Virtuoso by Yelena Moskovich

 

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And yet, there is an extra weight within the room, like a movement finishing itself.

This novel shifts so much from story and perspective that it may lose a few readers in the process but for those of us that like these little roller coaster reads, hang on! Two Dollar Radio serves up another gem of a novel in Yelena Moskovich’s latest madness. The novel starts with a dead body, but hang on…. This is a coming of age at the end of the Soviet era,  Jana tells us for 19 years she was ‘a simple Czech girl’ living under severe rule of tapped telephones, letters steamed open, people disappearing- soviet domination holding the people down. She was a ‘clean-handed little girl’, a very bored one, so bored that even dust stirring in the sunlight would be interesting until the new girl enters the scene. A little raven-girl named Zorka, the “Mala Narcis” a little Narcissus who can’t get enough of herself. This Zorka suddenly lights up Jana’s life with her feral behavior, what could be more thrilling? Where Zorka is wild and angry Jana is ‘solid, smart’. With communism cracking, people are free to entertain big plans, and Zorka has a future somewhere beyond, beyond making her depressed mother uncomfortable with her ‘weird behavior’, a place where her father’s fade from sickness doesn’t hover. Jana finds strength in Zorka, until she disappears.

To the future we go and find Parisian Aimée married to an older actress Dominique, lovebirds from the start but lately something is weighing her wife down. Something is souring. It seems to be a separate story-line but naturally will find itself weaved into Jana’s. Jana working is as an interpreter in Paris, she too finally had her own destiny to fulfill. Someone else knows all about her friend, the Mala Narcis, it’s time Zorka is back in her life, but did she ever really leave her?

The story of Zorka’s mother and her mental illness is told in Part two where we finally discover just where Zorka was sent, to America to live with her uncle Gejza and his wife Tammie. Too hot for her mother to handle after the grief of losing her husband and her grip, it’s a culture shock for Zorka. But even America can’t reign her in, she finds a band of misfits like herself, explores her sexuality, strikes out on her own.

Did I mention the chatroom? Who the hell are these two? How do they fit? HotgirlAmy and a very miserable wife Domminxxika? Chapters throw you around, which usually makes me dizzy and irritates the hell out of me, but for some reason it doesn’t in this novel and it builds until finally at the end there is a picture where the characters fit. How does Moskovich keep up with her own creations? This novel made me feel jittery trying to keep up.

Past, present, dream or no dream, full circle, broken cirlcle, a dead wife, a dying mother, a sick father, broken friendship, abandonment, communism, love… there is so much happening. This writer is all over the place, but I remained riveted. My happiest reading was spent on Zorka’s childhood and the electric thrum of her. What antics, what sorrows! No wonder Jana clung to the memory of the Mala Narcis.

Read it if you can keep up, it’s meaty even though I admit I am not fully sure I have it all figured out. It will exhaust some readers, but I can’t wait to read her next novel. I have a thing for strange fiction. It is beyond genre, a weird read for winter.

Publication Date: January 14, 2020

Two Dollar Radio

Rituals to Observe Stories about Holidays from the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction by Edited by Ethan Laughman

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How was her daughter going to feel, this pale little stalk in a dark field? – Alyce Miller

Admittedly, I skip the holiday reads because they always come off as cheerful to the point of sickness. This are not those kind of stories, in this moving collection are gatherings where the character’s sanity is barely clinging, or they are witness to the collapse of others. In Color Struck by Alyce Miller, Thanksgiving for Caldonia revolves around the shock of her child’s birth. How could she question this gift from God, her husband Fred wants to know? Caldonia feels bitter and not even her family celebrating at her table can cheer her instead, all their ruckus, their chaos, is only making matters worse. Her baby just isn’t right and nothing anyone says is helping.

Morta Infinta written by David Crouse – It’s Halloween, which should be the perfect night for horror and dressing up, instead young Kristen is left with her father, who is experiencing a fear of his own, losing his wife as his marriage is declining. If she can just keep her father together, stop him from ‘simmering in his grief’, but it’s a mean feat and she’s just a kid herself, and sometimes our love isn’t enough to lift others, and sometimes she just wants to be free of adult problems. This was beautifully written and tugged on my heart, love can be such a weight for children when the grownups depend on them, forget themselves.

