The Truth About Parallel Lines by Jill D. Block

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I guess I had been imagining it for a long time. After almost four years, I felt like I was a part of their family. I wished I was.  And really, who could blame me?

Jenna likes to tell stories, in fact she’s incredibly talented when it comes to fiction. Her skill is a gift that opens doors for her when she writes a story, The Adventures of Peanut Girl, for the little girl (Chloe) she babysits, one that happens to be the daughter of her pretend married boyfriend, John. She has problems within her own family when her parent’s split apart, enter Deirdre (or as her mother likes to call her, Jenna’s father’s ‘midlife crisis’). Life is complicated when lives running parallel begin to intersect. Deirdre is meant to remain simply the harlot, the evil other woman, but Deirdre in reality is more than just Andrew’s kept woman. She is a hardworking doctor, a sister to an exciting but exhausting twin brother (he also has a heavy story). She is also the catalyst for the hatred growing inside Joanne, one that damages the relationship between Jenna and her mother. She may be with Andrew, but ‘for Jenna’s sake’ he better keep that part of his life seperate if he wants to remain in his daughter’s life.

Jenna’s loyalty is constantly under scrutiny from her heartbroken mother, distraught by her husband’s betrayal. Maybe in a healthy world we all should try to bridge the poisonous distance rejection and cheating creates, and it’s easy with clear heads watching from the outside to see how anger takes its toll on the child, stuck in the middle, loving both parents, hunkering for stability. Unless it’s you harboring the wounded animal heart, dealing with the turbulence of your emotions that make you selfish and bitter, it’s easy to believe in embracing change, rising above the torment of your pain for the sake of your child. Women and men do it all the time, swallow their pride, attempt the grin and bear it approach and remain civil for the sake of the children’s emotional well-being. Then there is the other side, those who are stuck in fury and use the child as a pawn, whether intentionally or not. Jenna is caught up in the maelstrom of her mother’s wounded pride. The other woman is enough to make her spit nails, but what happens when Jenna begins to like Deirdre? How sick is it to pretend she doesn’t exist, that her father is meant to compartmentalize his love life from his family life? Is she meant to remain a phantom presence for all eternity just to spare her mother’s feelings, while Jenna is used as the reason? It isn’t long before Jenna herself mirrors Deirdre and her father’s relationship. She will understand all too well the obstacles and difficulties Deirdre dealt with in coming between a family.

Chloe’s mother has always shadowed her and to her father John’s mind, is a big reason he decides to remain married to Mara. Mara doesn’t have the sort of skin required for moving on, for abrupt changes, for divorce. John had been down that road before with his first wife Vivian and their boys. But there is something different, some hole inside of Mara that refuses to let go. The reader catches of glimpse of the cold, overbearing Mara as Jenna ‘pokes around’ their home, as she becomes intimately close with the family, even vacationing with them, mentored in a sense by John. But the story isn’t really about the men, who they love or don’t love, nor who remains the wife and who is the invisible lover. The women have pasts that color all of their relationships. Mara is coming undone, but Chloe is drifting further away, no longer feeling that mother/daughter bond.

Jenna thought her time waiting for love would be rewarded, and never imagined the ending fate created for her love story. When she begins to move on, her mother is always the one obstacle that cannot detach from the pain of the past, preventing even the simplest joys with her stubborn refusal to let go of her resentments. No one can imagine that her pain was set during her own childhood that began with the death of her own mother. Jenna keeps her secrets close too, messing up her new love with omissions, so as not to face the past she is trying to forget. Both are more similar than they know, trying to ignore painful points in their lives, yet unaware how much it affects the present.

Chloe (the peanut girl) comes of age and finds herself on the outside too, a ‘invisible woman’ but for a different reason than an affair. She is forbidden, an unaccepted shame to her lover’s family. Every relationship in this novel is complicated. Mara is deeply troubled, numb and disconnected in some ways and overly involved in others. Jenna is the main character who starts as a fanciful romantic teenager likely stunted by her own mother’s reaction to the break in her marriage, maybe John is a way of rebelling or maybe love is genuine, maybe she conjured a love story into being? But her little game with her friends sets the pace for her entire adulthood where men are concerned.

