The Book of Katerina by Auguste Corteau

I’ve no idea how it is to lose your mind, but never in my life have I feared anything more: the mere thought, the energetic verb to go insane is worse than death and to die, its black vortex more horrifying than nonexistence.

This isn’t a happy book, in fact the generations of the family living in the Greek city of Thessaloniki have suffered through serious miseries, to which there seems no end. Katerina may not endear many readers, but if you are paying close attention, every incident in her life (much of it tragic, despite her social standing) has led to her disturbing, sad end. In fact, none of her siblings really escape the viciousness of their fate, their family malady. The tale does jump about, and usually choppy writing and such timelines drive me nuts, but it relays to me, in a sense, the state of Katerina’s troubled mind. She never makes you feel sorry for her and for some reason that made the character study far more riveting. Is the family genetics to blame for the mental health issues, the environment, the neglect, the family pecking order? More like a disorder.

There are many truths silenced within this family, even before Katerina is born. Her grandmother was Jewish, but that ‘shame’ had to be disguised, hence her name was changed. She had three children, all girls. The eldest Irene “Irini” is Katerina’s weak and self-indulgent mother. With her first child, a son, born with a condition that didn’t make itself known until he was five, one that wasn’t diagnosed correctly back in those times, he is sent to a children’s institution- one she never visits, as there are other children that follow. He is the first defect, but he won’t be the last. How can a woman who clings to the exquisiteness of her youth, the former grandeur, the social privilege bear the stigma of a defective child? Are the times to blame for such rejection? The second may be challenged in other ways, but she will have her favorites. More offspring follow, some die, some are born with their own stigmas while youngest, Katerina is the “accident” and the jealous sister before her makes life hell. But who is the real devil? Irini cannot cope raising her brood, and brings her niece Zoë into the household, an angel, a source of never-ending love and the only mothering the children will know. A protector and an unlikely one whose own unfortunate origins should be reason enough to be as maladjusted as the family she becomes a part of, Zoë is like a saint but has her own irrational fears. Irini can be brutal when facing her children’s weaknesses, her reaction when Katerina suffers a mental disturbance is to shut up, keep it to yourself, likely out of fear and half out of shame. This is a defining moment, one that makes the monster in Katerina’s mind grow far bigger, chaining itself to her future. Despite life going against all her wishes, Katerina’s mother has high ambitions. Even if fate deals her cross eyed children and a lackluster love life. A life without romance can always be filled by cheap junk.

Katerina and her siblings want for nothing but it cannot save the Horianos from ruin, which will follow them into adulthood. Even a cousin is wrecked by the ravings of the family, born to a beautiful mother and fated to be plain. Back we go into Katerina’s past, learning all the distorted happenings. A mother who cries behind closed doors, unable to attend to her parental duties, what sort of mark does this leave on Katerina, what sort of mother does she herself become? Madness is always nesting in this family. What is to be done with frayed nerves, mental torment? The church has an answer, beg Jesus for mercy. It doesn’t help. Neither does her last resort, a medical doctor, who violates her. This violation forges Katerina’s distrust of the very people who should be helping her manage her bipolar disorder. Is it this unforgiveable act that set the stage for her final scene so many years later?

Ill advised love, miscarriages, marriage, political upheaval, pregnancy and an earthquake… then Katerina’s beloved son, the child she carries to term, Petros, is born. He is the light in the darkness of her depressions, even able to transfix his mean grandfather. The old man’s heart is hooked, earning Petros adoration, allowing the dark episodes of Katerina’s life to subside for a time. Hypersensitivity arises, breakdowns occur, she becomes a suspicious, jealous wife and at times an inept mother. Her love is diseased and she fears her son may be a lover of goats and that’s a whole other tale. Her rough edges are never smoothed, she has spent her life dealing with the horrors of others and the horrors in her own mind. She has many faults and confronts them all. She is a force until the very end, and this book will tear her apart from the moment she gives birth to her son until he finds her body on sad display.

Her brain turned against her and she was tired of fighting. Here, her beloved son speaks for his mother, in a retelling of her life and intimate thoughts. Katerina was a product of her time clinging to old fashioned views, but that’s how people were, blunt, callous, narrow minded about different lifestyles and choices. She isn’t always likeable, certainly her own parents aren’t either, knowing they sent a child away to an institution. Mental illness is not new and if you consider today’s treatment, you can see how impossible getting things right had to have been then. She is arrogant and yet deeply insecure and damaged. How can her son not be affected by her clinical depression? Maybe not for every reader but I was engaged and moved, thinking of the reasons the author must have decided to write about his mother. Maybe by bringing her to life he can put her to rest.

Publication Date: June 1, 2021

Parthian Books

House of Sticks: A Memoir by Ly Tran

We arrive in the blizzard of 1993, coming from rice paddies, mango trees, and the sun to February in the Empire State.

