Days of the Dead by Kersten Hamilton

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Papi held me tight and told me Mamá’s depression was a sickness. We aren’t ashamed when people die of cancer or pneumonia. We can talk about it and cry. He said mamá had been too sick to understand how much her leaving would hurt us.

It’s been a while since I’ve read children’s books, as my son and daughter are adults now, but sometimes I see books that grab my attention. In Days of the Dead, Glorieta Espinosa is trying her best to move on from her mother’s suicide even accepting her father’s marriage to a white Texan woman, Alice. That doesn’t mean she has to accept Alice’s nightmare of a daughter, Lilith. Since she’s stormed into her life, she’s done nothing but rip off her friends and spread her cruelty. Angus, her new step-brother isn’t so bad, even if he sometimes thinks he is a truck. When she isn’t dodging Lilith’s twisted games, Glorieta is devising plans to convince her Tía Diosonita (the town patron) to allow her mother’s ashes to be buried with the rest of her family.

Tía Diosonita is a strict Catholic, she refuses to see the souls of her ancestors, their people, be stained with a suicide in their midst even if she loved Glorieta’s mother as her own. Glorieta doesn’t have a chance to see her mother’s spirit during los Días de los Muertos if she is kept out of the cemetery. Her mother will have no company in the afterlife, no chance to reunite when it’s Glorieta’s time to die. Tía Diosonita won’t even talk about her mother! Could there be things she doesn’t know, shame her own Tía carries with her about what happened to her mother?

How can she convince her Tía of anything when poisonous hatred is collecting in her own heart, soul? She wants nothing more than to see her tormentor, step-sister Lilith get her just deserts! After an incident with immigration officers she is traumatized, then raging but she must keep her word as an Espinosa to never reveal Lilith’s true nature, having struck a deal. That all changes when Glorieta goes above her Tía Diosonita, which feels like an unforgivable betrayal, a sin! Accident or not, it’s caused a crack in her family, one she isn’t sure she can ever mend. She feels cast out, as doomed as those in Fool’s Field, where the dead were too sinful in life to sleep (be buried) in consecrated ground.

This is when Glorieta will be tested, and discover if she is weak or strong.

This was a wonderful story about love, compassion, tradition and immigration. It would be perfect for 6 grade and up.

Available Now

Skyhorse Publishing

 

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The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish: A Novel by Katya Apekina

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Yes, mom dragged me with her to every terrible place.I needed to get as far from her as I could. She was consuming me. That day she tried to hang herself from the rafter in the kitchen, I’d been lying on the bedroom floor. My mind was a radio tuned to her station and her misery paralyzed me.

In this gorgeous debut, sisters 16-year-old Edie and 14-year-old Mae’s lives are upended when their mother Marianne is admitted to St. Vincent’s (mental hospital) to ‘rest’ after an attempted suicide. The girls are forced to live with their estranged father Dennis (a literary success) in New York, a man who thinks he can just pick up in the middle of the story and become beloved ‘daddy’. Edie wants to go back to their old life in Louisiana, to her boyfriend, her school committees, her mother. It’s no surprise she was the one who found her mother hanging that day as she has been the one taking care of Marianne for years, through her stony silences and strange episodes. Edie doesn’t trust Dennis, feels it’s a betrayal to even be living with him when their mother needs them so badly. Mae felt swallowed up by Marianne, fearful she is too much like her damaged mother. Mae doesn’t have romantized thoughts about her mother’s illness, it has always scared her. Now that she is free of her, able to finally be herself, she doesn’t want her mother back. With Dennis’ eyes watching their every move, which irritates Edie feeling like they are just ‘new material’, Mae feels being the center of his world is intoxicating. Edie is loyal to Marianne, Mae has shifted alliances to Dennis’ side. So begins the unraveling of the sister’s bond.

It’s meant to be temporary, but time stretches and Marianne isn’t getting better, Mae is under Dennis spell but Edie won’t let herself fall, despite her desire for the comfort it would bring. It’s too late for her, where was he all this time anyway? Busy with his women, not one thought for his ‘beautiful, beautiful girls’ who now have his rapt attention. Are they just a story brewing for him, serving as inspiration as their once  beautiful, fragile mother was in her youth? There is a story there, Marianne as muse, was she the abuser, or the abused?

