The Valedictorian of Being Dead The True Story of Dying Ten Times to Live by Heather B. Armstrong

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“I can’t really describe it,” I mumbled to her when she called me to ask what was wrong. “I feel like the Frankenstein monster. I mean, I feel like I died and someone brought me back to life.”

What’s wonderful about The Valedictorian of Being Dead is the honest day-to-day terror of living with severe depression because it exposes the brutal reality only those suffering through it can attempt to explain. Imagine a depression so horrifying that you are willing to die again and again, in an experimental treatment, to cure yourself of wanting to take your own life. What are the options when the drugs don’t work? When you have children to raise as a single parent? When depression is a life sentence and you can lose your children if your ex uses your mental health as a means to take your children away, would you risk it all?

Heather is the perfect candidate for the experiment, chemically induced coma approximating brain death. With a family history of depression, it’s an inheritance more people struggle through than openly talk about. As if mental illness is a dirty little secret, and is it any wonder with the cruel treatment people have received throughout history, and in the not so distant past? Imagine putting your faith in an experiment that makes you feel like Frankenstein’s Monster. Heather’s blog has brought attention to the highs and lows of her own mental health, I hadn’t heard about it until I read this book.

Fear of the unknown, will my brain survive this fully intact? Will I lose my memories or time? Anyone who has ever encountered any sort of brain confusion can relate to the sheer terror of that rabbit hole. If she wakes up at all and survives the coma that is and not just once, oh no! Ten treatments, my friends, ten!  The writing isn’t always perfect and that’s okay because this book is about hope and sharing, it’s a fight  for a life without debilitating depression and in turn, a chance to finally truly live. It takes courage, and support, which is something Heather isn’t great at asking for, but how many mothers are? Too, Heather allows the reader to be privy to her innermost fears, thoughts and memories of her past, losing her voice in relationships going all the way back to discipline from her father, he of the ‘snap out of it’ answer to depression so many people have. Why is it today, there is still so much misinformation and ignorance, shame in admitting the brain is as much a part of our body as any other organ and mental illness is a disease? How can we successfully treat that which is unacknowledged? Ignoring it or ordering your loved ones to  ‘snap out of it’ isn’t going to work, it’s not something people choose, until it’s you, it’s so hard for people to believe. I think often other’s reactions are fear based. There is still a stigma and shame on us as a society for that.

An interesting medical experiment that shares the story of the human being taking part in it.

Publication Date: April 23, 2019

Gallery, Threshold, Pocket books

 

 

 

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The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek: A Novel by Kim Michele Richardson

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The goodwill died on my tongue.

Throughout time there are certain constants, for example ignorance and cruelty. This novel is an ode to the pack-horse Librarians who rode their way throughout Kentucky inspiring people of all ages to read. Richardson takes this historical story and blends it with a tale of the blue skinned people, ostracized cruelly for their differences. Nineteen-year-old Cussy Carter of Troublesome Creek, Kentucky spends her days delivering books to the people of the mountains, her Dad’s fervent wish and promise to his dying wife was that Cussy would find respectability. She needs to stop carrying on with book deliveries, now that he is making money in the mine again, killing himself more like. He wants nothing more than security for his girl, and nothing can offer that for a girl in 1936 better than marriage. “I could barely meet someone’s eyes for fear my color would betray my sensibilities.” A young woman who can turn ‘blue as a damselfly’ when blushing, heir to a strange condition that began with a French great-grandpa, there is no chance any respectable white man would ever stoop to marry her. Upon her deliveries she encounters many who shun and shame her, but if this program can get even a blue like Cussy reading, well it promises to spread literacy to anyone!

Nicknamed Bluet by the locals, her father begins sending suitors her way, the most horrifying of all is when she is courted by the kin of Pastor Vester Frazier. Pastor Vester, the preacher that decides who bears the mark of the devil, and ‘chases them out by baptizing those sinners down in the cold, fast waters of Troublesome Creek’, sometimes ending in life or death! Surely her father can’t possible think anyone tied to the Frazier family can save her! This can’t bode well.

