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

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

Orders of Protection by Jenn Hollmeyer

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How easy it is to spend a lifetime protecting ourselves from the wrong things.

In Jenn Hollmeyer’s story collection, people discover their need for protection- everything from the threat of poverty, abuse,  to ‘a thousand needle stings’ and maybe even from themselves. Lives sinking to its lows, partners abandoning promises, bright futures fizzling out, happiness pulling away, and sometimes the best parade is the march away from what’s bad for you and your child. Why cling to disaster when you can just let go? Characters intuit what is happening, but the question for them, as for us all is, what will you do about it? Keep your eyes closed tight, or act and face the consequences, the change.

Protection from old family stories, a slight revision (it wasn’t really a lie) that landed as a fog in one daughter’s life. How can the truth be so blindingly bright, alter the story those who remain behind have told themselves? How easy it is to let what we think we know poison our joy, trying our hardest to follow in the footsteps of other’s sorrows, like a code in our DNA. How easy a lie to hide shame can barrel through your loved one’s future.

The kindness of a stranger may be your holy grail, but they too can run out of goodwill. Where do we find the grace to be better than those who went before us? Where do we find an anchor to keep us present when we’re on the edge of not caring? It’s not the hungry coyotes alone we have to fear, sometimes it’s where or if our next breath of air will come. Sometimes it’s whether or not the ones we love will leave again. Some of us want nothing more than to be haunted by those who have vanished. Some of us are always just leaving the scene because alone may be the only way, for a time, that you can make it through another day.

Not all soft places are easy to fall into. Often it’s the broken people who make the most sense, while we are waiting ourselves to be ‘fully cooked’ as a person. It’s the things we don’t see coming, isn’t it? Not the things we shield ourselves from that get us. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: November 15, 2019

University of North Texas

 

 

 

 

 

Virtuoso by Yelena Moskovich

 

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And yet, there is an extra weight within the room, like a movement finishing itself.

This novel shifts so much from story and perspective that it may lose a few readers in the process but for those of us that like these little roller coaster reads, hang on! Two Dollar Radio serves up another gem of a novel in Yelena Moskovich’s latest madness. The novel starts with a dead body, but hang on…. This is a coming of age at the end of the Soviet era,  Jana tells us for 19 years she was ‘a simple Czech girl’ living under severe rule of tapped telephones, letters steamed open, people disappearing- soviet domination holding the people down. She was a ‘clean-handed little girl’, a very bored one, so bored that even dust stirring in the sunlight would be interesting until the new girl enters the scene. A little raven-girl named Zorka, the “Mala Narcis” a little Narcissus who can’t get enough of herself. This Zorka suddenly lights up Jana’s life with her feral behavior, what could be more thrilling? Where Zorka is wild and angry Jana is ‘solid, smart’. With communism cracking, people are free to entertain big plans, and Zorka has a future somewhere beyond, beyond making her depressed mother uncomfortable with her ‘weird behavior’, a place where her father’s fade from sickness doesn’t hover. Jana finds strength in Zorka, until she disappears.

To the future we go and find Parisian Aimée married to an older actress Dominique, lovebirds from the start but lately something is weighing her wife down. Something is souring. It seems to be a separate story-line but naturally will find itself weaved into Jana’s. Jana working is as an interpreter in Paris, she too finally had her own destiny to fulfill. Someone else knows all about her friend, the Mala Narcis, it’s time Zorka is back in her life, but did she ever really leave her?

The story of Zorka’s mother and her mental illness is told in Part two where we finally discover just where Zorka was sent, to America to live with her uncle Gejza and his wife Tammie. Too hot for her mother to handle after the grief of losing her husband and her grip, it’s a culture shock for Zorka. But even America can’t reign her in, she finds a band of misfits like herself, explores her sexuality, strikes out on her own.

