Good Girl, Bad Girl: A Novel by Michael Robotham

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Everything has a half-life- even facts.

Cyrus Haven’s career as a psychologist is to figure people out, reach into the broken parts, pull them out of the terrifying places that haunt them so they can confront their pain and heal. Asked to help with difficult teenager Evie, he discovers she has an uncanny ability, one that has been with her long before her own horror show life. She is “Angel Face” the child who was discovered in a secret room, a starved, sickly child of indeterminate age living more like an animal than human alongside the carnage of a horrific crime. No one knows where she came from, who she is, and she won’t talk about it. All the adults bombard her with questions, but it’s a past she doesn’t want to return to, not even in thought. “Isn’t my silence loud enough? I think. Don’t tell me that my silence doesn’t have a sound. I can hear it, loud and clear, screaming between my words.” Silence is her protection, and when she does talk it is the undoing of the people helping her, who to her are nothing more than captors, imprisoning her in the Children’s Home, fools to be played with. There is no one more skilled than Evie at eviscerating others with their own truths. She wants to be free to live life outside the home and Cyrus is key when his friend Guthrie asks for his help, undone by Evie and her mental games, but will she cooperate, when she cannot silence the noise of her past, and her only salvation is to never trust another? The other adults in charge feel she is a dangerous threat to society, with her record of violence on others. Sad as her past may be, there is something terrifying about her! She isn’t 18, they don’t really know her age, her DNA doesn’t supply her origins, she isn’t on a missing children’s list, it’s as if she came from nowhere. All they know is she was shockingly used and abused, there is no doubt she is a survivor but whatever she experienced left her damaged.

Cyrus has his own tortured past to contend with, or seal off. It is through his work, helping others that he seeks penance for the past. Where Evie was at the heart of her nightmare, Cyrus was absent from the bloody havoc of his own and it cost him his entire world. His current case involves the Ice Princess, fifteen year old figure skater Jodie Sheehan found murdered in a wooded area. What happened to her, the secrets she was hoarding are just as confounding and mysterious as Evie. The talented, sweet Jodie was living a sort of double life, rising ice rink star in the public eye but behind the scenes wrapped up in something seedy that led to her possible rape and later, her murder. Cyrus has no end of lies to sort through, from her trainer to her family and friends- everyone is a suspect.

Help arrives in the form of Evie, who deftly defies rules, authority to trudge through the intestines of the vile case. Cyrus will find a partner he didn’t ask for when he decides to take her in as a foster, and Evie’s instinct and impulsive nature may put her very life at risk. Just who is really saving whom? I found this incredibly engaging, Jodie’s story kept it all rolling but I want to pick at Evie’s scabs and find out what happened. Will there be a second book? I hope so!!! Yes, read it! Here I go again casting a book and making a movie in my head! Please, sir, I want some more.

Publication Date: July 23, 2019

Scribner

 

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White Dancing Elephants: Stories by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

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She’s probably my age, I realize suddenly, early forties, but she has not spent her life on mistakes.

This collection of stories by Chaya Bhuvaneswar is about more than being an immigrant or one’s ethnicity, it is also about feminism and LBGTQ women. From the start, the reader is on an emotional journey, living as long as it takes to read a story on the character’s breath. It begins with White Dancing Elephants, where a woman shares the aftermath of her miscarriage, gut wrenching and mind numbing, a trauma to think of what could have been, should have been. “Before my last morning with you, my love, I didn’t know rage.” Loss is a rage, a dead future. The writing doesn’t lessen in intensity, in The Story of the Woman Who Fell in Love With Death, there is a different sort of longing, a young boy relates a fictional tale with the loss of his own sister, the girl whom is never mentioned, and lives in the hidden photograph in his father’s sock drawer. Is she really a runaway, just what are the family’s dirty secrets? There is a line in the story that must express how many boys/men feel “Girls expected him to prove to them what boys were like: shallow, callous, laughing animals that could smell irresistible.” That in a book full of stories to make the unseen world of the female life visible, living particularly in the skin of women of color, in such an ugly world full of abuse and slurs, the author too was able to expose a vulnerability in a young male really touched me. Someone who wanted to be a boy good enough to rescue his own sister, heart wrenching! The body, how the female body is her own fault for every horror the world can think up to torture. It’s always her fault, isn’t it? How brutal and true the final line in the story (I won’t share it here, read it). I had a lump in my throat, thinking of what it means to be female in our world, thinking about my own daughter.