The pastor isn’t the only one she has to fear, and her fierce nature has her risking life and limb just to share her love of books with folks. Of course not everyone is thrilled about their wives or children reading, not when there is work to be done, no time for idleness yet clever girl that she is, Cussy finds ways to keep those hungry for books well fed, despite protestations from fathers. Devoted to her deliveries  upon her stubborn mule Junia, she meets Jackson Lovett who surprises her with his kind intelligence, but surely she can’t dare hope to ever mean anything to him, can she? Love isn’t meant for a “Bluet” like her. Town isn’t anymore welcoming, “I always felt like a thief sneaking into town”, with the “NO COLOREDS” signs banning her from socializing  her life is that of a spectator, filled with longing to take part in gatherings like the Pie Bake Dances. Color could be catching, right? Then there is the doctor who wants to poke, prod, take samples from her to figure out what is causing her strange affliction. Her people hidden for so long up in them mountains, fear of persecution and worse, should she trust him as she is the last? Are her blue folks on the brink of extinction?

This isn’t a happy read, not at all but it remains true to the torment being different rains down on a life. It is exposure of the worst sort of ignorance, which we all know in human beings is completely infinite. Maybe there is a cure out there that can make anyone who is ‘different’ look just like you and me, sadly there is no cure for cruelty, nor human stupidity when a mind seems bent on it. Cussy is full of fight and hope, but the reality of the times made even the fiercest of men and women break. It is a painful Appalachian tale, based on real historical happenings. This intelligent sad little novel piqued my curiosity about the blue people of Kentucky and the genetic component behind it. People always fear that which they don’t understand. The novel reads true, the language made me feel I too was among the folks of Troublesome Creek and I was engaged until the very end. For anyone who loves Appalachian Fiction, Historical Fiction or strange medical conditions this has it all.

Publication Date: May 7, 2019

Sourcebooks  Landmark

Home Remedies: Stories by Xuan Juliana Wang

 

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It’s what Taoyu wanted, to disappear from Hai’s life completely, to leave a wound that would ache. That was the only way they could be equals.

Home Remedies is a gorgeous collection of stories about Chinese immigration, family structure, love, sex and the privilege of choices. The future for each character is never certain, and splits open guiding them to places they never imagined they would be. Home, some make their way in American life with ease, abandoning their old skins and sometimes their family too. Others cling to the old ways of a country they will never return to. One thing is certain, each person will make their own story, even if it means becoming someone other than what’s expected.

In White Tiger of the West, the world is weary of Grandmasters, there no longer seems to be a place for spirituality but for one obedient little girl Grandmaster Tu could be the very thing that awakens a tiger, and gives her the flight of freedom. Home Remedies of the old involved tonics, tinctures, herbs… but in one story remedies are cleverly applied to survive say, a “bilingual heart” and “self-doubt”. Olympic divers are one in Vaulting the Sea, but what love is equal? Just how much can you meld yourself to another? I thought this was a beautifully painful tale of love and rejection, if any story is about identity it was this one. My favorite and most heart-breaking is Algorithmic Problem Solving for Father-Daughter Relationships. Logic as the meaning, the answer to all of lives obstacles simple application of algorithms “a theory that proves itself day after day” until a former professor, clueless father needs to solve the new problem of his daughter Wendy, who “I somehow managed to drive away from me.” My heart! By far the best story within!

In this collection time stands still or rushes past. Characters are emerging into a bright future or retiring from their dreams, wearing clothes of the dead, or slicing through water in perfect sync. Sometimes they are just suffering through an “unremarkable period” of their life. It is stories about the youth, but the old have their say too, it’s like they live in different worlds sometimes. Moving, strange, exciting, biting… fantastic.

Publication Date: May 14, 2019

Crown Publishing

Hogarth

 

If I Had Two Lives by Abbigail Rosewood

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My mother had no daughter. It was her gift to me.