Ly Tran has written an incredibly moving memoir about her family’s move from war-torn Vietnam to a neighborhood in Queens, New York. The sickness from turbulence and three weeks of travel they endured was a precursor to the culture shock of their new lives in America. At three years old, Ly Tran was “vaguely conscious of the world around me”. As the youngest of four children, her memories of the journey and her homeland are fragmented, gaps filled in by her parents and older siblings alongside flashes of feelings. For her, adjusting to their new reality is easier, the past soon fading. In time, she is torn between two cultures, two worlds. Her family lived along the Mekong river, one can imagine the alien feeling, the rupture of leaving nature and all it’s glorious colors, rhythms for the hustle and bustle of a gritty, gray, American city. Before they are even settled, the family is in debt to their sponsor. With a language barrier alone, despite being a former lieutenant in the South Vietnamese army (and a POW for a decade), jobs that can support their family of six aren’t easy to attain. To ‘make ends meet’, Ly and her siblings help their parents with sewing, forming their own little production line on the living room floor of their two-bedroom railroad apartment. Unlike other American children, there isn’t time for play, delicious candy and tv binging. In the Buddhist tradition, one honors parents and family above all else, but as the years pass and Ly struggles at school, honoring thy father isn’t such an easy faith to follow.

Grateful for their place in this new world, though awake to harsh realities, Ly’s parents cling to their faith and work ethics. They know they will be okay, despite the mountains of obstacles before them. Life tests them, people deceive, take advantage, threaten. Carrying fear in his heart from the horrors he left behind, Ly’s father doesn’t want to make waves, stand out. The children come up with American names for each other, proudly, but is that enough to make roots in this new land? Their father’s fears manifest in strange behaviors and irrational decisions exacerbating Ly’s school struggles. Worse, her parents demands that, like her brothers before her, she leave behind a legacy of academic excellence make her feel anxious. It is not so easy when socially awkward, and struggling with vision issues! When she speaks her truth, that she cannot see well enough in school to learn math, her father’s reaction isn’t the fatherly wisdom she was hoping for. Maybe she really is just stupid, maybe glasses are a government conspiracy, but his truth clashes with her own reality. Despite his rants, she cannot see, it’s a stubborn fact one cannot ignore and here she is meant to swallow her truth. This is just one of many impenetrable walls she will face within her family.

Nothing beats elevating one’s place in life, no matter the hours of toil it takes. Why else did her parents bring their children to this country, if not to earn a full education, the only ladder to that high place in life? But in this land of dreams, for girls, sometimes there are violations. When one learns to endure, sometimes they learn to submit when they should fight. Watching her mother humiliated when working as a manicurist at a Brooklyn salon puts a bitter seed in Ly’s soul. Ly often works beside her, and yet this becomes just another place her mother refuses to stand up for herself, just like in the family home when facing Ly’s irrational father. Love and resentment, her father’s overbearing will makes home hell. Things get worse when a helpful teacher gets involved, threatening their House of Sticks.

Ly’s coming of age is an intimate look at trying to fit in while trapped between two cultures. Her guilt for feeling ashamed and perplexed by her odd father. Feeling abandoned by her larger than life brothers, her mother’s acceptance of the ugly world both infuriating and confusing. Confusing because she longs to protect her. Wanting to just be a normal American girl, not feeling like a failure who can’t live up to her father’s expectations. It is an intimate window into loyalty, faith, family and the inheritance the brutality of war leaves for the next generation. It takes years for Ly to come to terms with her father’s fragility, to understand why her mother more often than not sides with her husband, despite the cost. Becoming American doesn’t erase her father’s years of suffering, imprisonment, labor, indoctrination while forced into a “re-education camp”. From a place of freedom, how can Ly fully comprehend everything her mother and father had been through, had given up to provide their children with a better future? In turn, how can they understand the weight their daughter carries in her heart searching for a place for herself, trying to feel like an American with the traditions of the culture they left behind shadowing her every move? A place where she is a dutiful daughter but also a free person, able to use her voice, speak her truth and create a future that feels right for her?

There are funny moments and harsh ones. It is a heavy duty, one’s heritage. Can she honor the past, and yet build her own future, free of the hooks of familial expectations? An emotional journey and a beautiful memoir. Add it to your summer reading list!

Publication Date: June 1, 2021

Scribner

A Dark and Secret Place: A Novel by Jen Williams

All those monsters in the wood never really went away, not for me.

When Heather Evans returns home after the shocking suicide of her mother (Colleen), all the uncomfortable feelings of their shared past, of the distance between them, comes to the surface. Remembering the simmering anger she felt as a child, the house a too quiet, cold place with memories better left forgotten, her nerves are on edge thinking of her mother’s disturbing end. The eerie mention of monsters in the wood in Colleen’s suicide note could be chalked up to derangement if she didn’t know her sensible mother better. When she stumbles upon quiet, respectable Colleen’s secret stash of letters, she is sick in her gut to discover a secret her mother kept tightly sealed. She had been corresponding with the “Red Wolf”, infamous serial killer Michael Reave, whose decades of imprisonment for brutal, ritualistic murders of women is nothing short of gruesome, terrifying. When a young woman is found dismembered, her body arranged just like the “Red Wolf” disposed of a victim decades past, his outcries of his innocence begs to be heard.