There are affairs and betrayals, fissures in friendship,illness, stories of sexual abuse, even if it’s just hinted at. Denial of one’s sexuality for the sake of family tradition, even if it means returning to India and ‘putting oneself in the ground’, burying oneself, rejecting our genuine identity and love for what’s expected. One of my favorites is Asha in Allston, and the ‘mannequin with hardware’ who definitely isn’t a HER! The horror in feeling jealous of perfection while trapped in a real failing human body, robbed of every future dream. I think I related in the sense that though there is no MALIN in my life, we women have a form of perfection in our face 24/7, and when illness enters… well… it’s that much more evident, of course in the story she lives with the ‘ideal female’ thanks to her husband’s job and genius. Tormented by the uselessness of her own body, impossible not to compare herself to this non-entity! Rage to turns to flame!

It’s an engaging provocative collection, the stories aren’t all about women as victims either. Sometimes they do selfish things, we’re imperfect creatures, as much as men, we just have to pay more for being human. As said in the life you save isn’t your own, “wrong decisions had all bloomed like seeds”. It got me to thinking about how much control we have, about decisions and chance how we often go against our own desires to please others, and about how much heavier choices are for females. Worse, about all the little girls in the world robbed of any choices at all, the orphan handler was pretty intense, dark.

A new voice in fiction, yes read her debut!

WINNER, DZANC BOOKS SHORT STORY COLLECTION PRIZE
WINNER, NARRATIVE MAGAZINE “TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK” FOR 2017

Finalist for the 2019 PEN American Robert Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection

Published October 2018

Dzanc Books

 

The Distance Between High and Low by Kaye Park Hinckley

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Peck and I were twins, too. In the darkest of watery wombs, we waited for the voice of our father, and heard silence.

In their old house in Highlow, Alabama on land that has been in their family for generations Lizzie and Peck (twins) struggle with more than just teenage angst. Their mother Lila holds the secret to who their father is, and how they long for him, no one more than sensitive Peck but how can anyone make sense of their mother’s world, what is true, what’s fiction? Peck has his beliefs, and he thinks their dad is an artist (just like their mother) living in Cincinnati, the very place Mamma once ran off to art school in her younger years! Finding a stand in daddy of sorts at the McSwain house next door, Peck hangs around Hobart (a transplant adoptee who isn’t a true native and never will be, despite how desperately he longs to fit in). Hobart has always been sweet on their mother though he has a meanness brewing inside of him and schemes. The cloud of his dark past keeps his heart in shadow, all he wants is what he feels should be his! Lila is as unreachable as the stars, holed up in her room painting portraits on her china, oblivious of her children and the rest of the world. Lila has always had a particular mental fragility that drug addiction and heartbreak exacerbated, returning home pregnant with twins years ago and broken from the wounds of the world. Pearl runs the family with the help of Half-Cheroke Indian, and protector, Izear carrying his own secret history but as much as son as can be. Lizzie and Peck want answers, they want a father but Lila is ‘deluded’, something even Hobart has known since he followed her as a young boy, even then a love-struck fool. Lizzie thinks Hobart is nothing but an intruder in their lives, but she has no idea just how deeply he is embedded in their stories.

Lizzie tolerates the presence of  seven-year old Little Benedict, sadder than all of them put together. He wants nothing more than to burrow into Lizzie and Peck’s family, for Pearl to be his own Grandma and Lila his mamma, but he already has one and she has whiskey to drink and his daddy as an enabler. The people are all watched over by Pearl’s cousin The Judge, contained in notes tracking the rich history of Highlow.  Peck discovers a secret that his family would be shocked to learn, one that forces Hobart to do his bidding and help him capture the Osprey he has been burning to own! No one is as good a hunter of wild things than Hobart. Sometimes what we desire can be our downfall.

