Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch: A Novel by Rivka Galchen

I maintain that I am not a witch, never have been a witch, am a relative to no witches. But from very early in life, I had enemies.

Katherina Kepler was the mother of Johannes Kepler, Imperial Mathematician and one of history’s most important astronomers. Johannes discovered three major laws of planetary motion but he had many achievements, based in astrology and theology. He understood optics, light, and why eyeglasses work. Johannes is a fascinating subject to research but it is the persecution his mother faced when she was swallowed by the hysteria of witchcraft that left its mark on him. It is also the subject of this historical fiction, based on facts.

1619 Leonberg, Germany Katherina Kepler has been summoned and accused of being a witch. She doesn’t take it seriously, an old woman like her who has lived through so much, and shrugging it off is only to her detriment. In fact, it’s laughable to even imagine that she has used her dark arts to curse silly Ursula Reinbold (who Katherina calls the werewolf). Ursula, whose misfortune, very illness is laid at Katherina’s feet. Ursula, her envious enemy and a liar but it is the many “half-formed people” who are swayed by ridiculous, unreal charges. The years have been difficult, and with failing crops, illnesses, and no end to miseries people turn to superstitions. Sure, she is a gossip and a meddler, with a mean mouth maybe but a murdering witch she is not. Her own complaint against Urusla and her husband, the glazier is turned against Katherina into a criminal case.

Katerina’s forthright manner, her lack of boundaries, the herb and flower concoctions she dispenses only serve to muddy her innocence. Even her kind neighbor, an old widower, knows her to be a handful. When those who have dealings with her, neighbors, friends and foe alike, are called to give testimony even the most harmless of incidents grow into tales of bedevilment. Why, exactly, did she want her dead father’s skull dug up? When her son Hans isn’t quick to respond to a letter, hoping he will stand by her, she fears too what it will do to his place in life, his important work. I looked up Johannes and read that his life was full of sorrows during this time too.

Soon, people who did her a turn of kindness come forward, brimming with resentment. Locals are suddenly remembering wild behavior, and fury, lack of humility in their interactions with her. Each has their own “come to think of it” moments, that make her suspect. How can anyone defend such marks against their character? Character assassination grows into a beast, and suddenly she is to blame for every terrible thing that has ever happened, regardless of how insignificant. All the bad luck is due to a witch in their midst. Katherina is brazen, one who doesn’t shrink into herself, always an unwelcome attribute in a woman, especially in 1619. Too bold, too meddlesome, asking for it- punishment. We get an earful of why she is guilty and the truth, as she tells it, of her innocence. One thing that stuck with me, much like news and gossip, all you need to do is bend one ear to your way of thinking to start a fire in someone’s life, to burn them at the stake. That it is based on a real person is horrifying, it’s so easy to ruin another and the law, in those times as in modern ones, certainly weren’t running on logic. Can you challenge stupidity, when it’s current state of affairs? A solid, historical fiction. Intelligently written and well researched.

Publication Date: June 8, 2021

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Tears of Amber: A Novel by Sofia Segovia, Translated by Simon Bruni

She was tired of wanting the madness to end; tired of life in a country that could feel so much repulsion for a human being, for a child, for her child. She was exhausted from so much fear of the war- fear of losing it, fear of winning it. She knew that her little family wouldn’t win under any circumstances.

War, all of it’s horror stories, full of so many sides of the same coin, where despite the repulsion and evil deeds there is sometimes goodness. Goodness is easy when it doesn’t cost us yet it’s hard to find in darkness. When we must protect our family, it’s shocking what people are capable of. This novel is about two families uprooted by war and everyone they meet on their path. Children are forced to join the effort on the front, or if too young than to remain ever watchful in their homes, or if a captured enemy, then to serve your captor as a prisoner of war. Segovia isn’t concerned about victors, because in this novel everyone loses, there are no winners just people who crawl out of the rubble half human, if they are ‘lucky’ (that word like a razor blade in the mouth). Despite what we imagine, the movies we watch, the fictional and non-fictional books we read, even the experiences our own family members share, we will never be able to comprehend what survivors endured. Your own people becoming enemies, a war that grew into a monster that went out of control devouring everyone. Separation, starvation, betrayal, death and people who have no choice. One thing spectators of the past like to do is shout how they would be brave, how they would never go along with things, they would be giants but in reality, non-compliance and rebellion was met with death or something worse- because yes, there is always something worse.

