Where Dogs Bark With Their Tails: A Novel by Estelle-Sarah Bulle

Back then, Hilaire treated his children like he treated his animals: a glassful of tenderness, a bucketful of authority, and a barrelful of “débrouyé  zôt”- best figure it out yourselves.

A young woman ‘with a mind full of questions’ about her father’s past, and her family history in Guadeloupe (including Hilaire, a grandfather who lived to be 105), meets with her Aunt Antoine, the seventy-five-year old matriarch. A tall, confident, alluring woman with ‘a mixture of outdated elegance and anarchy” is more than happy to ‘open up’. Well aware she is the strongest link to the family, she has a beautiful manner in relaying the past. She tells her thirty-year-old niece that it’s like there is a whole century between them. She knows what her niece is hungry for, all the stories and understanding for where their place is, how people who must live in two worlds manage. With a three-month-old baby girl, it’s time to root through her family history, to learn just who they all are. So begins the tale of the Ezekiels, why some left and others remained filling a street in Morne- Galant (one of the islands that form Guadeloupe). Her father is known as ‘Petit-Frère’ (little brother) in a family of sisters, the women he’d rather run from. The narrator herself was born in France, a Métis girl (mixed race, a term rarely used) and a rarity in her community. Her father is West Indian and mother is French. Her family was ‘typical French’ and she, always a good student who kept a low profile, knows all too well what it means to be outside of categorization. Her curiosity fires up with others joking about her father’s accent, the ‘uniformity’ and peaceful coexistence of diverse lifestyles (for those willing to embrace French ideals) has often baffled her. She is confused about who she is. This is a novel about identity, how we define it, how those who settle in new places conform or refuse to. What is interesting is in the family history there was a divide when the Ezekiel grandfather (descendants of slaves) married a woman, from the family of the Lebecqs, who had been on the island far longer and were from Breton. There is mystery attached to them as well. She was a beauty that stood out in the poverty of Morne-Galant, her family were a people almost of a different world and the children were fearful of them. The reader learns how Hillarie charmed his way into their good graces, no easy challenge.

The children Hilaire and Eulalie have together grow up outsiders, both families seeing them as neither fully Ezekiels nor Lebecqs . Patriarch Hillarie remains to tend to the sugarcane, as his own siblings come and go from Morne-Galant. He holds tight to ‘absurd pride’, hurting his own family in the process, in favor of his extended family. For little brother, he grows up motherless, tended to by his sisters Antoine and Lucinde. They couldn’t be any more different in talents and temperament but both struggle their way to success. Through Antoine’s tale-spinning, she reveals how instead of money, they have their stories. With her strong ‘nom de savane’, to confuse the evil spirits, she goes by Antoine, not her baptismal name Apollone- as is the tradition. Antoine is the first to escape the island and all the unhappiness but not before caring for her brother, our narrator’s father. She bides her time and collects resentment toward those who stripped her mother’s things away after her death. The siblings each have their say, her father even warning her that her Aunt Antoine is exhausting, dirty, has her little superstitions and yet he lacks her great courage. It is to a cousin, Nonore (the Lebecq side) she turned to when she was just sixteen, hoping to make herself useful in Pointe-a-Pitre, just as poor a place as she escaped. Brave face forward, it is a fresh start, she convinces Nonore to try her out. Just when things go well, the husband returns, ruining it all.

Where Dogs Bark With Their Tales (the title also has meaning) is full of rich characters, the siblings natures are so different, even the way our narrator’s father describes his sisters made me laugh. Antoine baring her teeth when she came home to visit, Lucinde always going to great lengths to get what she wanted, the manner he remembers his father Hilaire- the people become real enough to jump off the page. The struggle out of poverty, the fight to make it when doors were closed based on skin color, the cultural divides, harassment women face and figuring out what is real from family fiction and legends. Antoine is far too clever to ever be a submissive woman, and the niece wonders why she couldn’t grow up in a more colorful, exciting place with traditions and history. Ponders on what she missed out on. Gorgeous story-telling. I was also intrigued by the writing about Antilleans and Black American culture, the commonalities with minority experiences but the difference between France and United states in role models, violence, etc. It isn’t something I have ever thought about until now. This is an intelligent read while also incredibly entertaining. There are tragedies and heavy loss, often someone will rise only to fall. The children took on a lot, and really did have to figure it out for themselves, especially missing their mother. It’s a trajectory that led to France. I fell in love with Antoine. The Guadeloupe of her family’s past is fading, the world is never the same for the descendants. Her family had to get used to concrete, over the lush land of their origins but they have kept so much flavor and life of their island. Yes, a beautiful read that my review isn’t doing justice to. Add it to your summer reading list.

Publication Date: July 5, 2022

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The Gone And The Forgotten by Clare Whitfield

It’s quite desperate when you think of it, waiting in the darkest of holes.

Just how much does it cost to be given the keys to a kingdom?

