Family of Origin: A Novel by C.J. Hauser

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Elsa and Nolan Grey might have been happier if they could be forgetful, or dead, but they were not. The Greys remembered everything. 

They were fondlers of old grudges and conjurers of childhood Band-Aid smells. They were rescripters of ancient fights and relitigators of the past. The were scab-pickers and dead-horse-beaters and wallowers of the first order.

Could it really be? Could evolution be going in reverse? A group of scientists, researchers and naturalists known as the Reversalists on the Gulf Coast believe it is so. Studying a rare species of duck, the Undowny Bufflehead, having discovered its feathers are not waterproof serves as a sign that evolution has reversed it’s course. Subsequent to their father’s death by drowning, the Grey siblings join one another at Watch Landing on Leap Island to make sense of it all. With the knowledge that their father Dr. Ian Grey retreated to the island under the umbrella of shame for entertaining such an outlandish theory based on a ‘ridiculous’ duck of all things, Elsa is filled with fury. Surely he didn’t believe such a crackpot theory, not a man as intelligent as her father!

There is no love lost between the siblings, in Elsa’s eyes Nolan is needy and weak, despite looking so much like their father and having spent years ‘sucking up their father’s time’ he certainly didn’t inherit the old man’s genius. When her father left he started his ‘new family’ with Nolan’s mother Keiko, a microbiome researcher. The real wound for Elsa was in all her father’s disappearances, the first costing her the joys of life at the farmhouse her mother Ingrid (a nurse), she and Dr. Grey lived at. Nolan, forever the usurper of her former life, of course as a child she hated him. Nolan’s feelings for Elsa are tangled up, having an effect on every relationship and choice in his life. Elsa, always ‘taking up more space than she deserved’ in his mind and heart. There is a fault line beneath them created by actions in their past, something Elsa does her utmost best to avoid.

Family of origin is often defined as the people who care for you, your siblings, people you grow up with and certainly a fitting title as Elsa and Nolan suffer the miseries created by their own. Mostly blame for their dysfunctional upbringing to be laid at their father’s feet, cold from his watery grave. Who swims in a storm? Was it an accident or something worse? Nolan and Elsa are equally shocked to know that Ian’s fellow islanders took his work seriously. The two certainly feel that coming here could have been just another escape from them, could the duck and their father’s belief in reversalism really just be about his own children, their lack of evolution as competent successful offspring?

Elsa struggles in her own day-to-day, teaching children, with a terrible lapse in judgement just before Nolan’s call about their father. Not dealing well with people in general, living life in a numbed state, just floating along. She longs for escape that would put a vast distance between her and others, much further than Dr. Ian and his little island could have hoped to be. Meeting Esther Stein who holds a PhD in ecology, her disdain for the youth is obvious, with all their ‘allergies’ and inability to venture into the very environment they live in. It’s hard to deny all the young adults and children are changing as much as the ducks. People are no longer adapting! Just look around, you’ll see it too! The Millennials are ruining the species, coddled, weak and if their dad believed that to be true as much as Esther, than he didn’t believe in his own children, right? That stupid duck is a representation of their own failure.

This story is about confronting the past, and the real mystery is between Nolan and Elsa more than their father’s death. Elsa can run off to another planet but isn’t going to erase what’s between them. There are secrets to uncover but does knowing change their personal history, the weight they have carried because of it? What happens when the object of your anger is gone, or the person you resented is more victim than the villain of the story you thought was set in stone? One thing is certain, Elsa and Nolan are far more curious a study than the rare species of duck! It doesn’t take a fictional story to nudge us in the direction that we humans often seem to be hopeless creatures, destroying our environment and much of the novel seems hopeless in that aspect. Worse, we tend not to evolve in our personal surroundings too, as evidenced by the Grey siblings. We carry the wrong stories, and poison our own well so to speak and of course we can blame our ‘family of origin’ for that, at least Elsa and Nolan can. How are we to understand the natural world when we live with so much subterfuge coming at us from all directions? Nolan and Elsa are forced to face their own hopelessness, and maybe change direction because it’s not really about the duck.

Publication Date: July 16, 2019

Doubleday Books

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The Bobcat: A Novel by Katherine Forbes Riley

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But she was still herself, though with a torn apart feeling now, that of once again breathing alone.

