What You Can See From Here: A Novel by Mariana Leky

“Love and death,” I said.

“That one’s easy, too,” the optician said. “You can’t practice for either one and you can’t escape them- both will befall you.”

“What’s befall?” I asked.

“When something bowls you over,” Selma explained.

An omen bowls over the villagers in a Western German town, the form it takes is that of an animal vision. Selma and her okapi dreams foretell death, for it has happened three times that when she has dreamed of the strange animal, death has opened its eyes and taken from them. They know that in the next twenty-four hours, someone will depart. Even if the least superstitious of them, the optician, attempts logic to shrug off this ‘loose’ connection to the dark angel, deep down he knows the reaper is only biding its time. Her ten-year-old granddaughter, Luisa, takes the premonition seriously and confides in her best friend, future weight lifting champion- Martin. Together, the two wonder who in the village will survive.

They are not backwards people who put stock in unfounded fears, and yet suddenly Luisa witnesses they unsettled energy surrounding them all. With the end snapping at their heels collectively, now is the time to ‘ward off death’, though uncertain whom it has come to call. They have seen first hand a death before, after one of Selma’s unwanted dreams, and have no intention of being chosen. Maybe if they throw their secrets to the wind, speak their truths, then death can be dodged? Some secrets are full of yearning and burn close to home. Other villagers visit Elsbeth’s shop for trinkets to ward off their unwelcome end. Who better than the person who has protection that wards off illnesses and deceased souls to help them hide from death? Sad Marlies is too bad tempered to be worried, living at the edge of the village in a cloud of negativity, visiting her is a chore for Martin and Luisa. Old before her time, she wishes death were coming for her, surely this fact makes her immune. Selma expects Luisa to behave as if it’s any other day, you can’t stop time, being afraid of her dream will accomplish nothing.

Luisa knows life is full of danger, like Martin’s cruel father, Palm. If only her busy mother could focus, listen to her woes instead of burying herself in her flower shop. Who needs to be afraid of dark things waiting to pounce on you when your Martin’s own father could snuff his lights out? At least Luisa can depend on her grandmother Selma, that her strength will put Palm in his place! She knew him before he soured, the person he once was almost sounds like a fiction to her young ears. Luisa’s own father wants them to ‘let more of the world in’ and calls her dreams “nonsense”, her mother struggles making a decision whether or not to leave him, and everything that is coming will teach Luisa about love and death.

It’s a wonderful cast of characters, there is lightness and love but it takes a turn, as life often does, into shocking grief. People come and go, out into ‘the creaking world’, desperate to escape the village not realizing the pain they cause, the beauty they leave behind but promising to come back. Luckily, Martin is always there to lift Luisa up! Unbalanced floors, drunks, hours watched by the suspicious eyes of villagers, the vastness of love, unbearable pain, regrets, illumination, and the wisdom of Buddhism. This novel encompasses life, how love and death will always invite itself in, welcome or not, and bowl us over. Nothing can be deflected, nor arranged, certainly not matters of the heart or mind. It’s the sort of tale that lingers, an unbearable ache. Beautiful and gut wrenching, yes read it!

Publication Date: June 22, 2021

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Under the Spell: A Novel by Benjamin Hedin

Jealousy, she told herself, was not something she had a right to feel. Not anymore. When Dale had died his passions died with him.

𝘜𝘯𝘥𝘦𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘚𝘱𝘦𝘭𝘭 is a novel about grief and confronting the walls death puts in place. Sandra’s husband Dale dies unexpectedly, leaving behind loose ends in business and finances that give her no choice but to sort through his email. She stumbles upon a name, Ryan Whitehurst- someone she knew nothing about. Owed an explanation, what better way to discover what their relationship entailed than to write to Ryan as if she is Dale. Let him live on, engage the young seductress. She uncovers intimacies, and soon is sharing her own with a clueless Ryan, who doesn’t know Dale no longer walks the earth. How much truth can she handle? How can she confront or rave at a dead man? What is she looking for by deceiving his other woman? Will she gain closure or open her own wounds deeper? Jealousy? Can you feel jealousy over a dead man?