Set in 1993: Prue doesn’t doesn’t know much about her family history, only thing she knows for sure is that her mother is unstable and that after sixteen years of being alive, she still has no clue who her own father is. Her mother breaks down, often, and this is just the latest collapse. Her Nana is gone, leaving grief in her wake, and years of unanswered questions. Aunt Ruth has never confided either but promises this time, if Prue comes for a sorely needed vacation in her home in Shetland, they will talk. Ruth, the aunt who married a wealthy man named Archie (a stranger to Prue) is easier to get close too but she isn’t exactly spilling any secrets. Ruth had no idea just how serious her sister had sank into her depression, this time Prue’s mother needs a place that can really help her and Prue needs room to breathe, away from her mother’s heavy needs. Prue reluctantly departs her best friend’s home and makes her way to the small island of Noost, never imaging the family secrets that are lying in wait.

Once on the island, Prue meets her Uncle Archie and his peculiar grandmother, Ronnie- the only relatives still alive in his family. In her seventies, the woman tends to her many plants like children and lives in a universe all her own, but she is sharp and in perfect control of her mind and body. She tells Prue right away that when she heard she was coming to stay, she just knew it would change everything. She tell her it’s a good thing she is there, ‘the spirits want it to happen,’ and gushes over her. Ronnie is a proud woman from a long, Scotish line of MacNairs, who landed on the island due to ‘following a boy’ long ago. Ronnie comes off as very intense, believing in energies, and extremely uptight about Prue touching her precious plants. Straight away, dreams from when she was a little girl of seven begin to haunt her. It’s the place, surely. Memories she has scrubbed away about her baby sister Holly, as slips of our early childhood hide from us with age, but surely there is more she just can’t recover? In a family of secrets, is it a surprise she keeps stories even from herself? Then the crime the woman Joan Gardner committed, it’s all returning to bite her. Ronnie seems to warm to her and where Aunt Ruth remains tight lipped, Ronnie gushes about her own past and that of their huge, old home.

The island has a magical energy that feeds the artistic palate of her aunt and new uncle, Archie. Ronnie warns her, their work is strange! It is unsettling and the house itself seems to be alive with eerie sounds. It isn’t the relaxing escape she was looking forward too, in fact, more questions than answers are arising, especially about Archie. He is ‘a proper bloke’, intimidating, a man who takes up space and is nothing near as welcoming as her Aunt Ruth’s first husband. Locals think he is guilty of something terrible, even if they can’t say what or prove anything. When she ventures out, fully immersed in her first taste of freedom, she encounters a local woman who warns her about Archie, the only good to come out of it is she meets a boy after being scared away. The two form a relationship, but she can’t help but poke the accusations she hears about Archie. Then to learn that there have been strange accidents, deaths, tragedies tied to the home only makes her more frightened of the place. In fact, the very room she is staying in has a story she can’t quite help but fear.

Is Prue ready to know what she has been asking for years? Does she truly want her own spoiled family history, that reeks of damning sins? Will it finally help her understand her mother’s lowest of lows? Archie, she should be weary of him, but even that is changing.

This was an engaging tale of family sins, of the ways people will bury their shameful history despite the cost. Prue may well have to face herself, and her own actions. A bit of a twist, with a sad past. A good read for anyone who enjoys mysteries of family sins and tragedies.

Publication Date: June 9, 2022

Head of Zeus

Apollo

Notes On Your Sudden Disappearance: A Novel by Alison Espach

On the way home, there was no more screaming. Mom and Dad were just quiet in an awful way. It was certain- you were dead, and we were just people in a car again. How could this be? The world was over, but we still had to do things like obey street signs and traffic lights.

Life goes on, our bodies have demands that remind us of that reality, as much as the rest of the world crashes in on our grief. It’s an indescribable abyss of loss for adults and even more confusing for children. Alison Espach’s characters fall apart, questioning their role in tragedy, however accidental, and the effects of pain don’t really ease with the passage of time. People learn to live with loss, there isn’t another option, but the missing never fades.

Kathy Holt has a desperate crush on Billy Barnes, spending nights filling her little sister Sally’s head with information she treasures, like his wild antics and imagining the sort of man he will grow up to be. When Kathy joins him in high school, their bedtime routine is now filled with her reminiscing about their chance encounters. Sally delights in her sister’s glow of affection, she herself stuck in middle school, a smart girl that doesn’t quite turn the heads of any boys, it is Kathy who is beautiful. Sally lives vicariously through Kathy’s heart, passions for the boy. Then summer break arrives, an incident occurs that pulls him into their circle. It isn’t long before Billy and Kathy are sharing kisses and falling in love. By Kathy’s junior year of high school, the sisters spend less time together, with Kathy’s social life kicked into high gear. It makes Sally feel excluded, lonely even, still she would do anything for her sister, to remain in her orbit. Tragedy hits, and she blames herself in the wake of her sister’s death.