How could her ‘well-to-do’ mother have been keeping such a secret, even while married to Heather’s father? The letters dating back twenty five years reveal more than any stories her mother ever shared, as she was never one for reminiscing. Why does the fact that in all the years Colleen wrote to the monster she never even mentioned Heather feel like a personal jab? There are strange things her mother wrote in her final farewell and Michael’s letters are like a bloody trail of crumbs leading Heather on a dangerous path to her mother’s poisonous past. The only way to attempt to understand this mystery is to confront the “Red Wolf”, despite the horror she feels knowing that her mother could have been one of those ridiculous serial killer groupies. With the help of the police, DI Ben Parker in particular, she comes to learn Colleen was Michael Reave’s only friend and that suddenly the police are open to her meeting with him. The “Red Wolf” will only talk to her, and maybe the police can find some information through Heather about these the grisly, copycat murders. In meeting Reaves, Heather will discover a tale of a family “everyone whispers about”.

What, if anything, did Michael have to do with her mother’s suicide? What does he know about Colleen’s past on the ‘hippy’ commune? Who or what are the monsters in the wood, and are they watching Heather now too? Why does she suddenly have a creeping feeling of impending doom? Is her own life now in danger? Straight away he tells her “Everyone has secrets, Lass”, but she is buried in the weight of the life her mother had before she was born. Colleen made choices, choices that were both her ruin and salvation. Michael Reave’s memories are like riddles or dark fairy tales, can Heather untangle the past through him or will he muddy the facts more? It all goes back to 1977 and a place called Fiddler’s Mill.

Violence is waiting, pulsing in the dark, Parker tells her their priority is her safety but how can you keep a woman safe from the monsters of truth? The knowledge her mother kept bundled up, that appears to have driven her to the desperate act of suicide, may well strip Heather of her very identity. Heather must enter the dark and secret place where the horror was born.

The novel is a slow read at times, although there is a lot happening. My one wish was for more time spent on Colleen in the past as well as raising Heather in the aftermath, what went through her mind, her inner turmoil. It would have been a lot more engaging with more connections to the characters emotionally but it’s still a decent storyline. I could see this turned into a movie.

Publication Date: June 8, 2021

Crooked Lane Books

Ruby Falls: A Novel by Deborah Goodrich Royce

The old story. The old name. The scene of the crime, Ruby Falls. I will tell him all of it. It’s just too ridiculous to explain right now.

Summer of 1968: Ruby Falls in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee is the last time six-year-old Eleanor Ruby Russell’s father is seen, before she is swallowed up in the dark of the tourist attraction, left mute and alone with the horror of abonnement. In the wake of the possible crime she becomes famous for a while and a part of the unsolved mystery of her daddy’s disappearance. What she remembers haunts her, but memories are fragmented, confusing to the mind of a child. How could he let go of her hand? Did he? Could something nefarious have happened to him? People don’t just vanish without leaving a trail, do they? Is her name a clue? To be abandoned in a place sharing the same name, what was her father’s intention? Trapped in Tennessee with a long line of questions, she and her mother are left at the scene of the ‘crime’ attempting to explain the impossible.

Ruby grows up trapped by the past, a child who is greatly changed by the incident. After all the options in uncovering what happened to her father are exhausted by the local police, she and her mother return to Michigan where soon Ruby decides to put an end to the torment her name inspires. She discards it with the return of her voice, becoming Eleanor and as if learning a new role, opens her heart to her future career as a soap opera actress. There is strength in disappearing into a new you. Current day, 1987 she is on her honeymoon in Rome with her new husband, Anglo-Chinese Englishman, Orlando Montague. Orlando is an antiques dealer, just like her father was and their love, a whirlwind romance of six weeks. Once they settle into their new beautiful home in Hollywood Hills, Rebecca’s career is on the rise as she takes on the leading role in Rebecca. Soon, her own life begins to mirror Daphne du Maurier’s tale, making her question where fantasy ends and reality begins. She wonders how well she knows Orlando, as he begins to behave oddly, arguing with her one moment, dismissing her feelings the next, and then unsettling her by making her look and feel demented. There is the strange old lady next door, Dottie, who seems to know impossible things. There is an air of mystery about her that doesn’t sit well. Eleanor and Orlando know little about each other, each has their own secrets they aren’t sharing but could his be a danger to her? As she goes down the rabbit hole the discoveries she makes will cause her to question her entire universe, every truth and fiction she has swallowed and what has been born from it all.

As her dreamy new life unravels, so too does her mind. Why is she keeping the trauma of her past from her beloved? Could Orlando be unfaithful? Is he really out to get her, or is she still trying to come to grasp with the disappearance of her father? It’s a labyrinth of lies, but who is the biggest deceiver?

