Conjure Women: A Novel by Afia Atakora

neww

More profit to be made in curses than in her work mixing healing tinctures. More praise to be found in revenge than in birthing babies.

Slaverytime 1854 we meet Miss May Belle, a slave woman well known for crafting curses, because as she tells it, “Hoodoo is black folks currency.”  What other power is to be found than in such things? It’s another form of hope when drowning in desperation. In a time when other slavefolk were forced to work in  the fields, or on carpentering and cooking Miss May Belle has her hoodooing and healing (for various afflictions) as well as midwifery skills. She is the one the slavefolk turn to, and sometimes the white man as well; when what ails him is a shameful thing. Her own daughter Rue comes of age at her side, learning more than healing wounds, and birthing babies. She learns first hand about true love and passion watching her parents during her father’s brief visits and the abysmal pain and suffering of its loss. She also learns about the cost of freedom and ownership. Then she witnesses the consequences conjures take on a person’s body and soul. Through her mother’s gifts and skills she is able to weave in and out of the lives of their people as well as the home of their master and his family, prosperous landowner Marse Charles.

As a playmate to his spoiled daughter Varina, Rue has more freedom than afforded girls like her and is privy to a different life. Yet Rue learns her place well, always watching from afar the life that she knows divides them. When she forgets her place her mother is sure to do the reminding. Miss May Belle may be freer than most, but she still must abide by the unspoken rules of the white-man. The master’s child Varina loves to be wild and who better to be an “accomplice to witness her rebellion” than Rue. It always turns into punishments for her alone, for her mamma Miss May Belle has eyes and ears everywhere, and an uncanny way of knowing everything her girl gets up to. In order to keep her safe and under the care of Marse Charles she must teach her everything she knows, whether Rue wants to learn or not and that includes behaving properly, and colored little girls can’t run around fancy and free like Varina.

The story goes back and forth between slavery and freedomtime, Rue’s childhood and her turn at caring for the people her own mother gives up on after a horrific tragedy. Superstitions seem to guide the people, especially when a baby is born more like a pitiful creature, something that everyone feels is more like a curse than a bundle of joy. She has birthed every child in town since the end of slaverytime, more intimately involved in all their lives than anyone. But she knows firsthand how fast praise can turn to hatred, more so when a religious man comes to town. Everyone needs someone to blame their bad luck on, it’s so much easier than looking within. When the old ways no longer save you, maybe God can, but the bible doesn’t take with Hoodoo. Love itself can be as potent as a curse, as too can harboring secrets about the people in the town and Marse Charles’ family. Someone is always scheming, there is little comfort to be had. Gossip can cost anyone their standing, especially Rue. Running away can be dangerous but so can ‘digging in’, making a stand and fighting for your small place in the world. Rue will not run, even if Bruh Abel is set on her ruin. Even if the bible marks her as evil, fallen, in need of redemption. Maybe Bruh Abel isn’t so pure either?

Fear runs rampant among the people, curses aren’t enough, and every affliction can’t be cured. The woods are not always silent nor still, they too are haunted by memories, and possibly something else. Secrets seems to go there. So many decisions Rue is forced to make to protect others, so many wrong moves and yet nothing for herself. Will it ever change? Is she forever trapped in this life rooted in whispers, secrets, gossip, grief, curses, and conjures? What will the price of freedom be for Rue? Life is a heavy weight and what comfort can be found in her mother’s words? “Fix what you’ve done. Or live with it quiet.”

There are some things that one cannot live with and everything you have done will rise up. It’s an interesting historical fiction with a taste of magical realism, people help each other but also harm one another. Rue carries many burdens and tries hard to make things right. It’s written from the perspective of slavery, rather than ownership and it lends a far more authentic experience. This is a writer to watch! For those who are into cover love, how beautiful is the book cover? As I read it, I kept thinking someone will make this into a movie. Who knows? It’s a fantastic debut!

Publication Date: April 7, 2020

Random House Publishing

 

 

 

The Girl with the Louding Voice: A Novel by Abi Daré

50214741._SX318_SY475_

But I don’t want to born anything now. How will a girl like me born childrens? Why I fill up the world with sad childrens that are not having a chance to go to school? Why make the world to be one big, sad, silent place because all the childrens not having a voice?