As a distraction she begins helping a single mother, whom she meets by chance at Best Day, a clinic she goes to hoping to find help for her own grief vertigo. Lee takes to her and has entrusted her to care for Tina, her little girl. Before long, Sandra is ensnared by the tangled mess of their life. Despite having something besides Dale’s death and betrayal to focus on, Sandra is still having panic attacks wondering how much of their life together was true and how much was a lie. Nothing is any clearer and even with Tina she can’t stop playing make believe, pretending Dale is still alive.

She discovers there is money, but he couldn’t have planned his own death, of course not, was this guilt money, a prelude to divorce? Was he planning on leaving her, to take up with Ryan? Will she ever really know? Does Ryan have any answers? How can you deal with the pain of lies after death? As she believes, when Dale died, his passions died with him. But was Sandra ever a passion of his too?

The novel drives home the fact that love is unbalanced, that we never know for sure how those in our lives feel about us. We can only be sure of our own feelings, if even that. Does interest in another, whether acted upon or not, erase everything that we have shared with our spouse? Make our love a lie? It was an ok read, nothing riveting but it’s meant to be about grief and betrayal. I think maybe the introduction of Lee into the story was a bit of an obstacle even though I understand it was distraction from Sandra’s very solid pain. A quiet tale.

Publication Date: June 15, 2021

Northwestern University Press

Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch: A Novel by Rivka Galchen

I maintain that I am not a witch, never have been a witch, am a relative to no witches. But from very early in life, I had enemies.

Katherina Kepler was the mother of Johannes Kepler, Imperial Mathematician and one of history’s most important astronomers. Johannes discovered three major laws of planetary motion but he had many achievements, based in astrology and theology. He understood optics, light, and why eyeglasses work. Johannes is a fascinating subject to research but it is the persecution his mother faced when she was swallowed by the hysteria of witchcraft that left its mark on him. It is also the subject of this historical fiction, based on facts.

1619 Leonberg, Germany Katherina Kepler has been summoned and accused of being a witch. She doesn’t take it seriously, an old woman like her who has lived through so much, and shrugging it off is only to her detriment. In fact, it’s laughable to even imagine that she has used her dark arts to curse silly Ursula Reinbold (who Katherina calls the werewolf). Ursula, whose misfortune, very illness is laid at Katherina’s feet. Ursula, her envious enemy and a liar but it is the many “half-formed people” who are swayed by ridiculous, unreal charges. The years have been difficult, and with failing crops, illnesses, and no end to miseries people turn to superstitions. Sure, she is a gossip and a meddler, with a mean mouth maybe but a murdering witch she is not. Her own complaint against Urusla and her husband, the glazier is turned against Katherina into a criminal case.

Katerina’s forthright manner, her lack of boundaries, the herb and flower concoctions she dispenses only serve to muddy her innocence. Even her kind neighbor, an old widower, knows her to be a handful. When those who have dealings with her, neighbors, friends and foe alike, are called to give testimony even the most harmless of incidents grow into tales of bedevilment. Why, exactly, did she want her dead father’s skull dug up? When her son Hans isn’t quick to respond to a letter, hoping he will stand by her, she fears too what it will do to his place in life, his important work. I looked up Johannes and read that his life was full of sorrows during this time too.

Soon, people who did her a turn of kindness come forward, brimming with resentment. Locals are suddenly remembering wild behavior, and fury, lack of humility in their interactions with her. Each has their own “come to think of it” moments, that make her suspect. How can anyone defend such marks against their character? Character assassination grows into a beast, and suddenly she is to blame for every terrible thing that has ever happened, regardless of how insignificant. All the bad luck is due to a witch in their midst. Katherina is brazen, one who doesn’t shrink into herself, always an unwelcome attribute in a woman, especially in 1619. Too bold, too meddlesome, asking for it- punishment. We get an earful of why she is guilty and the truth, as she tells it, of her innocence. One thing that stuck with me, much like news and gossip, all you need to do is bend one ear to your way of thinking to start a fire in someone’s life, to burn them at the stake. That it is based on a real person is horrifying, it’s so easy to ruin another and the law, in those times as in modern ones, certainly weren’t running on logic. Can you challenge stupidity, when it’s current state of affairs? A solid, historical fiction. Intelligently written and well researched.

Publication Date: June 8, 2021

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Like Wind Against Rock: A Novel by Nancy Kim

“It’s not that I want you to suffer forever. I just want you to mourn, for a little while. You don’t even seem to miss Appa.”

