The Better Liar: A Novel by Tanen Jones

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She’d loved me, in her own disgusting, sharp-toothed way.

It is often said there is no relationship more fraught than the one between sisters at odds with each-other. In The Better Liar, a joint inheritance forces Leslie to find her little sister Robin Voigt.  Robin, who ran-away from home one night when she was just a teenager, leaving Leslie to always be the responsible daughter, tied to their dying father, forced to care for him to the bitter end. Sure, Robin dropped a line here and there when she needed saving from one jam or another, and daddy always came through, but she never earned a bit of his love and loyalty. Tracking her down in Las Vegas Leslie discovers she is too late, her drug addicted sister is dead, and now what? It’s just like Robin, to do this to her, as if she hasn’t already ruined her life. She isn’t going to see a penny of it now, where is the fairness in that, the inheritance was to be split between them both or no one gets their share, there is nothing she can do, right? Until… she sees Mary.

Mary looks so much like Robin. What if… what if Mary pretended to be Robin, just long enough to sign the paperwork, she can have Robin’s share and go off on her merry little way? Mary understands all too well the need for money, this is ‘the perfect job’, she wants to be an actress, how better to test her mettle than to pretend to be someone else? She is sick of working at the restaurant, and she has her own troubles to escape, it’s a way out of town. Leslie’s plan is wildly crazy, even if she does share a resemblance to the deceased, how could it work? True, Robin was never a part of Leslie’s adult life, never met her husband nor child and has been gone so long surely no one would know what she would have looked like now. Still, it’s a madcap plan, but likely will be a lot of fun and Mary is always one for fun. Leslie tries to keep just enough distance while letting Mary in on the sister’s shared past, there always seems to remain a little mystery and something isn’t right about her. Why does she need her half of the money, what is she hiding? She has quite the cozy life, a handsome, successful husband, beautiful son whom she doesn’t seem to want Mary (aka Robin) to be around. Why is she so unhappy? Is she involved in something, she doesn’t seem to be in financial trouble at all. Why is she lying? She may control the story of her past with Robin’s death, but Mary isn’t so easily led about. She is getting too close for Leslie’s comfort, and Leslie doesn’t owe her a thing beyond their agreed upon plan.

Robin’s fading, she’s nothing but a ghost now reminiscing about the relationship she had with her sister. Dear Leslie, who once used to care for her like a mother, since her own couldn’t be bothered. Was Robin really too much for people, as her sister seems to have believed, because Robin remembers things quite differently? As Leslie tells Mary things in order to help her become Robin, it doesn’t ring quite true. In fact, with this farce, who is the real schemer now? In her memories, Leslie wasn’t always the stand in mother she tells everyone she was, full of tender love and kindness. There were times she wanted Robin out of sight, when she was tired of caring for her little sister’s every need. She pushed her away first, with her cruelty, Robin well remembers it, there were reasons, things that made Robin’s heart hard. The way Leslie tells it the change in her sister’s temperament happened in junior high, suddenly she was hateful overnight, no rhyme nor reason. As soon as she got her own room she was mean and ugly, but there are two sides to every story, just which version is the truest? Robin loved to feed people stories, as much as she loved the attention she got from boys, even girls, and later men. There was a time she loved her big sister but she knows that Leslie isn’t the responsible, flawless person she portrays to the world. It reminds her of their damaged mother. She tells stories too. Ghosts are all seeing, and with her death, she is able to be more present than her choices in life allowed her to be before. She is now the held breath in the room, lurking in a sense.

Everyone is a liar, but who is The Better Liar?

A dark story about sisterhood and twisted loyalty. The biggest liar wins.

Publication Date: January 14, 2020

Random House

Ballantine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Majesties: A Novel by Tiffany Tsao

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Blood does run thick. Even if poison trumps all.

A  wealthy, successful, prominent Chinese Indonesian family has been poisoned, every single one of them, by one of their own. “It was caught on a surveillance tape, so there’s no denying that Estella was the culprit”. As Gwendolyn “Doll” lies in and out of consciousness she is left trying to comprehend how her sister Evelyn could commit so evil an act. Why would she want to destroy their entire family, and herself? Why did she want to put an end to the family line? Yet… “the wealthy don’t need reasons”,  for anything else they may do, is the reigning belief in Indonesia about the affluent. Doll knows first hand the rot in the line, the many calculated actions of her entire clan. How can she possibly find the one moment, the seed of destruction?