No one will tell Lizzie anything, like who the blind man is that showed up to their open house. Peck too can’t tell her truths. Some things that are revealed do nothing but upset one’s entire world. “Knowing a circumstance and accepting it, are two distant things from each other as high is from low.” Knowledge isn’t necessarily power, more often than not it’s a burden. Lizzie will know Peck’s longing for that dangerous bird is more about filling the hole not having a daddy has made. Knowing things hurts!

Hobart has proof he belongs here, but a mean twist of fate fills him with shame and changes everything. It’s not just Pearl’s family whose desires are on loan! When tragedy consumes them all, Lizzie strikes out to fill the hole in her own heart only to learn she isn’t the only one who is devastated. Soon, she will understand her family’s history at Pearl’s telling and all the sorrowful ways history repeats itself. Everything is changing so fast, even Benedict “Benny” has a new sort of family, but there is still longing for vengeance inside of Lizzie as she watches Hobart, Mama’s answer is a gun, her way of coping! Hatred can get “pretty tiring” but forgiveness asks far too much, even if it’s Pearl’s way it seems diluted in Lila and Lizzie’s blood. So much confusion all just for the longing of a father’s love, not so easily replaced.

This is a book full of Highlow secrets, a family with a heavy history that challenges forgiveness and reminds us all that the whims of fate cannot be controlled, not even when one’s intentions are for the greater good. A sad tale.

Available Now from author Kaye Park Hinckley Finalist: William Faulkner/William Wisdom Competition. Finalist: Tuscany Prize for Fiction

Prytania Publishing

 

 

 

A Double Life by Karolina Pavlova, translated by Barbara Heldt

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Madame Valitskaia had decided that Cecily must become Dmitry’s wife so that she would not somehow become the wife of Prince Victor, and she was proceeding toward her goal.

Karolina Pavlova was a Russian poet and translator born in 1807, who had left Russia due to “hostile criticism of her poetry and her personal life”, can you imagine? It lends meaning to the character Cecily, living a passive existence as others arrange her entire future. What else created a life for a woman, particularly of the privileged class, than who she married? Her best friend Olga’s mother is a schemer, she wants to push Cecily in the direction of one Dmitry Ivanchinsky so that Prince Victor is free to marry her girl. Olga is prettier, but Cecily has her own charm and that’s a threat. Olga isn’t much better, she wants the Prince for herself but we are told she isn’t quite as skilled as her mother in deception, instead relies on her mother for ‘directions’. Ha!

Cecily is often described as pale, needing rest as she has been ill. I wonder if the illness in part is an ailment more of the soul. The novel is titled Double Life, where in her dreams her true desires take flight, the writing beautiful poetry.  Is it because the ‘claims of the earth’ on some psychological level take a toll on her body, it is said a woman’s body rejects that which it doesn’t desire. So we get these ailments, headaches, fatigue… Upon waking, all around her is smiles and flattery, all her nearest and dearest convincing her to fall in love with Dmitry. It is done so convincingly, a perfect dance of charlatans, that even his poverty is romanticized by Cecily! Poverty as a more noble choice? This from a young woman given everything, looking down from great heights of society that the happenstance of birth has placed her and thinking how impossible it is to imagine poverty so terrible one cannot even afford to order a beautiful dress. You poor little fool!

Women as pawns, that’s all I could think of the time and place. Sacrificial lambs, because once the excitement of this new life wears off and the celebrations fall by the wayside the truth will be revealed by a long life with an unworthy spouse. We know throughout the tale she has nothing to compare this with, so sheltered her world, reliant on her mother “The first obligation of a mother,” remarked Madame Valitskaia. “We should always be able to read into the souls of our daughters, in order to foresee any harmful influences and keep them safe in their childlike innocence.” Kept in a bubble of ignorant bliss, and afterwards once settled and fooled, it’s too late.

