Strangers and Cousins: A Novel by Leah Hager Cohen

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She’s become dislocated while standing in place.

That’s a fantastic line for this character driven novel, for family in fact. What is more dizzying than a gathering of your clan, particularly as it continues to grow? How can you not feel dislocated standing in place, and who can blame sweet Aunt Gladdy with one foot in the past and one in the present? Of course she slips in and out of time, gets confused by the faces and happenings, it’s a full life she’s been having. She and little Pim are my absolute favorite characters in this family novel. Pim lives in his own little world, battling unseen enemies in the buff, oblivious to the drama of the grown ups. Actually, he and Gladdy share similarities, youth and old age are so tightly intertwined (one coming as the other is slowly leaving), one battling imaginary foes as the other deals with ghosts of memories.

Walter and Bennie Blumenthal’s daughter (eldest of four children) Clementine, is marrying her college girlfriend, Diggs. But this is a special sort of wedding, a performance of sorts. Like all things meant to go against tradition with the best of intentions it can get out of hand. There will be an invasion, the Blumenthal’s are meant to accommodate nine extra people in a house already full with six family members. The real intruders to Walter’s thinking are the ultra-Orthodox Jews, going around town asking the locals to sell, trying to tip the demographics in their favor where they are sure to infiltrate all that has been, destroying entire communities. Bennie and Walter have two big secrets, one that may upset the ‘status quo’, help the very people he is against. If he and Bennie sell, they will be party to the ruin of this special community. Even Clem, as liberated as she is assumes so much about bride to be Diggs, based on her ethnicity. Aunt Gladdy is in the past, remembering fire, after-all her skin is marred, a constant reminder of an earlier tragedy.  There is a constant struggle with old versus new, in a sense. Loss, tragedy and change. Even open to accepting the ever changing world, there are fears that sway our decision making as a family, and as a community. Lloyd is the ‘prodigal one’, and has a great conversation with Tom about loyalty and what we owe our families and ourselves as he struggles with Walter’s distrust of the Haredi, and I can’t think of a more perfect example of the inner struggles children face in life. Parents raise their children to think for themselves and then feel betrayed when they might have a different opinion or view. Sometimes just in examining how they feel about a situation can force us to see our own blind loyalty to old, or outdated versions of truth. Family dynamics are always at play when you’re under the same dwelling for any amount of time. It’s hinted at in moments “What? What’s going on?” there’s a note of jealousy in her voice, a hint of the old kid sister don’t-leave-me-out petulance, when Carrie senses the tension while Bennie and Walter fight about the Haredi.

Then there is that mouse, that poor little mouse whose just going about living among the humans, whom she scavenges from. The animal just trucks on, starts over when everything falls apart, a new generation when the one before is destroyed.

Gladdy is overlooked by her family, as the aging so often are even if they are beloved, and yet if anyone has understood change and how deeply a turn of a moment can bite, it’s her. She is the wisest of them all, Clem’s too young to hear the truth (How could one so young be expected to understand?), that the world itself is no more than temporary. It is a novel about change, because whether we accept it or not, change comes.

For me, the title is interesting because family can sometimes feel like strangers too. Eventually, everything can start to feel unfamiliar as the old ways die off, the hardest of all is letting go of truth as we have known it to be and allowing the next generation to flourish. A story of constant upheaval, strange and interesting relatives, secrets, births, deaths, tragedies, intruders and how we live on in scraps of memories until there is no one left to remember.

Published May 14, 2019   Available Now

Riverhead Books

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Moon Water: A Novel by Pam Webber

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Darkness thrives on deception. It will bait and mislead until it is primed and ready to do its worse.