In The Invisibles by Hugh Sheehy disappearing and visibility, being on the outside is what guides Cynthia and her friends. It’s a club of three, until a mysterious van appears outside the skating arena. It all began with Cynthia’s mother, and the summer she ‘collected her sayings and built a personality with them.’ What we don’t know remains with us, shaping who we become, the mysteries, the memories, the horrors too.

In Faulty Predictions by Karin Lin- Greenberg elderly roommates are on a mission on Halloween night to save a young college woman from one of Hazel’s ‘visions’. But it’s ghosts of the past, not visions that are much more disturbing , an ache that feels too late to change. So maybe she is a medium or a psychic or some such nonsense… but she is blind about her own life, that Hazel.

Useful Gifts by Carole L. Glickford finds little Ruthie wanting nothing of the useful gifts her deaf mother prefers to purchase. These practical presents serving more as humiliation, no one wants what they need! Certainly not her peers, who will only laugh at paltry offerings! Ruthie is no exception either, her hungry little heart is weary of looking at the Opal girls’ and their beautiful things, their plethora of toys while she herself knows only longing. Envy, poverty, misunderstanding and love, genuine mother/daughter love is the heart of this Christmas tale.

Every story engages the reader, makes us pause and take note of our rituals, or the strange things that overtake us during holidays, or symbols that torment us- sometimes things as odd and ridiculous as a wooden mallard duck that makes us dangerous in our sleep, as Elliot discovers in Thousand- Dollar Decoy by Becky Mandelbaum. Things that can both serve to disorient and anchor us haunt the character’s tales. Sometimes it’s a wife trying her hardest to keep her husband alive by having a ready supply of objects, food and conversation, others want nothing more than to let him go. The stories are all complicated, just like every human being. They are drowning in desperation and sorrow, or haunted by loss or the threat of it, or ashamed of their disappointment in their children or parent, or struggling with motherhood or love. Often, each character is just trying their hardest to navigate their life, even if they feel like they are missing from it. You will recognize yourself, or others within’.  It’s a wonderful collection by various authors. Yes, read it!

Published September 1, 2019

University of Georgia Press

 

 

 

Jacintha by Lorraine Davies

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God knew he needed her. If only she could stand by like a nurse who feeds and bathes her patient, smiled sympathetically, never makes judgments, never expects anything in return.

When a landslide kills student border Jenny, English Literature Professor Richard and his wife Carol are devastated. Not only is their entire life buried in mud and rubble, all their belongings damaged by water, their ruins of a home off limits labeled a safety hazard but the weight of the loss of young Jenny haunts them, how will they tell Jenny’s parents? Carol knows a natural disaster isn’t their fault, but Richard grapples with shame, guilt and is marked by a deep depression. The injuries are nothing to the lasting effects of this tragic moment. Carol has lost the most precious anchor in her life, her husband Richard, who is as distant as the stars. Lucky to be alive, but not feeling blessed, it’s not just his injuries, he has become a veritable stranger. There isn’t any intimacy left, and he claims to just need more time.

Teaching a class on The Tempest is just what he needs to get out in the world again. Richard plans to have his students write a version with an environmental theme, an homage to Jenny because she wanted to do it someday herself. This should be the salve to his emotional wounds. His desire for Jenny didn’t dissipate with her tragic end, though he never acted on his intense passion for her. Accident or not, had he not wanted her so badly, had he not continued to allow her to board with them, had he been a better man she would have still been alive. Irrational or not, in some strange way he still feels he is at fault, desire as an omen?

Richard should be the one to see a therapist, but Carol’s urging only angers him. It is Carol who decides to talk to someone after she acts out of character and betrays her husband and their marriage. But Richard isn’t giving her any reason to believe he is getting better, and the truth is that trauma from near death can have an ill effect on any relationship. Surely this doesn’t mean they are doomed, does it? She’s dealt with other disappointments about her husband’s life, like the strain in the relationship between he and his daughter Imogen with his first wife Grace. One constant is his inability to be present in the moment with those who need him most. Now Carol knows how it feels to be the person on the other end of his emotional distance. Through their separation letters pass between them, those in a future moments too, discussing the book he is writing about everything that passes after Jenny’s death, which encompasses Jacintha and her place in his life.