Adunni’s mother once told her that an education is the only way for a Nigerian girl to have a ‘louding voice’. Without an education, a woman cannot speak up for herself, will never be able to support a life of her own, nor have any say at all in what happens to her body, mind and soul. After the worst day of Adunni’s life, schooling is a long forgotten dream and all hopes die. It is after a tragic loss that her father demands Adunni be a dutiful daughter and become a third wife to a much older man, the taxi driver Morufu. This is the only way she can save her family when her father cannot afford the rent anymore, bad enough he couldn’t afford to let her continue her education, but a threat looms and he could lose the roof over their heads. As a daughter, her bride-price will be enough to pay the community rent so that her brother Kayus and father won’t be kicked out. But in forcing Adunni, only fourteen years old, to marry an old fool- he is breaking a promise to her mother. She must do as she’s told, never in a million years would she see her father and little brother homeless, hungry.

Just like that she is married off and slaving away as a third wife, hated by the first, Labake. Her welcome isn’t warm, it is a cold threat, “When I finish with you in this house, you will curse the day your mother born you…”  To first wife, Adunni is a husband snatcher, there to birth him children and try to replace her. What good is a woman if she isn’t fertile? Yet, this isn’t the worst of what Adunni will suffer through. She will do her time in Morufu’s house, where he is king to long suffering women who provide him with useless daughters. She learns fast just what it means for a man to have the devil inside of him. Obey, or there will be beatings. If she runs away, then what will that mean for her family who are now well fed? Her husband is, after-all, considered a rich man in his village- who else has two cars?

Running away isn’t necessarily the road to salvation. A girl with nothing is reliant on the kindness of strangers and too easily fooled into situations as bad as the ones she escaped from. Ignorance and youth make it impossible to navigate the brutality of those who would use it to their advantage. It is a crime to run, therefore what other choice is there than to bow your head in respect, work your fingers to the bone and endure, endure all manner of abuse, endure others taking their cut from your servitude? If the man of the house comes sniffing around, you do your best to hide. Sexual advances are the least she has to fear! Sometimes it is the women who are the biggest monsters. Take your beatings, do your duty even though it will never be good enough, even though the woman of the house will take her heartbreak out on you.

Through her suffering, Adunni also uncovers the horrible stories of the girls who have walked this exact path before her. Despite the violence, Adunni remains steadfast that she must do everything in her power to find her louding voice. This requires outwitting those who have all the power, and pushing herself despite her exhaustion, fear, and the constant reminder that she is nothing and never will be. She mustn’t believe what the others tell her, that it’s best to accept her station in life and stop her flights of fancy, imaging she could ever be more than a workhorse for others. She must remember her mothers dream for her, and use her words as a guiding light in these darkest of times.

This novel is painful because it sheds light on what is happening in other countries. Girls are trafficked and forced into modern day slavery, a female child a commodity when one can’t afford to feed their other children, especially the male children. Daughters are sold to afford a better life for everyone else, and this is modern times! We take for granted the luxury of an education at it’s most elementary level. We fear having the opportunity to send our children to college, imagine not having the money for basic schooling. In this novel, Morufu’s hunger for an heir exposes how women are always the ‘curse’, the ‘failure’. His first wife’s animosity is a matter of her being ‘not right in the head’, to Morufu’s way of thinking, yet what drove her to rage, madness? Imagine the demands, the crushing weight of the pain all three wives endure, all because of old beliefs. A devil inside of him, indeed.

There is hope for Adunni through a sisterhood bond but other girls aren’t so lucky. It’s eye opening. It is a relief to know the freedoms of the Western World and yet trafficking of human beings happens here too so I am not getting on some high horse. Village life in Nigeria for Adunni is certainly not like our modern ways and superstitions still run rampant. Sacrificing goats in the hopes of birthing a son, killed for loving someone who was forced to marry another, marrying girls to old men so they can use their burgeoning fertility and have sons… it can feel like the dark ages, yet it is reality for many. Disposable girls, buried futures… but Adunni may just find her voice!