People are messy, love can build and destroy and it really never will be “just the two of  us”. Everyone is affected by a love story, more often than not as obstacles because love never really runs smoothly. The women are more alike than they are different, each with unhealthy sides as much as strong ones. Some drag their pain like a dead horse behind them. Most secrets aren’t as hidden as they think. Some use secrets to keep people out, like Chloe with her demanding needy mother and others to shield others from pain but regardless of their reasons, it always hurts someone, mostly themselves. Each woman in this novel is as important as the other, be they the wife, daughter, lover, or enemy. Perfect for a book club and I know women, regardless of their ages, will not relate to the same characters, will champion one and damn the other. I don’t want to ruin the secrets. Provocative.

publication Date: June 4, 2018

Montague Street Press

 

 

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To the Moon and Back A Childhood Under the Influence by Lisa Kohn

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At first I had no idea that anything was wrong with my childhood.

I have a vague memory as a very young child and a newscast of a lot of people marrying one another (strangers to each other) in Madison Square Garden, and my parents mumbling something about it being ‘crazy’. I was a kid, dazzled by the many brides so when reading this memoir about the Unification Church (which some still call the Moonies and consider a cult) it clicked that this is the group from that long ago newscast. People often talk of Bohemian childhoods, but Lisa’s far surpasses many ‘hippie’ stories, her parents were free spirits that ‘stuck out’ even among those of their generation. Sure, she watched Jefferson Airplane in central park but her childhood was anything but carefree and charmed. “Mimi had tried on religions and movements like some women try on clothes.” Mimi, her mother, falls under the spell of Father ( Reverend Moon)- not her real father Danny (whom isn’t one for the label father anyway) when hearing him speak she found her purpose in life. Her children are dragged along by her passion for the religion.

When her parents first met, her mother was a straight A student, daughter of a judge while her father, Danny was ‘the beatnik son of socialist intellectualists’. Rushing headfirst into marriage the summer they were out of highschool, having children, her father attending college for a time, their marriage didn’t last long and her parents divorced. Danny moved to New York while Lisa, her mother Mimi and brother Robbie lived in New Jersey.  Her father, a bartender and partaker of serious drugs had always been ‘anti-establishment’, and certainly isn’t able to provide stability anymore than her mother who is swallowed by the Church. A mother who once made the children suffer through micro-biotic diets, sugar-free living, a tv-less existence, an abusive boyfriend and whatever new fad caught her attention now pushes her children away to devote her entire being to the cause of Reverend Moon. While her mother needed to find truth and meaning, and their father came and went with the wind, Lisa and her brother relied on themselves confused by the differences in their parents lifestyles, slowly becoming aware just how strange their lives, their parents were in comparison to their peers.

“These were the beliefs that wrapped themselves like creeping vines around my mind as I grew up- during my most formative preadolescent and adolescent years- always clasping tighter and holding my life, my soul, and my sense of self together.” Lisa becomes just as enraptured as her mother, she learns to share the love and sell the ideas of the church on strangers, and friends alike. Love-bombing people with the hopes they will join, not exactly appealing to fellow students. Lisa and her brother Robbie fall in love with the positive energy and the always smiling fellow moonies. It isn’t long before they become close to the ‘True Children’, top of the hierarchy. The church becomes more their ‘real life’ than school and home, soon their mother is no longer living with them, her devotion solely to the church-  her ‘calling’. Living with their grandfather “Pop”, she begins to shoulder adult responsibilities. Rather than feeling anger towards her mom, she just assures herself that it’s an important sacrifice her mother has to make, and Lisa should feel proud. Easier said than done.