It was a decent storyline and not what I imagined at all. I actually think the truth, yes you get it, of what happened to her father is perfect, makes so much sense. I wish the end didn’t rush upon us so quickly, but it was a good ending. My one issue is the way she and Orlando interacted. Their voices played in my head like a classic movie. You know, that stilted, unnatural, controlled “old-timey” voice. I wonder if that was the intention though, with her state of mind, with being in Hollywood. Hmmm. A decent read.

Publication Date: July 28, 2021

Post Hill Press

Everything Is Fine: A Memoir by Vince Granata

I imagine Tim’s psychosis, his nocturnal madness, and remember all the hours my mother spent at the piano trying to soothe the raging nightscape that howled in his head.

Vince Granata’s mother was murdered at the hands of his mentally ill brother, this is a brutal fact, but what makes this memoir important for society and keeps it from sensationalizing his family’s tragedy, is the exploration of what brought them to this point. We read the headlines, horrified, make assumptions but most people never go much further than judgement. Claudia Granata was a victim of her son’s psychosis but that doesn’t tell the story of everything that became before and after. That doesn’t inform anyone that Tim, too, was a victim of his own psychosis. Such headlines seem to exist in a manner that erases the dedicated, loving mother who did everything she could to keep her son’s world safe. Yes, Claudia was a highly educated medical doctor, as is her surviving husband Attilio, but even with their means and education their son’s illness couldn’t be managed, and they did try. The day before her death, she spoke to a therapist who warned her to make her son feel safe and ‘be wary’. Their fear was that he would harm himself, as he had threatened to before when the noise in his head became too much to bear. Sadly, she couldn’t have imagined what was coming.

Vince writes about the signs they all neglected to see far earlier than his illness began presenting, and his shame at missed opportunities as a big brother and son. Just as any of us would rake over our own fears of guilt in the aftermath of tragedy, he attempts to pinpoint the pivotal moment when one step in the right direction could have changed the outcome. By sharing his brother Tim’s mental decline, it may well help other families going through similar struggles. The reality is, there is so much we do not understand about mental illness in all its forms, especially schizophrenia, which in Tim’s case went unchecked. What can be done when a patient refuses their meds, because they think they don’t need them, because that’s how the disease presents itself? You think you’re fine, better, cured. What is a person to do who lives each day with a distorted reality? We don’t think about how our perception, yes all of us, creates our world- it’s easier to draw a line from the ‘healthy’ and the ‘ill’ instead of thinking we could ever have any commonalities. All of us base our reality on what our inner voice tells us, what we see with our eyes and hear with our ears, we just happen to have the clear functioning, for the most part, of measuring ourselves against others, which keeps us grounded. How differently would we behave, think, feel if we had voices howling at us that someone has abused us, or were demons? How would we react during hallucinations others don’t see but are real for us? Even if it presents in less threatening ways, the fact remains the such illnesses push the patient further away from others, even distrusting our own devoted, worried mothers. Much of the time others push those coping with mental illness away to the fringes of our world, out of fear or ignorance of the condition. Is it really a shock that isolation feels like the only safe haven? It is often in self isolation that the disease grows stronger, overtaking what grasp on reality still remains. Loved ones best efforts sometimes aren’t enough, it’s truly being between a rock and a hard place if a patient is an adult. You cannot force treatment, and the illness can cause paranoia, distrust of even those who truly have nothing but your best interest at heart. Vince’s memoir is not intended as medical research but aside from the patient themselves, who better than those who have been witness to the slow creep of the disease to give testimony?

Granata knows that mental illness still has a stigma, and that we can’t move forward shaming people who carry the burden of the disease. Why are we kinder to people who have visible illnesses? Why don’t we, as a society, understand that mental illness, though complicated and not fully understood, is not any more shameful than any other disease? Even people with the best resources, medical education are lost at sea in trying to help their loved one learn how to treat and manage their mental illness. With memories and stories of Tim we see him not as the monster his horrific act (while suffering psychosis, we must keep in mind) makes him appear to be but as a beloved son and brother who had athletic gifts and promise of his own. I read this as a mother would, there was never a point Claudia gave up. How do you arrive at justice in such a case, when everyone loses? This is not the future she wanted for her son, nor can anyone imagine she would want to see him demonized for the horrors of that ill fated day. What about the healing, how does Vince’s family and yes, Tim included, move forward from here? How does Vince remember the beautiful woman his mother was without the savagery of her final moments poisoning the past? It’s a question he had to ask himself. He cannot honor his mother’s memory without shedding light on who his brother Tim really is when not in the grips of psychosis because he was her heart as much as Vince and his siblings. I don’t have enough words to describe how much this memoir touched me. I know I drone on in this review, but that’s how moving I found it to be, and very relatable. My own son was diagnosed with autism at a young age and anything that’s ‘different’ changes how people treat you, I saw this first hand, even when people try to fit in. It is a daily struggle for him more than any of us. I also understand the scope of a mother’s love, the reach of her heart, her fears and hopes and that she is willing to sacrifice anything to help her children. I think of how my own grandmother had to navigate her son’s schizophrenia, he never stayed on his meds for long past release from hospitalizations. It affected the entire makeup of the family, it could just as easily be a story that could have happened to them. Today there have been more advances, but not leaps. Family has front row seats to the constant fight, it is a helpless, heartbreaking feeling. Vince’s brother was a collegiate heavyweight wrestler, but his fiercest opponent has been his own mind. Vince’s story does not minimize the enormity of Tim’s act, but it’s not a simple case. This memoir is about family bonds, grief, the realities and struggles of mental health, and tragedy but most of all it about about love and forgiveness. I don’t believe the description of Claudia’s end will be what remains with me, but the vision of a loving mother playing the piano to calm the storm in her son’s mind. Yes read it!