Billy isn’t dead, but a part of him dies with Kathy, he wishes it were him. Sally is ashamed that she isn’t physically damaged, that would be more righteous. Through the trauma of the event, everything Billy was before no longer fits what remains. Sally, in longing for Kathy, turns to Billy to keep a tight hold on the past, even though their friendship is strictly forbidden. Her mother is cracking, her father closing off, buried in anger, both of them too overwhelmed to pay attention to their remaining child and Billy is the only one who can lift the heaviness Sally is cloaked in. At least briefly, when they talk, it seems healing is possible. With Kathy in the ground (her beautiful, vibrant sister, unfairly in the ground) no one seems to concern themselves with structure, punishment, keeping track of Sally. The most terrible, nightmarish reality has already hit them head on and there is nothing left to fear. The sunshine has left their family, now there is only pain, separate worlds.

Billy and Sally crawl into the future with aches shared and experiences denied. Their bond is the ruins of life after Kathy. Without her big sister, Sally gets to know more about Billy than Kathy herself had the time to learn. Both are changed. Billy’s promising future as a star athlete vanishes, and Sally is searching for her own identity, without Kathy to guide her. Nothing in life ever feels as joyful as it should as the years collect, tinged by sorrow. She refuses to remain frozen in time, to be eaten by anguish. She has to build a future, go away to school but how will she do that without Billy? He has his own struggles, an incredible amount of shame to contend with, that sometimes forces Sally out of his life, for years. Still, they cross paths now and then.

This is a sad and hopeful story, about what happens in the aftermath of unspeakable tragedy. It is a tale of guilt, how it can bury us and the possibility of new beginnings. Where do you lay blame when fate touches you with a cruel hand? We all need a place to direct our misfortune, our resentment too, but it costs so much, the anger, whether we place it upon another’s head or internalize it. It is about pushing people away and drawing them closer. This is beautiful and heavy, I wanted more from the ending but I could relate to every character. Billy’s self-punishing decisions, Sally’s loneliness and ache for Kathy, her parents emotional disasters and resentment, anger. Most of all, the love Sally never loses for her big sister drives the story, and her life, on.

Publication Date: May 17, 2022

Henry Holt & Company

Down To The River by Anne Whitney Pierce

And as affluence dwindled, so did the gaiety, the bravado, the shiny veneer of their comfortable lives.

Cambridge, Massachusetts twin brothers Nash and Remi Potts are born into the upper echelon of society, heirs to a family fortune that is ‘dwindling’. They are Harvard-educated, but the times and the families they create with their wives will expose their flaws. It is the 1960s, the Vietnam War is raging forward and will weave through their own story. With the stable world they once knew fracturing, people are starting to question what their life is made of. Women want more, including possession of their own bodies and sexuality, careers outside of the home. Sons don’t want to throw away their youth by jumping into a war they don’t agree with, likely to come home in a box or scarred by the experience. When we first meet Nash and Remi, we get the rundown on their childhood that proudly follows in the footsteps of all the Potts men before them. Prep School, then Harvard, athletic prowess, and the strength of their family name. They find their women, have a double wedding and are gifted, by their grandfather before his death, with ‘old, rambling Victorians’ neighboring each other. Children arrive fast, and the brothers open a sporting goods store on Harvard Square. Life rushes forward, their wives, Faye and Violet (of hard work and character), are good wives and mothers but it is with their late in life birth of their last children, Minerva “Chickie” and Henry “Hen”, that the money has dwindled and the parents are slipping. This is where the real story comes alive. No longer do the twins’ wives strive to adhere to the old ways in raising perfect cookie cutter children, not like their first offspring, not for this odd pair. The other siblings weave in and out but the focus is on the twins, their wives and the last born children.

Remi’s son Hen is different from the start, a child who doesn’t much defend himself, a sensitive, golden-haired boy. A child other people talk about, one who they say is maybe ‘slow, stupid.’ They love him to bits, and if he’s not like every other child, so what, he has his cousin Chickie to defend him. Chickie with her hot temper and intelligence that could sway to madness. The cousins have a unique bond, creating a world of their own, so close that any outsider is a threat. As they come of age, Chickie ‘feels the leash’ tighten, but she won’t be groomed into a proper little lady, far more of a feral child. She is too bold, too brash to be tamed. She wants what she wants, and no one will stop her. Violet feels her own youth being buried, watching the rise of her beautiful, strong willed girl. It seems so unfair! Now Violet has time outside of the home, and builds a life for herself, a career but it puts a strain on her marriage and her relationship with Chickie. She and Nash are drifting away from one another. Hen, so much like his mother Faye, so unlike the Potts’ men with his graceful and quiet nature. An easy target for school bullies, so much more going on that he keeps to himself, feeling resentment toward his father, who drinks too much and threatens with his sour moods. It is troubling to his father that Hen isn’t dating, nothing like Remi who couldn’t wait to ‘fumble around with girls in the backseat of his car’. Maybe it is the times but he wants his boy to be strong, and for once he wants to be seen as a good father, one Hen can look up to. Eventually Hen does mess around, and Chickie feels a little left out, jealous even while her own passions surpass his. The reality is, Hen and Chick hold their parents’ secrets, while struggling with their own coming of age and worried about the future. They have always had each other, and always will even if they get caught up in new people. The threat of war becomes too real for Hen, with the draft lottery. He is tired of keeping dangerous secrets, of worrying about his mother. Chick explores sexuality, sick of the double standard for girls, and the things her own mother is getting up to is leaving too much freedom for Chick to get herself in trouble. Both families are crumbling under the pressures of the times, their cracks are showing, and it becomes impossible to hide their betrayals.

