The Woods: Stories by Janice Obuchowski

The woods are quiet. It’s an obscene quiet.

This collection came out on my birthday, which also arrived with a hurricane here in Florida, and that is why I am reviewing it today on the 21st. Is anyone else out there playing catch up with life like I have been? I think Vermont sounded like heaven to me, even with encroaching woods. In The Woods, of all the stories, The Orams was a worm that burrowed in my brain. In fact, I would love a novel about the Oram Brothers who live up the mountain, on the lesser traveled roads, and the six generations before them. Those Orams, who “could at least have the decency to keep their misdeeds to the woods,” make for good storytelling. What else would the locals do if they didn’t have the wildness of others to measure their own goodness against? Those Orams leave you guessing, what next?

A couple disagrees about an Adirondack chair they received long ago as a wedding gift in “The Chair”. It represents one of the most thoughtful gifts they received, how could Cappie’s husband desire to be rid of it, seeing it as a relic. A bear incites a bit of sanctimonious snobbery towards ‘flatlanders’ in The Bear Is Back, anyone who has ever read neighborhood postings and snippy comments will relate. More so if you are not born to a place. A widow ponders grief and time as she gets lost on the trail behind her home, mesmerized almost as ‘the trees brought her into their hush’. Convinced that her mountain is playing some sort of trickery on her, she remembers when she and her husband first moved to Vermont, young and hungry intellectuals. The Forest Tavern deals with false history and the fascinating ways people fictionalize a thing, or a place, to give it shape. Potions is about betrayal but also how glorious it can be to wish things better with your child’s little hands clasped in your own. In Monsters Nana warns the grandchildren of monsters in the woods, naturally they think she is full of it. Then Nana shows them the critter cam. The siblings are already battle worn from their parents terrible marriage, what could a monster do? There are other tales about a couple who live in a house where tragedy took place, a friend who may be a ghost and woman who knows her plan to stop logging is stupid but can’t seem to help herself.

The stories take place in a small college town in Vermont, with locals and transplants dealing with aging, affairs, wild creatures, careers, loneliness and the woods that are always seeming to encroach. For some, the woods beckon, for others it is a threat or up to trickery. Several of the stories were moving, not all of them had me hooked, but it was beautifully written. If you need something to wind down from the chaos of living, this is the book. I enjoyed it.

Publication Date: November 10, 2022

University of Iowa Press

The Wilderwomen: A Novel by Ruth Emmie Lang

Recently, Zadie had felt like she couldn’t even see the shore anymore. Her family was somewhere in the salty haze, so obscured that she sometimes doubted its very existence.

When their mother Nora Wilder disappeared, Zadie and Finn were left reeling and soon split apart. Without a father, or anyone else to step in, decisions were forced upon them. Zadie, at 18, was too old for protective services to care about her and was left flailing and alone to figure her life out. Without a stable home to offer Finn, she wasn’t allowed to raise her, instead Finn went into foster care and for a while they visited each other as much as possible. Five years later they have drifted apart, and Zadie isn’t much closer to being able to offer her a place to live. They will soon reconnect on a trip celebrating Finn’s high school graduation, time together they need desperately to salvage the love between them. The sisters are troubled and keeping secrets from each other. What was meant to be a trip to Galveston and relaxing on the beach becomes a journey to search for their mother. Could she really have just left them, without a word? Years have tumbled by, and nothing points to Nora’s whereabouts. Zadie is ashamed, bearing in mind her unwanted psychic ability she has nothing much to go on. Finn is gifted too, able to sense echoes of the past, but when these ‘gifts’ come upon her, it can seem like a seizure. In truth, she steps into a person’s mind, reliving their memories but it is fragmented, leaving only a puzzle. Both girls have always been different, Zadie wants none of it, has hid it, allowed her psychic abilities to rust, but can’t stop what comes naturally. Finn is hungry to use the echoes to chase her mother and troubled by the fact that her foster parents want to adopt her. She fears embracing adoption, her new family, would only hurt Zadie. Finn also isn’t ready to give up on reuniting with her mother, who must still be alive. Accepting her foster parents offer feels like closing a door on the past, usurping her mother’s rights. Zadie’s relationship has crashed and burned, and she is with pregnant, terrifying facts that she isn’t sharing with Finn. It’s been lonely, a constant struggle building a life for herself, she has had no one to protect and care about her. Despite their longing to heal the wounds in their bond, all the things they are hiding is pushing them further apart.