Publication Date: April 27, 2021

Atria Books

Tante Eva: A Novel by Paula Bomer

To Eva, Maggie was like a gift from God, a God who often was unkind, as anyone who’s read the bible knows. Eva knew suffering, so when something miraculous came along- a niece who was more like an angel, a twin in a different time, as if her own youth were given a new chance at life- she knew to be grateful.

Eva carries her suffering from her head all the way down to her legs, troubled by varicose veins. When she isn’t spending her days dodging the skinheads outside her apartment building in East Berlin, which feels more slum than home, she is washing pills (not as easy to obtain now that she is a retired nurse) down with sour wine as she listens to blues records and waits on her lover Hansi. She knows all too well about the blues, lyrics she can feel in her soul. Her beloved niece Maggie lives in America and writes her beautiful letters, ones that even Eva’s young neighbor Krista looks forward to. Krista gives her more attention and care than her own daughter, Elena, the poor girl’s life revolving around her ailing mother and has become a friend of sorts to her. Eva is beyond thrilled that Maggie plans to move to Berlin, as if choosing her over her own mother (Eva’s younger sister Liezel) and though Eva shouldn’t delight in it, she does. Liezel turned her back on the past, embracing the materialism, greed, and western values long ago and there is muddied water under the bridge of their sisterhood. It feels like a small victory that Maggie is becoming more like her, even if Eva has never been political, the two are like twin souls. Maggie, who hates America and cares for the poor, feels more like her true child having always reminded her of her own sister when she was still sweet, when Eva had to raise her as her own after their mother’s death. Elena, her daughter, resembles Eva’s dead husband Hugo (a Jewish atheist) more than her in looks and temperament and the two have a strained relationship. Elena seems to blame her for raising her in the GDR, for having no father (as if Hugo’s death was her fault) and Eva’s heartache and disappointment that Elena seems like a child still, the very embodiment of underachievement, has diluted their bond. Worse, Elena doesn’t think much of Hansi, who means everything to Eva. She has remained in Berlin for him more than any other reason.

Middle-aged though the lovers may be, Eva still gets high on Hansi’s touch, the very brawn of him and his ‘air of menace’ excites her like nothing else. He has his secrets and she loves his mystery, doesn’t dare to ask how he affords his lifestyle, the nice car, his many privileges. There is anger living beneath his skin, but Eva knows better than to question his business dealings, she is good at waiting, a steadfast woman and wise enough to keep the desperation she feels to always have him beside her well hidden. If she wishes his wife were dead, well who could blame her? What has life in the GDR taught her but to not question things? To ignore trouble? To accept whatever demands and restrictions life, or dear Hansi, puts on her?

In her joy with her ‘angel’ Maggie’s arrival, she fails to notice danger even when it smacks her in the face. Maggie and her boyfriend Tom begin to seem ‘off balance’, her lovely nice begins to lose her shine, her fresh beauty. When everything goes off the rails, how much is Eva to blame, for being blind to reality? Don’t all grown women have their ‘troubles’, it’s a part of growing up, right? How are Tom and her niece’s troubles tied to her Hansi? She can’t keep her eyes closed and make excuses forever.

Eva is first to defends the GDR, freely admitting it had its flaws while pointing out that the whole world has imperfect systems too. In fact, at times, crime seems worse now, as if everyone is on their own. The West is just about having ‘stuff’, she declares, while clinging to the robe from her Hansi and moved by her jazz and blues records. She’s allowed to be contrary, no? She is morose, but her life has been full of small tragedies and betrayals. Family alienation not the least of it, haunted by dreams about her dead husband as guilt and shame weighs her down, but what is she to do? Never move on? A perceptive story about how one family is affected by the changes of their country and how clinging to the hurts of the past can harm the present. Eva isn’t always likeable, she often seems indifferent or numb, but it is how she’s survived her situations, deflected pain. Addiction, to drugs and unhealthy love.

Publication Date: May 18, 2021

Soho Press

The Recent East: A Novel by Thomas Grattan

“That place,” Udo had told Adela. “Beautiful and scary all at once.”