Laurelie is still reeling after being sexually assaulted, haunted even by the images of the of crowded Philadelphia, the menace she senses everywhere.  University in the city is no longer tolerable, though she tried to navigate her old life, new habits took over, fear of seeing her attacker. The trauma is ingrained in her very skin, and she can’t seem to overcome her fear of human interaction. She decides to transfer to Vermont where she can work on her panels and become a sort of ‘cave animal’ herself. Surrounded by nature, working as a sort of nanny to a two and a half-year old boy, son of her landlord and landlady, she spends most of her time outdoors, letting the beauty of her surroundings and her charge’s wonderment feed her artistic belly. Their interactions are more visceral, as she sees him as a half possessed being, still not fully formed with opinions and thoughts it’s much easier to be in his unthreatening presence, but then she sees HIM. A hiker and a wounded wild bobcat, stranger is that the animal seems to be cuddling up to the man!

Curious about the hiker and his bond with the wounded animal she finds herself reaching out to him, offering to let him wash his laundry, which sounds simple to most of us, but for someone suffering a form of PTSD it’s like a leap off a cliff. Her cats seem to like him, you know what they say about animals being the best judge of character…

As the little boy grows and begins to ‘seek order in things’ Laurelie tries to see the world through his point of view. There is such beauty in the simplicity of childlike observations, and it’s well written in the relationship between them, their jaunts in the woods, his words just beginning to emerge. Curious about the hiker and his bond with the wounded animal she finds herself reaching out to him, offering to let him wash his laundry at her place, which sounds simple to most of us, but for someone suffering a form of PTSD it’s like a leap off a cliff. Her cats seem to like him, you know what they say about animals being the best judge of character…

There is a stillness in him, his approach is cautious, gentle as he senses the fear living inside of her. It isn’t long before she is seeing the land through his eyes too, how he understands the environment down the very ‘root systems’ of plants. He has peculiar ways, senses things on a much higher level than others. Senses that are highly attuned, much like an animal’s. He is stirring more than her desire, her art is flourishing, working on her panels to sort through the chaos that is still lingering from Philadelphia and all that took place there, too she begins to feel she is always ‘waiting for him’. If she retreated from the world, he is drawing her out, as much as her art is a means to siphon the poison from her soul. Then Rowan, the boy, disappears off the trails and the bobcat’s existence comes into question.

The novel speaks more in the moments between people and nature than actual conversations, which can lose some readers. I think the writing is beautiful, and I understand why there isn’t meant to be a lot of dialogue, but there were times I longed for it. This is a quietly restless novel, you absolutely feel the anguish of her rape without anyone needing to shout. Sometimes retreat is louder, and staggeringly heartbreaking. The art as healing as release and the surroundings as a balm, all of it feels true. I enjoyed The Bobcat, was saddened, hopeful and always engaged. A unique debut.

Publication Date: June 5, 2019

Skyhorse Publishing

Arcade Publishing

Tell No One by Barbara Taylor Sissel

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Come back, come back, come back, as if his return- her family’s restoration to their once-upon-a-time life- were a matter of asking, or begging, or any words at all.

Caroline’s aunt Lanie is dying and desperate to see her brother, Garret “Hoff” Hoffman before she passes away. Caroline’s mother tells her ‘it’s a fool’s errand’ to even try, no one knows where he disappeared to, only that he left a trail of heartbreak behind. What caused her once loving dad to walk away? But Caroline’s beloved aunt is more like a mother to her, salvation during the years after her parents divorced. Caroline’s tender early memories seem to arise more lately and when she returns to the past and seeks out coach Kelly, she finds it troubling that his son Jace seems to be hiding something, protecting his now elderly father. Once a boy she spent happy days with, he seems to want to dodge ever question she puts to his father, even though the old coach wants to reminisce, adamantly telling her ‘dad needs to rest.’ A warning comes soon after in the form of an ‘accident’, someone really is trying to keep her from finding out what happened to her father.

Harris is the child who Hoff raised for a time when he abandoned his old life, and Caroline. Harris looked up to Hoff, with football in common as Hoff was a recruiter, he finally had a man to emulate and love, but those days are buried and he is haunted by his own terrible guilt now that he himself is a father.  One thing Caroline and Harris have in common is their failing marriages. The cracks in Caroline’s life is all about her husband Rob’s lies and betrayals, his devious business dealings but for Harris it is his increasing nightmares, closing his wife Holly out. There are some shameful secrets that cannot be told, not even to his wife but there are other things to turn to when trying to tame one’s demons. His life appears perfect on paper with his career, his beautiful sons and loyal wife. But the past can’t be buried.