Scavenging through her memories, family secrets are brought to light. What exactly happened to their mysterious young aunt “Tante Sandra” who was there one day and tragically gone the next? What are the sisters to think when it dawns on them that you can’t take your family’s ‘stories’ as fact anymore? How are they to to understand that evil is excusable if in the name of snuffing out any threat to the family’s reign? How much can the reader rely on Doll’s own retelling, when she herself has often “blinded myself” to the family she moves through?

Doll takes us back through her memories, in their youth “despite our mother’s disgust” the sisters had been enthralled by bugs, ants, carpenter bees, and grasshoppers, as if there was something ‘illicitly fascinating’ about their ‘indulgence’ in the world of creepy crawlies. College abroad, they find themselves studying in America with the freedom to explore as they wish “infected with American enthusiasm” though they now stick out as outsiders due to their ethnicity and all that difference entails. They take a class on entomology, which leads to a fascinating career for Gwendolyn, something she can create on her own after she feels cast out in the cold when a man named Leonard enters Estella’s life, as insidious as a disease. It is this love that comes between the sisters, that serves as the measure of family loyalty. A brutal, abusive love, but with the alliance of two prominent families their future success is iron clad, one must endure, one must always save face. Married life changes Estella, ending the closeness Doll once felt for her big sister, who now faces her days feeling like she isn’t good enough, brow beaten by her mother-in-law, confused by the changing behavior of her husband Leonard. In the meantime Doll’s busy with her own life, from the rise of Bagatelle to it’s success as other empires begin to fall.

When her sister needs her the most, she admits to falling short, but there is so much more to the story, and we must wait for Doll to divulge it, while she can still draw her breath, ravaged by poison.

This is a story of sisterly bonds, family loyalty and shame, and the atrocities only the wealthy can commit. Who is the victim, who is the criminal? It is a strange novel with a dark ending, yes read it.

Publication Date: January 21, 2020

Atria Books

 

 

Evie of the Deepthorn by André Babyn

 

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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

Little Weirds by Jenny Slate

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I was born bucking the idea that I should have to be anywhere that I don’t like or talk to people who make me feel dead or trapped.

Jenny Slate is an actress, comedian, author and in a collaboration with director Dean Fleischer-Camp created Marcel the Shell With Shoes On. It’s adorable, I have a thing for stop motion and it has also become a book series. That aside, I have only been aware of Jenny Slate as an actress. This book is more musings, confidences, and reflections on her past. She is at times serious, often funny, a little on the sweet side (I’m a heavy reader of raw memoirs, people toughened by heavy issues so this was a pleasure) and always clever. When the book first opened, I thought it was going to be a memoir in poetry as she tells the reader “I was born like that”, born bucking certain ideas, with a love of nursing big scared things, and she was a ‘fast bad baby’. She gets lonely just like any single one of us and exhausted by heartbreak. Jenny longs for love, for someone who fits into her strange little world, because what else is love but having someone who carries in their blood your brand of weird? She shares her grievances, desires, hopes and ghosts with the reader and jumps from past to present, because doesn’t memory work like that in all of us? It’s never a straight line, life. We live in the present with the past calling us back, lingering as it does like a scent.

She wants to fall in love, can she find it online? Isn’t that the modern way? She both longs to join with someone and also exist in her own ‘vortex’. Waiting, waiting… surely he is out there somewhere? Jenny wants to live in a gentle place, filled with joy but she has her small deaths to shed, as all the living do. She travels, and in Norway tries to remain aware of her surroundings, to be strong on her own when she isn’t journeying with her friends. Often readers shy away from books written by famous people, what the heck can they have to say to the common folk? A lot it seems. Jenny has enough humility and refreshing honesty to not come off as some super ego monster. She is often just as lost, curious as the rest of us. She has times of success, love and fulfillment while experiencing the grace of being alive and moments of fear, emptiness and pain. She feels ugly, she feels lovely and absolutely comes off as a little quirky, a little weird! That is what makes this memoir a little pleasure.