Hope is dangerous, Zadie figures her mother may as well be a ghost, just as unreachable. She resents everything that has befallen them since Nora vanished. None of it makes sense, there is a lot of anger aimed toward Nora, and herself. There may have been one moment when she could have prevented it all, something Finn isn’t aware of, Finn convinces Zadie to search, but she is still conflicted. A strange premonition is haunting her, the phrase “The sky is full of birds.” Useless, she thinks, despite it ‘sticking to her brain like a burr’. Finn is tapping into their mother’s memories, and it is far more powerful than any other echoes she has experienced, they just have to find places Nora has been, and this leads them on a bizarre journey, like the Constellation camp sleeping under stars that speak (via horoscopes). They also meet people on the way that have their own strange abilities. Will their meandering truly give them the answers to the biggest mystery in their young lives? The echoes Finn experiences are starting to take over, how much of herself must she sacrifice, is it worth it? Will Zadie lose the only family she has left, if nothing comes of their search? Just where did Nora go? Are they ready for the truth?

It’s a decent magical realism story and the ending is as odd as the cast of characters. At heart it’s about family and identity. I only wish we had more of the past to feed on, I think it would have pulled me in more.

Publication Date: November 15, 2022 Available Now

St. Martin’s Press

Now Is Not The Time To Panic: A Novel by Kevin Wilson

It was like the epicenter of the disaster, where we were recovering, but the ripples of it, the seismic activity, was still reverberating farther and farther out into the world.

Sometimes what saves us can slip out of our control, the bonds we make that feel like a magical salve and the art we create can also bury us. Frankie meets new kid Zeke at the public pool in Coalfield, Tennessee one insanely hot and boring summer. Zeke imagines her loneliness mirrors his own, but for Frankie, she tells herself it’s something to occupy her time, she isn’t looking for a friend. Their bond is fast, both know what being left behind by their fathers feels like, the pain of it. Frankie finally has someone who understands the tug of aesthetic pursuits, she is a writer and Zeke is an artist and he has an idea. They will make stuff all summer, what else is there to do in the boring small town? Frankie is so much lonelier than she realized, not really having any friends since elementary school, always a misfit, indifferent to the things that thrill other girls, like malls, and mooning over boys. Finally, she has someone to confide in and more importantly, someone to share kisses and be weird with.

When they make an art poster, remaining anonymous, it shakes up the town with the mysterious phrase “The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.” It ignites a fire that burns through the minds of the locals, soon the copies are all over town, and it becomes a sort of monstrous fear when two teenagers use the posters as evidence to get themselves out of trouble. Like a feral creature, it escapes its makers, people believe it’s a cult (maybe even satanic), soon the summer Frankie imagined for them grows thorns. Dangerous incidents are occurring, inspired by their “fugitive” work, Zeke wonders if they should stop poking the town, feeling guilty but Frankie loves it. At last, something makes her feel alive and Coalfield was nothing before, just another rural town but now they are in the news all because of them. Coalfield matters, Frankie matters, right? It’s a thrill she isn’t about to give up, but Zeke is wrapped up in more troubling facts. His mother is keeping to herself in her childhood room, leaving Zeke stuck spending time with his grandmother when he isn’t bathing in the chaos of Frankie and her wild triplet older brothers. Zeke is also keeping his pain bottled up, his father’s sins aren’t sitting so easily with him and maybe Frankie isn’t enough to staunch the bleeding of his heart. It could be like a spell, healing him, if they can just keep saying it, “The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.”, then their fugitive souls will soar. Their friendship takes a disturbing turn, years pass, and it is no longer the mid-nineties, she has carried their secret into adulthood.