Truth will out, but it isn’t always what you imagine. Bad guys, good guys sometimes the distance is only a hair’s breadth between the two. If grave moments could only remain hidden and not rise up to torment us, then the past wouldn’t haunt. In seeking answers, Caroline must come to terms with what she built up as her father’s reasons in her mind with the truth. Harris was everything Caroline could never be, the perfect son! Right? Accidents and incidents have long reaching consequences. Many of Caroline’s choices of the heart stem from feeling discarded by her father, as far back as her high school years. We are shaped by other’s actions sometimes, even when we consciously attempt to remain unaffected. At times the hand of fate, chance turns us into someone we’re not, and there is no reasoning with it. This novel dips into several stories, Caroline and her daughter reeling after discovering Rob’s deceptive crimes, while she is trying to confront her past and find her father. Holly and Harris drifting apart because he cannot confide what disturbs him. Their sons Kyle and Connor his pride but there is a wild struggle within Harris to be a better father than his own influence and yet he is failing, railing against himself. Everything that has happened returns to the moment when Caroline was still the apple of her daddy’s eyes, until her father’s fall in the stands.

This is a solid story, engaging but sometimes I wanted to stay in Caroline’s world and felt pulled in many directions. Hoff’s tale is interesting, sometimes the biggest threat doesn’t come from outside of us, but within.

Publication Date: May 14, 2019

Lake Union Publishing

 

 

 

 

Ask Again, Yes: A Novel by Mary Beth Keane

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It didn’t seem that important, not nearly as important as people would make it. It was just a thing that happened, same as all other things that happened.

Two young NYPD rookies partnered up for a time in 1973 later become neighbors, though not exactly friends, Francis finds Brian to be ‘a likable guy.’ So when Brian ends up in the house Francis once told him about , it seems fitting his wife Lena would befriend Brian’s wife Anne. Lena certainly makes an effort, trying her best to quietly offer support, always met with Anne’s back retreating into her home, finding offense to any offer of help, wondering what she could have possibly done to offend her. At a loss to understand Anne’s off-putting behavior, Lena focuses instead on her own family, both women give birth to children only six months apart, Peter and Kate.  Despite the relationship between their mothers, Peter and Kate become close friends as they come of age but their childhoods couldn’t be any more different.

There is something wrong with Peter’s mother, even as a little girl Kate notices Anne isn’t like other moms. It’s the very thing Peter’s own father doesn’t acknowledge, to his way of thinking she just needs help around the house, rest, quiet. The problem is Peter never is sure which mother is going to appear each day, if she will ’emerge after a few days’ from her room and be his favorite version or be irritated by the noise a little boy can’t help but make. Life in his home is about forecasting her moods, in order to navigate his day. Of course he loves her, despite her growing indifference. Her troubling behavior becomes impossible to hide, it’s more than just being ‘sensitive.’ Their problems are beginning to spill out of the house.

Something about Kate gets under Anne’s skin, and Lena wants Kate to just find a new friend, anyone but Peter! No love is lost between the women. Something is humming beneath the surface and in one moment their lives are altered forever. We follow the aftermath of one horror filled moment, and watch as every character tries to build a new life from the ruins. Peter feels staggeringly helpless when the most important people are absented from his world, but nothing rips him apart more than losing Kate.

In staying true to our nature, helping others, we could risk losing everything. One incident can drive a wedge between spouses, destroy young love, and shake up our future. Kate and Peter are destined never to forget each other, but coming together again is for some a bigger betrayal. Love and loyalty is tested, more than just the meaning of family. This book is disturbing and deeply moving, we know the hand that brings down destruction, but to demonize isn’t so simple in this story. Mary Beth Keane has written a story with mental illness at the forefront, and how with Anne’s decline it’s the failure of those around her that sets the stage for tragedy. Why do we go on like everything is fine? There are so many people within us all, how different we are when life tests us.