Her style made me feel like I was hanging out with a close friend when she is warmed by wine, a little rambling with surprising moments of lucidity, clarity and open heart confessions. The style might not be for every reader, it’s lyrical, she wanders off the thought path often but her curious nature remains a constant delight.

Publication Date: November 5, 2019

Little, Brown and Company

 

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

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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

 

 

Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space by Amanda Leduc

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Disability is not a monolith- every disabled person’s experience in the world is different, and the way that we all navigate the world is likewise varied and complex. 

This is one of the most beautiful books I have read in years. Fairy-tales are a part of our lives, serving as a model for modern day stories, often as lessons in morality, a warning, a guiding tale that even smacks of those early after school specials my generation was so fond of. Then there are the romances, a foundation on which so many little girls have built their castles, with a Prince waiting to save them. Beautiful girls, at least. What exactly is the measure of beauty? In nearly all of the well known tales, it certainly isn’t any character who has a disability, unless of course it is conquered, all that spell breaking, true love’s kiss, shucking off the ‘deformity’ or ‘madness’ or ‘disfigurement’. Disfigurement is only enchanting if it is has a use for the ‘able bodied’ narrative, and it’s often not something the ‘able-bodied’ think about. Amanda Leduc dissects many of the familiar fairy tales, and lesser known ones, to shed light on how the disabled are used, abused, or downright invisible in such stories. It’s eye opening, and disheartening. Growing up with Cerebral Palsy, Amanda certainly didn’t see any stories about little girls with her hospital stays, operations, struggles. Princesses only twirled with balletic perfection, they sure weren’t in wheel chairs, and if any characters had a disease or deformity, they were either evil, cursed, or imbeciles who are lucky to be mentioned at all. The goal is often landing the Prince or taking one’s rightful place on the throne, but it is always about golden beauty because anything less won’t procure a happy ending. How could anyone have a happy ending if they have a chronic illness, a disease, a disability, and don’t get me started on mental health? Happy endings while deformed? The horror of it!

While this book explores the theme of disability in fairy tales,  it is Leduc sharing how she has felt, and feels now, about her place in the world as defined by others, and herself. A child can have the most loving parents, but that child still must go out into the world, and face condescending attitudes, pity, cruelty even in our current time of awareness, (it is still half-assed awareness, though). Often, the person who has a disability or illness is meant to feel like it’s a special boon to be offered the same treatment the able-bodied receive. Maybe there are teaching moments, but does anyone you know want to be a poster child every waking moment of their life, or feel like a curiosity? For their body to be a horror story for another, one they just could’t survive if they had to reside in it? A big moment that hit me like a gut punch in the book is the idea that only in overcoming, ignoring everything from mental illness to very real pain and obstacles makes someone worthy because damn, it’s only a good life if the curse of sickness or imperfection is lifted! How is that for reality? Why should the world accommodate you, don’t you want to be just like the rest of us? Why are you so different? It is true, people equate disease, illness, disability, disfigurement as weak. Try harder! Rally around yourself! Go out in the sunshine! Sure…

My son grew up under the umbrella of autism, he didn’t look like he had struggles (what does that mean) and a label didn’t help as much as it should have, in fact often once educators knew how to define him, well he was no longer an individual, just an autistic. Some people meant well, others not so much. There were kind children, well meaning adults but attitudes tended to shift in the negative, with mocking,  laughter, and  exclusion, a forced feeling of isolation. Amanda’s story about her school journal made me heartsick, a violation as brutal as the wing scene in Maleficent. These things stick, we carry them with us. There are still hard times, he graduated college but still has obstacles, in real life unlike in fairy tales, there isn’t some spell that collecting the right ingredients will break, nor a quest that will allow some god or fairy to shine their benevolence upon him anymore than on the people who face each day of their life with their disability, illness. They aren’t asking for a gold star, special treatment, is it special treatment to be afforded dignity, accessibility, to be heard when speaking, understanding beyond a parking space or a toilet stall (that, let’s face it, more often than not is occupied by able-bodied folks)?