The past has returned to ruin Frankie’s life in the form of art critic Mazzy Brower, secrets have teeth, and it seems that painter Henry Roosevelt Wilson’s life is muddied up in Frankie’s. What happened after Zeke unfurls in a house the friends once visited in Memphis. It is a beautiful book about the past, about the courage meeting the right person can inject into your soul, about the imbalance of needs, wounds, feeling alien, holding onto one true part of you, the excruciating growing pains of losing people along the way and the refusal to step out of the flames, even as they threaten to burn you to ash. There is dumb wonder in not fully knowing the people who we feel closest too, including ourselves. A tale of the fictions we create and how to own the truth without hurting others.

It’s a strange story, but I loved it. Read why Kevin Wilson wrote the novel, his past served as a channel for the characters Frankie and Zeke. The thing I enjoy about Wilson’s novels, aside from the originality, are the depth and confusion of his young characters. They always seem to be getting to know themselves, even into adulthood. It seems many of us are truly construction zones, figuring out who we are at many stages of life and attempting to grasp what the past made of us.

Publication Date: November 8, 2022

Harper Collins

Echo

The Last Chairlift: A Novel by John Irving

This gets complicated, because I know that not all ghosts are dead. In certain cases, you can be a ghost and still be half-alive- only a significant part of you has died. I wonder how many of these half-alive ghosts are aware of what has died in them-dead or alive- if there are rules for ghosts.

I have always enjoyed reading John Irving, even though I am not from New England (my husband has family up there) it’s such a beautiful place and Irving transports the reader there. His stories never fail to engage me. Adam is a novelist first and foremost, also a screenwriter. Born to unwed mother Rachel Brewster “Little Ray”, an expert skier of diminutive size (whose lifelong job is as an instructor on the slopes; she was too small to compete) he spent ski seasons feeling like an orphan. Living with his grandmother and grandfather, fussed over by aunts and alongside older cousins, it is tomboy Nora that holds a tender space in his heart. Nora sort of serves as the big sister, the insight. Adam was determined to hate the very thing that took his mother away seasonally, refusing to learn to ski or at least to ski poorly. Adam is obsessed with wanting to know what happened in Aspen and ponders how his mother couldn’t have known Marilyn Shaw “Snow Baby”, coached by the same instructor and both of them from Vermont. He also wonders about how she got knocked up with him and who his father is; she isn’t saying. Nothing drives children to dig more than having things kept from them. She cares so much about the state of the Hotel Jerome that naturally his history leads him there, where many ghosts exist. Of course his family is eccentric, it’s what I always enjoy about Irving’s characters, when his mother marries Mr. Barlow it challenges societal norms as well as their family, Irving was doing this long before present day with his fiction.

Adam’s love life is a mess, mostly sexually. There is a lot to explore beginning with the 1940’s to current times, sexual repression was very real and families generally didn’t divulge things in the presence of little ears, or hands as may be Adam’s case. Families were often tight lipped and intolerant of deviations from the norm. Fear leads to judgement and shame. He is his mother’s true love, even in innocence it can be a confusing adoration. You know there is going to be ridiculous encounters in bed,unlike in the movies, physical interactions in real life are often humiliating, disastrous but we keep at it anyway. Homosexuality, transitioning, death, love, family, identity, politics, marriage of convenience (or necessity) and ghosts- what isn’t in this novel? It didn’t feel new to me without the ghosts, it reminded me a lot of The World According to Garp (my favorite Irving tale), with the wrestling, Barlow’s choices, his mother’s progressiveness, Adam’s journey, the unknown father, but I still wanted to read it and see how things played out with everything going on in the world today. It’s a different place now in that people are more open to ‘unconventional relationships’ and identity issues. Adam, I wanted to feel closer to him, sometimes he felt far from me which is strange when he is telling the story. I do like that he is clueless about so many things growing up, that’s how it feels when we’re young. We don’t have the full picture or if we do, our young minds can’t fully absorb it. Irving manages to take subjects that are a loaded gun and deal with it through lightness, laughter.

If I were to unpack every situation, tragedy it would take me days. I just can’t wait to hear the thoughts of fellow readers. John Irving fans, I don’t need to say read it, the rest- it is a lot to take on but worth the time.

Published October 18, 2022

Simon & Schuster

Such A Pretty Girl: A Novel by T. Greenwood

Mother or Monster?