The reader is witness to the blossoming of forbidden love between Dennis and Marianne, the civil rights movement, and dangerous obsession. With insight from Rose, Dennis’ sister, we are forced to wonder who is to blame for the fractured family. Fatherly love takes a dangerous turn as Mae never wants to go back to that life with her mother, never again wants to be suffocated by her mother’s madness. Yet the further she tries to step away from Marianne, into a new self, the more she becomes her.

Edith is too angry, too perceptive to put her faith in Dennis. In fact, she is downright disgusted with his writing, with his seduction of her young mother so long ago. There is  a line spoken by another character in the novel that expresses the emotional storms within, “It’s hard sometimes, ” she said, “to know where you end and others begin.” You can feel the ground shaking before it opens, know you are being led somewhere you hoped they would never go. Much like the photographs Mae takes, it’s an eerie exposure of the wildly different beliefs we have about our shared experiences. Both sisters are in denial about their mother and father. If Mae hitches her wagon to her father with fat dreams and madness, Edie holds just as much false optimism for her mother’s recovery. Like a needy kitten, love gets twisted for Mae and there is a point of no return. Edie runs to destruction as much as Mae does, they just take different paths to reach the end. There is no mistake that Marianne has been a destructive influence on Mae, who looks so much like her but Dennis… Dennis is a catalyst.

To say more, would ruin the novel. I loved it, Apekina writes beautifully about a very ugly subject.The title alone, isn’t it the best, had me itching to read it. I can’t wait for her next novel, writing about family dysfunction isn’t easy, and taboo subjects if done poorly can repulse readers but it all added up here. I don’t think Marianne is alone in her wounded bird fragility, she got some help toward self-destruction in the form of Dennis and that’s all I have to say about that. Yes, read it! I still have the taste of ash in my mouth.

Publication Date: September 18, 2018

Two Dollar Radio

 

Ponti: A Novel by Sharlene Teo

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The distance between where she was and the glossy point where she wanted to be stretched and stretched. 

In Ponti, Szu lives in the shadow of her mother Amisa’s otherworldly beauty and small diminished fame. ” I marvel for a split second at the unfairness of genetics, mysterious spirlas of DNA coiling and cohering into life sentences: You will be plain. You will be beautiful. You will repulse mosquitoes. You will have an iron gut. You will be sickened by crabmeat.” Amisa’s career never took off with the promise her beauty once held. Having left her small village for bigger things, she works hard and falls in love with Wei Loong, they marry and she works full-time at the Paradise Theater until she is discovered by filmaker “visionary” Iskander Wiryanto. She has the perfect beauty, like a mask, exactly who he desires to play the Pontianak (folklore, a ghost of a woman who dies in childbirth and preys on men, in the form of pale beauty, long dark hair) in his films. We follow Amisa through the making of the film, witness to the ‘bloom of her ego’ even in the face of grief for her losses back home. Playing the Ponti takes it’s toll on her, the filmaker difficult, pushing her harder than she can stomach, not as enraptured by her sexually as all men are. Three films in, and her shining star dims, the movie becomes a cult classic, but of the times no one is interested in superstitions nor films about ghosts. The parts dry up, Wiryanto no longer needs his beautiful ghost and life with Wei Loong leads to just another part, of poor housewife. It isn’t long before she is pregnant with Szu, and feeling dreadfully close to her own mother and the life she trudged through. Amisa is more like a ponti now than a starlet. Wei Loong leaves before Szu turns 8, and then it is three, Szu, Amisa and Auntie Yunxi.