Alice Chang never imagined herself living with her widowed, Korean mother “Ahma” at the age of thirty-nine. Alice’s husband Louis has filed for divorce, the apartment she has been living in during their separation is no longer an option, now that the landlord is converting them into a condominium and she never told her parents they were living apart. She and Louis will not be reunited, it really is over, despite her wishes for the contrary. When her Ahma offers her the chance to save money by living with her “for a bit”, she accepts, and has to tell her mom she hasn’t been living with Lois. It’s just a necessary yet small lie, telling Ahma that they are just ‘taking a break’. As a bookkeeper, Alice isn’t swimming in money, there isn’t any other option that is good for her meager budget. Still, sharing a home with Ahma, watching her rebirth is a shock to Alice’s system. On the heels of her father’s unexpected death, she is stunned by her mother’s ‘transformation’ from devoted housewife to a sexy single, and one who is suddenly speaking English all the time, moving up in real estate work. She has come into her own in a big way! Being the widow of a dentist she certainly doesn’t need the money, and why the rush with dating? The cherry on top, her sixty-two year old mother is dating much younger men! Didn’t she love Appa, Alice’s father? Weren’t they happy? Where are the tears? Worse, she seems to want to clean out every trace of him. When she is asked to dispose of her father’s things, Alice keeps his notebook written in Korean, desperate to translate it yet fearful of handing private thoughts over to a stranger. For now, she keeps it hidden from her mother, who is sure if he had something to tell, he would have told his daughter in life. Living in her old bedroom, hiding things, she feels she is regressing. Her mother is like a rising sun, full of energy, happiness and light. Why dos this sting Alice so?

If only Alice could know how her father felt, surely he loved his daughter? His little family of three? Her mother is blooming while she is flailing after her long marriage and trying to come to terms with her emotionally distant father’s death. He was solid, dependable, a good man if not demonstrative and as involved as her Ahma. Troubled that her mother seems to be on a quest to “catch up on the life she missed”, when she seemed happy enough, even if she was the one always showing the affection, could it be there are pieces missing in her family story? Victor, a man she works for, is translating her father’s notebook, but there are dangerous secrets and burning regrets that can only hurt Alice and her mother. They aren’t the only ones. Appa’s reserve hid a lot about his internal struggles, the painful choices that haunted his heart and kept his marriage distant and cold. Is Alice ready to unearth the truth? One thing is certain, her mother is a person too, one that longed for more than pleasing her husband and mothering her beloved daughter.

It’s a complex family tale, one that exposes the traps of marriage and the shame of yearning as well as the limit of choices. Cultural expectations, young hearts, and the hope for those who have a second chance at a different life. Alice has to see her parents and their marriage with adult eyes, a transition that isn’t easy when marred by regrets. Where does she fit in all of this? How can she move forward now and let go of the plans she made with Lois? What does her late father’s words have to do with her own future? Engaging and moving.

Publication Date: June 1, 2021 Out Now

Lake Union Publishing

The Book of Katerina by Auguste Corteau

I’ve no idea how it is to lose your mind, but never in my life have I feared anything more: the mere thought, the energetic verb to go insane is worse than death and to die, its black vortex more horrifying than nonexistence.

This isn’t a happy book, in fact the generations of the family living in the Greek city of Thessaloniki have suffered through serious miseries, to which there seems no end. Katerina may not endear many readers, but if you are paying close attention, every incident in her life (much of it tragic, despite her social standing) has led to her disturbing, sad end. In fact, none of her siblings really escape the viciousness of their fate, their family malady. The tale does jump about, and usually choppy writing and such timelines drive me nuts, but it relays to me, in a sense, the state of Katerina’s troubled mind. She never makes you feel sorry for her and for some reason that made the character study far more riveting. Is the family genetics to blame for the mental health issues, the environment, the neglect, the family pecking order? More like a disorder.