The novel begins in Vietnam as our young narrator is reunited with her mother, living under protection inside a military camp after she comes to the dangerous attention of the Prime Minister for her work as an energy consultant “bringing electricity to hundreds of districts in Vietnam”. Angering those corrupted by greed who would rather abuse the funds by “buying defunct equipment” keeping the wealth for themselves,her only option had been to seek refuge, leaving behind her daughter. Her lieutenant friend saves her, but she must remain loyal to the President. Cassette tapes were their means of communication during the separation but now she is living with her mother among other families under military protection as well. Lonely, she spends her time being cared for by ‘my soldier’, there to take care of her every need, emotional and otherwise, more nurturing than her distant mother. Her mother’s overload of information a jumbled mess to her child’s mind, “I wanted only to be held, to press my nose to her stomach,” she feels like a failure, a poor student, worse a bed wetter. To no longer be given away, she promises to be good, oblivious to her mother’s political games, not understanding that the only reason they are alive is because of her mother’s abandonment.

A child of loneliness her entire existence, everything changes when she meets ‘little girl’. The two sometimes merging into one, making up stories for each other, giving funerals for bugs, playing games and sharing in the disgusting shame of the adults. Little girl is destined for poverty and ignorance, and yet she is the deepest, earliest connection to love she will ever know. Their love is a sisterhood that will haunt her for years to come. The past becomes ash when her mother manages to help her escape to the United States to begin her second life leaving behind her best friend.

Part Two or second life to my thinking, she is now a grown adult recalling the punishing years of moving through different homes of friends, families, her mother’s connections in America, never fitting in. Longing for information about her mother “lost in her fiction”, trying to follow Vietnam’s politics, knowing she is alive only through second hand sources, sorting through gossip online, life is again solitary. She meets a woman named Lilah in Montauk, New York, echoing the immediate bond she once shared with ‘little girl’. Pulled into her escapades and ‘affairs’, passion grows between them until their lives merge. Lilah has wounds that fester but her eccentricities and boundless energy hide the sorrow. “I was drawn to her because people are drawn to uncertainty, the abyss.” When around husband Jon, Lilah is less free, diminished somehow. The two become three and she surrenders herself in their hands. This is where the story explores the meaning of friendship, love, all-consuming grief and the maniacal nature of fate. She is between two places always, until tragedy strikes and life comes full circle in Part Three. It is a strange and tragic tale. The defilement of both the narrator and her friend at the start of the novel had me gutted, the horrors always eat away at the children when it comes to politics, don’t they? Hard to read, but closing your eyes changes nothing. It’s a rupture in time, the things that transpire. As a grown woman I certainly don’t make light of how mind numbing it must be to make your way through the world without the nurturing and love of parents. Tragic doing so while moving between two countries, two identities with scars and severe trauma. That is shocking enough, a child hungry for love, connection so much so that she is willing to encompass her best friend’s pain as her own, later learning to be degraded, coming of age expecting nothing as not to feel disappointment. There is another vital character later, her neighbor, and I love how they both act as ghosts in a sense for each other, but come to mean so much more. The author’s take on loss and love hit me between the eyes.  Loss… loss as ‘a fuller experience than love’ opened the floodgates for me. Whoa!

I stayed up late last night, devouring every last page and that is saying a lot as I am recovering from invasive surgery, but I was at the end and it was actually my favorite part. The beginning reads a bit differently than when our narrator is an adult, because it is told through the mist of youth, but it flows.  Yes, read it!

Publication Date: April 19, 2019

Europa Editions

Fall Back Down When I Die: A Novel by Joe Wilkins

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I should have been prepared in my head as I was in my hands. Let that be a lesson to you boy.

Wendall Newman’s cousin Lacy finds herself in serious trouble for charges of possession of methamphetamine, child endangerment and willful neglect. He finds himself caring for her son Rowdy, a troubled 7-year-old little boy with communication delays. Barely getting by himself as a ranch hand, despite his rough surroundings and gruff appearance, Wendall comes to love his nephew and want nothing more than to do right by him. A certain type of poor all his life, he knows all too well the difficulties Rowdy faces, and the many ways the adults have failed him. With his father gone, Wendell was the sole heir of ruin, caring for his sick mother until her death, fatherless. Now he will do anything to give Rowdy the upbringing he deserves.