Jacintha’s childhood with her feckless mother Catherine sees her living with an adoptive family after some ‘incident’, all her life she has had one goal and that is to find Richard, who for her is the cause of her own live’s ruin. “Jacintha had written only one word:  Richard. She places the paper int he metal bowl, set it on fire, and watched it burn.” It takes more than a spell to get what she is after. Love and revenge are chains, and it will claim them all. Charming her way into Richard’s life, her kiss “A taste of berries“, seems to reawaken him in a way Carol’s couldn’t. It’s not what he wants, he wanted it to be Carol who could bring him out of this lifeless state, but it is exactly what Jacintha needs. Her past lay in rubble much like Carol and Richard’s relationship, it is only a matter of time before she reveals the truth, but her plan of seduction hinges on remaining unaffected by Richard as a man. She will share her terror with him, let the insidiousness of her own horrific nightmare weave it’s way through his soul, another thing to gut him with. She is letting other transgressions color how she sees Richard, but tenderness is surprisingly entering her heart as well. When Richard discovers the truth behind Jacintha’s presence, it is far more complicated and horrifying than the shame of falling in love with a student.

The letters between Richard and Carol sometimes upset the story, disrupted it’s flow. They are at a point where they know what has happened, and we are still in the dark, and it can confuse readers. As we are told in the Preface by the character Richard, “it is a true story written in the form of a novel about my relationship with Jacintha”,  therefore we know in advance it’s a novel within a novel. In the present day Carol and Richard are writing about their feelings in the aftermath of the Jenny’s death, the collapse of their marriage, and Jacintha’s blame or lack thereof in what followed. We already know Jacintha is a harbinger of disaster. I almost think the novel would have worked better if they weren’t discussing the novel he is writing about the entire affair while it’s still happening for the reader. I know I sound confusing, but this is the state it put the reader in. It is disorienting…but the novel has engaging moments, it just may be hard for most readers to get there.

Love is never wrong, how you express it is another story. Richard learns this too late, and before he even has a chance to know just how wrong his desires are.

Publication Date: November 19, 2019

Dundurn

The Family Upstairs: A Novel by Lisa Jewell

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I was a strange boy. I can see that now. I’ve since met boys like me: slow to smile, intense, guarded and watchful.

Lisa Jewell’s novels seem to be descending into darker territory and I absolutely love it! This is a novel about a sinister invasion, but it’s not demons or ghosts that will destroy the Lamb family. How could trying to make your wife happy be a bad thing? It will require changes, surely, but it isn’t outside Henry’s reach, it doesn’t require more than acceptance. By the end, both Martina and Henry will be dead from a suicide pact, according to police reports anyway. The two teenage Lamb children will be unaccounted for and the baby ( possibly 10 months old) the sole survivor among the dead.This baby girl, Libby Louise Jones has just turned 25 and is stunned to learn she is the sole owner of her biological parent’s mansion left to her in a trust,  ‘on the finest street in Chelsea’. This changes everything, no longer will she have to scrimp and save, nor make compromises in life, now- her adoptive mother tells her ‘you’ll be a very rich woman indeed.’ 

The house remembers what was and has been waiting, despite the years it’s been closed up, even if Libby was too young to absorb everything that led to that ill fated day in 1977, the traces remain like a haunt. The story begs to be told, and there are others who have been waiting for Libby too. One person in particular in another part of the world, and they know more than they can stomach, for they have been living their own nightmare, dealing in lies, subterfuge and know all too well the weight of identity. As she researches the chilling story of her own origins, she paints a terrifying picture, shocked to learn she had siblings  is the least of it the bigger jolt is that they seemed to vanish without a trace. Worse, there were more bodies, other missing children- what exactly was her biological family caught up in? This birthday gift is a trapdoor that will take her into a chilling past. Every answer comes with bigger questions. Why were they living in poverty? Her father Henry came from wealth, heir to his father’s money, so what went wrong? Who were these other people, why were they living in her parent’s home? What about the robes, were they a cult?