The headline asks a question, but the implication is clear.

The subject of monsters often leads us to humanity’s deviance, and in this novel, it’s the implication that former child actress Ryan Flannigan’s mother, Fiona, may have involved her daughter in sordid things in the1970’s. This pretty girl was eleven years old (with the face of a woman and the body of a child), when Henri Dubois (beloved father figure to Ryan) took a photograph of her titled Blackout. A ‘powerful, dangerous’ one, as it turned out. What disturbs the most, is that the never seen before portrait has been found, present day, in the hands of a billionaire pedophile and trafficker of young girls, shockingly signed by her mother with a cryptic inscription. What may have been artistic and precocious then, is suspect now. Ryan lives in Vermont, away from all the fame that threatened to swallow her long ago. She is no longer the erotic symbol of fantasies that made her famous, nor is she prisoner of her mother’s needs, demands and hunger for fame. Instead, she is happily raising her daughter without her mother’s influence, in a sense, her mother has become a fiction. She had to disconnect from Fiona, all the coaching, from the abyss of need that summed her up and suffocated Ryan.

Fiona gave birth to Ryan in Vermont at Lost River, a compound built as a summer respite for actors working in the city and for aspiring actors, like her mother who never left, by a former stage actress and her director husband. Acting with the River Kids came naturally, a birthright for Ryan, a seasonal family she grew up with, but her mother’s longing for lead roles inspired her to move them to New York City. Fiona wanted better parts, the right place to audition was in the city, but it was Ryan who was discovered. Fiona needed attention, while she channeled her energy into Ryan’s career, it wasn’t without jealousy, envy. Her parenting was haphazard and as Ryan sinks back into her past, we begin to understand why she trusted and loved Henri so dearly. The novel makes you ponder the meaning of exploitation and parental boundaries. The damage that being partners, pals instead of mother and child manifests through the years, affecting Ryan’s own hopes and fears for her talented daughter. With the headline forcing her out of the shadows, she must comb through her memories, and the relationship she had with both her mother and Henri. What did she miss? Her mother was always theatrical, and that hasn’t changed. Fiona has always claimed she sacrificed for her daughter, never failing to make Ryan feel guilty for outshining her. Was she the ‘good mother’ she presented herself as? What did Ryan’s rise to fame cost? How did her mother know the monster? In her memory, she was the one taking care of Fiona, financially and emotionally. She could never settle into the pride of her accomplishments, facing her mother’s severe barbs and inconsistencies. She wasn’t protected, and her mother’s own needs always left her wrecked but could Fiona have truly been connected to someone so vile? Is she ready to discover the truth?

You only must look at famous child stars to see there aren’t many out there whose parents didn’t sell them out for money and attention. Somehow there are those who make it out stronger for it, others who are left flailing. Expectations are a heavy burden for children, more so in the limelight. Pick any decade, you will find a fame hungry parent somewhere, I don’t care if it’s for performing arts, sports, or intellectual pursuits, someone is being pushed to live mom and pops dead dreams. Here is a glimpse of the incentives that lure such parents into living through their children, at any cost. Also, a tale of the hunger for love and family as well as who controls the narrative and what it does to innocent people. T. Greenwood never fails to deliver. This novel would make for interesting discussions at reading groups.

Publication Date: October 25, 2022

Kensington

Savor: A Chef’s Hunger For More by Fatima Ali with Tarajia Morrell

It’s funny. When we think we have all the time in the world to live, we forget to indulge in the experiences of living.

Fatima Ali, a New York chef born in Pakistan, is known for competing in and winning an episode of Chopped on Food Network. A fan favorite, she also appeared on Bravo’s Top Chef but within this memoir we are on an intimate journey from her childhood, where she shares what gave birth to her love of food and cooking, to her battle with cancer and her farewell to family, friends and fans. Tarajia Morrell was asked by Fatima to collaborate on a bucket list book based on her dream travel and meals, but life had other plans, her book became something else entirely. Cancer invaded her body, yet another obstacle in her life, one that she fought to the very end. Farezeh Durrani (a contributor), Fatima’s mother, gave her daughter permission to write this book, despite knowing that she would, as Fatima said, bear the brunt of her child’s searing revelations, shames and regrets. For how can Fatima give an honest rendering of her days without writing about her mother, stripping them both bare in the process? Fearless, that was always what her beloved child was, tirelessly forging a culinary career, living life on her terms, and trying to be a good example for young Pakistani girls. Some gifts are painful, and that’s what this love letter to food and life is.