There are many truths silenced within this family, even before Katerina is born. Her grandmother was Jewish, but that ‘shame’ had to be disguised, hence her name was changed. She had three children, all girls. The eldest Irene “Irini” is Katerina’s weak and self-indulgent mother. With her first child, a son, born with a condition that didn’t make itself known until he was five, one that wasn’t diagnosed correctly back in those times, he is sent to a children’s institution- one she never visits, as there are other children that follow. He is the first defect, but he won’t be the last. How can a woman who clings to the exquisiteness of her youth, the former grandeur, the social privilege bear the stigma of a defective child? Are the times to blame for such rejection? The second may be challenged in other ways, but she will have her favorites. More offspring follow, some die, some are born with their own stigmas while youngest, Katerina is the “accident” and the jealous sister before her makes life hell. But who is the real devil? Irini cannot cope raising her brood, and brings her niece Zoë into the household, an angel, a source of never-ending love and the only mothering the children will know. A protector and an unlikely one whose own unfortunate origins should be reason enough to be as maladjusted as the family she becomes a part of, Zoë is like a saint but has her own irrational fears. Irini can be brutal when facing her children’s weaknesses, her reaction when Katerina suffers a mental disturbance is to shut up, keep it to yourself, likely out of fear and half out of shame. This is a defining moment, one that makes the monster in Katerina’s mind grow far bigger, chaining itself to her future. Despite life going against all her wishes, Katerina’s mother has high ambitions. Even if fate deals her cross eyed children and a lackluster love life. A life without romance can always be filled by cheap junk.

Katerina and her siblings want for nothing but it cannot save the Horianos from ruin, which will follow them into adulthood. Even a cousin is wrecked by the ravings of the family, born to a beautiful mother and fated to be plain. Back we go into Katerina’s past, learning all the distorted happenings. A mother who cries behind closed doors, unable to attend to her parental duties, what sort of mark does this leave on Katerina, what sort of mother does she herself become? Madness is always nesting in this family. What is to be done with frayed nerves, mental torment? The church has an answer, beg Jesus for mercy. It doesn’t help. Neither does her last resort, a medical doctor, who violates her. This violation forges Katerina’s distrust of the very people who should be helping her manage her bipolar disorder. Is it this unforgiveable act that set the stage for her final scene so many years later?

Ill advised love, miscarriages, marriage, political upheaval, pregnancy and an earthquake… then Katerina’s beloved son, the child she carries to term, Petros, is born. He is the light in the darkness of her depressions, even able to transfix his mean grandfather. The old man’s heart is hooked, earning Petros adoration, allowing the dark episodes of Katerina’s life to subside for a time. Hypersensitivity arises, breakdowns occur, she becomes a suspicious, jealous wife and at times an inept mother. Her love is diseased and she fears her son may be a lover of goats and that’s a whole other tale. Her rough edges are never smoothed, she has spent her life dealing with the horrors of others and the horrors in her own mind. She has many faults and confronts them all. She is a force until the very end, and this book will tear her apart from the moment she gives birth to her son until he finds her body on sad display.

Her brain turned against her and she was tired of fighting. Here, her beloved son speaks for his mother, in a retelling of her life and intimate thoughts. Katerina was a product of her time clinging to old fashioned views, but that’s how people were, blunt, callous, narrow minded about different lifestyles and choices. She isn’t always likeable, certainly her own parents aren’t either, knowing they sent a child away to an institution. Mental illness is not new and if you consider today’s treatment, you can see how impossible getting things right had to have been then. She is arrogant and yet deeply insecure and damaged. How can her son not be affected by her clinical depression? Maybe not for every reader but I was engaged and moved, thinking of the reasons the author must have decided to write about his mother. Maybe by bringing her to life he can put her to rest.

Publication Date: June 1, 2021

Parthian Books

House of Sticks: A Memoir by Ly Tran

We arrive in the blizzard of 1993, coming from rice paddies, mango trees, and the sun to February in the Empire State.

Ly Tran has written an incredibly moving memoir about her family’s move from war-torn Vietnam to a neighborhood in Queens, New York. The sickness from turbulence and three weeks of travel they endured was a precursor to the culture shock of their new lives in America. At three years old, Ly Tran was “vaguely conscious of the world around me”. As the youngest of four children, her memories of the journey and her homeland are fragmented, gaps filled in by her parents and older siblings alongside flashes of feelings. For her, adjusting to their new reality is easier, the past soon fading. In time, she is torn between two cultures, two worlds. Her family lived along the Mekong river, one can imagine the alien feeling, the rupture of leaving nature and all it’s glorious colors, rhythms for the hustle and bustle of a gritty, gray, American city. Before they are even settled, the family is in debt to their sponsor. With a language barrier alone, despite being a former lieutenant in the South Vietnamese army (and a POW for a decade), jobs that can support their family of six aren’t easy to attain. To ‘make ends meet’, Ly and her siblings help their parents with sewing, forming their own little production line on the living room floor of their two-bedroom railroad apartment. Unlike other American children, there isn’t time for play, delicious candy and tv binging. In the Buddhist tradition, one honors parents and family above all else, but as the years pass and Ly struggles at school, honoring thy father isn’t such an easy faith to follow.