When her Pop is admitted to a psych hospital it is Danny’s turn to house Lisa and her brother. Danny’s lifestyle is loud, carefree, filled with late hours, crazy wild friends and there is little chance of him putting his partying ways and drug abuse aside. He is as passionate about coccaine as her mother is about Reverend Moon and his teachings. Living with their mother, not an option, Lisa is unwanted. Her ‘puritanical’ church beliefs begin to collide with her peers, who are more interested in skipping school and experimenting with drugs, sex, all things forbidden youth loves to flirt with. Danny’s way of life too is antithesis to the Church of Unification’s values, exposing his children to everything the church reviles.

As time goes on, her mother moves often and seems to drift further from her children. As Lisa comes of age, she becomes a groupie, discovers she and her brother are banished  (considered impure) for a time, and begins to question this church she once felt devoted to with all her being. Then there is Stuart, and first love. Her life is in turmoil -just what does she believe in? Church rules change, now she can’t even be with True Children, due to Reverend Moon’s latest decree, because people like her are a ‘satanic influence’. She begins to experience new forbidden things away from the church. Drinking, dancing, parties, boys and eventually Cornel. She begins to crack. It takes years, but she begins to emerge from her difficult childhood and the influence of both her parents and the church. While suffering with an eating disorder she proves even her therapist wrong with her pregnancy, already trying her best to be a better mother than her own. Finding that with her first-born child, old fears rise. A life spent distancing herself from her past involvement with the church comes full circle in the last chapter, Reunion.

I was thinking about the whole ‘cult/church’ aspect and thought ‘really families themselves are a little like cults’. What family is without its strange habits or demands? What family doesn’t warp the mind a little of each member? Now add an actual cult (outside influences) to your own family chaos and you can imagine Lisa’s struggle. If we spend our adulthood recovering from our families and childhood, how does one manage to recover from life in an actual cult? How does a woman learn to be a solid, present mother and wife?

This is a first person account of a life inside a cult, or church, depending on who you ask! Facing pain, rejection, abandonment, the confusing chaos of two parents who are equally destructive forces in her childhood, Lisa Koon somehow creates a stable, healthy beautiful life out of the ashes of her childhood.

Publication Date: September 18, 2018

Heliotrope Books

Cliché and Wind Go Hitchhiking by: Marcel St. Pierre

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“Look again…” I told them.

“Mind your business,” my eyes replied. “It could be something you cannot unsee.”

This short collection was a lot of fun, ridiculously silly and just what I needed right now with all the difficulty that has been coming at those I love and myself. It seems people are generally under a lot of stress these days, and escape is always welcome. Two Hikers is my favorite, because fart humor never gets old, in my household it’s a mysterious invisible duck, or bull-frog depending on one’s mood, that never makes an appearance but is always to blame. A lot less dangerous than a bear! You have to read the story to make sense of that.

A bumblebee innocently interferes with criminals, a woman loses her job, her boyfriend and finds nothing in her life is working which is both a curse and maybe a blessing. A man struggles with his relationship in a haze of white while snowshoeing, his girlfriend disappearing while he was following behind. Clever little stories you could take on a train or while waiting wherever you are forced to waste precious minutes. Just little tales to tickle you and avoid the seriousness of each dragging day.

Marcel St. Pierre is a Toronto-based author hailing from Grand Falls, New Brunswick. Award-Winning Comedian Producer and Second City Alumnus, actor, improviser, writer, author and producer. Founding member and former Artistic Director of The Bad Dog Theater Company. Cliché And Wind Go Hitchhiking is his second collection. His first, Vengeful Hank & Other Short Weird Stories  was a first-day number one bestseller on Amazon.

Available Now

MKZ Press

 

Summer Cannibals: A Novel by Melanie Hobson

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They were handsome and they knew it to be true, and theirs was a world that rewarded such things.