“There must be a German word for that,” Adela answered, listing their favorite compound nouns- Weltschmerz and Schattenparker. Kummerspeck. Udo smiled. “Both beautiful and scary,” he said, and came up with a new word for them to use.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall coincides with the collapse of Beate Haas’s marriage and on the heels of these events, Beat receives a registered letter informing her that she can now claim the home in Kritzhagen she and her parents lived in before their escape many years ago. Beate has decided she and her two teenaged children should go to Germany. On a June day they discover the house with many rooms isn’t quite as their mother, whom they refer as ‘the German Lady’, remembers it. Time has taken it’s toll on the old ghost, now inhabited by mice empty of furniture and not one of the childhood friends their mother talked about there to greet them. This is the beginning of Beate curling into herself on the old mansion’s floor and avoiding the reality of this now unfamiliar country.

Adela and Michael, Beate’s teenaged children, each deal with this move differently. Adela tries on Michael’s enthusiasm, hoping the move is a turn of good fortune, wanting to believe her brother’s stories about the place. But when they land in Germany on a June morning, nothing is as they envisioned, the home not much resembling the picture their mother showed them. This will be the place the single identity they always seemed to share dissolves. Eldest Michael experiences everything from vandalism, new friendships, and partying to a sexual encounter that leaves him confronting his identity. Gay in Germany isn’t the same as gay in America. Adela buries herself in books about tragedies and the horrific history of Eastern Germany, disinterested in discovering this new country waiting outside their door beyond print. Brother and sister no longer share their lives with each other as they did before. Michael is coming into his own, separate from his family, hungry for adventure. Adela is no longer flush with certainty, that former confidence gone and buried under the ruins of their new home. Here, she seems lost in confusion. She’d rather read about their city than explore it.

One day they come home to find a large teenage boy in their yard, Udo Behm, a cousin they never knew about. Udo is the one person who can get Adela to engage with the world again beyond the walls of their home. Udo is always present after that, solving their problems (that Michael already attempted to), teaching Adela a different side of his country’s history, lightening the heaviness of Adela’s days Udo is complicated. Michael is at times a bit jealous of his place in his sister’s life being usurped by Udo but also wishes he were his own brother. Udo and Adela perceive the world in vastly different ways. It’s only a matter of time before their differences cause problems. There is violence, too, on the streets between refugees and the locals. Adela befriends a refugee girl, an act others aren’t fond of. Wannabe neo-nazis, rage, shame, and violence… Michael is too free, unaware of what’s coming and how it’s about to change his family.

Beate has returned to her native country more alien than she imagined she’d ever be. Neither American nor German any longer, it’s impossible to pretend she can navigate this new life, guide her children. There is no such thing as returning, time moves on and so do the people. She can’t recall much of her youth and is often unable place the people who remember her. She struggles to even understand why she and her much older parents left so long ago. Beate’s early years adjusting to the west shed light on the immigrant experience, how displacement effects children as much as adults. She is uprooted each time she manages to plant herself. The failure of her marriage is no different, and once again she is lost, flailing to find an anchor, failing as a mother, blind to how much Adela needs her. She is out on the streets at night almost as much as Michael, exploring the city, finding work cutting hair in a depressing bar. The reader goes back into the past with her childhood, how she met her children’s father, and her attempts at budding love in the present. Udo and his mother are a Godsend, even while irritating her in equal turns. While she is figuring herself out, violence threatens the life she envisioned back in her homeland, and changes her family for decades. The siblings aren’t finished drifting away from each other, with one child building their future in Germany, and the other fleeing.

It’s an exploration of family, cultural and sexual identity, and how we are molded by the places we plant our family. An intelligent story, if full of sorrow. I was a little disappointed by Udo’s storyline, I wanted more for he and Adela. I never felt I really got to know her as much as I wished to nor dissected their bond. The novel comes full circle, but it was focused more on Michael and Beate. The other characters sometimes come alive but Michael and Adela’s father truly feels more like a shadow than worth the reader’s time. Udo, such a damaged, lost person and yet fragile too is vital one moment and then more like an echo next. Maybe we’re meant to feel everything is out of our hands too?

Publication Date: March 9, 2021

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Lurkers: A Novel by Sani Tan

It was bad enough they already thought in English. He sensed trouble farther down the road. Already they questioned him and disrespected them at every turn- this would mutate into hate and shame.

An apt title, Lurkers. On Santa Claus Lane, Korean American sisters Mira and Rosemary are growing up in a home where their father is a mystery, someone they imagine wanted nothing more in life to be somewhere else, or better yet, anyone else. Their mother is clueless about the realities they will soon face. If they lose their home, the girls fear they will have to move back to the one place their mother is comfortable living, Korea. The idea horrifies the two, who can’t even speak their parents native tongue. Long ago, Mr. Park ( their immigrant father) showed promise with his engineering degree but life snowballed and fate led him to work as a busboy at his cousin’s restaurant. Later by marrying their much younger mother, life led him to take the place of his wife’s minister father and become one himself. His daughters don’t understand him, they are too American in their speech and thoughts, disrespectful, and no one realize he has a secret dream of his own. If he can just produce something of value, then things could be different! Misfortune visits and a suicide leaves the Park family reeling.