Aunt Yunxi and Amisa earn their living as fakes, mediums who ‘trade in hope’, milking the desperation of their clients. It’s necessary to con people for their survival, what with her tragic mother more a ghost of a woman, sleeping away her life. Szu is a misfit and completely friendless, until she befriends Circe. The two of them ‘citizens of nowhere’, feel unique, bonding over their discontent with the world. For Circe, the allure is Szu’s mother and mysterious aunt, even in their ugly home, there is a pull. Jump ahead to 2020, Circe’s team is going to be working on promotions for the new re-make of Ponti, hence “it feels like a can of Amisa-shaped worms has been opened.” The reader is dragged through time, guest to each character’s perspective. Szu, once seeming so bitter, strong, solid begins to fade, retreat into herself.  Something many female relationships wrestle with is the discomfort of familiarity, seeing too much of yourself in another. Sharlene Teo exposes this uncomfortable bond perfectly, there is a pull and push between Circe and Szu, a sort of marriage. They feel warm and cold toward each other, until Circe can’t stomach Szu, when Szu needs to be anchored most to the here and now! “She started wearing her hair in a bubble ponytail just like mine and mooched  about my house all day drinking gallons of diet coke and draping her sadness over my things.” It’s too much heavy sadness, Szu is dwindling, and she isn’t going down with her!  Circe wants to be young, fun, free and this friendship is suffocating, she needs to shake her off, shake off this stale depressive air. Circe of the present day isn’t sure she wants that Szu back in her life, and is surprised to hear of a Szu who turned out differently then she imagined.

Szu doesn’t really hate her mom, she hates that she wants her love and never gets it. That her mother was more a phantom through her entire childhood, never happy to play her part in her real life role. What is more melodramatic than a fallen star? Despising all the ordinary living that remains. How did Amisa, so beautiful, so alluring allow her promise to fizzle out? How could this woman, who as a young girl showed so much grit and courage by venturing into the city, the unknown to become something more, simply surrender? Auntie Yunxi is the bones of the household, maintaining the only structure in Szu’s life. But she is a mysteriously strange woman herself, and where is Szu’s father? Is she right in blaming her mother, for chasing him away being like a Ponti, a threat to his happiness? When he makes an appearance again, after life turns tragic, he has some truths to unveil.

This novel is disquieting, because the real ghost here is grief, blindness, and starry eyes. It’s about the whims of fate, beauty isn’t always a promise of anything solid either, you can’t bank solely on dreams nor a face. It’s giving up and closing your eyes to what you have, haunting your own future and destroying those nearest you in the process. It’s a child trapped by her mother’s shadow, who sees nothing but disappointment reflected back at her, a girl who hungers for the love she will be denied even from the grave. It’s clinging to another person for dear life, because they are a sort of stand in for the mother/daughter bond. Circe and Szu represent that awkward hunger girls have for connection, and how easily it can turn monstrous and all you want is your freedom. The Ponti in this story isn’t so much about the folkloric ghost, the more terrifying creature is Amisa, and what she allows her disappointments to do to her future.  She was so sure her beauty signled her out for more, made her special and she simply retreated from life when it knocked her back to earth. Szu follows in her footsteps for a breath of time, devoured by her own form of grief, like a disease. I found this to be terribly sad, heavy to carry.

I admit I was disappointed by the ending. I felt the story was a gathering storm, waiting for a climactic moment (big things do happen throughout, in their own unassuming way, with death) but I was waiting to be a part of Circe and Szu’s reunion, which was more hinted at. It never culminates. The writing is gorgeous, it’s an emotional upheaval which is strange considering there is a great distance between all the characters. There is an air of detached coldness, but it seems more a defense, Szu isn’t as strong as she seems. Her anger is a wall. Maybe it’s true that grief  ‘makes ghosts of us’ and that is part of why Amisa is more a suggestion of a mother, having lost someone dear to her early on. I am mixed on the novel, this is a talented writer but again I kept waiting for the big ending. Despite the aforementioned issues, the novel itself is beautifully written.  Circe is haunted by the past friendship, and years later carries the burden of her reaction to Szu as she began falling apart. It’s a complicated look at friendship, unwanted motherhood, dead dreams  and the terrible ways we allow certain moments to define our lives, for better or worse.

Sharlene Teo is one to watch. I am wildly curious what her next novel will be about.