It is the summer of 1969 in the Blue Ridge Mountains, 16 year old Nettie is struggling with her heartbreak and jealousy after longtime boyfriend Andy asked for more than she was ready to give. Now there is the threat of Anne, like a snake that has been lurking, waiting to take her man! Nettie has her best friend Win to help her see reason, and together they visit Win’s grandmother Nibi, a Monocan Medicine Woman teaching Win the skills of their people. The girls have a project, making their own dream catchers, which takes skill and patience, guided by Nibi. Together, they must find all the supplies needed, and that requires looking near and far within nature, no easy feat. “Nature supplies what you need, not necessarily what you want.” Nettie is restless, agitated with all the problems circling her head. Bad enough Anne wants what is hers, now she must face Pastor Williams, the man just can’t seem to forgive her for her past shenanigans. All she wants is to be baptized like all the other girls but her questioning nature seems to exhaust the Pastor’s good nature, and her belief seems is as shaky as her confusion about her feelings for Andy. Pastor William’s feels she needs more lessons in humility, and practice a lot less profanity. It seems fate is more than willing to test Nettie.

A new love interest enters the scene, that could test the strength of Nettie’s love for Andy. Sex has become a burning desire between the two, but once you take that step, there is no going back. Their love was born in grade school, but they are becoming adults now and shedding the skin of their youth, the wrong step can change everything. Maybe it is Andy’s turn to be jealous, if he even loves her anymore. Is it better to start over with another? Should she concede and just let Anne keep Andy, though she certainly isn’t good enough for him?

It isn’t just dream catchers the wise old woman has planned for the girls, Nibi teaches them survival skills like hunting and how to show reverence for what nature offers. Hiking, camping, the girls need to become one with the land. Something is coming on the waxing moon of August ( the Blood Moon) some human darkness, there is a knowing Nibi has always had, attuned to her surroundings and it will require strength and knowledge for the girls make it through. Deception and evil can hide behind the face of holiness, and no one is more vulnerable than Nibi’s young grandchild Win and her friend Nettie. There are more dangerous and trying times coming that are far bigger than Nettie’s enemy Anne’s antics and manipulations or even her feelings for two young men. Will the friends have the strength to fight it? Can Nibi help save them, despite her aging bones? Nature too can be friend or foe and sometimes those who are meant to lead the young can abuse their power. As they enter the mountains we readers hitch a ride and join the fight against nature, animal and otherwise.

I always love reading mountain fiction and with Nibi’s knowledge of herbs and creatures big and small I felt like I have had my ear pressed to the earth. Most of us are living cut off from the elements and no longer attuned to our surroundings, wouldn’t know nature’s offerings as poisonous or nurturing. Medicine Women have always fascinated me, and Nibi is by far my favorite character. Her grandchild Win is wise and being readied to stand in Nibi’s place, Nettie is just on the cusp of womanhood but still has just the right amount of recklessness and naivete. Dangers for young women are wildly different than the threat of the elements in the wild, and those in power know all too well how to manipulate and confuse a girl with their own doubt. I like the turn the story took. While the relationship between Nettie and Andy are important, the meat of the story is the relationship the girls have with Nibi and of course, the power of their own strength.

Publication Date: August 20, 2019

She Writes Press

 

 

 

 

Good Girl, Bad Girl: A Novel by Michael Robotham

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Everything has a half-life- even facts.

Cyrus Haven’s career as a psychologist is to figure people out, reach into the broken parts, pull them out of the terrifying places that haunt them so they can confront their pain and heal. Asked to help with difficult teenager Evie, he discovers she has an uncanny ability, one that has been with her long before her own horror show life. She is “Angel Face” the child who was discovered in a secret room, a starved, sickly child of indeterminate age living more like an animal than human alongside the carnage of a horrific crime. No one knows where she came from, who she is, and she won’t talk about it. All the adults bombard her with questions, but it’s a past she doesn’t want to return to, not even in thought. “Isn’t my silence loud enough? I think. Don’t tell me that my silence doesn’t have a sound. I can hear it, loud and clear, screaming between my words.” Silence is her protection, and when she does talk it is the undoing of the people helping her, who to her are nothing more than captors, imprisoning her in the Children’s Home, fools to be played with. There is no one more skilled than Evie at eviscerating others with their own truths. She wants to be free to live life outside the home and Cyrus is key when his friend Guthrie asks for his help, undone by Evie and her mental games, but will she cooperate, when she cannot silence the noise of her past, and her only salvation is to never trust another? The other adults in charge feel she is a dangerous threat to society, with her record of violence on others. Sad as her past may be, there is something terrifying about her! She isn’t 18, they don’t really know her age, her DNA doesn’t supply her origins, she isn’t on a missing children’s list, it’s as if she came from nowhere. All they know is she was shockingly used and abused, there is no doubt she is a survivor but whatever she experienced left her damaged.