By the time the girls discover what he was working on, it may be too late and just confound them even more. The Park’s neighbor, Raymond Van Der Holt, a gay horror writer, finds himself on the hook helping Mrs. Park. Her visit is a strange disruption but nothing as odd as his intruder/ghost and at least the Korean housewife comes bearing food. Before long, the strange neighbors infiltrate his quiet life. He doesn’t realize just how deeply he will be connected to them.

Rosemary takes up theater to spice up her college application, under the spell of the seductive Mr. Z, who pushes trust exercises on the students and urges them to let go of their inhibitions. He hones in on Rosemary, paying her the attention she desperately craves but it’s a dangerous game. He demands raw honesty, but he himself is anything but honest. His workshop is a hothouse of sexual innuendos, and he himself is corrupting youth, grooming them. Youngest daughter Mira wants to conjure an entity to haunt their home. She is coming up with strange ideas to stop the sale of their house, tormenting their mother. When a termite inspector visits, her mind strays to devious plans.

Mary-Sue lived a life away from the poisonous chaos of her brother, spending years in a colony of modern ascetics trying to be a better, calmer version of herself. Family intrudes, as does the Vietnam war, and when she finally makes her way home she gathers the last remains of her family. She decides to adopt a Vietnamese orphan. This child, Kate, grows up feeling shadowed by her tragic history. A sullen girl who feels more like a lodger than her mother’s child, despite Mary-Sue’s love, there always seems to be a vast distance between them. Kate’s best friend is Paul, a kid just as disaffected as her. The two spend their teen years never turning romantic, all those should haves. After college she moves back home, years roll on and the two cross paths again. Paul has fifteen year old girl at his side, she assumes it’s his child. This is where it gets seedy and weird, and his explanation for being with the girl is warped.

The stories merge on Santa Claus Lane and at times it’s hard to keep track of. I didn’t much care for the sisters, Mira and Rosemary. Sure, their exasperation with their parents is understandable but they come off as cold fish. Kate and Paul’s tale makes for an uncomfortable read, not because the younger girl as a mirror/ode to Kate was surprising but I was disgusted with the whole mess of it. That Kate isn’t appalled is shocking. It’s a perverse bunch. Honestly, in the end, the saddest thing is I felt sorry only for the characters who aren’t given much space- Mr. and Mrs. Park. If there are redeeming qualities here it is in poor Raymond. The supernatural bits confounded me, sort of threw off the story. The letter at the end would have made for a far more meaningful, affecting story I would have gobbled up. It had all the emotion I was searching for in the rest of the book. Why I liked parts of it has to do with the immigrant experience, leaving behind their origins, the feeling of searching for an identity and how Kate never felt she belonged or deserved anything was rich writing. Too, the struggle Mr. Park faced trying to fit into this American life. It’s awful, honest. What I could do without, the sex which was not erotic, just felt voyeuristic and not at all my cup of tea. The sleazy men dominated the tale, my God, it’s low belly bastards haunting the book and I could not stand it. The writing is at times intelligent but a lot of the uncomfortable stuff doesn’t sit well. I think Tan can write, but I felt like the characters just kept running away from me. When it comes to Paul and Mr. Z- don’t get me started.

Publication Date: March 30, 2021

Soho Press

The Family Ship: A Novel by Sonja Yoerg

Babies are wonderful, Verity thought, because of everything they don’t know. They don’t know how to pretend, how to hide themselves. They don’t know how to walk across a floor of broken china acting like everything is fine.

On Chesapeake Bay, 1980 the Vergennes family run a tight ship being taught valuable lessons of responsibility and discipline aboard an oyster boat made into a destroyer called the USS Nepenthe. Their father Arthur, a former Navy man, believes it is the glue for family loyalty and that by earning ranks his brood will learn confidence. For their eldest daughter, eighteen-year-old Verity, the rank of Lieutenant Commander to her younger siblings no longer feels like fun. Not the type of person who enjoys giving orders, all she truly wants is a life of her own and more freedom to live it. Arthur’s plan to attend the local community college after high school isn’t what she wants. As much as she loves her siblings and parents what she wants is a chance to stand on her own, to discover who she is besides the eldest Vergennes girl. Despite secretly applying to college further away than her father would allow, she wonders if such a hope could ever come to fruition. Certainly, money is a concern, something she knows full well they can’t afford. Then, there is the guilt she feels for wanting to leave the nest, especially knowing her parents depend on her to help run their own little crew. With eldest brother Jude having jumped ship after a fight with his father, she shoulders the burden of being the ‘good’ child. With her mother’s latest pregnancy and exhaustion, how can she possibly be so selfish? Yet, what is so wrong about wanting a life of her own? Isn’t that what children do, grow up and leave home?