Released Today! September 4, 2018

Simon & Schuster

How We Remember by J.M. Monaco

 

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Unlike Dave, in my younger years I grew up with a sense of my position in the world that was closely aligned with my mother’s. I accepted that I should never expect any sense of entitlement to anything.  I continued to live out the expectations required of the good girl who never fussed. I ate that soggy McDonald’s burger without complaining and said thank you very much for the privilege.

Now an academic living in North London, Jo returns home after her mother’s death, surprised that her mother saved enough money for an inheritance. Her mother who expected nothing from life, a mother who often disappointed her still had a few surprises it seems. Once her marriage was over, she took on the role of single motherhood, becoming a nurse. Jo’s childhood was mostly a lesson in spirit breaking, the same dreary life she escaped by beating the odds with her education, a mysterious turn of luck in the universe that led her to university in England earning her ‘fancy pants’ degree,  love with Jon, and a great career. It is a far cry from her childhood with a brother who took and took from her in between disappearing acts, now an adult and still just as lost, unstable and pulling at her with his needs. The early days when her parents were still together and tension was thick as the smoke from her mother’s cigarettes, the way she only felt the love and comfort of a real family when she was at her friend Beth’s, sharing their meals and easy affection. Then there was the big shame between Jo and her uncle as she became a teenager, a seduction in which she felt somewhat complicit, as girls often do, a hushed up incident buried in the bowels of her dysfunctional family, to keep peace between her mother and her aunt, despite the cost to Jo. Her parents own wildly chaotic, broken marriage isn’t something she wanted to mirror but Jo isn’t immune to relationship woes. Now, she has her mother’s diary and the incident feels fresh, her mother’s sorrow about the strain it caused with her family and proof that her mother knew exactly what her uncle was! That she believed Jo.

Jo is battling severe health issues far worse than her inability to conceive a child or carry it to term, and coming home is only opening old wounds on top of current troubles in her own marriage. There is a student, someone she fell for, and it’s all coming back to bite her. The trouble may cost her more than her job, if Jon finds out everything may come crashing down! Dave is adamant that the money from their mother should go to him, to help him in his latest scheme to make something of himself with a business! Jo already has everything (as if she hadn’t worked hard for it, saved) so why not give him a leg up for once? Why must he Dave always think he is entitled to things without working for them? There is a struggle, she has enough to fight against on her own than to deal with her brother’s outbursts, surely it’d be easier just to give him the money, despite her lack of faith it will do him a bit of good. Her father refuses to budge, knowing his ex-wife was adamant in how she wanted the money dispersed before dying of cancer. Her father is mentally declining, but the last thing she wants with her own illness is to be tied to caring for the man who never showed up for his kids, nor his ex-wife. Maybe she won’t have to, maybe her father has his own shocking surprise too.

This story does feel like a sad memoir about deeply flawed, lost people. No one gets fixed, there are no rainbows nor happy endings. Sometimes damaged people just continue their entire life falling apart and are too stubborn or helpless to change. Is the dysfunction so deeply rooted that there is no hope, or is it simply a case of turning over and playing dead, a constant victim of circumstances? It’s hard to say. Each character seems to have done terrible stuff that needs forgiving, Jo included when it comes to her own husband Jon. Maybe some people just have to be accepted as the mess they are.

Publication Date: September 13, 2018

RedDoor Publishing

 

A Key To Treehouse Living by Elliot Reed

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Expectation The Brain spends a huge amount of time expecting things. The brain lives on patterns the way a blade of grass lives on sunlight.

This is a lovely novel written in alphabetical order,  to make some sense of the disorder in orphan William Tyce’s life. There is a lot of talk about absence, as both his mother and father have vanished from his life for different reasons we slowly begin to understand. Living with an eccentric, wealthy  “bugling” uncle who lets him run free, there are still secrets beneath the surface, things his uncle has yet to tell him about his parents. When he isn’t exploring, or floating boats in a flooded basement he is entering neglected forts in the woods or meeting locals from all walks of life. Each entry shows wisdom beyond his ears, a coming of age in the rural midwest, and the setting is beautifully rendered by an entry as simple as canoeing through the reeds.