Cyrus has his own tortured past to contend with, or seal off. It is through his work, helping others that he seeks penance for the past. Where Evie was at the heart of her nightmare, Cyrus was absent from the bloody havoc of his own and it cost him his entire world. His current case involves the Ice Princess, fifteen year old figure skater Jodie Sheehan found murdered in a wooded area. What happened to her, the secrets she was hoarding are just as confounding and mysterious as Evie. The talented, sweet Jodie was living a sort of double life, rising ice rink star in the public eye but behind the scenes wrapped up in something seedy that led to her possible rape and later, her murder. Cyrus has no end of lies to sort through, from her trainer to her family and friends- everyone is a suspect.

Help arrives in the form of Evie, who deftly defies rules, authority to trudge through the intestines of the vile case. Cyrus will find a partner he didn’t ask for when he decides to take her in as a foster, and Evie’s instinct and impulsive nature may put her very life at risk. Just who is really saving whom? I found this incredibly engaging, Jodie’s story kept it all rolling but I want to pick at Evie’s scabs and find out what happened. Will there be a second book? I hope so!!! Yes, read it! Here I go again casting a book and making a movie in my head! Please, sir, I want some more.

Publication Date: July 23, 2019

Scribner

 

White Dancing Elephants: Stories by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

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She’s probably my age, I realize suddenly, early forties, but she has not spent her life on mistakes.

This collection of stories by Chaya Bhuvaneswar is about more than being an immigrant or one’s ethnicity, it is also about feminism and LBGTQ women. From the start, the reader is on an emotional journey, living as long as it takes to read a story on the character’s breath. It begins with White Dancing Elephants, where a woman shares the aftermath of her miscarriage, gut wrenching and mind numbing, a trauma to think of what could have been, should have been. “Before my last morning with you, my love, I didn’t know rage.” Loss is a rage, a dead future. The writing doesn’t lessen in intensity, in The Story of the Woman Who Fell in Love With Death, there is a different sort of longing, a young boy relates a fictional tale with the loss of his own sister, the girl whom is never mentioned, and lives in the hidden photograph in his father’s sock drawer. Is she really a runaway, just what are the family’s dirty secrets? There is a line in the story that must express how many boys/men feel “Girls expected him to prove to them what boys were like: shallow, callous, laughing animals that could smell irresistible.” That in a book full of stories to make the unseen world of the female life visible, living particularly in the skin of women of color, in such an ugly world full of abuse and slurs, the author too was able to expose a vulnerability in a young male really touched me. Someone who wanted to be a boy good enough to rescue his own sister, heart wrenching! The body, how the female body is her own fault for every horror the world can think up to torture. It’s always her fault, isn’t it? How brutal and true the final line in the story (I won’t share it here, read it). I had a lump in my throat, thinking of what it means to be female in our world, thinking about my own daughter.

There are affairs and betrayals, fissures in friendship,illness, stories of sexual abuse, even if it’s just hinted at. Denial of one’s sexuality for the sake of family tradition, even if it means returning to India and ‘putting oneself in the ground’, burying oneself, rejecting our genuine identity and love for what’s expected. One of my favorites is Asha in Allston, and the ‘mannequin with hardware’ who definitely isn’t a HER! The horror in feeling jealous of perfection while trapped in a real failing human body, robbed of every future dream. I think I related in the sense that though there is no MALIN in my life, we women have a form of perfection in our face 24/7, and when illness enters… well… it’s that much more evident, of course in the story she lives with the ‘ideal female’ thanks to her husband’s job and genius. Tormented by the uselessness of her own body, impossible not to compare herself to this non-entity! Rage to turns to flame!