Publication Date: February 4, 2020

Penguin Group

Dutton

 

 

 

Shuggie Bain: A Novel by Douglas Stuart

47364233

He felt something was wrong. Something inside him felt put together incorrectly. It was like they could all see it, but he was the only one who could not say what it was. It was just different, and so it was just wrong. 

Drinking and Drugs as escape during a time when people are out of work and downtrodden happens in any country. In this moving novel, Shuggie Bain comes of age during the 1980’s in Glasgow, Scotland. “Thatcher’s policies have put husbands and sons out of work”, which is bad enough but with a taxi driver father loose with infidelities and a mother sick of living a crammed existence at her parents, who gets angry ‘with littered promises of better things’ , the future doesn’t look good for their children (Catherine, Leek and Shuggie). Agnes Bain enjoys the taste of drink as much as she loves attention from men, envy from women. She wants a better life, even if it means beautifying herself while women in the same circumstances as her laugh at her, or feel insanely terrified she’ll steal their men. She had fun once, before life meant struggle, poverty. The past was full of carefree dancing but those times are over.

Born with bad teeth, she was so sure dentures would glam her smile like the movie stars in Hollywood. She is beautiful but doomed by her drinking, and her constant hunger for more.  Shug senior is nothing but a selfish animal, but something about him made her hunger for him so much she left her first marriage for him, despite him being a Protestant and she, a Catholic. A steady husband didn’t give her the thrill a woman of her beauty deserved! Ending up back at her parents is not the life she had in mind, there is nothing dazzling about a handsome husband rutting with the women he drives on the job. When he promises a fresh start, instead they land in the ‘plainest, unhappiest looking homes’. The neighbor women don’t like her nor her fancy airs. Worse, Shug senior has made other plans for himself, and off he goes, blaming it on her weakness for drink, her refusal to give it up for love of him. Her vices cost her children more than just their image within the community, there is no money to stretch, nothing to eat. She isn’t adverse to pawning even her son Leek’s work tools!

As Agnes unravels, her children feel the worst of it but none more than her youngest, Shuggie. Without proper care and supervision his belly often goes empty, his ‘otherness’ making him a target for the other kids torture before he even knows what he is. In fact, adults even understand his sexuality better than him, in one horrifying moment he loses innocence, looking for his mother. His brother and sister both have different plans to escape this hellish life. Shuggie remains steadfast in his devotion to his mother, despite her humiliations and the added abuse he gets from adults and children alike for her actions. All manner of degradation enters his life too, and poverty isn’t just an aside in this story. It is ever present and suffocating. The story begins with Shuggie in a tenement, doing all he can just to survive, to feed and house himself despite his youth. Still striving, despite life never having given him one solitary gift, blessing. Maybe this strength is one inheritance he got from his mother Agnes, who even at her lowest went on with her head held high, kept going despite all the blows she received. You should hate her, you really should, but instead you just feel immense pity.

How does a child hold his own, with a mother who is always embarrassing herself and a father who is absent, uncaring, off making other families? Not every child can cling to the sinking ship, oldest sister Catherine has her own secret life with one Donald Jnr ‘away from their disintegrating mother’. But Leek was the one who wants to disappear the most! Leek, too, has too much to bear with his real father, who also ‘disappeared’ in his own way, or was pushed away. Whose to say? Leek is too young too feel so tired, so old trying to learn at the YTS site with the hopes of making a living, when in truth it is his art that is the only thing that can make him drop his shoulders in relaxation. So tired of his drunk mother and her poor decisions. Feeling abandoned too by his sister Catherine, in her new life abroad, he has nothing, no one. He can’t stay back and care for his sloppy mother nor his little brother, he too is striving for a different life. Living with Agnes is like doing time.

It is Shuggie who is her constant companion, and as the years rush on, each time he has faith she will quit drinking she fails, the dream collapses and not even fresh love can save her. Don’t expect salvation nor happy endings, this is based in the real world, not fantasy. Struggle makes you stronger, but you don’t magically get liberated from poverty with wishes and prayers. Shuggie is a survivor, and nothing in his life is easy but he just might make a friend along the way.

A heart-wrenching read that makes your problems seem flimsy. It’s not a glimpse at poverty and addiction, it is an extended stay and beautifully written despite the miseries visited upon the characters.