Faye and Violet are very important characters, far more involved in the lives of their children then Remi and Nash. Fathers always seemed to be on the periphery, coming and going as they pleased, the women shouldering the rest. It is a dying dynamic though, by the time Hen and Chickie come along. Following traditions and routines become old hat and even Faye and Violet are questioning the banality of their lives. They both want more. In fact, why the two women, who could have been so close, never really opened up about the problems with their husbands and their own longings and disappointments is poignant. The brothers aren’t really what they project either. There is resentment between Remi and Nash, as Remi never feels he measures up. There is also a strange dynamic in why Remi and Nash chose the partners they married. They say fake it till you make it, but that comes at a price and can lead to an inauthentic life.

This is a character driven novel and the author draws out the emotional inner struggles with perfection. The relationship dynamics are brilliant too, how people can lift us into our higher selves as much as they can bury us, eclipse us and sometimes harm us by trying to save us. Hen and Chickie deal with thoughts and feelings that many young grapple with. Chickie’s a strong girl, but she still needed a guiding hand. Hen may appear fragile, certainly he isn’t the football tossing all American boy so many fathers hoped to raise, but he is stronger than he appears, shows up when he is most needed. A real man, at his core. The adults’ characters are contrary in their behavior, reckless, lonely, aggressive and they begin to act out as much as the teenagers. There never is true freedom, whether you’re young or old. Every action has consequences, every choice sets off it’s own chain of events. This is a good read.

Published May 3, 2022 AVAILABLE NOW

Meryl Moss Media Group

Regal House Publishing

The Half-life of Snails by Philippa Holloway

She could become lost in these moments- by the rhythm of them, the realness- if the threat of losing it all wasn’t a constant itch, like nettle rash, in the back of her mind. If there weren’t plans for a new nuclear power station to replace the one that has dominated the coastline since before she was born; land acquisitions and groundworks already underway.

Helen and Jennifer are sisters living in Anglesey, both on opposite sides of the nuclear industry. Jennifer and her partner work there while Helen has been fighting the new nuclear power station’s development, refusing the very idea of selling her ancestral land, the family farm. A single mother, she is obsessed with raising her son to be able to withstand disaster. The home they live in is spartan, there are no luxuries for Jack, like a television or the distractions average children, “soft” children are spoiled by. It is Helen’s purpose, to assure that her son can stand on his own, feed himself, stay alive when their own Chernobyl or any such disaster occurs. Jack is a strange child, his mother’s anxiety growing like a tumor within his small bones. Fearful of ‘indoctrination’ from the plant, ideas a child so young shouldn’t be thinking about, at least to Jennifer’s thinking, it seems the true indoctrination is his mother’s conspiracies. A boy with no friends, except for his snails in a jar, every interaction is awkward. He doesn’t handle socializing well, but let loose in nature, on the farm, he is like an uncaged animal, happy- free. He is a survivalist in the making, his mother’s son to the core, for better or worse. Helen admires that her boy is capable, so far ahead of his peers in self-care and if he isn’t like other kids, it’s for the best. Jennifer and her husband Ioan’s house sits on the edge of the Anglesey coast, Wylfa Nucear Power Station is barely a mile away, and Helen along with her son Jack, often come to help out with the animals on the farm. Five years of never staying with his aunt, suddenly Helen is leaving him while she travels to Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone. This part of the novel is interesting and only lends credence to much of Helen’s fears, but there is a trauma that changed her long ago. Jennifer is just as nervous as they are about the plan but she doesn’t understand it is a test. Helen has recently discovered something bad, it is time to prep Jack for the possibility of her permanent absence one day. Her family already knows about illness, their Mam has cancer. She sells his stay at her sister’s as an adventure, a challenge. But she cannot imagine how hard the adjustment will be nor that fate may well prolong her trip. No one can ever predict how people will react to change, or how good intentions can sour and turn dangerous.

Jennifer runs into a wall when it comes to Jack, has a hard time connecting. He is often cold, seeming to lack empathy, but like her sister Helen it’s possible he is just practical, grounded. Jack’s outbursts at school becomes a problem and it is on her shoulders to make decisions that are for her sister Helen to make. It disrupts her own work, but she can’t let Jack down, even if it threatens her job. Helen would never forgive her. She loses contact with her sister and with violence and protests rising in Kiev and trickling into the place Helen is visiting, Jennifer is worried. Helen was warned away while touring Chernobyl, but she didn’t listen, and now she is in the midst of danger she didn’t predict, violent crowds fighting state corruption. She must find a way out, to avoid the worst of clashes, but time is running out. The tour guide who warned her is willing to help, but she knows better than to count on anyone. There is an accident she didn’t predict and she loses all contact with home and her son, unsure of who to trust. If she was looking to cut the cord, to use her trip to prep her son, she has lost all control. Now she is trying to make her way back under the threat of her life. The truth is, you can’t always prep for the unknown.