It’s an engaging provocative collection, the stories aren’t all about women as victims either. Sometimes they do selfish things, we’re imperfect creatures, as much as men, we just have to pay more for being human. As said in the life you save isn’t your own, “wrong decisions had all bloomed like seeds”. It got me to thinking about how much control we have, about decisions and chance how we often go against our own desires to please others, and about how much heavier choices are for females. Worse, about all the little girls in the world robbed of any choices at all, the orphan handler was pretty intense, dark.

A new voice in fiction, yes read her debut!

WINNER, DZANC BOOKS SHORT STORY COLLECTION PRIZE
WINNER, NARRATIVE MAGAZINE “TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK” FOR 2017

Finalist for the 2019 PEN American Robert Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection

Published October 2018

Dzanc Books

 

All That’s Bright and Gone: A Novel by Eliza Nellums

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There is a woman who is crying in the corner, real quiet. I don’t like it when grown-ups cry. Most of all I don’t like it when Mama cries.

Aoife (pronounced EE-fah, which the adults never seem to get right) is caught up in the confusion and chaos of all the grown-ups around her. She understands the meaning of gone. Gone is forever, gone is DEAD– just like her big brother Theo. She knows better than to talk about it or ask questions, he was murdered and Mama can’t stomach the grief. She has a vague memory of him, one day on the beach, she was lost and he found her, but it’s all so muddied. Luckily for Aoife, she has a constant companion, Teddy who isn’t imaginary no matter what people say! She can see him clear as she sees her best friend Hannah, so he is real! He is a bear! It isn’t smart to talk about him though, especially not to the ladies Dr. Pearlman sends from sea-pee-ess. Sea-pee-ess are government people that help families, but if you say things that seem weird they might take it the wrong way. One thing is certain, the adult world is confusing! Theo’s murder isn’t the only mystery, her whole life feels like one.

Siobhan (her Mama)  has gone away, but she isn’t gone away like Theo, she can and will return at some point. Something is wrong inside of her and it all goes back to the day she broke her own rule of talking to people who aren’t there. Mama was so angry, yelling at her dead son. The doctors just need Aoife’s help trying to understand the incident, and looking for someone to take care of her while Mama is away. There is no daddy for Aoife, she is special, she was born in the cabbage patch, it’s a fact- her Mama told her! There is an Uncle Donny, her mother’s younger brother  and he tries his best to care for her (after all, he is a single, childless bachelor) but he can’t keep Aiofe from running off with Hannah, trying to gather clues and weed out suspects of  her brother’s murder.

Uncle Donny knows Mama’s sickness is confusion sickness. He understands the deep disappointment Aoife feels, Mama promised to take her to see the fireworks this year, but if she’s away she won’t be able to go.  He also understands and says it’s okay if she doesn’t always miss Theo, but any mention of her brother is met with “let’s not talk anymore about Theo today.” No one ever seems to ever want to talk about him. Hannah gets secret messages in dreams, Hannah is older and is going to be a detective one day.  She can talk about Theo to her! Hannah even dreamed about him. Can she solve the crime still if Hannah abandons her? Soon, Aoife begins to wonder if her family really is crazy, like people say. But the church has saints and the holy ghost, that’s not crazy.

Could Mama’s friend Mac be a killer? He is sort of strange and angry. All she wants is to escape to the Secret Place that Teddy discovered. Teddy is trying to tell her something, all the time, but it doesn’t make sense. Uncle Donny is doing his best with Mama gone but he isn’t the greatest looking after her. What if the big bad man comes to drag her off to the Children’s Prison like Hannah warned her would happen?