Verl Newman, Wendall’s father, long ago ran away into the Bull mountains, Montana after committing a murder. In the mean weeks that follow, he survives off the land and writes to his son in the school notebook he grabbed on the run ‘thinking to use for starting fires.’ With the feds on his tail, how could he possibly get this notebook, these words to his boy? “A boy should be able to hear his father always”, and yet they took even that from him.  Wendall killed a wolf, against the laws, the government is a wolf itself, keeping a man from a living, forcing him to cower, beg. When a man comes and turns against his friend, his heart no longer brave, honest what can he expect but violence? What other choice did Verl have than save what was his family’s very livelihood? Not everyone sees Verl’s act as monstrous, some outright admire the courage of his convictions, which echos through the years within a resistance group.

Gillian works as the school counselor and tries to cope with her own loss, raising her daughter alone after her husband Kevin’s murder. Student Tavin, whose family is a part of the Bull Mountain Resistance, has been missing too many days of school, yet it’s impossible to gingerly approach his mother, on alert for any interference from officials. Gillian fears the boy will fall into a cycle of poverty, poisoned by the ‘rural stupidity’ of the men in his life, like so many others. She knows exactly the sort of horrors such beliefs can lead to, how many lives can be destroyed.

 

Maddy, Gillian’s daughter, comes to care for Rowdy, and has more in common with Wendall than she could have imagined. The three will need each other for their very survival as all the stories converge. Good and bad blends, and the bones of the dead rattle into the future of their unfortunate children. It’s a painful tale of family, poverty, the ugly history of inheritance and the tragedy of fate. Yes read it!

Publication Date: March 12, 2019

Little, Brown and Company

 

The Lost History of Dreams: A Novel by Kris Waldherr

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A last display of care before consignment to the grave.

Robert Highstead spends his time daguerreotyping corpses as keepsakes for grieving strangers, a far cry from his years at Oxford University as a scholar of history. Understanding all too well that loss and tragic turns are like a contagion, this work becomes personal. His own wife Sidda’s accident altered their future, he walks closer to death than life. When his famous cousin and poet Hugh de Bonne dies, Robert must take his remains to be interred in his stained glass chapel on the moors of Shropshire where he will be reunited with his deceased, beloved wife Ada. Here, Robert is to make his daguerreotype. He’d much rather remain with his own ‘fading’ wife, than engage with the world, nor honor any tasks put to him. Yet travel he must, it’s the honorable thing to do. “This was his cousin. His cousin was dead. Though it made little sense, Robert stepped toward the coffin as though not to disturb it.”

Hugh’s fans journey to the chapel, all longing for their piece of the love story between Hugh and Ada, but for her surviving niece Isabelle, the story isn’t the fantasy that’s been toted as truth. Robert is not welcome, and Isabelle’s refusal to embrace the return of Hugh’s body is suspicious, and infuriating. Her own past is a mystery, but Robert won’t bend to her will, finds a way to stay and earning a semblance of her trust becomes audience as Isabelle reveals the tale of Ada and Hugh as she knows it. She wants him to record it in a book. Yet Isabelle herself remains behind her cloak of privacy, until it’s no longer possible to hide. Why does she not allow anyone entrance to the chapel? What secrets are hiding there?

Both are unable to release themselves from the chains of guilt, haunted by ghosts of time and battling with the demons of their choices. No one punishes either Isabelle or Hugh more than they do themselves. The strange pair push and pull each other, and what appears as solid becomes fluid, changes. This gothic novel begins with a curious profession that bleeds into the tale of why death is easier to befriend than life. Love as muse, ghost, poetry, guilt, blame, and rage. Characters begin desperately in love, and weakness blooms for some as fate tests the soul. A heart can turn cruel when love is stolen by the hands of fate. People can love romantically and yet absent themselves in other horrible ways. Isabelle’s story is revealed as her defenses are stripped and her tale tugs the heart. The dead are not silent here. I rather like the ‘eye’ that Hugh had painted in miniature of Ada because for me as Isabelle tells the tale from Ada’s perspective it becomes symbolic of an all-seeing eye and yet what should be obvious to the characters is hidden.