Back home it is all falling apart. Jack is lost without his mother, but he wants nothing more than to prove his worth. Jennifer and her husband Ioan are having a hard time without Helen’s help on the farm, trying to keep a little lamb alive and to take care of Jack, who despite his many strengths, is still just a little boy. Ioan is much better with their nephew than Jennifer is, and to add more worry her mother is not doing well with her cancer. It’s too much pressure, worse, she is slowly coming to discover how Helen and Jack have been living, deeply concerned for the child’s well-being. With the days stacking up and his mother remaining away, Jack is not obeying his aunt and he believes his mom is gone for good. It is time for him to act! Will he survive his own personal disaster?

This is original, I couldn’t warm to Helen at all. I think her hardness makes sense, after we learn the entire story, but she is extreme. It’s hard to live between two worlds, any child would falter. The best intentions certainly go awry. She feels she is raising her child to be strong in any event, surely the point is in Chernobyl they never imagined such a disaster, so why not in Anglesey? Also, her touring such a place and not really comprehending the country itself and it’s heated political issues highlights her tunnel-vision. Her own beliefs often serve as an erasure of realities she doesn’t want to tackle. It’s a decent read, but I was certainly frustrated by the adults. I think Jack and what he does makes perfect sense, poor little guy.

Publication Date: May 7, 2022

Parthian Books

At Sea: A Novel by Emma Fedor

“What is it like?” she asked

“What’s what like?”

“Breathing. Underwater.”

When Cara’s father moved the family to Arizona, she decided to remain rooted to her life in Vermont, the original idea was to choose a college that would be close enough to care for her sick mother. With her mother’s death coming way too fast, Cara decided to stick with her original plan. She would always prefer the cold winters of New England to the suffocating heat of Arizona, remembering when her mother was alive, and her family was still together. Her future is in art, she wants nothing more than to make a living selling paintings and showing her work in galleries. She fears, though, she may end up a teacher instead. For now, she is kicking around Martha’s Vineyard, holding fast to the memories of her family and their vacations there, a family tradition while her mom was still alive. Staying in her mother’s old room at the Bexley House, not even her aunt and uncle’s presence can stop the ache of loneliness she is feeling, nor the painful rush of the past.

One day she is sketching on the cliffs when she spots a handsome, young man dripping with seawater and flirtation. Despite her best efforts, she falls hard and fast for Brendan, who tells her he is with the US Special Forces. It is, however, his darker, unbelievable secret that will alter the course of her future. Due to an experiment with the military, he can breathe underwater, a very useful commodity. She has no reason to think he is lying, when all evidence supports his claims. They become lovers, it is a passionate and exciting love, if confusing. He must leave on a mission, she promises to wait for him. The problem is he disappears often, and the things she sees confuse her. Just what is he wrapped up in? He has his moods, his secrets but it’s only natural a man of his expertise and career in the special forces would. She has taken such things into account, seen the bigger picture, but there are so many missing pieces.

Just when she thinks he is gone for good, he returns, and she is back in his arms. Before the summer of their romance comes to an end, Cora will be pregnant with Brendan’s son, Micah. One day both her son and Brendan will vanish, leaving in their wake crushing grief. Life moves on but she never stops watching the shore with impossible hopes. She finds love with a man named Graham, Brendan’s complete opposite, a man that is solid, and more importantly, present. Then one day a fisherman brings news of a man and child ‘treading water in Nantucket Sound’. Is she insane to hope it could be Brendan and Micah?

Mysteries will be revealed, breaking what remains of her heart, but what is the truth? Is everything that happened a trick of the mind or a fantastical reality? Just how much should you support the man you love?

This was a quick read and a strange, yet original idea. It is, in a sense, about the blindness of love, the ‘tunnel vision’ so many experience. The tale also focuses on loyalty, at least for me, going back to when Cora first chose to help her mother and here again, putting all her faith in Brendan. It is also about hope, who could ever give up a search for their missing child? Not my usual read, but an enjoyable story. Everything happens so fast, love is sometimes a gush.

Published March 7, 2022

Gallery Books

The Lovers: A Novel by Paolo Cognetti

The mountains determine the human lives that are drawn to them, and those lives are in turn humbled by nature’s implacable beauty and truth- even in the terror it can unleash.