Everything is happening fast, adults are telling her things that she can’t comprehend, the story of her family is different than what Mama has told. What if she is ill, like her mother, maybe Teddy isn’t real! Even he is starting to scare her. Is she crazy? If memory is tricky, it’s a foreign language for a six year old. In the interest of protecting the innocence of a child, adults often aim for silence, which leaves an imaginative kid like Aiofe to construct a world so far removed from reality that what she believes to be concrete fact is more painful than the truth. Mental illness swims through the story, it’s disheartening because there is no doubt Aiofe and Sibohan (her mother) love each other, but she slips away when the meds are wrong and the stresses of life are magnified when you also have to cope with your health. The world is often kinder if your illness is physical rather than mental, not to say it’s easy either way, but the stigma of mental illness is cruel when children catch wind of it. Worse, there is always the looming threat that if Sibohan can’t keep it altogether, Aiofe can be taken away! Our little Aiofe, at six, is becoming aware of what society deems normal vs. abnormal and just where her family fits. There is hope, and I think Uncle Donny beautifully explained what being sick for Sibohan means. Sure, you may not be cured, but you can be treated to live with it better. I like that, that’s reality.

I was surprised as much as Aiofe by the revelation of what happened to Theo and I felt as frustrated and confused as she did. There is this strange span of time when you’re still not fully present, your mind is just giving birth to reasoning, it’s developing and you are learning to distinguish between emotions, facts, and fantasy.  This is where Aiofe is. I especially like what happened with she and Hannah, because kids can be fair-weather friends sometimes and mean as snakes not because they’re terrible beings, but because they are immature. It made the story far more genuine. Well done, this will be released later in the year, add it to your December TBR list.

Publication Date: December 10, 2019

Crooked Lane Books

Turbulence: A Novel by David Szalay

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She was very aware of her failure to be equal to the needs of this moment. 

In these connected stories each character is on a journey, be it on an airplane, within memories, or flying to their future. The title isn’t lost on readers, what is life but an irregular motion disturbed not by currents but by every experience, however great or small,  one encounters? Human beings, despite their location on the planet, confront joy, sorrow, fear, hope, love, loss and death. Every story is not the same, that’s the gift of being human. We glimpse moments here, but we don’t stay long. In one story an accident resulting in the death of a young man causes Werner , on his way to the airport, to be late for work, setting off memories of his tragic past and the death of a sister. This story was as heartbreaking as Marion’s, desperate to catch a flight to Seattle where her daughter has just gone into labor. In a moment when her daughter needs her most, all Marion feels is ‘her own insufficiency as a human being’. Despite being a famous author whose writing is meaningful enough to be taught in classes as far away as Hong Kong, she doesn’t have the right words to ease her daughter’s devastating reality. It’s easy to relate to those pauses in time, when what is asked of us is impossible to translate. We sometimes fail, because we don’t know what is required, or how to give it.

There are love affairs, and the struggle of ‘do I stay or do I go?’ The kernel of truth that maybe it doesn’t make a difference, that either choice is neither solution nor problem. In DEL-COK sisterhood is interrupted by domestic violence, despite a husband who is distant, working in Qatar. The frustration that is born out of caring, the cracks that could be fixed if only others would make the effort, the right choices depresses Anita. The many ways we are tied to each other, for better or worse. We all take flight for different reasons, not all lead to happy reunions. When Shamgar lands in Doha, we learn what it means to have a ‘sponsor’, which for all intents and purposes is really an owner. Yet even here, working a garden that will never be his, something else claims his longings. The story of Ursula, and her daughter Miri’s choice of  partner with Mousa (a Muslim man) explores love with an asylum-seeker, the mistrust and suspicion that arises, warranted or not. This collection is about people around the globe, our commonalities, our differences. In the end, aren’t we all sharing the human experience? Haunted by the same things, filled with new beginnings and endings, longings, grief… just trying to make sense of the world and our own confused hearts?

Death hovers in BUD-LGW, when a young woman comes home to visit her sick father in London, accompanying him for his scans at St. Mary’s hospital. She has news of her own to share, and her father can only hope he lives long enough to see it happen. It’s a fast read but meaningful despite the slim pages. This is my first read by David Szalay, Man Booker Prize-shortlisted author of All That Man Is. It’s evident that Szalay is able to get to the heart of his characters, regardless of what continent they inhabit, and write of experiences we can all easily relate to. The stories don’t have an ending, they are as open to the characters as your own life remains until your last breath.