Pale, headaches due to her nights of restless sleep, there lives within her poetry like a song that has been circling her head and at the end she whispers the words and Olga after asking her what she is saying responds “What nonsense”, but she is really going forth as if sentenced, which speaks volumes about what Pavlova felt about such marriages, such lives for women.  On some level, Cecily is aware of walking the plank, so to speak. She smiles along with the fools by day, playing her part in this quiet tragedy and is only truly alive in her night escapes. Very much a young woman of the times, what choice than to go along with those who are older, wiser, and love her so? They all want what’s best, right? What else is there for her, anyway?

Fascinating literary fiction, a 19th Century Russian classic by a female author that is far heavier than it seems. Do take the time to read the afterword and the introduction.

Publication Date: August 6, 2019

Columbia University Press

All That’s Bright and Gone: A Novel by Eliza Nellums

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There is a woman who is crying in the corner, real quiet. I don’t like it when grown-ups cry. Most of all I don’t like it when Mama cries.

Aoife (pronounced EE-fah, which the adults never seem to get right) is caught up in the confusion and chaos of all the grown-ups around her. She understands the meaning of gone. Gone is forever, gone is DEAD– just like her big brother Theo. She knows better than to talk about it or ask questions, he was murdered and Mama can’t stomach the grief. She has a vague memory of him, one day on the beach, she was lost and he found her, but it’s all so muddied. Luckily for Aoife, she has a constant companion, Teddy who isn’t imaginary no matter what people say! She can see him clear as she sees her best friend Hannah, so he is real! He is a bear! It isn’t smart to talk about him though, especially not to the ladies Dr. Pearlman sends from sea-pee-ess. Sea-pee-ess are government people that help families, but if you say things that seem weird they might take it the wrong way. One thing is certain, the adult world is confusing! Theo’s murder isn’t the only mystery, her whole life feels like one.

Siobhan (her Mama)  has gone away, but she isn’t gone away like Theo, she can and will return at some point. Something is wrong inside of her and it all goes back to the day she broke her own rule of talking to people who aren’t there. Mama was so angry, yelling at her dead son. The doctors just need Aoife’s help trying to understand the incident, and looking for someone to take care of her while Mama is away. There is no daddy for Aoife, she is special, she was born in the cabbage patch, it’s a fact- her Mama told her! There is an Uncle Donny, her mother’s younger brother  and he tries his best to care for her (after all, he is a single, childless bachelor) but he can’t keep Aiofe from running off with Hannah, trying to gather clues and weed out suspects of  her brother’s murder.

Uncle Donny knows Mama’s sickness is confusion sickness. He understands the deep disappointment Aoife feels, Mama promised to take her to see the fireworks this year, but if she’s away she won’t be able to go.  He also understands and says it’s okay if she doesn’t always miss Theo, but any mention of her brother is met with “let’s not talk anymore about Theo today.” No one ever seems to ever want to talk about him. Hannah gets secret messages in dreams, Hannah is older and is going to be a detective one day.  She can talk about Theo to her! Hannah even dreamed about him. Can she solve the crime still if Hannah abandons her? Soon, Aoife begins to wonder if her family really is crazy, like people say. But the church has saints and the holy ghost, that’s not crazy.

Could Mama’s friend Mac be a killer? He is sort of strange and angry. All she wants is to escape to the Secret Place that Teddy discovered. Teddy is trying to tell her something, all the time, but it doesn’t make sense. Uncle Donny is doing his best with Mama gone but he isn’t the greatest looking after her. What if the big bad man comes to drag her off to the Children’s Prison like Hannah warned her would happen?