Without giving away the story, the sheer terror for children is the control, the power of the adult world. There are many ways mommy and daddy can fail their children, not every trauma comes from a raised fist. There are a million ways to neglect duty, the Lambs’ demise is in opening their home. Minds close, purses tighten, blindness sets in and their entire world shrinks within the walls of the gorgeous home.  There can only be one head of this family, naturally it will be the most charismatic force and it will be the collapse of them all.

As Libby unearths every skeleton of the past and attempts to assemble the remains of her family, every truth also contains the germ of a lie. Before the end, she will uncover the entire tale, and discover that the things she imagined all her life about her biological family pales in comparison to the twisted reality of just who they were.

I can’t wait for Lisa Jewell’s next novel. She writes of the fractures within’ families so perfectly, because often the things people do really come out of nowhere and leave you wondering if you knew them, and let’s face it sometimes yourself, at all.

Publication Date: November 5, 2019

Atria Books

The Pursuit: A Novel of Suspense by Joyce Carol Oates

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Here is the mistake: to have given into happiness. She will be punished now.

Abby had hoped that becoming Mrs. Willem Zengler could save her, the damned, the cursed. Is it possible to cup happiness in both hands and drink from it? When she closes her eyes to sleep, it is always there, the bones, the horror. Love can’t chase that away, nor could protection. It always finds her, and the past won’t let her go. As a new bride she steps into traffic, maybe she was sleepwalking? She seemed so agitated! Witnesses saw something wasn’t right, her face one of horror, fear but of what? As if she were being chased.

Her husband Willem doesn’t understand, he must remain at her bedside in the ICU. What will he say if she wakes up? What if she strode into traffic by choice? What does any of this mean? He is gut sick, worse, he keeps playing back their meeting in his mind. The possibility that she has lied about her life disturbs him. This disorientation, it’s happened before, hasn’t it? He remembers too the restlessness, the whimpering cries while she was asleep, dreaming. He vowed to protect her, that is his role as her husband, but now as she lies comatose, the proof is he has failed her.

What of that parent-less past doesn’t he know? She doesn’t want to tell, she doesn’t want him to pursue her fears, her dream, her terror. She is both the victim and the perpetrator, in her memory. She carries an entourage of skeletons, she was so young, but it’s her fault, isn’t it? In order to be free, she must stop running from the nightmare. It is a ruined house, her entire childhood, a ruined house. She doesn’t want to be that orphan again with a tragic past, a past that is rotting somewhere, still undiscovered either in her mind or the tall grass, or both. What would Willem think?

She has been trying to keep herself together, to be the right sort of woman, but her happiness as a newlywed is blurring, the poison of her past is bleeding through and there isn’t an escape, not even in a handsome, tall husband. There is no shelter, no escape from the pursuit.

She is not who she professes to be, she is not fully present, and she can’t fake it anymore. Life always circles back, the past comes back for you, how like a ring.

This is a fairly short novel considering the many books I have devoted my days to reading by Oates. She has an intuition about the things we don’t talk about or present to the world, and writes about them like no other, so I am always delighted to read anything she puts to paper. This is a fast read, and you are in the confusion, the terror of Abby’s mind before the “accident” and tormented by the ghosts of her past as if you are in her shoes. It’s very much about the effects of trauma. How unfair, the things we’re forced to carry behind us, like a rotting corpse. Some childhoods aren’t about frolicking in the fields chasing butterflies, at least not in Oates world. Here children are left with blood on their hands.

Publication Date: October 11, 2019

Grove Atlantic

Mysterious Press

Toil & Trouble: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs

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It takes extreme horror for me to feel better about my own life. Which, now that I think about it, is what people are always telling me that I do for them, so screw it.