Publication Date: July 16, 2019

Scribner

This Is Home: A Novel by Lisa Duffy

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And in my mind, I’d think, dying isn’t the only way someone dissappears. 

Sixteen-year old Libby knows all about disappearing loved ones, having lost her mother to cancer. Then, the home her father Bentley and Libby shared with her mother went too, forcing them with no choice but to reside in the middle apartment of her Aunt Lucy’s triple-decker. Above them, her father’s siblings eldest sister Aunt Lucy  and youngest  Aunt Desiree complete the circle that makes up their odd little family. But it’s overwhelming, nosiy, there is no privacy!  Then there is the dog Rooster Cogburn, a rescue they saved from the euthanisa hit list, the mut a temporary addition that has become as much blood as any of them. But now, Libby is meant to tolerate a strange, creepy woman living downstairs because of her father’s gerousity? Moving her into a house already overstuffed, too many people in her business! Why add another person when they are meant to find their own home?! It’s inconceivable! She could well be a serial killer, like the one on tv! Who moves in with a strange family like hers anyway?

Quinn Ellis, aka the creepy new tenant, is living with the silence of her husband John’s departure. Nay, abadnonment! After the fighting, there is no way she can continue to live in their apartment, not according to the landlord. Worse, he left her to shoulder the aftermath and move alone! Untreated PTSD has wrecked havoc in John’s life, and now everything is spinning in Quinn’s with no one to lean on, until Bentley, John’s former Sergeant, now a local policeman steps in. Quinn’s life is nothing like she long ago imagined. John once assured her it was safe joining The National Guard, but the was until the deployments and Iraq. They were so young when they had big choices to make, and now, they are so far from who they once were, veritable strangers to themselves and each other. Were they really ever meant to be? Was it all just too hasty and rushed? It feels like another lifetime enitrely. How is she to fix their problems, pick up the pieces when he’s vanished on her? Does she really want him back? Were they happy before he went away? These are hard questions she must confront and there is a far more more pressing issue she has to stomach.

The seaside town of Paradise doesn’t hold shiny happy memories for everyone. It has it’s dark corners, as all towns do. Places people go to escape their pain, places young people sniff out to seek thrills and highs. These are haunts where stories merge. Libby’s memories of her mother have shadows over them, as much as Quinn’s time with John has it’s storms. Pain may well draw the two into each other’s orbit, and create a love they both sorely need. Each have their own secrets, the biggest ones they keep from themselves but soon Libby and Quinn form a bond. Libby is  dealing with her own relationship issues involving her best friend Flynn and his new girlfriend, even stranger still her feelings about his older brother Jimmy, once a deeply troubled youth before joining the military. Something is going on with Flynn, and Libby naturally gets tangled up in it, while Jimmy doesn’t miss a thing. Jimmy knows all too well the sort of dangers and temptations lurking in the town of Paradise, places he has fled. Can he forsee dangers before it’s too late?

Beautifully written are the different transitions of military life. John and Bent are older, dealing with how to support their brothers in arms while still doing the right thing. Too, they must cope with their own wounds, be they war related or civil life and losses. Jimmy is a young man whose character has a turn for the better at the start of his service. It is a perfect fit. With John we see the domino effect PTSD has on relationships, friends, and family. John and Bent are as much brothers as blood realted Jimmy and Flynn, each wanting to support one another.

Quinn and Bentley are attracted to each other, but could it just be loneliness? Things could get really messy. Both Quinn and Bent have lost their spouses, in different ways and both have hearts as hungry as the ocean is vast. Can they all learn to open themselves up, despite their misgivings? This Is Home is a cast of flawed, realistic characters just trying to figure out where or with whom home is.

Publication Date: June 11, 2019

Atria Books