Publication Date: February 21, 2020

Grove Atlantic

 

Hill Women: Finding Family and a Way Forward in the Appalachian Mountains by Cassie Chambers

49249313._SX318_SY475_.jpg

Generosity was both an insurance police and a deeply held value.

Kentucky born Cassie Chambers grew up in Owsley County, all too aware of the hard-work and struggle her grandparents and their children dealt with. Cassie parents were both still working their way through college, living in Berea but close enough to her Mother Wilma’s family when they had her. With the impossible cost of childcare, they relied on those in Owsley to care for her, and it is here that Cassie ran around ‘getting into trouble’ and playing with her many cousins. It was a second home where she was privy to stories about all her aunts and uncles. It is also where she wondered why it was so important for her granny to see her mother Wilma get a college education, when for many it was never an option.

Working on a tobacco farm (Wilma’s family didn’t own it) was backbreaking labor, more incredible was her Aunt Ruth who was the best tobacco worker in the county, better than even some of the strongest men. Rising early in the mornings to help when she stayed with her kin, she saw firsthand that it was never an easy life. Her granny was just as hardworking, even at her advanced age and despite the poverty and years of struggle, she always had her pride and an easy smile for others.  It was through spending time with her clan that Cassie’s curious nature was fed, where she learned hands on science, engineering and art. With her parents as an example, education was a goal knew she must strive for. So how did this young girl whose family tree is deeply rooted in Appalachia find the wherewithal to attend Yale and Harvard, becoming a lawyer?

Obstacles in the mountains of Kentucky can feel insurmountable when each day is a struggle just to feed one’s family. When there isn’t work to be had, when you live below government-designated poverty, when the counties haven’t developed like the rest of the country and the rest of the world has forgotten you. Where all politician’s promises fall by the wayside once they are in office, if they even notice you at all. Here, one must wrestle with leaving the support and strong bonds of family to find work, and anyone who has ever attempted such a thing without money (even with a college degree) understands it can be quite a feat. Staying can feel easier, but it is not without hardship. An education, as seen through Cassie’s rise and the opposite end, as we see with her cousin Melissa’s choices, is jarring. As Cassie reiterates, they are the same in so many ways, born from the same stock, branches on the same tree yet Melissa had drug addicted parents. Drug addiction haunts the hills, there isn’t much hope in a place that offers nothing for it’s young by way of entertainment, where health care is shaky at best, where the coal mines were never as big as in other counties and tobacco farming collapsed. This is a land where fields are left empty and yet they are a proud, strong people. Where women throughout generations help in birthing children, because there isn’t anywhere else to go and if there is how can they afford the proper, necessary care?

Outsiders see only poverty and like Cassie says, feel pity and disgust, never getting past the surface to understand why natives feel such a connection to the land, generations in their family. Through the fear she and other women in her circle feel navigating the world outside rural Appalachia, it is evident how much courage it takes to strive for more. To judge the people as ignorant is a travesty, for they have learned how to exist in the past through feeding themselves and each other growing their own food (I have a garden, it’s not easy at all and has more failure than success), have worked with the harsh elements to survive, helping birth children, and her own granny could take apart anything and put it back together for the better. Stupid? Not one bit. Lazy, pitiable? No way! By returning to lift those in need, with her education in hand, it is inspiring. Women, in this memoir, lifted each other even while they themselves had nothing. Ruth, the older sister, was selfless providing in every way she could for Cassie’s mother Wilma so that she could find a better life. This support, in turn, made Cassie’s future possible too. It warms the heart see such generosity come from people who have so little. That the rest of the world looks down upon people, like Cassie’s Papaw whose work was backbreaking and long, far harder than anything most of them have ever done, is shameful. These are folks, especially the women, who somehow manage to feed their children while working their weary hands to the bone and still feel a sense of duty to their community while keeping faith in their god by living what they preach.

This is a tribute to the women whose grit was passed down to Cassie. Rather than bemoaning their circumstances, they get things done and often in creative ways. Like Cassie said, there is no such thing as “I can’t do it.” It wasn’t easy for Cassie to work hard, to step outside the comfort of her family and assimilate into an elite place (Ivy League schools) but with the strength of her family’s blood running through her veins, she wasn’t going to give in to self-defeat, it isn’t their way.