It is a look into a boy’s life that is sometimes an adventure, other times heavy with sorrow and confusion but always engaging. Sometimes he finds trouble, other times trouble finds him. Even when the adults try to give him gravity, they let him go like a balloon see under Factsthe first sad fact we learn in life… This novel has a certain charm in how it reveals William’s life through glossary entries, it hints at, it guides us through what is happening, much the way we all come of age with our missteps and lessons. We ease into things or get hit in the face by them.

He is abandoned by his father, his mother is dead but we don’t quite know why anymore than he does, until later. Life unfolds as he gets older and loses his childhood innocence (blindness), comes more and more into adult consciousness, as happens to all of us. We confront his life through his reflections, written from the male perspective as he isn’t looking for pity or a good cry, he is just stating the facts with the protective shell most boys use. Not to say boys feel any less, he certainly has depths to swim but it’s more quiet revelations. He becomes very real for the reader. I always enjoy these stories that make me feel like I am getting a birdseye view into another’s life. There is a connection but it’s not forceful, it’s not begging you to feel bad for the character, but you do anyway as life beats him up but he is funny too! “Dogs, however, are an exception, and they love to mate in public. It’s possible they do this because they enjoy being squirted with water hoses in the act.”  It’s a journey with beautiful writing, though you are reading a coming of age, it’s very relatable to adults. He is wounded but keeps on trucking! Yes, read it!

Publication Date: September 4, 2018

Tin House Books

A Little Bird Told Me by Marianne Holmes

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Don’t cry, I think, watching as she swallows hard. Crying is for bigger things than this.

Growing up with secrets doesn’t make for any easy life,  it is 1976 and Robin likes to go swimming, trail after her brother Kit, and dodge encounters with the bully Debbie and her ‘gonks’. At home, the atmosphere is heavy with the weeping of women whom her mother often tries to save from themselves, or abusive spouses. Then there is the mysterious cowboy, who like a shadow is hanging around her, offering her little presents that he says really belong to her to begin with. They are magic things, for protection. What does she need protection from, though? Her nights are spent restless with bad dreams, could they be memories?

To settle her fears, her mother always tells Robin her favorite story, about how they made their home here, ‘blown into town on a storm.’ That storm isn’t the baddest they’ll encounter. Her mother is meddling in a marriage, and the townspeople are saying terrible things about her. She is far too young to really know which way is up, angry that her mother is taking Robyn’s pitiful savings to help a grown woman, Sharon Mace and her little boy, Danny. No one is as irate though as Sharon’s husband. There isn’t much the police can do, this is the 70’s, and a wife belongs at home with her man!

What would Robin know of fathers caring enough to hunt down their wife and children, her own doesn’t even have a role in her life, is nothing but a wisp of smoke, not even a memory. Even if it’s in violence, Danny is lucky his dad cares at all. All of her inquiries into who her own might be are met with outlandish stories, ‘he is a Russian spy’, or a ‘great explorer’.  Even his name is fluid, Roger today, Roberto tomorrow. She, her mother and Kit have Mathew though, the only true father they’ve ever known after ‘crashing into his life with the storm’.

Robin keeps the cowboy a secret, until her mother sees the ‘gifts’ and acts funny about it.

Jump to the future, 12 years later Robin and Kit are back in town, their old house a standing reminder of their haunting past. In retracing the steps of their old life, will she uncover the truths her mother could never divulge? The locals aren’t happy about their return, but she can’t run forever. The not knowing is killing Robyn, and she doesn’t want Kit to know the risks she has taken to find out what really happened. Maybe Eve knows something, their mother’s friend? So much has changed in their absence, and so little. Young Robyn is blinded by her naiveté, as all children are, in the early years taking what they are told for fact, no reason to doubt the parent who loves them. Robyn in the 80’s is lost, damaged and depserate for closure. The back and forth between then and now worked for the most part, but Robyn was more solid in her youth to me, more of a ghost of her former self (maybe that’s done on purpose) in the later years.