David and Margaret Blackford are waiting for the return of their three daughters, George, Jax and Pippa. Something is wrong with the youngest, Pippa who is pregnant with her fifth child living in New Zealand, and she has phoned asking to come home. Naturally this troubles Margaret, already exasperated with her husband’s ‘mania’ about his grand garden tour and the hordes of people who are meant to arrive. Not even his daughter’s need can make him back down from his egotistical plans. As she is consumed by worry, “She saw her husband’s deep sleeps as a kind of betrayal. Just another example of his overall cruelty.” Easy sleep, as he certainly isn’t tormented with the worries she has. She knows his tour is bound to fail. When she hasn’t been working on her collages, giving her days a sense of order, release he has been running over her for years. She is an artists, but a repressed one, as a doctor’s wife. Their marriage is a cannibalism itself. What begins in the first few chapters as a simple, slow story about a cocky aging man acting crazed and obsessive over his garden tour spirals into a disturbing erotic game between the couple when a ‘delectable’ young woman enters the scene.

Erotica isn’t shocking in and of itself, but the exception here is that they play out these fantasies, this weird new threesome of sorts while their adult daughters are in the sprawling mansion on the shores of Lake Ontario. One of which, Pippa, is a wreck and in desperate need of help. Pregnant, ready to give birth at any moment! Deeply lost and depressed with secrets from her childhood that she has never confided, which may well explain the trajectory of her bohemian life, as well as the ‘progressive’ relationship she and her husband have. Pippa, whose always sort of floated along and just taken life as it came, wondering now where the guidance and care was that she desperately needed. Georgina, a professor of arts history arrives already keenly aware of the simmering tension between her parents, thinking of her own child and all the effort she put into helping him. Realizing she and her son could use this break from each other, while she is home helping Pippa, with no other family needing her attention. Georgina, though, thinks of Pippa as very good at manipulation, resenting that even as an adult and far away she was still ‘making them all jump.’ Then she sees her at the airport and is shocked by her appearance and realize for the first time that maybe it really is something more than ‘drama’. Jax “self-satisfied” (if you asked Georgina) back home is remembering the bars, bands and sneaking out, her little sister tagging along when they were young, surely she just needs to shake things up, remind Pippa of wild fun! Her sister’s problems don’t consume her as much as the state of her marriage and an old flame’s whispered promise of the past. She is sneaking away again before long, once again indulging in pleasures.

Regret, shame, guilt, what ifs and a dish or two of poisonous revenge you have one heck of a messed up family. But as lost as Pippa is, for whom they are https://wordpress.com/post/bookstalkerblog.wordpress.com/12135all gathered to help, it’s Margaret and David that are twisted and disturbed.

I am still not sure how I feel about this book, at times uncomfortable, often irritated by David and his whining about the son that never was and exhausted by Margaret, who really I wanted to slap half the time, particularly when she finds out what happened to her youngest Pippa. How can a mother be blasé about such things? The dynamic between husband and wife, well if handsome entitled people turn into this, I think I’ll take struggle to wealthy boredom. Nothing about the girls was shocking compared to their parents antics, game. Read it, but it isn’t all pretty flowers and stampeding garden visitors. I didn’t go away feeling warm and fuzzy about family, I felt like telling Pippa (all the sisters really) run away from that family home before it swallows you, or seduces you like Goldilocks with its opulence (you have to read to understand that reference).

Publication Date: September 11, 2018

Grove Atlantic

 

Belly up: Stories by Rita Bullwinkel

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Things are so easy to ruin, I remember thinking.  I remember thinking, why did I do that thing that I knew was going to have a bad ending?

This is a strange, unique story collection, but not so strange to be off-putting for some. Of all the tales, Black Tongue was my favorite. There is something painfully relatable to that part of us that is pulled by things we know are just a form of sabotage, be it physical or emotional. Standing there in the aftermath of a mess we made, thinking ‘I did this to myself.”  The Florida stories made me laugh, familiar with Cassadaga, the Spiritualist community, ‘psychic capital’ of the world and Gator tacos ‘tastes like chicken’ specials. Okay, so it’s a strange state and things are faded by the sun, and we are sometimes a world unto ourselves but we’re never boring.

What I Would Be If I Wasn’t What I Am is a thoughtful little piece. There are so many parts to us, made different by marriage as much as by being a parent, a sister, a friend. What is the true solid core? Because we are different for who we know, love. I’m mucking up an interesting story about a widow. Oh the strange life of cohabitation, of love. There are stories of ghosts and hired bra hands (some of us do pay outrageous prices for our brassieres, out of necessity), tricky snakes, and 24 hour donut shops where it’s okay to be an ugly teenager, who deserve love stories too.