Hill Women is a heart-felt, engaging telling of one girls rise from poverty that was only possible through the love and support of the strong, wise women before her.

Publication Date: January 7, 2020

Ballantine Books

 

Everything My Mother Taught Me by Alice Hoffman

 

48582002.jpg

I shrugged and said nothing. A woman like my mother shouldn’t have children.

Fans who follow Alice Hoffman were more over the moon to learn that she will have a book out in 2020 about Maria Owens. There is something magical about the fictional women we can’t let go of. Add that to the HBO Max pilot of a series based on her prequel to Practical Magic, The Rules of Magic following “the Aunts” Jet and Franny as well as their alluring brother Vincent in the 1960’s. But while we wait, we have a short story you can read in less than an hour. Other authors that are a part of the inheritance collection through Amazon Crossings include Julie Orringer, Anthony Marra, Jennifer Haigh and Alexander Chee.

In Everything My Mother Taught Me young Adele (named after a soap her mother Nora once bought in a fancy shop) is more like a curse to her mother than a beloved daughter. Nora is a selfish, vain woman who loves all the things that don’t belong to her, especially other women’s husbands. It is seeing the true ugliness beneath the surface of her mother’s beauty, of witnessing her shameful ways that forces Adele into silence, even things done against her own gentle father. She is ordered  by her mother, “don’t say a word” and she doesn’t, she simply stops speaking altogether. She is the sole keeper of all her mother’s lies, secrets. After her beloved father’s sad death, her mother Nora finds a job as a housekeeper at a lighthouse on an island in Essex County. With Adele in tow, Nora brings her conniving ways to the island, that could destroy more than her daughter’s future. Adele’s silence is a protective shield, and for those around her whose lurid behavior demands safekeeping, her quietude benefits their deviousness. What they take for granted is that there is power in silence and there will come a time when Adele will have to find her voice.

When a woman vanishes, it is what Adele knows that could become the key to freedom. Will Adele be brave enough to use what she knows to solve the mystery?

Not all women should have children, this is an inheritance of pain. Set in the 1900’s, children were expected to remain fiercely loyal to their parents. But what about rotten, sour mothers? What is a child, especially a young girl to do when her mother is all she has, her only means of survival? Will she discover bravery? Grit?

A coming of age under a cloud of misery, but as with many of Hoffman’s stories, women always have power if they are strong enough to find it.

Publication Date: December 19, 2019

Amazon Original Stories

 

Evie of the Deepthorn by André Babyn

 

45308132._SY475_.jpg

When I watch Evie I feel like my brain is expanding, like I am ready to be dispersed into space and to become a part of all the possibility that I see before me.

Evie of the Deepthorn is ‘a cult movie that Kent looks to for inspiration as he struggles to understand the death of his brother’. Jeff is like a living ghost, as the dead often are, and Kent sees him everywhere. Jeff is present when he closes his eyes, when he walks around the family living room ( where there are pictures of his big brother), the essence of him is always there, even if the physical is gone. His brother seems to live even in Kent’s own face, as family does, but the stark difference is that his brother is in the ground, and he is not. Death is a strange companion, particularly when your mother is still in pain, you feel like an alien in school, and you still don’t fully understand the changes in your brother, the grasping for magic, before his final departure. A video camera, a cult movie, will it lend him any clarity into his own complicated life?

Sarah’s Part: Evie of  the Deepthorn is a fantasy novel, “I needed to understand life and death because I was stuck on the book”. Never having any connection with death, how could she possibly relate to how she should feel, how characters should react? Not unlike Jeff, she too moves through the halls of her youth, at school feeling ugly, never able to figure out how to be, what to wear, how to act. Spending so much time in retreat, in her room, that it scares her mother no boys will ever want her. Her family is a sad story, but with Evie she can write a better world, Evie can save a kingdom! But for Sarah, understanding the constant tension, the hum of her mother’s anger and disappointment at her failure of a father is a pain she doesn’t realize she is accessing. Her mother’s rage festers, then explodes, aiming in the direction of the only person left in the room- Sarah. Years later, she carries the damage inside of her, the wounds of her father’s strange sadness, his exit and returning home, rummages through the remains of the past, wishing she wasn’t so ‘wrecked at 26’. She is haunted by a dark shadow, but who or what is it? Is it even real? Sarah and Kent, living parallel lives that never touched in youth… how can that be? Could they really have never been friends?