Fausto is a forty-year-old writer, in looking for a place to start over, he chooses the mountains he knew well and loved as a boy, Fontana Fredda. Renting a place after the end of a relationship, he enjoys freedom, even if the solitude isn’t always welcome. With the arrival of winter, he needs a job, and finds one when he dines at Babette’s Feast, run by Babette. Babette herself left the city and took over a restaurant that is anything but lively and busy. Luckily for the people in the remote mountain village, she takes in strays and helps solve problems but is it what she truly wants to do with her life? From the kitchen, he gets to watch the sweet, much younger waitress, Silvia. To his surprise, he is soon exploring Silvia’s body, more incredibly their passion begins at her invitation. They part in the spring, each with plans, her to work and Fausto has things to settle back in Milan. They certainly we meet up again.

Nature is beautifully explored, just as much as the relationships between the characters. In winter it freezes to the bone, in Spring it gushes with an unstoppable force, as creatures awaken from their hibernation and crossing paths with ferocious mating animals can be dangerous. As Fausto climbs up the snow lie and walks through the woods, it is a beautiful setting. Babette closes her restaurant while she leaves for an island, a vacation spot she doesn’t name. Time passes and she still hasn’t returned, her own heart is spent, having once fallen for a mountain man. Does she want to return? When Fausto discovers that Santorso, the snowcat driver, hunter and former forest ranger, has been taken away in a helicopter after an accident, he rushes to the hospital. The solitary man (and watcher of wolves) has a daughter, and his story grows. A lone wolf enters the novel, now that he has more freedom and no one is there to stop him. Nature and man, living side by side.

There are deaths on the mountains from simple mistakes, particularly for climbers. Threats are always looming in such glorious places. Silvia is ascending to higher elevations with Nepalese guide, finally on her great adventure, heading to The Quinta Sella Refuge to work on a glacier. She spends time thinking about Fausto and chewing on memories of her mother while in the company of the Buddhist. Fausto, in the meantime, works as a chef for loggers, filling up on stories of work accidents and intense risky labor. He treks to Silvia, sure to warm any heart. The characters stories and the choices they make are all entwined. While they may come and go, the mountains simply exist, standing long after the dramas are played out.

It was a good story and I always enjoy nature’s presence, which is truly a humbling experience for them all.

Publication Date: June 7, 2022

HarperVia

A Tiny Upward Shove: A Novel by Melissa Chadburn

Marina’s body, her lineage, had been a battleground, the ways violence had hailed upon our ancestors.

This story brings a Filipino mythical creature to life in an incredibly original way. Eighteen-year-old Marina Salles is strangled to death by a man named Willie on a pig farm, there is no peace in her final moments, her death is torturously painful, but she prays, making an invocation that turns her into an aswang. This author doesn’t shroud the brutal truths from the reader, not the abuses and crimes perpetuated against women and children, nor the rotten choices that put her characters on the trajectory for collision. Murder is not peaceful, it is a violent end and to make it anything less is the real fiction. Aswang are a myth spun to life in Filipino folklore, a monstrous creature, flesh eating shapeshifters who live as women during the day and appear as something different at night. It is the stories the lolas (grandmothers) tell, serving as warnings or lessons, as fairy tales in many cultures do, and each have their own version about the origins of aswang. Though there are three ways to become aswang, for Marina it is her unfinished business with life and family ties (going back to 1742). Why Marina is tied to this creature is explained as we discover her ancestor’s past. The aswang that has ‘passed through the doorway and stepped into Marina’s life’, can now see inside the body, mind and spirit. It is privy to visions, memories, Marina’s entire history, and every feeling she has ever had but the hunger for vengeance against the man who wronged Marina, that is the aswang’s own. What about Marina’s own want, far greater than bloodlust for her killer?

Melissa Chadburn has written about the horrors that most people turn away from. It is unsettling reading about inhumanity, there is a hidden part of our world that is just as ugly, violent, and immoral. It is a true story somewhere, the author tells us this herself. Ignoring it, denying the victims a voice, is to bury the crimes deeper. The world that the ‘throwaways’ exist in is revealed with each turn of the page. Marina wasn’t always lost to the streets, to dope, she once had a mother and father that made her, even if that fell apart. Back we reach into her past. For a time, she and her mutya (mother) live with her lola, in a small house in Seaside. Dazzled by Lola Virgie’s stories and superstitions, she learns about the spirit world. Lola teaches her about all the bad things that can happen, it stays with her always. She doesn’t have memories of life with just Ma, nor her deadbeat dad. Life is secure, if very controlled with her Lola’s lists of how to be, as no one has suffered as much as she has in life. Then her mutya meets a man named Mike, who looks through Marina, and it’s not long before the three of them move to Los Angeles, away from the only happiness she has known, under her Lola’s care.