Arthur isn’t always the fair, calm master he wishes to be. His wife Maeve knows all too well that he “worried a great deal and blamed himself unnecessarily when life went sideways”. It is about to go sideways for them all when Maeve becomes pregnant again. Arthur is about to be tested, triggering off an incident from his past that has shadowed his entire life. Jude is the black sheep, persona non grata in Arthur’s estimation, but Verity needs him now more than ever to lean on, despite their rocky past. She isn’t the only one.

This is a story about family, guilt and redemption. It is about the ways we blame ourselves for things out of our control and the terrible effect it has on our relationship with others. It is a tale of being forced into roles that no longer fit, of not knowing how to move forward in forgiveness. The Family Ship proves that we can’t always control the ocean of life, that we can only steer the ship and hope the direction we are headed leads us to a safer shore. We cannot control fate, nor protect our children or ourselves from the waves of tragedy but we can decide what to do with what is left of us once we’re shipwrecked. A heartfelt read that tugs at the heart as the adults begin to unravel.

Publication Date: February 23, 2021

Lake Union Publishing

Aquarium: A Novel by Yaara Shehori

In any case, the girls didn’t hear a thing. The silence surrounded them like insulation, like that button on the television that mutes the world.

I happened to read Aquarium while my hearing was slowly being restored, for the most part. Strange how books find their way to us in life with themes we can relate to. It truly is a fascinating coming of age story, written with a dash of the peculiar that I always look for in a novel. It begins with deaf sisters Lili and Dori Ackerman, two “disabled girls” who together complete a whole. Girls others see as defective, but they are not. They are not what they appear to be, they have their own secrets, even from each other. Sisters who talk in shadows on the walls with their hands. The sisters live in a parallel world that their father Alex and beautiful mother Anna (both deaf as well) have secured for their daughters. Theirs is a world that listens and sees differently from the rest, that scoffs at outside influence, that would only bring ruin and destruction with their ideas of what makes a person acceptable, that abhors any deviation of nature that doesn’t support their own ideal. Lili and Dori are the same shared story until they are divided by betrayal and the ‘civilized world’. The sisters begin as one but this charmed, wild childhood ends in division and from that point on both Dori and Lili no longer have each other to unearth meaning about the world outside or within them. Lili was always the ‘fact keeper’ and Dori the one who read the facts, the follower, how is she to separate fact from fiction without Lili’s guidance, her truth? It is a heartbreaking divide and it changes everything.

As the summary says, Alex collects and sells scrap metal, the girls basically supervise themselves, mother Anna is dedicated to the life she and Alex have chosen and ignore anything that doesn’t fall in line to their way of living. If Alex is a prophet, he has a purpose that neglects to account for his girls. There is a line about Alex’s brothers (the girl’s uncles) that stood out to me, “the other two were just along for the ride”, the same could be said of anyone in Alex’s orbit.

The writing is gorgeous, this is another read that had me highlighting passages like mad. Aquarium is a journey into our very identity and who are outside the sphere of our family. It is about the demands of our origins too, how we chose to fit in and if we are even given a choice to buck conventional attitudes, what it costs to do so. I wonder about the title too, it may be me reaching but fish in aquarium live in a universe of their own, they are also constantly observed though by those on the outside. There is a lot happening in this novel. Are the parents suspect? Is what they have chosen wrong? What happens if a shared story has holes in it? It’s hard to delve deeply into the thoughts this unique tale brought to my mind without giving away everything that occurs. That Alex and Anna have formed their own little community, shunning the hearing world and it’s ways, ‘the Ackerman family existed like weeds by the main road’ isn’t a problem in and of itself until their way of life spilled unto their neighbors. It is when the social worker arrives that, despite Lili and Dori’s parents preparations to appear ‘normal’, the house of cards collapses.

Yaara Shehori states this novel isn’t meant to represent the diverse deaf community. Though it’s fictional it is provocative. As I have mentioned, I had issues with my hearing recently, as I am watching my father losing his own, which makes me think really hard about how so called able-bodied people demand others fit into their world. Much as she isn’t speaking for said community, my little bout of hearing difficulty isn’t any sort of insight into people born deaf. Like anything else in life, we don’t really think about any of these things until we are faced with similar circumstances. It sounds funny coming from someone who raised an autistic son, but that doesn’t mean I have a clue about someone born deaf that wants to shun so called ‘cures’ or the hearing society anymore than I am an expert on what having autism feels like, only my son can answer that. Which, I must add, doesn’t speak for each individual’s experience with autism either. How we experience the world is unique, diverse and certainly this fictional tale asserts that truth. There truly are many worlds within our own. I think the wisest characters in the story aren’t Alex and Anna, but their beautiful daughters. I read Aquarium months ago and it has stayed on my mind since then. I was engrossed from the start and I loved the ending.

Yes, read it!

Publication Date: April 13, 2021

Farrar, Straus and Giroux