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

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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

 

 

The Art of Taxidermy by Sharon Kernot

 

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She carried everything lightly, as only the dead and innocent can. 

In The Art of Taxidermy, we meet young Lottie whose passion for ‘revising’ dead creatures has her Aunt Hilda horrified, more so that her father Wolfgang encourages her by buying her glass aquariums to ‘contain the fusty fug of death’ within. To his mind, she isn’t the freak Aunt Hilda believes her to be, she just has a scientific bend of mind, it’s ‘in her genes’. No sir! Girls she play with dolls, not skeletal remains of reptiles and birds, sheep… not be enthralled by the stink of death!

It is the states of decay Lottie is captivated by, the possibility of resurrection, of keeping a creature in it’s natural state forever unlike her mother Adrianna, whose death has hung around like a shadow. Through her grief, a passion for taxidermy is being born but Hilda thinks it’s a sickness, a disturbance in the child’s nature. Written in a beautiful lyrical style, nature dominates the pages more than death as Lottie weaves her way to the creak, observes nature searching for specimens. “But the day was teeming with life”, we explore the Australian land overhead as birds take flight or upon the ground muck through the mud and fungi. Then there is Jeffrey, made of skin rich like the earth and quiet grace, companion to Lottie’s peculiar hobby. A boy with Aboriginal origins, a boy who has blossomed in her dark heart.

What is a girl to do with the face of death but try and preserve it? She herself a flightless bird with Aunt Hilda trying to make her a ‘normal’ girl, doing everything she can to end her taxidermy dreams. Snippets of ‘mother memories’ creeping into her heart like soft dreams, Oma’s omens and superstitions, an inheritance of despair and always, ‘the air is heavy with ghosts.’ As Lottie finds her purpose, she must too confront her grief over the loss of her mother and learn her German family history, the reasons her family were treated like criminals. Will she be able to convince Aunt Hilda that she isn’t an unnatural girl, that she isn’t a bloodthirsty murderer of creatures with a macabre hobby? Do we embrace our yearnings or let shame force us to discard the very things that make our heart beat with meaning? Intentions are funny creatures themselves, as we see with Aunt Hilda pushing her ‘ideal’ of womanhood upon Lottie. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and all that.

A beautiful tale out of Australia, uniquely written. The subject is heavy and yet the lyrical prose is uplifting, I felt I could hear bird-call and smell the ‘fug’ of decay. For those who love narrative poetry, this is a YA novel but I think adults will enjoy it too.

Publication Date: August 23, 2019

Text Publishing Company

Family of Origin: A Novel by C.J. Hauser

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Elsa and Nolan Grey might have been happier if they could be forgetful, or dead, but they were not. The Greys remembered everything. 

They were fondlers of old grudges and conjurers of childhood Band-Aid smells. They were rescripters of ancient fights and relitigators of the past. The were scab-pickers and dead-horse-beaters and wallowers of the first order.

Could it really be? Could evolution be going in reverse? A group of scientists, researchers and naturalists known as the Reversalists on the Gulf Coast believe it is so. Studying a rare species of duck, the Undowny Bufflehead, having discovered its feathers are not waterproof serves as a sign that evolution has reversed it’s course. Subsequent to their father’s death by drowning, the Grey siblings join one another at Watch Landing on Leap Island to make sense of it all. With the knowledge that their father Dr. Ian Grey retreated to the island under the umbrella of shame for entertaining such an outlandish theory based on a ‘ridiculous’ duck of all things, Elsa is filled with fury. Surely he didn’t believe such a crackpot theory, not a man as intelligent as her father!

There is no love lost between the siblings, in Elsa’s eyes Nolan is needy and weak, despite looking so much like their father and having spent years ‘sucking up their father’s time’ he certainly didn’t inherit the old man’s genius. When her father left he started his ‘new family’ with Nolan’s mother Keiko, a microbiome researcher. The real wound for Elsa was in all her father’s disappearances, the first costing her the joys of life at the farmhouse her mother Ingrid (a nurse), she and Dr. Grey lived at. Nolan, forever the usurper of her former life, of course as a child she hated him. Nolan’s feelings for Elsa are tangled up, having an effect on every relationship and choice in his life. Elsa, always ‘taking up more space than she deserved’ in his mind and heart. There is a fault line beneath them created by actions in their past, something Elsa does her utmost best to avoid.

Family of origin is often defined as the people who care for you, your siblings, people you grow up with and certainly a fitting title as Elsa and Nolan suffer the miseries created by their own. Mostly blame for their dysfunctional upbringing to be laid at their father’s feet, cold from his watery grave. Who swims in a storm? Was it an accident or something worse? Nolan and Elsa are equally shocked to know that Ian’s fellow islanders took his work seriously. The two certainly feel that coming here could have been just another escape from them, could the duck and their father’s belief in reversalism really just be about his own children, their lack of evolution as competent successful offspring?