Grateful for their place in this new world, though awake to harsh realities, Ly’s parents cling to their faith and work ethics. They know they will be okay, despite the mountains of obstacles before them. Life tests them, people deceive, take advantage, threaten. Carrying fear in his heart from the horrors he left behind, Ly’s father doesn’t want to make waves, stand out. The children come up with American names for each other, proudly, but is that enough to make roots in this new land? Their father’s fears manifest in strange behaviors and irrational decisions exacerbating Ly’s school struggles. Worse, her parents demands that, like her brothers before her, she leave behind a legacy of academic excellence make her feel anxious. It is not so easy when socially awkward, and struggling with vision issues! When she speaks her truth, that she cannot see well enough in school to learn math, her father’s reaction isn’t the fatherly wisdom she was hoping for. Maybe she really is just stupid, maybe glasses are a government conspiracy, but his truth clashes with her own reality. Despite his rants, she cannot see, it’s a stubborn fact one cannot ignore and here she is meant to swallow her truth. This is just one of many impenetrable walls she will face within her family.

Nothing beats elevating one’s place in life, no matter the hours of toil it takes. Why else did her parents bring their children to this country, if not to earn a full education, the only ladder to that high place in life? But in this land of dreams, for girls, sometimes there are violations. When one learns to endure, sometimes they learn to submit when they should fight. Watching her mother humiliated when working as a manicurist at a Brooklyn salon puts a bitter seed in Ly’s soul. Ly often works beside her, and yet this becomes just another place her mother refuses to stand up for herself, just like in the family home when facing Ly’s irrational father. Love and resentment, her father’s overbearing will makes home hell. Things get worse when a helpful teacher gets involved, threatening their House of Sticks.

Ly’s coming of age is an intimate look at trying to fit in while trapped between two cultures. Her guilt for feeling ashamed and perplexed by her odd father. Feeling abandoned by her larger than life brothers, her mother’s acceptance of the ugly world both infuriating and confusing. Confusing because she longs to protect her. Wanting to just be a normal American girl, not feeling like a failure who can’t live up to her father’s expectations. It is an intimate window into loyalty, faith, family and the inheritance the brutality of war leaves for the next generation. It takes years for Ly to come to terms with her father’s fragility, to understand why her mother more often than not sides with her husband, despite the cost. Becoming American doesn’t erase her father’s years of suffering, imprisonment, labor, indoctrination while forced into a “re-education camp”. From a place of freedom, how can Ly fully comprehend everything her mother and father had been through, had given up to provide their children with a better future? In turn, how can they understand the weight their daughter carries in her heart searching for a place for herself, trying to feel like an American with the traditions of the culture they left behind shadowing her every move? A place where she is a dutiful daughter but also a free person, able to use her voice, speak her truth and create a future that feels right for her?

There are funny moments and harsh ones. It is a heavy duty, one’s heritage. Can she honor the past, and yet build her own future, free of the hooks of familial expectations? An emotional journey and a beautiful memoir. Add it to your summer reading list!

Publication Date: June 1, 2021


The Atmospherians: A Novel by Alex McElroy

Absolution has to be earned. I treated the phrase like a mantra.

Sasha Marcus is a victim of cancel culture, after a horrifying incident, leaving the former “internet sensation, social media sweetheart and the face of Abandon” (a skin care and wellness regime), forced into taking a job at a fusion restaurant to ‘cushion the blow’ from the fall out. There is nowhere to hide, though, from the raging, men’s rights protestors shouting outside her apartment, causing even more conflict in her life. Everyone has turned on her, believing Lucas Devry, whose act has spoken brutally and violently loud. With her future hanging by a thread, she turns to her old friend Dyson- who comes to the rescue just when she lost hope and thought that he, too, had turned away from her.