A gothic love story that one must chase like a bird that disappears into the darkest of skies. Naturally love is the ruin of many, will there be time to set things right and maybe live again?

Publication Date: April 9, 2019

Atria Books

The Goose Fritz by Sergei Lebedev, Translated by Antonia W. Bouis

 

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Something happened with her that Kirill had never seen. It was as if ghosts of terrible unimaginable catastrophes, wars, fires, floods, were nipping at her heels.

Russian born Kirill is the last member of his family, descendant of Balthasar Schwerdt who came to Russia from Germany in the 1800’s. An author who collects other’s people’s life stories, fearfully avoiding his own. It is time to tell the story of his family, with papers, archives he will chase the ‘threads of memory’ and ‘preserving the misunderstood and the unseen.’  It is the only way  Kirill can flee the fate of the family. As a child he sees a stone book in the German cemetery where his family plot lies, chosen as he is to be his grandmother’s constant companion on these visits. Naturally the visits isn’t something any of them talk about outside the confines of home. The book, blank as if an omen of what he must one day fill, is always waiting there for him as he comes of age.

Why, he wondered, was his Russian great-grandmother buried in the German cemetery anyway? With the adults ‘omissions about the past’ he learned to create stories as explanation. It isn’t until his grandmother Lina reveals, speaking in German, the name of his great-great-great grandfather while at his headstone, that he knows the bold truth of their German ancestry. Vile German blood, much like the Goose Fritz symbolized to the villagers, strangled to death by the harmless old Seargant in his drunken rage on the anniversary in July when he was wounded in the Battle Kursk. The goose, in the old man’s war ravaged mind, a German soldier. German, the stuff his family is made of.

Why did they not carry the surname Schwerdt, what fate befell his ancestors, a ‘scattered people’ bones buried in soil far from their fatherland? It’s always been easier for him to dig into stranger’s families than disrupt the rest of his own, and what would revelations mean for his own blind future? Is he destined to walk a path forged by those who came before him? Why can’t he guide his own future, be no one’s son, grandson? A crack in the headstone of his beloved, deceased grandmother, separating surname from birth name, birth date from death date seems to beg from the beyond their stories be told.

Balthasar’s life took a strange turn from that of medical doctor, working as his father’s assistant, to that of practitioner of homeopathic medicine, a ‘heretic’s career’. Thwarting his father’s plan, trembling with his newfound passion, Balthasar left his fractured world for a larger one, with the knowledge of his ‘travels’, Kirill needs to understand the why of it all. Pieces in museums and visiting cities doesn’t always lend an emotional landscape to history, it’s hard for him to imagine being born in the cities of his ancestors. There were seven daughters, and a son- there were wars, assassins, disease, even an early feminist who ‘excited men’s strife.’ Worse the strangest fate of all will befall the brilliant boy when as a man he encounters cannibals.

Kirill is blind to his own future but revisionist of his family’s past, able to look upon it with a godlike eye, see the impending doom as well as lucky escapes that his ancestors couldn’t. With one family member a migrant to Russia, they cannot be native nor accepted as such, forced to hide their German blood as if a stain, as evident by Kirill not even realizing he wasn’t fully Russian, born under the hammer and sickel, loyal as the rest of his family to their country.

This novel is about political history as much as family history, how it affects us all. Are you allowed to be a nationalist when your ancestors were enemies? There are many stories about all of the characters but it is rich in history, perfect for historical fiction lovers. I adored the relationship between Kirill and his beloved grandmother Lina. It’s incredible to think about what our ancestors suffered through, how they could still cling to hope, love and laugh. Personal history too can give birth to strange fears and rituals. The deepest shame is having to hide our blood for fear of persecution. Yes, read it.

Publication Date: March 19, 2019

New Vessel Press