It is beside her maternal grandmother, Nano, whose masterful bargaining at the markets in Pakistan and delicious kitchen secrets that Fatima first apprenticed. Her father, too, loved to watch cooking shows and indulge in exotic ingredients he bought on his travels through different parts of the world. Despite being a lawyer, it was his love of food that he shared with Fatima and her brother Mohammad, encouraging them to try them all. Not even moving to the other side of the world nor the breakdown of her family could change how she felt about cooking, a lifelong passion. While this is a beautiful trip through flavors, textures and smells that inspired Fatima’s future career, it is also a harrowing tale of trauma and illness. Family secrets altered her young life, and no matter how hard her mother tried to shelter her child from ugliness, to raise her to be a proper, respectful Pakistani girl, it is her own fears that cost her daughter the most. The reflections are not about punishment, it is a cleansing through confronting uncomfortable truths, as if to purge it from her soul. With Ewing’s Sarcoma (a rare bone cancer, tumor) making a return after she fights it off, robbing her of her future dreams, there isn’t any time left to live in the dark. Never does the reader doubt the bond Fatima and Farezeh shared, nor does any account of the ways she failed her daughter detract from the love between them, love that not even death can erase. I believe if she could have traded places with Fatima, she would have done it without hesitation. Farezeh’s chapters made me feel compassion for both of them, but nothing stunned me more than the courage that burned within Fatima. Even at her sickest, in most painful moments, she wanted to live a meaningful life, to inspire others and go forward being true to her heart’s desires, shame be damned. Her strength isn’t without fear, of her illness, of slowly seeing her days disappear when all she wanted was to ‘cast the cancer out through sheer will’. How can it be that for all the odds she beat, the demons that didn’t destroy her when she was an innocent child, that now this evil disease won’t retreat? Despite her own suffering, she still cared about the children on her floor and the unjust facts of the disease that would take their lives too.

I think about Farezeh often, despite feeling deeply touched we can put the book down and move on with our lives, while ultimately it is an ever-present void for her, the place her Fatima once occupied. There is courage in her heart too, in sharing such a private relationship with the world, Fatima confessed that her mother deserves credit for the force of her will in fighting to stay alive. As a mother, I couldn’t help but cry, particularly for the helplessness we feel when our children’s lives are on the line. As a patient who has dealt with illnesses, I know all to well the cage of disease. The anger that boils when our body can refuse our needs, demands- so much crueler for the young. It is inspiring, beautiful and devastating. Not just a book for chefs, food lovers, or those battling cancer, it is a memoir that will move any reader. Fatima’s road to a culinary career, her culture, travels, family and love make such a bittersweet memorial. Yes, read it.

Published October 11, 2022

Random House

Ballantine

Daughter’s Of The New Year: A Novel by E.M. Tran

Even after forty-one years here, she wore American citizenship with discomfort, like a pair of shoes half a size too small. The shoes could fit, yes, but every step reminded her she should not be wearing them, that she should be wearing something else.

E.M. Tran confronts erasure, of one’s family history and culture. Her parents left behind a Vietnam that no longer exists, surviving through the dangerous collapse of Saigon. E.M. Tran grew up with parents who didn’t reveal much about their past before coming to America and the silence that they held about the subject came from a place of pain. You would do well to read the author’s note. Certainly, the adolescent self-absorption she talks about is common to most children, not seeing our parents as people with struggles outside our own, but for children of refugees it’s much harder to absorb facts of lineage. Generally, the extended family is divided, living in another country and speaking a different language. Civil war, trauma, it’s not something easily expressed nor understood. How do you get anyone, let alone a parent, to talk about losing the life they had before? What words can express the feelings of losing your country or how you molded yourself to fit into another? Tran’s novel is a penance of sorts, she tells us so in her author’s note. A means to shape her family history into some sort of recognizable form.