Marriage is explored too, in how Brian tiptoes around in his, how our partners needs often eclipse our own as witnessed by Lena’s loneliness and Francis’s need for trees and quiet, a place separate from his job, his grueling work. The way things shift after the incident, why the act happened at all, due in part to one partner’s helplessness in understanding his own wives deterioration. Infidelity, loyalty, sticking when things are hopeless. Marriage is a different beast when life beats us, so different from when we’re fresh and young.

Time moves on and life closes in on us but sometimes it is only the broken people who truly understand our struggle. Sometimes you face the enemy only to see roles aren’t set in stone. Things really do sometimes come full circle, and my heart was in my throat at the end. We cannot outrun that which shapes us and while we don’t have to be victims, we’re not untouchable when it comes to things we inherit from our former selves, or our families, loved ones. There will always come a time you have to confront the chaos of a moment. Yes, add this to your TBR list!

Publication Date: May 28, 2019

Scribner

 

The Valedictorian of Being Dead The True Story of Dying Ten Times to Live by Heather B. Armstrong

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“I can’t really describe it,” I mumbled to her when she called me to ask what was wrong. “I feel like the Frankenstein monster. I mean, I feel like I died and someone brought me back to life.”

What’s wonderful about The Valedictorian of Being Dead is the honest day-to-day terror of living with severe depression because it exposes the brutal reality only those suffering through it can attempt to explain. Imagine a depression so horrifying that you are willing to die again and again, in an experimental treatment, to cure yourself of wanting to take your own life. What are the options when the drugs don’t work? When you have children to raise as a single parent? When depression is a life sentence and you can lose your children if your ex uses your mental health as a means to take your children away, would you risk it all?

Heather is the perfect candidate for the experiment, chemically induced coma approximating brain death. With a family history of depression, it’s an inheritance more people struggle through than openly talk about. As if mental illness is a dirty little secret, and is it any wonder with the cruel treatment people have received throughout history, and in the not so distant past? Imagine putting your faith in an experiment that makes you feel like Frankenstein’s Monster. Heather’s blog has brought attention to the highs and lows of her own mental health, I hadn’t heard about it until I read this book.

Fear of the unknown, will my brain survive this fully intact? Will I lose my memories or time? Anyone who has ever encountered any sort of brain confusion can relate to the sheer terror of that rabbit hole. If she wakes up at all and survives the coma that is and not just once, oh no! Ten treatments, my friends, ten!  The writing isn’t always perfect and that’s okay because this book is about hope and sharing, it’s a fight  for a life without debilitating depression and in turn, a chance to finally truly live. It takes courage, and support, which is something Heather isn’t great at asking for, but how many mothers are? Too, Heather allows the reader to be privy to her innermost fears, thoughts and memories of her past, losing her voice in relationships going all the way back to discipline from her father, he of the ‘snap out of it’ answer to depression so many people have. Why is it today, there is still so much misinformation and ignorance, shame in admitting the brain is as much a part of our body as any other organ and mental illness is a disease? How can we successfully treat that which is unacknowledged? Ignoring it or ordering your loved ones to  ‘snap out of it’ isn’t going to work, it’s not something people choose, until it’s you, it’s so hard for people to believe. I think often other’s reactions are fear based. There is still a stigma and shame on us as a society for that.

An interesting medical experiment that shares the story of the human being taking part in it.

Publication Date: April 23, 2019

Gallery, Threshold, Pocket books

 

 

 

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek: A Novel by Kim Michele Richardson

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The goodwill died on my tongue.

Throughout time there are certain constants, for example ignorance and cruelty. This novel is an ode to the pack-horse Librarians who rode their way throughout Kentucky inspiring people of all ages to read. Richardson takes this historical story and blends it with a tale of the blue skinned people, ostracized cruelly for their differences. Nineteen-year-old Cussy Carter of Troublesome Creek, Kentucky spends her days delivering books to the people of the mountains, her Dad’s fervent wish and promise to his dying wife was that Cussy would find respectability. She needs to stop carrying on with book deliveries, now that he is making money in the mine again, killing himself more like. He wants nothing more than security for his girl, and nothing can offer that for a girl in 1936 better than marriage. “I could barely meet someone’s eyes for fear my color would betray my sensibilities.” A young woman who can turn ‘blue as a damselfly’ when blushing, heir to a strange condition that began with a French great-grandpa, there is no chance any respectable white man would ever stoop to marry her. Upon her deliveries she encounters many who shun and shame her, but if this program can get even a blue like Cussy reading, well it promises to spread literacy to anyone!