Augusten Burroughs has a innate cynicism that always makes me laugh or cringe and nod along with, yes- someone gets it. You don’t have to be a fan of witches,  broomsticks and cauldrons bubbling to enjoy this memoir. You can be a fan of love or disaster, old beautiful houses that ‘want your blood’, and look haunted. Maybe it’s not ghosts, maybe it’s old trees that is a looming threat or repairs and gruff old handymen. There are a million things that can haunt our lives that are scarier than monsters and ghosts but sometimes the very things that make up our chaotic little lives get us to the place Augusten has arrived. But it’s been a journey. So carrying a secret love of witches or not, most of us can relate to the struggle of just being alive.

A witch, you say? Let him explain to you what he means before you get a knee jerk reaction of laughter or disbelief. Let him tell you about his family, and strange occurrences that feel like so much more than happenstance. Whose life isn’t full of the strange… the unexplained… and hell- why not? It’s hard to be taken seriously when you try to explain the weird patterns, the ‘coming into things’ that you foresaw, or conjured in your mind, heart. Aren’t mothers sometimes uncannily wicked in their predictions, about the future of their children, why not his mother before her illness consumed her? Lucky for you if it’s good stuff, the reverse can be true (trust me) for most people it’s a combination of both. I long to say, “you’re mad!” but in a good way, with a fat smile on my face. Maybe more than anything, he pays attention to the details of his life where so many people never see the synchronicity in their own.

Much of the novel is about the home he bought with his beloved, “We have purchased a mystery” and anyone who goes gaga for old houses will get a kick out of the reality making a home of one can be. It makes for funny and exasperating shared moments, all this talk of dreaming the home into being. Why not? If we can think it, we can create it, it’s how great works of art come into being, inventions, movements, revolutions- why not our own wants and desires?

I think this memoir is about Augusten Burroughs being Augusten Burroughs, this is me- take it or leave it. It’s intimate, honest, and peculiar, just like him. He seems to be at a point in his life where he has a solid grasp on who he is and want he wants, and sure life still presents moments where anxiety overwhelms him, he still confronts mental health fears with his family history, but you know what a great stabilizer is? Someone who loves you and grounds you, someone who takes you seriously when they need to and doesn’t always think ‘it is your crazy talking’ when you are adamant about a looming threat, even if it’s as ridiculous as a monster tree… when you know that tree is an evil force out to kill the two of you! Because maybe it actually is, maybe there is something to this natural instinct that has guided Augusten throughout the chaos of his life. Who are we to laugh at that? Who are we to demand proof of the things that pull someone through this ridiculous little journey we call life?

Whether you believe in magic or don’t, it’s still a fun read. It felt like sitting and talking with an old friend, someone I can tell spooky stories with beside candlelight or share the eerie, inexplicable things that have happened in my life (that others would call downright nonsense) stuff requiring a person to suspend disbelief, and have them say “No way, me too!” or “Get outta here, really?” Be it reading about a retired opera singer “The Soprano in the Woods” who is a little too close for comfort, or his response to PETA when it comes to Beavers (have you watched them attack), I was fully engaged. In fact, I am glad my husband and I never did find that beaver we were hoping to see in New Hampshire many summers ago- violent little creatures (cute though), who knew?

Take it with a grain of salt, or a circle of salt around your witchy self, your choice. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: October 1, 2019

St. Martin’s Press

 

The Girl at the Door: A Novel by Veronica Raimo

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“After the girl came to see me, I couldn’t get rid of her presence in the house.”

Utopian islands can be just as corrupt as the imperfect, filthy, declining societies people long to escape, all it takes is a germ in their midst, but is the germ a false accusation or a rapist?  Miden and it’s citizens must never transgress against their rules, their society runs on adherence to it’s beliefs, and what’s a bigger violation than the accusation of rape? This act is a stain that can spread and destroy this perfect world. Here they live in a blanket of security, peace after the mysterious “Crash”, something happened in the larger world, and though ‘the worst is over’, according to politicians, it is Miden that “SHE” ( first just a tourist) tells us she wanted to live in, to be safe from the threat of the outside. “He” (the successful professor)  was already a citizen with ‘a prospect of a solid future’ when they met and fell in love.  Miden, where they are obsessed with statistics and the best place for “Quality of life”, encompassing “trust in the future, social equality, human rights, etc” but the most telling for this story is its supply of  “women’s freedom”.