Dyson, the man who shared their moody teenage years in a solidarity of suffering. Dyson was once a chubby boy whose self-debasement made his ‘fat boy body’ less of a target. Laugh with them and you’re ahead of the cruel game. It is Sasha who was privy to his real world, the toxicity of a father who can’t seem to stomach a ‘soft bellied’ son. Body issues have followed him like a mean shadow into adulthood, and could well be the seed for birthing a cult. With his acting career built mostly on commercials and background roles, and the brief stroke of inexplicable success in small appearances having eventually dried up, he has an idea burning within his brain that may save them both! This, this is going to be more than just a new passion! Dyson is going to open a rehabilitation community for men, having inherited land through his father’s parents. A secluded place that was once intended as a summer camp, can easily house clients. It is perfect for his plan, here twelve men will detox from society, be handled with love and care and finally escape the world that has deeply damaged them with it’s demands and hard luck. Angry, emotionally stunted men that can be rehabilitated before they alienate their family and the rest of the world. Away from the rage triggers, they can learn to love, thrive in structure, learning to be tender human beings. He is invested in society’s men, and she can help him!

With “man hordes” taking over the country, this is a cause that may help her star rise again, but how will she handle being surrounded by men as toxic as the protestors who have been stalking her? Dyson isn’t without fault himself, despite his passion, he too can be manipulative, a trait she blames herself for. But there is nothing to be done, there is no other life waiting for her beyond this chance, which may well be her last. What follows is a provocative, intelligent story. Who really knows how absolution is earned and more importantly, who gets to decide the people that deserve it? Is masculinity a ship to be steered? Is Sasha a victim or a bully herself? Many lines are crossed in looking for salvation. What is pain for men? How do they process it, what does it mean to be tough? Are women, like Sasha, as tender and fair minded as she thinks? Does she ever empower herself at the expense of a man? What could the world be like without masculinity? Isn’t ambition, too, a toxic thing? Should anyone attempt to refine another? How much control does it require, and what must those seeking rehabilitation sacrifice?

This is artful manipulation, and it is a novel with interactions that are agonizing in many respects. Provocative, engaging with parts comedy and horror, at least in my mind. What a unique read! This could kick of some interesting conversations.

Publication Date: May 18, 2021

Atria Books

Tears of Amber: A Novel by Sofia Segovia, Translated by Simon Bruni

She was tired of wanting the madness to end; tired of life in a country that could feel so much repulsion for a human being, for a child, for her child. She was exhausted from so much fear of the war- fear of losing it, fear of winning it. She knew that her little family wouldn’t win under any circumstances.

War, all of it’s horror stories, full of so many sides of the same coin, where despite the repulsion and evil deeds there is sometimes goodness. Goodness is easy when it doesn’t cost us yet it’s hard to find in darkness. When we must protect our family, it’s shocking what people are capable of. This novel is about two families uprooted by war and everyone they meet on their path. Children are forced to join the effort on the front, or if too young than to remain ever watchful in their homes, or if a captured enemy, then to serve your captor as a prisoner of war. Segovia isn’t concerned about victors, because in this novel everyone loses, there are no winners just people who crawl out of the rubble half human, if they are ‘lucky’ (that word like a razor blade in the mouth). Despite what we imagine, the movies we watch, the fictional and non-fictional books we read, even the experiences our own family members share, we will never be able to comprehend what survivors endured. Your own people becoming enemies, a war that grew into a monster that went out of control devouring everyone. Separation, starvation, betrayal, death and people who have no choice. One thing spectators of the past like to do is shout how they would be brave, how they would never go along with things, they would be giants but in reality, non-compliance and rebellion was met with death or something worse- because yes, there is always something worse.