Elsa struggles in her own day-to-day, teaching children, with a terrible lapse in judgement just before Nolan’s call about their father. Not dealing well with people in general, living life in a numbed state, just floating along. She longs for escape that would put a vast distance between her and others, much further than Dr. Ian and his little island could have hoped to be. Meeting Esther Stein who holds a PhD in ecology, her disdain for the youth is obvious, with all their ‘allergies’ and inability to venture into the very environment they live in. It’s hard to deny all the young adults and children are changing as much as the ducks. People are no longer adapting! Just look around, you’ll see it too! The Millennials are ruining the species, coddled, weak and if their dad believed that to be true as much as Esther, than he didn’t believe in his own children, right? That stupid duck is a representation of their own failure.

This story is about confronting the past, and the real mystery is between Nolan and Elsa more than their father’s death. Elsa can run off to another planet but isn’t going to erase what’s between them. There are secrets to uncover but does knowing change their personal history, the weight they have carried because of it? What happens when the object of your anger is gone, or the person you resented is more victim than the villain of the story you thought was set in stone? One thing is certain, Elsa and Nolan are far more curious a study than the rare species of duck! It doesn’t take a fictional story to nudge us in the direction that we humans often seem to be hopeless creatures, destroying our environment and much of the novel seems hopeless in that aspect. Worse, we tend not to evolve in our personal surroundings too, as evidenced by the Grey siblings. We carry the wrong stories, and poison our own well so to speak and of course we can blame our ‘family of origin’ for that, at least Elsa and Nolan can. How are we to understand the natural world when we live with so much subterfuge coming at us from all directions? Nolan and Elsa are forced to face their own hopelessness, and maybe change direction because it’s not really about the duck.

Publication Date: July 16, 2019

Doubleday Books

Tell No One by Barbara Taylor Sissel

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Come back, come back, come back, as if his return- her family’s restoration to their once-upon-a-time life- were a matter of asking, or begging, or any words at all.

Caroline’s aunt Lanie is dying and desperate to see her brother, Garret “Hoff” Hoffman before she passes away. Caroline’s mother tells her ‘it’s a fool’s errand’ to even try, no one knows where he disappeared to, only that he left a trail of heartbreak behind. What caused her once loving dad to walk away? But Caroline’s beloved aunt is more like a mother to her, salvation during the years after her parents divorced. Caroline’s tender early memories seem to arise more lately and when she returns to the past and seeks out coach Kelly, she finds it troubling that his son Jace seems to be hiding something, protecting his now elderly father. Once a boy she spent happy days with, he seems to want to dodge ever question she puts to his father, even though the old coach wants to reminisce, adamantly telling her ‘dad needs to rest.’ A warning comes soon after in the form of an ‘accident’, someone really is trying to keep her from finding out what happened to her father.

Harris is the child who Hoff raised for a time when he abandoned his old life, and Caroline. Harris looked up to Hoff, with football in common as Hoff was a recruiter, he finally had a man to emulate and love, but those days are buried and he is haunted by his own terrible guilt now that he himself is a father.  One thing Caroline and Harris have in common is their failing marriages. The cracks in Caroline’s life is all about her husband Rob’s lies and betrayals, his devious business dealings but for Harris it is his increasing nightmares, closing his wife Holly out. There are some shameful secrets that cannot be told, not even to his wife but there are other things to turn to when trying to tame one’s demons. His life appears perfect on paper with his career, his beautiful sons and loyal wife. But the past can’t be buried.

Truth will out, but it isn’t always what you imagine. Bad guys, good guys sometimes the distance is only a hair’s breadth between the two. If grave moments could only remain hidden and not rise up to torment us, then the past wouldn’t haunt. In seeking answers, Caroline must come to terms with what she built up as her father’s reasons in her mind with the truth. Harris was everything Caroline could never be, the perfect son! Right? Accidents and incidents have long reaching consequences. Many of Caroline’s choices of the heart stem from feeling discarded by her father, as far back as her high school years. We are shaped by other’s actions sometimes, even when we consciously attempt to remain unaffected. At times the hand of fate, chance turns us into someone we’re not, and there is no reasoning with it. This novel dips into several stories, Caroline and her daughter reeling after discovering Rob’s deceptive crimes, while she is trying to confront her past and find her father. Holly and Harris drifting apart because he cannot confide what disturbs him. Their sons Kyle and Connor his pride but there is a wild struggle within Harris to be a better father than his own influence and yet he is failing, railing against himself. Everything that has happened returns to the moment when Caroline was still the apple of her daddy’s eyes, until her father’s fall in the stands.

This is a solid story, engaging but sometimes I wanted to stay in Caroline’s world and felt pulled in many directions. Hoff’s tale is interesting, sometimes the biggest threat doesn’t come from outside of us, but within.

Publication Date: May 14, 2019

Lake Union Publishing

 

 

 

 

If I Had Two Lives by Abbigail Rosewood

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

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

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

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

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

Publication Date: April 19, 2019

Europa Editions