to Rory’s mother. Old now, but still strong as an ox it’s hard sometimes to believe she ever knew tender love with Anson, the man who ‘made her blood sing hot.’ What happened to her world, what good was her wisdom, her love, when she couldn’t save Bonnie? Couldn’t right the wrongs?

There is a story that haunts Rory, about his mothers delicate hands and an eye, the Gaston killing and then nothing from her but silence thereafter. She, nothing but a whore’s daughter and the Gaston’s wanting her erased. With one foot in this world, and one in the other, his mother is of a nature he cannot understand. “Girl had angel in her blood,” Granny used to say. “Where she got it, I don’t know. Not from me.” Granny is grit, carved out of hard living, fierce. Rory knows many stories about the delicate nature of his mother, but it’s the story his mother can’t tell that he longs for.

This mountain knows violence, from frontiersmen and the civil war, to the mountain men and Cherokee spilling each other’s blood. The land seems to breed blood lust, and fight is vital to survival here. Rory has returned from war but is still carrying the terrible memories, and a wooden leg. He is hellbent on bootlegging but things have changed since he’s been away at war, and the Muldoons have gotten ‘tight’ with the sheriff. There is just as much danger home as there was in Korea. Younger men challenge him, and with a missing leg, being slow can be deadly in these mountains.

Bonnie’s story escapes like a sigh throughout the novel, in short chapters we come to know her and her first bloom of love. Rory is in love too, but his is like an infection. Then there is Eustace, Granny’s sometimes lover who came back from the war in France untouched, unlike her beloved Anson. Everyone is tangled up, somehow. Between dodging the law, rivaling bootleggers, and a preacher’s daughter who dangles snakes (and Rory’s heart) something rotten is going to boil over. It may well be those closest to you, the ones you trust, that you have to look out for. Secrets will raise like the dead, and there will be a reckoning.

The novel is atmospheric, the characters are so real that you can smell whiskey on their breath and the cloud of tobacco around them. It’s hard to feel tenderness and love, because they hold their affection close to their chest, just like their trust. Everything must be earned. I loved it for that very reason, they are hard because they have to be, but don’t imagine for a moment their love and loyalty isn’t as strong as the mountain they were bred from.

Available Now!

St. Martin’s Press