The Hahlbrock family have already survived the devastation of war, now the Führer has provided a life of order, food and a promise for a great future. When their youngest, Isle, is born they cannot imagine their Führer’s grand ambitions, nor what he has planned for his people and the rest of the world. Their darkest days are not behind them after all. The Schipper family’s youngest son, Arno, is celebrating his third birthday on the streets of Königsberg. It is this historic day, on the shoulders of his father, that Arno watches amongst a sea of people as red flags wave, slogans echo in the air, and heavy military vehicles pass in a parade of power. As a swell of voices chanting, “Heil Hitler!” dance in his head, it feels like confusion and when Hitler speaks through a loud speaker, Arno is too young to understand any of it, but it will change his entire live. Both Isle and Arno will be robbed of their childhood. As war approaches, school will drive home dangerous ideas, frightening parents, but one must keep their mouth shut and remain steadfast to the cause. Neighbors can’t be trusted, nor can soldiers. Fathers and sons are forced to either maintain their farms to feed the soldiers or join the war. When East Prussia starts to fall, Isle and her family are forced to flee. Januz, a forced laborer on her family’s farm (prisoner for all intents and purposes), dazzles young Isle with ‘tales of a besieged kingdom in the Baltic Sea from which spill the amber tears of a heartbroken queen.” Loyal to the Hahlbrock family, to the disgust of his fellow laborers, it is his mother’s stories that he uses to keep hope alive in the child’s beating heart. Something about Isle reminds him of someone he has lost, and for the first time, he feels cared for in a strange way, not much minding the hard work, now that he is no longer in danger of the wolves in the cold forest. But wolves are everywhere, and you can never trust anyone. Even when they must flee the Soviet Army, he remains steadfast, refusing to leave Isle, her mother and siblings to fend for themselves, even at his own detriment. Januz is my favorite character, and my heart was ripped out for it. As they escape, more than tears will be spilled.

Arno and his mother are going through their own dark winter of the soul, hiding in the ruins of a Königsberg mansion, with bombs falling around them, so much death from one day to the next, soon living like rats cowering in the shadows and rubble from the enemy. Neither knowing what happened to Arno’s father, or his siblings, afraid that maybe they were abandoned. His mother is losing faith and hope, weakened by her illness, unable to see the light at the end of this hell they now find themselves in. Tyrants and liberators are one in the same. Memories feel like nothing but fading lies, reality is distorted. Forced to give up their land, their very roots, each other… how is anyone to survive when bound to nothing, when loved ones are reduced to ash? Does it matter what side is winning when the world is decimated? Every character suffers invasion, and must do what they are ordered to do, so long as they have breath left within them. They must be grateful for another day, for crumbs. The war continues and they must give everything they have, including the lives of their sons and daughters. Some use stories to escape the scorched earth, but all stories must come to an end. The wind will change direction many times, and it is with a gift of an amber teardrop that will provide a future for Arno and Isle when their stories converge.

This is a painful read for every stage of life. Beautifully written despite the horrors because of the character Januz’s presence. He is able to warm the coldest heart. Yes read it!

Published May 1, 2021

Amazon Crossing

A Dark and Secret Place: A Novel by Jen Williams

All those monsters in the wood never really went away, not for me.

When Heather Evans returns home after the shocking suicide of her mother (Colleen), all the uncomfortable feelings of their shared past, of the distance between them, comes to the surface. Remembering the simmering anger she felt as a child, the house a too quiet, cold place with memories better left forgotten, her nerves are on edge thinking of her mother’s disturbing end. The eerie mention of monsters in the wood in Colleen’s suicide note could be chalked up to derangement if she didn’t know her sensible mother better. When she stumbles upon quiet, respectable Colleen’s secret stash of letters, she is sick in her gut to discover a secret her mother kept tightly sealed. She had been corresponding with the “Red Wolf”, infamous serial killer Michael Reave, whose decades of imprisonment for brutal, ritualistic murders of women is nothing short of gruesome, terrifying. When a young woman is found dismembered, her body arranged just like the “Red Wolf” disposed of a victim decades past, his outcries of his innocence begs to be heard.

How could her ‘well-to-do’ mother have been keeping such a secret, even while married to Heather’s father? The letters dating back twenty five years reveal more than any stories her mother ever shared, as she was never one for reminiscing. Why does the fact that in all the years Colleen wrote to the monster she never even mentioned Heather feel like a personal jab? There are strange things her mother wrote in her final farewell and Michael’s letters are like a bloody trail of crumbs leading Heather on a dangerous path to her mother’s poisonous past. The only way to attempt to understand this mystery is to confront the “Red Wolf”, despite the horror she feels knowing that her mother could have been one of those ridiculous serial killer groupies. With the help of the police, DI Ben Parker in particular, she comes to learn Colleen was Michael Reave’s only friend and that suddenly the police are open to her meeting with him. The “Red Wolf” will only talk to her, and maybe the police can find some information through Heather about these the grisly, copycat murders. In meeting Reaves, Heather will discover a tale of a family “everyone whispers about”.