In the South, the Sand Winds Are Our Greatest Enemy is a peculiar tale of banished brothers Gleb (the surgeon) and Oleg (the sculptor) working in a prison infirmary, full of wit and strange skills. There is nothing they can’t repair, and no one. They make great use of corpses, and outsmart the officer in control.

Stories that have an air of mystery while surrounded by the ordinary. Clever!

Available Now

Publisher:  A Strange Object

 

 

 

A River of Stars: A Novel by Vanessa Hua

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Mama Fang held everyone’s wallets, passports, and their cash in the safe in her office, part of her pledge to take care of every detail. That meant Scarlett couldn’t pay for the fare and couldn’t leave the country. And if she asked Boss Yeung for a ticket, he’d refuse.

Scarlett Chen becomes pregnant by her lover and owner of the factory she works for, Boss Yeung. A self-made successful business man with three daughters and a wife yearns for what men in China want, an heir, a son to carry on his success. Daughters always end up being more like their mothers, belonging to them, then to another family. “When told they were having a boy, Boss Yeung had bowed his head and clasps his hands to his mouth, speechless.” When an ultrasound reveals Scarlett is carrying a treasured boy, he sends her to America so that his son will be born free, with every opportunity Americans have, a limitless future! Scarlett knows that she can’t risk telling her own Ma, who works at a family planning clinic that she, an unmarried woman, is pregnant. Not when one-child policies are enforced, pregnancies tracked. She would lose her job, the very job that despite its bitterness, afforded Scarlett and her mother a living, survival.

Through an arrangement with Mama Fang, who has her own entangled history, Scarlett stays at Perfume Bay with other expectant mothers eating terrible food, fighting with other women and thinking about Boss Yeung and her child’s future. Then a new sonogram gives her shocking news that she fears will change any love Boss Yeung has for her ending his support, it is vital she escapes before she gives birth, or the future she imagined will go up in smoke. One night she escapes, only to discover teenaged Daisy, another unwed mother, in the van she steals. Daisy, born in America but returned to Tawaiin when she was 2 months old, is suffering her own broken heart, kept from her child’s father William whom she met in Teipei during a summer language program. She wants nothing more than to get a message to him, being kept apart by her parents. What if, however, he never really loved her as much as she believed? Daisy is educated, and seems priveladed but her own reason for running is just as desperate. Despite their differences, both of their fates hinge on their cultures and the demands of others- both need each other desperately. In a sense, Scarlett mothers Daisy, and does everything she can with an interesting cast of characters to keep their American dream alive. It takes more than intelligence and hope, it takes humility and hard work, and the aid of strangers, a sort of make-shift family. They begin with nothing, invisible to people in San Francisco, fighting for their place within the community of Chinatown, where not everyone is eager to aid their own people. Old Wu and Scarlett build a unique relationship, which I really enjoyed more than her relationship with Boss Yeung. Scarlett using her own terrible cooking to persuade Wu to help her is funny. Always appeal to a man’s ego. Who knew food cart wars could be so dangerous, but when you’re hiding and can’t call attention to yourself for fear of deportation, well… Something that made me laugh and cringe with its pettiness was the flyer placed next to her food cart, a picture of her with wet hair, a photo of a blurry rat beside her and the accusation of ground rodent meat. You have to laugh at the inventiveness of street competitors, maybe as cut throat and fierce as big businesses.

Mama Fang isn’t one to crumble nor fall when any of her businesses collapse. Naturally Boss Yeung is shocked to find out the state of the place he had sent his lover, and find her missing. Mama Fang’s back story is maybe more heartbreaking than both Scarlett and Daisy’s. A woman as strong as her always has more ideas waiting in the wings, always several steps ahead of the game, the only way she has survived for so long. Boss Yeung has his own story of betrayal, and his daughter Viann born to a successful father has her own goals, certainly it doesn’t include being usurped by a bastard son? Everyone has secrets, rich and poor alike, each trying to outmaneuver equally wily foes. What if one’s enemy is a lover, family or best friend?