Where is their mother? Why was she so passionate about helping others, at the risk of her own little family? The one person who may know the truth is the one man they need to stay away from, the one who promised to hunt them down with the ominous threat ‘Family is blood and pain’ swearing he will teach Robyn and Kit his meaning. Does she really want the truth?

My issue is, with all the secrecy of the past, shouldn’t their mother lay low rather than bring attention to herself in such a small town? Ok, nature will out- it’s her way to save others, still one must ask, ‘why at great risk to herself and her children?’ Maybe I would have cared more about Kit and Robyn in their later years if we had a bit more filler about what they were up to after tragedy struck. Luckily I cared about Robyn as a little girl, if not as much when she was grown up because she wasn’t as real to me, so I wanted to keep reading for little Robyn’s sake. The ending was solid, one I didn’t quite predict. I admit it’s hard to be kept in the dark as a reader about some things, so I can see how it could frustrate others.When we meet Robyn in the 80’s the pace slows a bit, and I found myself looking forward to the past more. It takes a bit of a dark turn at the end. With that said, it is a good debut novel, and I look forward to Holmes future stories.

Publication Date: September 13, 2018

Agora Books

Amidst This Fading Light by Rebecca Davis

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Time could do many things; soften the blow of misaligned teeth, erase a dead girl’s name and fade memories that ought to be forgotten.

One family moves into Germantown, the Picketts, treated with suspicion, disrupting the ways of the founding families. Following in the footsteps of his older brother Marlowe, Reggie buys the old weathered Himmel homeplace, but one Mrs. Honora Brow says to her audience, “Well, I’ll be. Didn’t you feel that chill?” The Brows have always held sway over the people of Germantown, known to be gifted in the art of ‘Prediction’. The woman who holds fast to her ‘gut feelings’ and it doesn’t bode well that the Picketts don’t hold her in high esteem, as do the rest of the townsfolk. Mrs. Picket is never wrong, how dare these inferior people doubt her? But no one could imagine the stink of tragedy clinging to the Picketts and how it would change the entire town.

This is a brutal tale of the ways in which life picks at people, like vultures. It is about what remains to be salvaged in the wreckage, and the ways in which we are tied. Taking place in the Piedmont region of North Carolina during the Great Depression, choices to be made, actions that horrify our sensibilities today were a reality that had to be confronted. The sorrow begins in Chapter 1, with the passing of a child and a large black pot. A people made of stronger stuff, in a time that snuffed you out with any sign of weakness in character.

Quince isn’t the boy Reggie hoped for, he feels robbed of strapping sons to help work the land and carry on the Pickett name and he never let’s Quince forget it. The slight, dreamy boy gets under his father’s skin while his wife Helen knows the boy is of a tender nature, but Reggie must toughen the boy, and it goes back to his own father, “There was nothing more destructive than his father’s displeasure.” And so the cycle continues. His uncle Marlowe is more successful with the right sort of boys, strong, helpful. Everything is much easier for him, and it eats at Reggie to compare their lives, to know his son could never live up to his inheritance, not like Marlowe’s boys. Years pass, Marlowe has plans, banking on Quince’s tragedy, always wanting something from him. The vile, heartless decision just to make money is enough to turn anyone’s stomach. The horrors never seem to want to release Quince, not even with the gentle touch of love to ground him to the present.

Lela is new to town and quickly befriended by young Louise Pickett, but she can’t help but notice her quiet brother, Quince. So begins their relationship that takes them through blinding grief, deep abiding love, the shaky years of college and the uncertain future that waits for them.  The Picketts come to define Germantown, not necessarily for the better. Something about other people’s tragedy makes those close to it think they own it. Neighbors are often too near, judging as Honora does from the start, setting the Picketts up with her smug, superior ‘facts’ about that chillingly odd brood, and yet on the flip side of the coin you have Lela’s family and their unwavering support. A tale about the whims of fate from illnesses, war, abuse, birth, love and everything in between.

It’s a heavy read, sometimes you really need to light that match and burn down the painful reminders of your past to ash.

Publication Date: August 28, 2018

Southern Fried Karma