Did I mention the chatroom? Who the hell are these two? How do they fit? HotgirlAmy and a very miserable wife Domminxxika? Chapters throw you around, which usually makes me dizzy and irritates the hell out of me, but for some reason it doesn’t in this novel and it builds until finally at the end there is a picture where the characters fit. How does Moskovich keep up with her own creations? This novel made me feel jittery trying to keep up.

Past, present, dream or no dream, full circle, broken cirlcle, a dead wife, a dying mother, a sick father, broken friendship, abandonment, communism, love… there is so much happening. This writer is all over the place, but I remained riveted. My happiest reading was spent on Zorka’s childhood and the electric thrum of her. What antics, what sorrows! No wonder Jana clung to the memory of the Mala Narcis.

Read it if you can keep up, it’s meaty even though I admit I am not fully sure I have it all figured out. It will exhaust some readers, but I can’t wait to read her next novel. I have a thing for strange fiction. It is beyond genre, a weird read for winter.

Publication Date: January 14, 2020

Two Dollar Radio

Jacintha by Lorraine Davies

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God knew he needed her. If only she could stand by like a nurse who feeds and bathes her patient, smiled sympathetically, never makes judgments, never expects anything in return.

When a landslide kills student border Jenny, English Literature Professor Richard and his wife Carol are devastated. Not only is their entire life buried in mud and rubble, all their belongings damaged by water, their ruins of a home off limits labeled a safety hazard but the weight of the loss of young Jenny haunts them, how will they tell Jenny’s parents? Carol knows a natural disaster isn’t their fault, but Richard grapples with shame, guilt and is marked by a deep depression. The injuries are nothing to the lasting effects of this tragic moment. Carol has lost the most precious anchor in her life, her husband Richard, who is as distant as the stars. Lucky to be alive, but not feeling blessed, it’s not just his injuries, he has become a veritable stranger. There isn’t any intimacy left, and he claims to just need more time.

Teaching a class on The Tempest is just what he needs to get out in the world again. Richard plans to have his students write a version with an environmental theme, an homage to Jenny because she wanted to do it someday herself. This should be the salve to his emotional wounds. His desire for Jenny didn’t dissipate with her tragic end, though he never acted on his intense passion for her. Accident or not, had he not wanted her so badly, had he not continued to allow her to board with them, had he been a better man she would have still been alive. Irrational or not, in some strange way he still feels he is at fault, desire as an omen?

Richard should be the one to see a therapist, but Carol’s urging only angers him. It is Carol who decides to talk to someone after she acts out of character and betrays her husband and their marriage. But Richard isn’t giving her any reason to believe he is getting better, and the truth is that trauma from near death can have an ill effect on any relationship. Surely this doesn’t mean they are doomed, does it? She’s dealt with other disappointments about her husband’s life, like the strain in the relationship between he and his daughter Imogen with his first wife Grace. One constant is his inability to be present in the moment with those who need him most. Now Carol knows how it feels to be the person on the other end of his emotional distance. Through their separation letters pass between them, those in a future moments too, discussing the book he is writing about everything that passes after Jenny’s death, which encompasses Jacintha and her place in his life.

Jacintha’s childhood with her feckless mother Catherine sees her living with an adoptive family after some ‘incident’, all her life she has had one goal and that is to find Richard, who for her is the cause of her own live’s ruin. “Jacintha had written only one word:  Richard. She places the paper int he metal bowl, set it on fire, and watched it burn.” It takes more than a spell to get what she is after. Love and revenge are chains, and it will claim them all. Charming her way into Richard’s life, her kiss “A taste of berries“, seems to reawaken him in a way Carol’s couldn’t. It’s not what he wants, he wanted it to be Carol who could bring him out of this lifeless state, but it is exactly what Jacintha needs. Her past lay in rubble much like Carol and Richard’s relationship, it is only a matter of time before she reveals the truth, but her plan of seduction hinges on remaining unaffected by Richard as a man. She will share her terror with him, let the insidiousness of her own horrific nightmare weave it’s way through his soul, another thing to gut him with. She is letting other transgressions color how she sees Richard, but tenderness is surprisingly entering her heart as well. When Richard discovers the truth behind Jacintha’s presence, it is far more complicated and horrifying than the shame of falling in love with a student.