Time gets harder, food more scarce, her mutya is becoming unstable, coming and going, leaving her alone- it’s a life of poverty. Just when she is back again, unsavory men enter the scene and what follows is a defilement of body and soul. While she is caught up in Child Protective Services, Marina’s one salvation is Alex, her bunkmate and fellow ward of the courts at The Pines. The facility feels more like a prison, a place of burning resentments and pain, luckily Alex is there to show her the ropes. Alex isn’t just a throwaway, her own history is just as dark and full of injustice involving an adoptive mother. As Marina’s mutya fails her, it is Alex who is always at her side. She learns things watching Alex hustle, that would likely break her Lola’s heart on the spot, and this is how life becomes about survival. Like all the children who disappear in the world, Marina is hungry for love and touch. It’s a sad life, but there is light. When she leaves The Pines, she is going to help Alex reconnect with someone special to her, it is her one duty, for the person she has come to love. But once she’s out, darkness fills her empty center. She turns to drugs, and men using her for their twisted desires, if only she can get clean enough to fulfill her promise.

Willie’s own life is purged on the page, how did this man who stores bodies and feeds them to pigs become such an evil villain? What sort of cruelties gives birth to such a monster? It isn’t easy to digest. Somehow he and Marina are tied. Does clarity about his own sufferings distort a call for vengeance?

This is exposure, of life in the underground, which exists outside the bubble so many of us live in. It is about children who never get to live in the light, who if lucky enough to survive into adulthood at all are forced to the streets, walking into the belly of the beast. It is also about women who put their faith in bad men. Mother’s who severely neglect their children. There is so much degeneracy throughout this tale, is it any wonder people numb themselves, sometimes the only escape? Children are the light and there isn’t any excuse under the sky for what happens to victims of violence and sexual abuse. Not ever. I don’t know that I would be capable of mercy.

Publication Date: April 12, 2022

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The Children on the Hill: A Novel by Jennifer McMahon

Some monsters are born that way. Some are made.

Grandchildren to Dr. Helen Hildreth, an extraordinary, brilliant psychiatrist and champion for the mentally ill, Violet and Eric bloom under their Gran’s care in the 1970’s. Living on the same land as her patients, privy to her work at the Hillside Inn, located in Vermont, it’s only fitting Violet longs to follow in her Gran’s footsteps and become a doctor. The hospital (a place for lost causes) is privately run ‘more estate than institution’. Dr. Hildreth believes in the most hopeless cases, and knows that mental health treatment involves more than just medications. She and her staff have taken on a more holistic approach, believing in the curative powers of nature, art, music, gardening, meditation and even pottery. Violet’s belief in monsters makes this environment, one full of people who behave abnormally, the perfect backdrop for study, eavesdropping on the doctor’s conversations, wildly curious and hungry for more about the dangerous patient S. Violet has been taught that people do terrible things, not because they are evil, but that they are suffering from illnesses of the mind but could it be possible Gran is harboring a murderer? Who is patient S? Where Violet’s mind bends to investigation and science, a fan of the movie Frankenstein, her little brother Eric is a sensitive savior of animals, particularly those their grandmother keeps in her basement (lab). Dr. Hildreth and her colleagues are pioneers, changing the face of mental health treatment, focusing on individual needs and their future potential. She expects nothing less from her own grandchildren too, giving them lessons in chemistry experiments, evolution, studying under the microscope in her laboratory but only upon invitation into her basement (off limits normally); their Gran provides them with a top education and encourages to hold themselves with pride and self-respect. They consider themselves lucky to be under her protection, full of love and support.

May 1978: Violet and Eric know the Inn doesn’t treat children and are rattled when their grandmother introduces them to a girl, around Violets age (13), named Iris. Like a frightened animal, with evidence of abuse, wound on her head and her lack of communication skills, she is a strange patient. Discovering they are to welcome her as a sister, making Iris the exception to the rule of who Gran treats, she becomes their new project. Helping Iris, her Gran prods her, can only aid Violet in her future dream of becoming a doctor herself. She is clever and kind enough to help the child, together with her little brother Eric, maybe they will learn what has happened to Iris, break her out of the state she is in and help her recall her journey. They know all about trauma and memory loss. Violet wants nothing more than to remember their own parents and past, having survived the car accident that took them. The accident is one Eric doesn’t want to spend a moments thought on, too horrible. Now, with Iris, she can have a sister and a new member for their little clubhouse. There, they will discuss mysteries, study their recordings, and hunt for monsters under the full moon. Evidence is required to be sure of anything, monster and human alike, theories are not enough. Better still their plan to search through private records to discover Iris’s origins, it’s a top secret mission. What they discover will challenge everything Violet knows about monsters and love.

2019: Lizzy Shelley, 53, ran a blog based on her childhood project that has led to her popular podcast: The Book of Monsters. Last season she was a member of the team Monsters Among Us, has been featured in a documentary, been in ads and invited to lectures at colleges on monsters in contemporary society. All of her work and notoriety has afforded her the means to spread her message, ‘monsters are real and living among us’. Soon she will be searching the dark shadows for more than legendary creatures. Young girls are going missing in Vermont, the troubled kind no one cares about, and it makes Lizzy wonder if the monster she has been chasing her entire life has returned to invite her in a game of Hide-and-seek. It all goes back to the Hillside Inn. Who is the monster she is chasing?