Everything is happening fast, adults are telling her things that she can’t comprehend, the story of her family is different than what Mama has told. What if she is ill, like her mother, maybe Teddy isn’t real! Even he is starting to scare her. Is she crazy? If memory is tricky, it’s a foreign language for a six year old. In the interest of protecting the innocence of a child, adults often aim for silence, which leaves an imaginative kid like Aiofe to construct a world so far removed from reality that what she believes to be concrete fact is more painful than the truth. Mental illness swims through the story, it’s disheartening because there is no doubt Aiofe and Sibohan (her mother) love each other, but she slips away when the meds are wrong and the stresses of life are magnified when you also have to cope with your health. The world is often kinder if your illness is physical rather than mental, not to say it’s easy either way, but the stigma of mental illness is cruel when children catch wind of it. Worse, there is always the looming threat that if Sibohan can’t keep it altogether, Aiofe can be taken away! Our little Aiofe, at six, is becoming aware of what society deems normal vs. abnormal and just where her family fits. There is hope, and I think Uncle Donny beautifully explained what being sick for Sibohan means. Sure, you may not be cured, but you can be treated to live with it better. I like that, that’s reality.

I was surprised as much as Aiofe by the revelation of what happened to Theo and I felt as frustrated and confused as she did. There is this strange span of time when you’re still not fully present, your mind is just giving birth to reasoning, it’s developing and you are learning to distinguish between emotions, facts, and fantasy.  This is where Aiofe is. I especially like what happened with she and Hannah, because kids can be fair-weather friends sometimes and mean as snakes not because they’re terrible beings, but because they are immature. It made the story far more genuine. Well done, this will be released later in the year, add it to your December TBR list.

Publication Date: December 10, 2019

Crooked Lane Books

Farzaneh and the Moon by Matt Wilven

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She is muddy, distant, shaking with dark knowledge.

N. is at University in London, his young mind feasting on philosophy but it is Farzaneh’s world he really longs to access. Here is a young woman who feels and thinks deeply, someone who challenges him emotionally, who stimulates his intellect as well as his physical being. Both want to live in a way that doesn’t require just ‘going through the motions’. If it takes a little psychedelic help from nature to reach the deepest access of their minds, well who better to do it with than Farzaneh. She hasn’t been anchored to anyone since her father, there is pain she hasn’t confronted, and N. wants nothing more than to be the one who can keep her together inside. She is wildly interesting to him, but is this depth or something darker?

When is loving someone so blinding that you neglect to notice the rupture in their logic? When does the hunger for spiritual bliss blur the lines of what’s sane and what’s madness? What can N. really grasp about love at his tender age? In a sense, Farzaneh would annihilate herself if she could align with the moon. This is more than longing for some spiritual awakening, there is a creeping illness inside of her. One of the most honest moments however, speaks to N.’s state of mind when he is halfway through his course and says “I’m still none the wiser about any of them”, meaning the other students. He is too busy being wrapped up with his beloved, is it possible for healthy love to be so exclusive that the rest of the world and everyone within it disappears entirely? There is a shallow relationship he has earlier on, feeling completely disconnected but should communion with another eclipse sanity? Should we really want to merge so entirely that nothing else matters? “Everything is how she wanted it.” Nothing can ever be exactly as one person wants it, that’s not healthy.

Farzaneh’s obsession with the moon escalates, she can feel it in her very womb! N. needs to be with her, can’t live without her! Love can’t be wrong, love is a balm right? She likes her alone time, but he just wants live together! Normal day behaviors are disgusting her, eating- who needs to eat? She doesn’t want to be a person in this way anymore. N. will do anything to keep her, anything. But does real love bend itself this way, keep the peace, create an atmosphere that isn’t healthy  just to be in someone’s life?

This is far more than just meditation or harmless moon-bathing going on here, can a trip to Venice be the fix? The only thing sinking faster than Venice is Farzaneh’s mind, and it begs the question, just how suspect is N. in neglecting to rein her in? He is scared of confronting her behavior, even if he doesn’t tell us so, in the simple choice of letting it continue. Then comes the burial….

The ending, what are we to make of that? I wonder, was N. an unreliable character all this time? Just who is ill here?

This was a decent read, I see love differently from someone in their twenties, time seasons us I suppose, therefore a lot of N.’s decisions seem completely ill conceived. I just kept thinking, God save us from those who love us. Clearly Farzaneh needs something, but it isn’t a man’s love. It’s a peculiar tale, if nothing else it clearly demonstrates that we shouldn’t always fulfill the requests people we love ask of us. I’m not sure even in some alternate universe I would feel comfortable helping someone dig into the earth, so to speak.