Xuan Trung calls her three daughters’ the night before Lunar New Year, a tradition of hers, to give them their horoscope. She has diligently studied from a book and Zodiac calendar with moon phases she bought from a Vietnamese bookstore in New Orleans. She calls them in their birth order, just like in a zodiac origin story, feeling herself akin to the Jade Emperor. She sees her three children as being the animals in the myth who fight their way to be first in heaven. Trac, Nhi and Trieu aren’t interested in their mother’s prophecies any more than they are in learning how to cook Vietnamese dishes, despite Xuan’s insistence. Xuan consults the yearly horoscopes out of love and care with the hopes of thwarting off danger, disaster, financial ruin, and to avoid missing out on opportunities. If only her children understood. She has given up so many things in her life, even the beauty pageant she won in Vietnam, and when she and Cuong moved into their only home in America, she bought a cheap trophy as a reminder, leaving it to sit on her fireplace mantel. There is a gleam of pride to what life was like before, when she was a beauty queen.

Eldest daughter Trac, born in the year of the goat, is a lawyer working long hours and fearful of never measuring up. A dutiful Vietnamese daughter would marry a successful man, produce healthy children, but she doesn’t want those traditional trappings. Their father, Cuong, feels disappointed that his girls have grown up as American children not caring about being Vietnamese, blaming himself for providing them with all the American opportunities. He pushes things on them they don’t want, good intentions or not. What Trac wants is Belinda, but she is too afraid to admit this. Nhi, year of the tiger, is in Vietnam, a contestant on a bachelor dating show, which is beginning to feel very contrived when she is chosen for the solo date. She thinks a lot about what it means to be an Asian in the industry. Youngest, Trieu, is the writer in the family feeling it may be the thing to make her feel equal to her successful, older sisters. She is embarrassed to realize how far away she is from her Vietnamese roots, no longer fluent as she was as a child. According to her mother, she used to speak Vietnamese perfectly well, but Trieu can’t say if this is fact or fiction. Her recollections aren’t strong, and she wants to understand more about her culture, even if at times her mother’s fantasies about what being a dragon means, that Trieu should be naturally good a many creative endeavors), can feel like a curse. This family has faced the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, war,

Xuan’s youth is shared in Part II, with her mother Tien’s worries, also a woman who relies on fortune telling, divination. Xuan too felt she couldn’t live up to her own mother’s expectations, demands. Tien certainly doesn’t think beauty pageants are worth anything, in fact, she views them as a waste of time, but she sees bigger troubles on the horizon. Could Tien have been right? This is the point in the story where the women in the family line reaches into the past, as far back as 226 AD. It is a brave and harrowing telling of their lives. They are all connected but the opportunities Xuan’s daughters have are things the women who came before them could never imagine. It is a novel that asks what we owe our ancestors, our parents, how culture or erasing it molds us, and why those who came before us, the very people who made us, sometimes avoid sharing the memories of the past. Is it a necessary evil to shed your former identity to fit into your new country? It was interesting reading about the mythology and beliefs, easy to understand how deeply embedded they can become and how hurtful your children’s dismissal of such things can feel. The book also measures how it feels to be torn between two cultures for children of refugees and immigrants. Good read.

Published October 11, 2022

Harlequin Trade Publishing

Hanover Square Press

The Strange Inheritance of Leah Fern: A Novel by Rita Zoey Chin

They sang “broken luck”, “gathering gloom”, “dogs of doom”, and she felt as if they were singing for her, as if they knew her.

This is a story of abandonment, one that has Leah Fern, on her 21st birthday, ready to start her own death clock. Whose absence could drive the young woman, who at six years old was know as “The Youngest and Best Fortune Teller in the World”, to long for nothing more than erase herself? Her mother, of course. Leah Fern was born in a trailer in the Alabama fields of the Blazing Calyx Carnival to Jeannie Starr, a dazzling magician, but it is Leah who is fated to be something special. Her beautiful mother tells her since she was a baby her big eyes were always looking around, as if she knew even secret things. In this place of mysteries, where her best friends are HerSweet, the Bearded Lady, and Rubberband Man, the contortionist, each day feels like a treasure. Hank, the ‘oily and baleful carnival owner’ and her mother’s lover, is the dark spot in their magical life. Young though she is, Leah knows cruelty when she sees it, and his weak charms don’t work on her. She may not know who her father is, but Hank isn’t a man anyone would dream of calling daddy. As she amazes folks with her insight peering into their future, it is her own that will puzzle and torment her.