This is a creepy, dark story. There are Frankenstein themes running through it, but even more, a twist that is a nightmare, at least for those who are considered inferior. This is a subject that was all too real in history, and immoral. I have been reading Jennifer McMahon’s novels for some time now and enjoy all of her stories, always original and intelligent tales. The Drowning Kind was a wonderful ghost story (add it to your list if you haven’t read it) and now we have a monster tale with The Children On The Hill. There truly are monsters among us, the trick is in how they hide in plain sight. Now I have to wait for her next novel, sigh…

Publication Date: April 26, 2022

Gallery Books

Scout Press

Little Foxes Took Up Matches: A Novel by Katya Kazbek

His dreams are full of sticky, viscous fairy tales, where he is Koschei. But there’s no resolution yet, whether he’s the villain or the hero. Perhaps Mitya should decide, but he doesn’t like making decisions.

This story is a fable and a queer coming of age in post-Soviet Russia. It begins with a skinny boy named Mitya, who likes to put on lipstick and dress up like a girl. It is a dangerous act, considering his father, Dmitriy Fyodorovich, is ashamed of his sensitive, delicate son and being a Afghan War veteran, he’d as soon beat the boy and see him disciplined, strong, a man’s man. The delicate boy already makes him uncomfortable and if he knew about his deviant behavior, there would be hell to pay. Every keepsake Dmitriy holds on to are all connected to his time in the army. His mother, Yelena, is the daughter of a distinguished space scientist and a graduate of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. A woman who feels above any mother on the playground, whom often make fun of her weak son. Both parents work at the Rubin factory, his father making televisions, and his mother a bookkeeper, until his dad is laid off. His Babushka, Alyssa Vitalyevna, hates Mitya’s father but they all live together in a Moscow apartment, on the Old Arbat. One day, while under her care, Mitya swallowed a sewing needle. Nothing being found on the X-rays, he is sent home, but from that day on his Babushka is sure he is doomed, that the needle is somewhere in his body or bloodstream (despite science) making him a ‘ticking time bomb’. As he grows up, Mitya discovers a fairytale about the Koschei and believes that the needle is a shield, his blessing. Considering the young child feels no ill effects from the object, it only follows that it signals him out as special. He is an intelligent (reading by the age of four), curious, tender boy. He isn’t sure what he is, boy or girl, something else. He is not the son his father hoped for, a boy who should be immune to tears and play with toy guns and enjoy sports. His grandmother loves all things bohemian and feeds the artist in her grandson, with caution, of course.

When his father beats him, upon discovering his secret dress up one day, Mitya is left feeling small and insignificant and he learns to hide who he is even more. Sadly, it seems his life is under a hellish cloud when his cousin, Vovka, a wounded vet, moves in with them. The needle doesn’t seem like much of a shield then. Dmitriy feels he owes it to his brother, who died in the war before Mitya was born, to help his nephew. Vovka is damaged, haunted in his sleep, severely burned, missing his right arm. There is a camaraderie between these army men, excusing all sorts of warnings. He shares Mitya’s bed in the small home, Mitya’s solitude and privacy is gone, here is just another man in the house who hates ‘sissies’. Torment and vile abuses begin, the only joy and light left in Mitya’s life is when he makes friends with a homeless man named Valerka. Valerka doesn’t care about what he wears, how he looks, or how he defines himself. Valerka tends to crows during the day, his ‘ladies’. He believes in ‘treating all of god’s creatures kindly’, and soon the boy is boding with the winged creatures. Times are viscous, terrible things happen, people disappear, and when Valerka goes missing, what he learns devastates him. It is the catalyst that forces Mitya on a path to discovering himself, in trying to find out what happened to his dear friend. Parallel worlds exist, dangerous places, and Mitya will meet young people like himself, who have run away from terrible situations, so bad that the threat of the streets is preferable. Homeless boys, crimes, the darker side of his country, corruption. It is about Russia, it’s culture and history, the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, the underbelly that hides all sorts of criminal activity, myths, folktales, gender identity, and sexuality. Much time is spent with Mitya’s conflicted emotions, about his body and his desires and the ache to be accepted by his family, who of course he loves. While hoping to beat his ‘deviance’ out of his own son, Dmitriy fails to see the true deviant in their midst- Vovka. All Mitya wants is love, understanding. When it first begins and he is young, he is made to feel ashamed when he doesn’t yet know who he is or why the way he is angers his father, it’s heartbreaking. It is an awakening, as his innocence drops away and in journeying beyond his boundaries, he may just discover what he wants out of life, for himself.

Whatever your feelings are about gender identity, this was an interesting, engaging tale about Russia, with a fairytale theme. It’s one of the hardest things to stomach, a child (of any age) being abused. What do you do when your natural state is a thing to be shamed, shunned? Where the one place where you should be supported, protected, fails you? There is a lot to unpack and this would definitely open discussion for any reading group. It was an interesting book to be reading with current world events.

Publication Date: April 5, 2022

Tin House