The criminal acts expose how immigrants in desperation put their trust, all their money and faith into the hands of dubious people. How those with power manipulate and abuse those with none. Certainly the world is full of opportunists that target immigrants as cash cows and see them not as real people escaping horrifying bleak futures. You can’t outrun those with money and power, despite what continent you are on. Each person wants nothing more than to build a life for themselves and their family, and even if people like Scarlett’s Ma or even Mama Fang don’t agree with the morality of their job, sometimes there is no choice but to comply. Whether it’s Boss Yeung coming up from nothing to become a wealthy man in his own country, or Scarlett changing the trajectory of her own life, each changed their fate. The ending is not quite as I expected, I think I expected more shock after all the build up but it’s a solid novel. There were slow periods but things always picked up. This is a story about cultural obligations and the immigrant experience, which is varied and can end in tragedy or glorious fortune. It’s strange to think about the lives of others, continuing alongside our own, that remain invisible for the most part. A River of Stars is just one such experience, a drop in the ocean of many.

Publication Date: August 14, 2018

Random House

Ballantine Books

 

Five Hundred Poor: Stories by Noah Milligan

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When I was in the room, Frank stared at me the way men have since I was eleven years old, with a mixture of lust and apathy.

While this is a slim collection of stories it is so peculiar and wonderful that I hope Milligan writes more, I just realized he wrote a novel too titled An Elegant Theory that I will have to acquire. What I love about these stories is that they aren’t about perfect, successful happy folks.The men and women in this book seem to live outside the lives people imagine are waiting for the well-adjusted. Everything’s Fine is fantastic, what an odd story, there are some authors you read and ask yourself, ‘what inspired this tale?’ It is deeply sad, and these are the sort of characters (people) that will never be ‘normal’. Our narrator did strange things to herself, she tells us, when she was little. You can imagine her parents hovering over their daughter through her entire childhood scared, not of outside dangers, but of what she could do to herself. But that isn’t really the story, the story is where she works as an adult, at the Rosewood Medical Center for the Severely Disabled. More forgotten people who live in the cracks of time, stuck in facilities, lucky if their caretakers are gentle and kind. She meets the brother of a patient, and so begins one of the weirdest relationships I’ve read and yet this ‘living at a distance’, vicariously through another’s happiness that makes sense.

The Motion of Bodies exposes the dangers of our social comments whether they are light-hearted jokes or not. What’s more terrifying than an offhanded comment or joke that turns on you, makes you a social enemy? Not as far-fetched as we think. It can cost more than we ever thought we’d have to give up. How do you defend against a few words that paints a picture of you as someone you’re not? Especially if you wrote them? What we mean in this age is impossible to reign in, all it takes is one person to shape your thoughts, usually strangers. The jungle seems to be social media now.

A Good Start is the first story, a man grapples with caring for a boy who may or may not be his son, and truly what does it matter to him? He doesn’t much take to the idea of being ‘obligated’ to anything or anyone. I just kept thinking ‘born alone, die alone’. If it is his son, their childhoods and their mothers are mirrors. It produces raw thoughts and ugly feelings to imagine there are such upbringings that makes no room for innocence. Little boys and girls who learn all too soon not to trust any adults, most especially not their mothers and fathers, and that they better get streetwise fast if they have any chance of survival.

These are not your usual short stories, they aren’t pretty in fact in one a man’s job is to clean up crime scenes, suicides,  and nautral deaths in Status Zero, some are really weird but all are original. I read the following on goodreads.com under the book summary.  The title comes from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, “Wherever there is great property there is great inequality. For one very rich man there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many. The affluence of the rich excites the indignation of the poor, who are often both driven by want, and prompted by envy, to invade his possessions.” There must be five hundred poor.

Publication Date: June 1, 2018

Central Avenue Publishing