Leah never got used to the silence that remained anytime her mother left their trailer, but she never imagined Jeannie’s vanishing would be permanent. She is left in the care of her mother’s friend, the kind, elderly Edward Murphy, who becomes a father of sorts, but it is loneliness they share waiting for Jeannie’s return. Growing up she endured pain, absorbing others’ emotions and feelings, and if it’s enchanting, it leaves her feeling wounded, out of sorts more than gifted. She does not fit the mold in South Carolina, not this carnival born empath. As she comes of age, she begins to feel like an unloved thing, more so after Edward’s death. Believing that she has no one and nothing left, everything of Edward’s goes to his kin, but it is a stranger whose death alters her future. She is shocked to discover that Essie East has left her an inheritance. Essie was an elderly downstairs neighbor, a disheveled, strong character but they didn’t really know each other well. How is it possible the peculiar old woman could make a request of her? What, exactly, awaits Leah in the cardboard box left to her? Will she act upon what Essie is telling her to do posthumously, in letters? What is in it for Leah? This puts a snag in her plan to kill herself and as she sets off, there seems to be more questions than answers about her mother and herself. All this time Essie was a spy in their midst, but why?

The trips are almost like following a treasure map, or ghosts of things past, but will it be enough to root her to the world again? Will it summon her mother? It is a tale of women, art, magic, love, longing, grief, beginnings and endings. She will learn that “we are all just carrying bits of each other” and maybe her mother can become more than a myth in her painful memories.

It’s a sad and beautiful tale, one of how hope can lift us or keep us tied in knots of anticipation. It is about feeling like you don’t belong nor matter. It’s how things can take hold of us and tear us from those who need us, even pride, but some things you cannot come back from. It’s a heavier read than I thought it would be based on the cover and blurb. Beautiful journey back to life.

Published October 4, 2022

Melville House Publishing

Starling by Sarah Jane Butler

People didn’t understand that you had to make your own life for that life to mean anything. Anything else was fake.

What is beautiful about this story is the ideal of living outside the margins of what others deem as worthy of a life. With young adult Starling fending for herself, it brings into question her deep rooted beliefs, molded very much by her mother’s ideas of how human beings should live in the world, in touch with the earth, shirking the ease and comfort of society. There is a superiority and anger that arises, a sort of us against the world mentality. Starling finds that unlike Mar, she may need people and words. Mar is famous for her silence, her inability to remain in one place for long. “Life was in the traveling, in the music, in the joining of journeys one after the other to make something whole, but never finished.” Mar’s leaving is the norm, ever since Starling was a child Mar would head off, but she left maps of where she’d be and Starling had Em (Mar’s former best friend, until a falling out), whose van she would stay in until Mar’s return. But they are alone now, without a community, and Starling is left waiting, working jobs, finding scraps to eat and puzzled over where Mar could be. Mar has always needed to feel the soil on her feet, but this time is different, is it some sort of test? Mar has never been steady with others, preferring instead to hit the road in their camper, unchained from the demands anchoring in place forces on people. The only relationship she has remained steady is with Starling, but something has changed.

Who is Starling without the force of her mother, her strength and guidance? Mar is the one who has always decided the direction their lives have taken. A life that respects the earth, leaves nary a trace, does no harm to the land, takes only what is needed, and disgusted by the destruction human beings leave in their wake. If she never returns, will Starling still be a solid person? So much of who she is has been tied into Mar’s molding but Starling loves being a woman of the earth, her mother has taught her how to live off the land, find food, get water, gather firewood. Starling isn’t a helpless child, she is more than capable, a survivor who doesn’t need much money based on Mar’s teachings. Their van is her home, always has been, but without Mar’s presence, there is a shift, and she must decide whether or not to remain alone or put her toe back in the world, a place of nothing but greed and corruption. Mar is out there, somewhere, so are people Starling was once close to, Luc and others from their tribe (family of friends).