Disfigured is one of the most provocative books on disability I have read and I admit ignorance, there were connections I never thought about in the same light as Amanda. We are moving forward though at a snail’s crawl. I remember a commercial recently for a store selling Halloween costumes for children in wheel chairs, and I thought that is fantastic and yet ‘long overdue’. I fell the same about commercials serving as campaigns for acceptance showing skin with scars, freckles, vitiligo and how my daughter would have benefited from that when she was a little girl and at school was harassed by one constant question, ‘what is wrong with your skin.’  Inclusion is still a fight, resources are incredibly lacking in the school system alone, training isn’t always available, some schools push you to keep your kid separated not because it’s easier for the student but easier on everyone else, you think the adult world of disability is better? Amanda Leduc is right, who has fought more for everything they have? Why can’t they be represented in stories that children can look up to, beyond being a curse that love can fix, only of value when the disability or disfigurement is no more? Maybe with more voices being heard, the world can change, rather than push conformity.

This is a book everyone should read. Positive affirmations have their place, say if you have a cold, but this grin and bear it nonsense aimed towards people coping with obstacles so many of us cannot fathom just minimizes many lives, reduces real flesh and blood people. There is no shame in disability, different isn’t a tragedy and certainly our stories should include all of humanity. Happy endings, if we’re honest, don’t end in broken curses. Life is ups and downs, ill health, good health, loss and gains. There is no shame in needing medication, mobility aids, therapy… the shame is that it has been circulated as a tragedy, a horror story, a lesson in badness, evilness or that beauty is only one thing, ‘able-bodied’. My review does not do justice to the insights Amanda Leduc shares, absolutely read this book!

Publication Date: February 4, 2020

Coming soon

Coach House Books

The Fortune Teller’s Promise by Kelly Heard

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Not there, she thought. You don’t have to go back there. Not even in your mind. Not ever.

Dell’s childhood in the forest of Blyth, Virigina with it’s magnificent natural beauty and calm is the opposite of life inside her house. Born to a flower child mother Anita, whose beauty is the center of her life more than her son and daughter, and her father Gideon, a ‘dark-eyed’ construction worker suddenly laid off after an injury that relies on pain pills to get through his painful days, leads to nothing but chaos and storms between them. Mother longs to maintain the beauty queen status of her early days, and nothing can keep her anchored to her family. Longing to be free, she moves to a rented bungalow. It is here, when Dell should be spending quality time with her mother because ‘she needs a bra’ and it’s a mother’s place to teach a young woman everything she needs to know, that the fault line appears. Anita would rather her time be filled entertaining men who are dizzy over her beauty than playing mommy. It is these types of men who have an edge that can cut. Anita’s reaction to her daughter’s confession is met with anger and blame rather than comfort, and outrage. It is also when Dell learns that people like her have to shut up and take it, because those in higher standing have the power to hurt those you love. Especially when your family is covered in dirt, unwilling or unable to climb out.

Growing up under the cloud of the shame of her parents, the town doesn’t let Dell forget her place. But it is love that ruins everything, her one chance to be a single mother, better than her own ever was, is impossible when he mother urges her to give the baby a better life, put it up for adoption. The church can find someone better suited, and what is someone like Dell to do without the support of the child’s father or even her own family? She could never afford to support her baby, girls like her don’t have options. There is no way she can remain in this flea-bitten town, nursing the ache in her heart where her baby girl has nestled in. There’s nothing for her to do but abandon the past. She sets up shop as a psychic as she leaves the town, and her family, behind. Though she doesn’t consider herself a ‘proper psychic’, she is skilled in knowing what troubles others, uses the tools of the trade to get a clearer picture. If only she could intuit her own needs, heal her own wounds, clean up the disaster that has become her reality.  She will never return to Blythe, nothing can make her… except learning when her mother tracks her down that her child has gone missing! The problem is, within moments of that revelation, silence overtakes her mother and life seems to have no end of testing Dell’s merit. She must return to the scene of her most heartbreaking acts, and discover that the past is never done with us. Is it possible, dare she hope to make things right?

This was novel didn’t have as much ‘psychic’ steam as I thought it would from the title. The promise is much more about motherhood. Love swims through the novel, as does the murky grime of disappointment and narrow minded ways of some small towns. The haves vs the have nots. It was a decent read, but it’s not what I expected. I was thinking there would be at least a little more focus on how she ‘knows’ how to fix other people’s hurts. The psychic bit is pretty mild but if you are looking for a story about motherhood, difficult dysfunctional families and a little romance, this is it.

Publication Date: October 30, 2019

Bookouture