Nicknamed Bluet by the locals, her father begins sending suitors her way, the most horrifying of all is when she is courted by the kin of Pastor Vester Frazier. Pastor Vester, the preacher that decides who bears the mark of the devil, and ‘chases them out by baptizing those sinners down in the cold, fast waters of Troublesome Creek’, sometimes ending in life or death! Surely her father can’t possible think anyone tied to the Frazier family can save her! This can’t bode well.

The pastor isn’t the only one she has to fear, and her fierce nature has her risking life and limb just to share her love of books with folks. Of course not everyone is thrilled about their wives or children reading, not when there is work to be done, no time for idleness yet clever girl that she is, Cussy finds ways to keep those hungry for books well fed, despite protestations from fathers. Devoted to her deliveries  upon her stubborn mule Junia, she meets Jackson Lovett who surprises her with his kind intelligence, but surely she can’t dare hope to ever mean anything to him, can she? Love isn’t meant for a “Bluet” like her. Town isn’t anymore welcoming, “I always felt like a thief sneaking into town”, with the “NO COLOREDS” signs banning her from socializing  her life is that of a spectator, filled with longing to take part in gatherings like the Pie Bake Dances. Color could be catching, right? Then there is the doctor who wants to poke, prod, take samples from her to figure out what is causing her strange affliction. Her people hidden for so long up in them mountains, fear of persecution and worse, should she trust him as she is the last? Are her blue folks on the brink of extinction?

This isn’t a happy read, not at all but it remains true to the torment being different rains down on a life. It is exposure of the worst sort of ignorance, which we all know in human beings is completely infinite. Maybe there is a cure out there that can make anyone who is ‘different’ look just like you and me, sadly there is no cure for cruelty, nor human stupidity when a mind seems bent on it. Cussy is full of fight and hope, but the reality of the times made even the fiercest of men and women break. It is a painful Appalachian tale, based on real historical happenings. This intelligent sad little novel piqued my curiosity about the blue people of Kentucky and the genetic component behind it. People always fear that which they don’t understand. The novel reads true, the language made me feel I too was among the folks of Troublesome Creek and I was engaged until the very end. For anyone who loves Appalachian Fiction, Historical Fiction or strange medical conditions this has it all.

Publication Date: May 7, 2019

Sourcebooks  Landmark

Home Remedies: Stories by Xuan Juliana Wang

 

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It’s what Taoyu wanted, to disappear from Hai’s life completely, to leave a wound that would ache. That was the only way they could be equals.

Home Remedies is a gorgeous collection of stories about Chinese immigration, family structure, love, sex and the privilege of choices. The future for each character is never certain, and splits open guiding them to places they never imagined they would be. Home, some make their way in American life with ease, abandoning their old skins and sometimes their family too. Others cling to the old ways of a country they will never return to. One thing is certain, each person will make their own story, even if it means becoming someone other than what’s expected.

In White Tiger of the West, the world is weary of Grandmasters, there no longer seems to be a place for spirituality but for one obedient little girl Grandmaster Tu could be the very thing that awakens a tiger, and gives her the flight of freedom. Home Remedies of the old involved tonics, tinctures, herbs… but in one story remedies are cleverly applied to survive say, a “bilingual heart” and “self-doubt”. Olympic divers are one in Vaulting the Sea, but what love is equal? Just how much can you meld yourself to another? I thought this was a beautifully painful tale of love and rejection, if any story is about identity it was this one. My favorite and most heart-breaking is Algorithmic Problem Solving for Father-Daughter Relationships. Logic as the meaning, the answer to all of lives obstacles simple application of algorithms “a theory that proves itself day after day” until a former professor, clueless father needs to solve the new problem of his daughter Wendy, who “I somehow managed to drive away from me.” My heart! By far the best story within!

In this collection time stands still or rushes past. Characters are emerging into a bright future or retiring from their dreams, wearing clothes of the dead, or slicing through water in perfect sync. Sometimes they are just suffering through an “unremarkable period” of their life. It is stories about the youth, but the old have their say too, it’s like they live in different worlds sometimes. Moving, strange, exciting, biting… fantastic.

Publication Date: May 14, 2019

Crown Publishing

Hogarth