The novel opens with “She” answering the knock of a visitor at their door, who asks her “Are you the professor’s wife?” 

“She” the girlfriend, doesn’t yet realize the enormity of what this former student, this skinny, pretty young girl is about to reveal. Pregnant with the professor’s child (carrying his very future in her belly), how does she face the ugliness of what this stranger is accusing him of, what it will do to this sheltered life they live, that they worked so hard for? Certainly the man she loves isn’t capable of such things, and why now? It was two years ago, in the past, right?

“Because I didn’t know then. Now I know.”

What is a crime, how do we come to understand that we have been a victim? What if youth was a blinder, and we didn’t know how sorely we were being wronged? What if the awakening to the crime happens when the wisdom of a few years sheds light on it? Is it then still a crime? Do crimes have an expiration date? Do people get to escape punishment because time was on their side, because someone didn’t know better how to protect themselves, if they didn’t realize what was happening at the time?  Is it a crime if someone met with you willingly, if you allowed it, didn’t have the sense to prevent it, to say no? What if it becomes a crime in the telling and others examine it and help you see the ‘affair’ framed darker? After all, she was a ‘young student’, isn’t that crime enough? Her youth, his position of power as her teacher?

Through “Him” it’s a wildly different story, from the very act of saving her panties ‘for months’. For “Him” it was a wildly erotic time and he can’t believe the ‘Commission” and most especially his girlfriend is taking any of this seriously. The absurdity of it all! This could cost him his enviable life in Miden, his very relationship with his pregnant girlfriend, his future! To him it was an affair (in the sense it goes against the student/ teacher rules, a sordid thing), ‘wrong’ sure, but an affair, not anything violent or criminal.

Who do we believe? With the accusation “She” goes back and chews on their relationship, from their first meeting to the pregnancy and everything in between, as if picking for clues for or against his character. “She” has a bigger role in the entire investigation, in whether he is ‘unworthy’ of being a citizen or not, to be banished or not. The accuser, and how “She”(the girlfriend) is irritated, annoyed by her, curious about her behavior, looking for ‘theater’, almost as an escape out of believing the worst about”Him” or as evidence of his innocence. This is a provocative moment in the novel. If you attribute it to our current news, wonder at the women who stand by their man, why, why the anger is often aimed at the alleged victim, it begins to make sense. It also lends people insight into why in some cases women wait, until they are adults, until they are braver- to take the steps to search for justice. On the flip side of the coin, what about the men? Are they monsters, are they guilty if in their head they are reading the situation, the acts completely wrong?

This is an engaging novel, but Miden itself sort of got in the way for me. I didn’t see it as a Utopia personally, the people came off as holier than thou, above humanity as trying to strive for some flawless society, I mean- who decides? Then again, what sort of world do we live in now, where people still blame women when they are assaulted? Hmmm… What about cases where there is consent, if you consent, how is a man to know he is hurting you? That is a question people still pick over. Throw youth into the mix, the awe of those in power, shouldn’t someone be reigning in their desires? Shouldn’t it be the person with the power, and yet too we are all humans and flawed. It’s a slippery slope.

What beats in me is the “WHY NOW”… that’s a current question in many cases, allowing disbelief, doubt in the accuser to slip in for many people. There isn’t just one answer.

It’s interesting to me that there isn’t naming of the characters, they remain HIM/HER, the accuser… I don’t know if it’s intended but it’s like you protect all parties without thinking about them beyond their sexual identity (male, female). Then I went off the rails and in my thinking, naming is vital- isn’t it? Particularly if that name is loaded, ‘rich, successful, beloved’ it absolutely alters how strangers look at an accusation. Naming changes things, for good and bad.  The reader feels sympathy for each of them, and disgust here and there. Just who risks the most? There is selfish thought, of course there is, we are the center of our story, anyone that disrupts our security, our future can easily be seen as the guilty party. It was engaging, but Miden was a weird society. You believe each of their views, even if they discredit themselves too.

Publication Date: October 18, 2019

Grove Atlantic

Grove Press, Black Cat