Out Now

Legend Press

Time After Time: A Novel by Lisa Grunwald

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What Nora had never shaken was the memory of fighting to come out of the ether.

Nora Lansing knows where she wants to go, just not how to get there. She is young, ‘out of place’ and railroad worker (leverman) Joe Reynolds is captivated watching the confusion flit across her face in Grand Central Terminal.  “She made him think of the cats in the tunnels far beneath the concourse: coiled up and waiting, all energy, no telling what they were going to do.” A funny word that, ‘energy’. For what else can drive her? This ‘old fashioned woman’, so charming in dark times is all brightness, but something doesn’t fit. He doesn’t yet know that she is not just as graceful but as mysterious as a feline too. Her clothes really are out of date, though they do tell of wealth, maybe it’s a costume? What does he know of fashion anyway? It is 1937, it is their first encounter but will not be the last.

Joe’s desire to see Stonehenge makes the beauty of Manhattanhenge (or the Manhattan Solstice) nearly as awe inspiring. For Nora, it could well be the source of the strange turn her life has taken. What could the alignment of sunrise and sunset over Manhattan’s street grid have to do with her being trapped in time and place? Is she a ghost? No, she can’t have this much life in her and be dead. Ghosts can’t share a meal with a man in a coffee shop, exactly a year after meeting him. It’s not her beloved Paris where she had her first taste of freedom, but the grilled cheese and the company is delightful! Joe may well be the first man to really see Nora, to wonder at her very existence. With her laughter dancing through his ears, he is falling in love. Just when he plays protector, she disappears on him. Then, a phone call  he makes to Nora turns his life upside down.

People have seen her, he’s one of many, the first week of December always, the same place where he first set eyes upon her. She never stays. The reason is unfathomable, impossible!

1924 Nora is happy to be on her own in Paris, where being lost is a pleasure. An artist whose lucky day leads her to work as an assistant to the owner of a small art gallery, finding undiscovered talent, Paris is full of promise. There is no better place to be than Paris to hone her skills, where the light is best, where everywhere the eye settles it is like a painting, beauty abounds. It doesn’t hurt that she is a socialite, and has the means for such adventures but it isn’t to last, for home is calling to her and she must return to her beloved father. As soon as she arrives upon the ocean liner, she rushes to her father in hospital. Seeing him solidifies her need to be home.

Forced to take the subway after, when cabs are nowhere in sight, there is an accident, the train isn’t the only thing that derails. The delay takes years. When Nora opens her eyes, she immediately wants to contact her mother, but is met with the dreadful reality that there is no place for her in the world anymore, and time has moved on without her. This is a love story, certainly, but for me it related a horror, what is worse than being locked out of time, than having to prove who you are? Waiting for salvation that may never come? What would be more heartbreaking to a mother? Seriously, I had a lump in my throat when Nora is trying to contact her mom. If Nora gives Joe’s life meaning, he is the sole spot of joy she can look forward to upon every return, after so much hope seemed lost.

Nora’s unbelievable story opens before Joe’s eyes. With the World Fair being hosted in New York,  focused on the future “the world of tomorrow” it’s strange to be stuck in the yesterday and wrapped up in Nora. Once happy to wait for life to unfold, Nora has changed everything. The waiting is torture, time crawls when he waits for her to come back. No one has answers, not even an old Jewish woman who plays at being a gypsy. Of course they find each other again, and they steal as much time as they can. The fear is always there, what if she disappears again? They figure out a way to keep Nora anchored, living in the Biltmore hotel but life can’t be confined within a set distance for any of us. Naturally the best laid plans go awry when you take into account the rest of the world, Joe’s family, the fate of the city, war. Nothing remains stationary! Would that we could protect our love, whether we’re haunted or not. Can Joe and Nora truly live like this and what happens if she never ages? What are the choices we have to make, the things we must give up in order to embrace our fate?

A haunting of the heart.

Publication Date: June 11, 2019

Random House