For Reza, Evie of the Deepthorn is a poem inspiring a ‘pilgrimage’, running from, trying to purge someone who has been inside of him. Picking through the past, lancing his wounds, trying to understand the real story, there he meets a woman who knows the real version of what happened so long ago. Of course, there are so many moments I got confused trying to understand where the story was going, how it would tie, where is the big Evie of the Deepthorn reveal, bursting with clarity and insight? Instead it was a tragic tale about grief, alienation, abandonment, depression and family dysfunction. It was a decent read, but I honestly am not sure I am happy about Kent and Jeff’s tale, that I feel any sort of resolution I was hoping for, or clarity. The conflicting emotions one feels returning to the place of their origins, where all the ghosts reside, the memories, the stink of the past that harbored the hopeful heart of youth, that is what stood out the most. We try so hard to leave ourselves behind, but you can’t. I am conflicted, I liked Sarah’s story but she sinks too. Then Rez’s part was too short and confusing at times. It is a tale for those on the outside of things, trying to make sense of who and what they are, for better or worse. I felt a heavy cloud reading it, waiting for some light to get in, but the sun never seemed to come out. I longed for the connection the characters were meant to have with Evie of the Deepthorn to be… well, deeper. I was invested enough to finish, because I wanted to know why and how Jeff really died, then Sarah, I wanted to see her grow up but I was left feeling I missed something. I am curious what other readers will take away from it.

Publication Date: March 3, 2020

Dundurn Press

Dead Heat by Benedek Totth (Ildikó Noémi Nagy, Translation)

45869989._SY475_ (1).jpg

As I snapped Mishy’s nose back into place, it made a huge cracking noise, then the poor bastard howled and had some kind of spasm.

Dead Heat is a wild coming of age story about teenage boys on a swim team in Hungary who also happen to spend most their days in a drunken, drugged out daze when they’re not having sex with any and every girl in their vicinity. Porn obsessed the boys see girls as nothing but ‘sluts’, there to please them. The girls themselves all too willing to ‘give it up’ any time and every which way. The boys feel invincible, as the youthful often do, able to maintain, for a time anyway, their strength for a highly competitive sport. Pushing through hardcore practices lead by their brutally hard coach, whose rage they have a gift for invoking, over time becomes harder fed by their many vices. Our narrator along with his loser pals Zoli-boy, Ducky, Buoy and Mishy are soaked in testosterone, playing violent video games, starting war with dealers,  packing heat, stealing and speeding through the streets high as kites. The rot in their bond starts when they are involved in a serious accident, forced to pretend like nothing happened. Silence is for wise men, and they better all keep their mouths shut. Top of their game, they’ve been too free to prowl the town and their parents are either too high themselves to notice anything about the boys, or oblivious.

There is so much to rage against and the boys are each numb to their existence, not even taking beatings seem to shake them awake. Criminal behavior is second nature, what else fires the blood when you’re bored more than the thrill of the getting away from authority? What makes the heart pump faster than chasing girls, chasing highs? Are they afraid of anything or just pretending not to be? Before long, their criminal acts push them into murky waters of life and death. Violence is around every corner, when one of their friends goes missing, the heat intensifies and loyalties are pushed to breaking. Who can they trust? Just how far will they go? Swim meets are nothing compared to the pressure of enemies, and soon going into hiding may be the only way for our narrator to get his head straight, to make sense of what has happened, to examine his friends, to determine which direction threats are coming from.

It’s a raw, gritty, sordid read. It is a coming of age in a time when boys feel dead inside, when culture fuels the violence, and no cage is secure enough to stop them. It’s hard to find a redeeming quality, but maybe their is a slim chance at redemption for the narrator… very slim, if he makes it out alive. These boys are the crime scene you stop and stare at on the side of the road. It’s only a matter of time before they have to wake up to reality, and it’s going to be a brutal hangover!

Publication Date: November 19, 2019

Biblioasis