The letters between Richard and Carol sometimes upset the story, disrupted it’s flow. They are at a point where they know what has happened, and we are still in the dark, and it can confuse readers. As we are told in the Preface by the character Richard, “it is a true story written in the form of a novel about my relationship with Jacintha”,  therefore we know in advance it’s a novel within a novel. In the present day Carol and Richard are writing about their feelings in the aftermath of the Jenny’s death, the collapse of their marriage, and Jacintha’s blame or lack thereof in what followed. We already know Jacintha is a harbinger of disaster. I almost think the novel would have worked better if they weren’t discussing the novel he is writing about the entire affair while it’s still happening for the reader. I know I sound confusing, but this is the state it put the reader in. It is disorienting…but the novel has engaging moments, it just may be hard for most readers to get there.

Love is never wrong, how you express it is another story. Richard learns this too late, and before he even has a chance to know just how wrong his desires are.

Publication Date: November 19, 2019

Dundurn

The Family Upstairs: A Novel by Lisa Jewell

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I was a strange boy. I can see that now. I’ve since met boys like me: slow to smile, intense, guarded and watchful.

Lisa Jewell’s novels seem to be descending into darker territory and I absolutely love it! This is a novel about a sinister invasion, but it’s not demons or ghosts that will destroy the Lamb family. How could trying to make your wife happy be a bad thing? It will require changes, surely, but it isn’t outside Henry’s reach, it doesn’t require more than acceptance. By the end, both Martina and Henry will be dead from a suicide pact, according to police reports anyway. The two teenage Lamb children will be unaccounted for and the baby ( possibly 10 months old) the sole survivor among the dead.This baby girl, Libby Louise Jones has just turned 25 and is stunned to learn she is the sole owner of her biological parent’s mansion left to her in a trust,  ‘on the finest street in Chelsea’. This changes everything, no longer will she have to scrimp and save, nor make compromises in life, now- her adoptive mother tells her ‘you’ll be a very rich woman indeed.’ 

The house remembers what was and has been waiting, despite the years it’s been closed up, even if Libby was too young to absorb everything that led to that ill fated day in 1977, the traces remain like a haunt. The story begs to be told, and there are others who have been waiting for Libby too. One person in particular in another part of the world, and they know more than they can stomach, for they have been living their own nightmare, dealing in lies, subterfuge and know all too well the weight of identity. As she researches the chilling story of her own origins, she paints a terrifying picture, shocked to learn she had siblings  is the least of it the bigger jolt is that they seemed to vanish without a trace. Worse, there were more bodies, other missing children- what exactly was her biological family caught up in? This birthday gift is a trapdoor that will take her into a chilling past. Every answer comes with bigger questions. Why were they living in poverty? Her father Henry came from wealth, heir to his father’s money, so what went wrong? Who were these other people, why were they living in her parent’s home? What about the robes, were they a cult?

Without giving away the story, the sheer terror for children is the control, the power of the adult world. There are many ways mommy and daddy can fail their children, not every trauma comes from a raised fist. There are a million ways to neglect duty, the Lambs’ demise is in opening their home. Minds close, purses tighten, blindness sets in and their entire world shrinks within the walls of the gorgeous home.  There can only be one head of this family, naturally it will be the most charismatic force and it will be the collapse of them all.

As Libby unearths every skeleton of the past and attempts to assemble the remains of her family, every truth also contains the germ of a lie. Before the end, she will uncover the entire tale, and discover that the things she imagined all her life about her biological family pales in comparison to the twisted reality of just who they were.

I can’t wait for Lisa Jewell’s next novel. She writes of the fractures within’ families so perfectly, because often the things people do really come out of nowhere and leave you wondering if you knew them, and let’s face it sometimes yourself, at all.

Publication Date: November 5, 2019

Atria Books