Mar may not have always been straight with her, a woman who decides how she is going to live in the world also chooses who to cut out. There are many truths Starling will need to learn about Mar and about herself. She is free now to make her own decisions about her future, but she is terrified, overwhelmed. Will she muster enough strength to leave the van, the land they’ve been living on? What about their way of life, solitude?

I really enjoyed this, Starling is a well written character, believable in her interactions, her needs, her fears and her struggles. She gets confrontational, like most of us, her criticism of certain people is colored by past hurts, and as open to the earth as she and Mar are, when it comes to people, they can be quite closed minded, making fast judgements and assumptions. Of course, it’s not out of ugliness, but their impassioned belief system, born out of Mar’s soul. Mar, though physically absent, is solidly present in how Starling makes decisions for herself based on what Mar would do. But Mar and Starling aren’t the same person, don’t necessarily need the same things, Starling is finally forced to stand on her own two feet fully, decide her own way of life. I think, living off the land or smack dab in the middle of society, most young adults must search their souls and figure out who they are as a separate individual. Weed out what fits and give birth to what burns within them. Other people are always a challenge, with their own views and decisions, it is something that we cannot control. Mar needs her absences, but it is Starling who benefits from the distance between them. It’s a transformative experience, learning who you are without another making all the big decisions for you.

Yes, read it.

Publication Date: October 1, 2022 Available Now

Fairlight Books

The Animals by Cary Fagan

Everyone has secrets- countless secrets that are neither important nor particularly interesting. Only a very few have secrets of any consequence, and Dorn was not one of them.

Written in the tale, “The longer you stand here, investing your time, the harder it is to leave,” is an interesting statement, one that makes me imagine people as ancient, rooted trees. Change is hard, and it’s a natural thing, getting trapped in our ways. Worse, when you live in a village or town where you are well known, your character is constantly reinforced, not allowing much room for one’s evolution. We all have our roles, too, within the family structure and it doesn’t always benefit each individual. Dorn knows this reality all too well.

Dorn builds miniature scale models, his works are displayed in windows of businesses throughout his village, they are commissions he relies upon. A letter lands under his door requesting a unique commission, but it isn’t signed. It makes him uncomfortable, but the money is good. It isn’t the most peculiar event that has come his way. The “Wild Home Project” occupies the locals, urging villagers to “Bring the Wild Home”, allowing wild creatures into their residence. Dorn is perplexed, surely he loves animals, a lonely man on his own, but he cannot fathom what would drive someone to do such a thing. Wildlife that is untamed, savage at times, far too big to live alongside human beings. Disturbing incidents start to occur and the animals aren’t the only ones acting beastly. Dorn’s vile brother Vin is more than happy to remind him of what a weak, cowardly failure he is. Their aging, emotionally distant father is wrapped up in his own crazy plans, his heart much younger than his old body. It seems the people in his world have lost their marbles. Will the crazy antics light a fire in his own insecure soul and nudge him to confess his love for school teacher Raveena. Raveena is a strange bird herself, tall and charmingly disheveled. Horla, an elusive, elderly author of some notoriety, has recently published a book for children about a blinking eye. Dorn admires her work, but like her other fans, can’t explain why.

Raveena gets really angry, Dorn finds a body and he starts seeing more of a police officer, who was once a classmate, but the real crime is the things he didn’t know about the object of his affection. Why is Vin always coming out on top? Why is his own life so small and why do people act infinitely stupid? Will he ever have a chance with Raveena and is that a baby in the mouth of a fox? Sometimes a person’s world must collapse to welcome change.

This was a surprisingly fun story. There is no such thing as quiet villages and towns. There are always tensions simmering, unrequited loves, strained relationships and someone who needs to be shaken out of their dusty existence. It just doesn’t always take wolves or bears to chase you into action. Yes, read it.

Publication Date: October 4, 2022 Available Now

Book*hug Press