What, if anything, did Michael have to do with her mother’s suicide? What does he know about Colleen’s past on the ‘hippy’ commune? Who or what are the monsters in the wood, and are they watching Heather now too? Why does she suddenly have a creeping feeling of impending doom? Is her own life now in danger? Straight away he tells her “Everyone has secrets, Lass”, but she is buried in the weight of the life her mother had before she was born. Colleen made choices, choices that were both her ruin and salvation. Michael Reave’s memories are like riddles or dark fairy tales, can Heather untangle the past through him or will he muddy the facts more? It all goes back to 1977 and a place called Fiddler’s Mill.

Violence is waiting, pulsing in the dark, Parker tells her their priority is her safety but how can you keep a woman safe from the monsters of truth? The knowledge her mother kept bundled up, that appears to have driven her to the desperate act of suicide, may well strip Heather of her very identity. Heather must enter the dark and secret place where the horror was born.

The novel is a slow read at times, although there is a lot happening. My one wish was for more time spent on Colleen in the past as well as raising Heather in the aftermath, what went through her mind, her inner turmoil. It would have been a lot more engaging with more connections to the characters emotionally but it’s still a decent storyline. I could see this turned into a movie.

Publication Date: June 8, 2021

Crooked Lane Books

Attachments: A Novel by Jeff Arch

Like everything else. Sudden or slow, ready or not. Everything ends.

Everything ends, but endings can also be the beginning for new stories or a catalyst for unfinished ones. When the Dean of a boarding school in Pennsylvania is clinging to life, he says two names, those of his former students- Piccolo (Sandy “Pick” Piccolo), and Goodman (Stewart “Goody” Goodman). To his perplexed son Chip, the association between his father and these men, one a local and the other a mystery, is lost on him. He wonders, how two men who haven’t been in his father’s life for decades could now, as grown adults, find his father so important that they would ‘jump out of their lives just because he asked.” It’s a complicated story, one that is full of secrets, betrayals and promises that not even Pick nor Goodman are fully aware of.

In 1972 Pick and Goody become unlikely best friends when they meet at boarding school in Pennsylvania. It also where they both fall in complete and total love with Laura Appleby, who is destined to come between them. The dean has been a strong presence in many students lives, but it is these three who have altered his own future. Laura decides she too will make her way to Mr. Griffin’s deathbed, unsure what it means for her own marriage. When they are all once again together, they will finally face the pain they caused each other and question the cost. Intentions, passion, regrets, it is about the secrets we keep, the paths we chose and what we destroy in the process. It is how we are present and how we disappear when those most precious to us are in need. Each carries the weight of life, for some it is lies of omission, and with sealed lips life goes on until silence becomes transgression. Henry has brought them together, it is time to confront the mountain of time between them to get at the heart of everything that happened.

Henry’s son Chip, at eighteen, is already feeling crushed by the burdensome ache of first love. Now with his father in a hospital barely alive, this new mystery has become a thread, one that if pulled may unravel what he thought he knew about his own dad. Worse, there are things Henry kept from Chip about himself. How does Laura, Goody and Pick fit into his story? How will Chip’s own broken heart help him understand the choices of veritable strangers or teach him about forgiveness and love? Each character’s voice speaks to the reader, getting to the heart of why they did the things they did, as best they themselves can understand. Laura, Pick and Goody’s turmoil about what occurred while they were young has never left them, and without unpacking those feelings openly it has grown into wounds. The tale asks us how we confront possibilities and if we chose to wreck what we have, are we happier in the end? Can there be second chances? Can we be forgiven our youthful mistakes, often made in fear or without malice, ill intent? How do we bridge time? Are we punished for our decisions? The story dips its toes in both past and present, because one cannot exist without the other. These are all the steps that have led them all to a dying man’s bedside.

It was a decent read. Who doesn’t reach a certain age and wonder how things could have been different or regretted the hurt they’ve caused? Secrets grow into beasts out of our control, a sort of snapping animal on a very short chain and you can’t ignore it forever. A tale about endings that have to happen in order for the birth of something new, even if it hurts everyone in the process.

Publication Date: May 11, 2021