The Hahlbrock family have already survived the devastation of war, now the Führer has provided a life of order, food and a promise for a great future. When their youngest, Isle, is born they cannot imagine their Führer’s grand ambitions, nor what he has planned for his people and the rest of the world. Their darkest days are not behind them after all. The Schipper family’s youngest son, Arno, is celebrating his third birthday on the streets of Königsberg. It is this historic day, on the shoulders of his father, that Arno watches amongst a sea of people as red flags wave, slogans echo in the air, and heavy military vehicles pass in a parade of power. As a swell of voices chanting, “Heil Hitler!” dance in his head, it feels like confusion and when Hitler speaks through a loud speaker, Arno is too young to understand any of it, but it will change his entire live. Both Isle and Arno will be robbed of their childhood. As war approaches, school will drive home dangerous ideas, frightening parents, but one must keep their mouth shut and remain steadfast to the cause. Neighbors can’t be trusted, nor can soldiers. Fathers and sons are forced to either maintain their farms to feed the soldiers or join the war. When East Prussia starts to fall, Isle and her family are forced to flee. Januz, a forced laborer on her family’s farm (prisoner for all intents and purposes), dazzles young Isle with ‘tales of a besieged kingdom in the Baltic Sea from which spill the amber tears of a heartbroken queen.” Loyal to the Hahlbrock family, to the disgust of his fellow laborers, it is his mother’s stories that he uses to keep hope alive in the child’s beating heart. Something about Isle reminds him of someone he has lost, and for the first time, he feels cared for in a strange way, not much minding the hard work, now that he is no longer in danger of the wolves in the cold forest. But wolves are everywhere, and you can never trust anyone. Even when they must flee the Soviet Army, he remains steadfast, refusing to leave Isle, her mother and siblings to fend for themselves, even at his own detriment. Januz is my favorite character, and my heart was ripped out for it. As they escape, more than tears will be spilled.

Arno and his mother are going through their own dark winter of the soul, hiding in the ruins of a Königsberg mansion, with bombs falling around them, so much death from one day to the next, soon living like rats cowering in the shadows and rubble from the enemy. Neither knowing what happened to Arno’s father, or his siblings, afraid that maybe they were abandoned. His mother is losing faith and hope, weakened by her illness, unable to see the light at the end of this hell they now find themselves in. Tyrants and liberators are one in the same. Memories feel like nothing but fading lies, reality is distorted. Forced to give up their land, their very roots, each other… how is anyone to survive when bound to nothing, when loved ones are reduced to ash? Does it matter what side is winning when the world is decimated? Every character suffers invasion, and must do what they are ordered to do, so long as they have breath left within them. They must be grateful for another day, for crumbs. The war continues and they must give everything they have, including the lives of their sons and daughters. Some use stories to escape the scorched earth, but all stories must come to an end. The wind will change direction many times, and it is with a gift of an amber teardrop that will provide a future for Arno and Isle when their stories converge.

This is a painful read for every stage of life. Beautifully written despite the horrors because of the character Januz’s presence. He is able to warm the coldest heart. Yes read it!

Published May 1, 2021

Amazon Crossing

Leonora in the Morning Light: A Novel by Michaela Carter

It was a kind of quickening, as if some part of her that had been asleep were waking.

Leonora Carrington hungers to abandon the trappings of her upper class future, seduced by the freedom of the surrealists, knowing she will disappoint her parent’s expectations. Finishing schools and approved suitors be damned, she will have a bohemian life where every desire is explored, to hell with what others think! She longs to trust her gut, and her ‘unconscious appetite’ just like the surrealists. No one understands her quite as Max Ernst does, the German surrealist whose paintings have mesmerized her since she first set eye upon them. No lover can unleash the passion within her, make her simmer, soar quite like this older, wildly fascinating man, despite the 27 year age difference between them. After meeting at a dinner party, Leonora plunges into a scandalous love affair with the married man, despite her father’s feelings, that he and his art are immoral.

It is with shock that their daughter, who will never be a well behaved woman as her station demands, informs her parents she is moving with Max to Paris, that he will leave his wife and become her lover. Her father cuts her off without another pence ever again, tells her she will die penniless and that her shadow shall never again darken his door! It’s not marriage she wants, it is the experience of following her passions, the call of freedom and the warm embrace of Max. For a while, she will come alive under Ernst’s penetrating gaze, learn about the many forms of love through his friends, and feel emotions stir inside her that incite fear and pleasure. No one will challenge her like Max, and she is just as intoxicating to him. What if he ever left? How could she go on? In his circle, people like Lee Miller, Man Ray, Andre Breton and lovers people share between them, such unconventional living is a fire in her blood. The company of freedom loving souls is an endless source to her artistic mind, a place she feels most like her real self unlike the stuffy world her parent’s would trap her in. Even dreams have their nightmares, she hadn’t accounted for Max’s violently angry, deeply devout wife Marie-Berthe, who refuses to make escape easy for the pair. That is only the beginning of the obstacles fate will put in their path.

The beautiful paradise the lovers find when they settle into a home in Saint-Martin is marred by the horror of Max’s arrest. Leonora carries on as best she can, working on her paintings and keeping hope alive, her heart warmed only by letters from Max. When he comes back, something has changed about him, deadened inside by being captive. Germany is invading, the world has gone mad and Max is taken a second time- this is where everything falls away. Leonora will be brought to her knees with the waiting, wasting into a shell of herself. Darkness and ugliness seem to be the only thing on the horizon, the Paris they knew is unrecognizable, everyone is fighting to get their visas, to flee to the safety of other countries. She is steadfast in her love, waiting always for Max, until she surrenders the freedoms she fiercely clings to, loses it all, including possibly her sanity when her father has her locked up in a Spanish asylum. Max, she knows, was on his way to an internment camp and now, could be anywhere. She has no way of knowing that he fled and was trying to return to her, his beloved. Salvation comes, but it isn’t Max.

They both make choices influenced by the dangerous times and desperation that drive them further from each other’s arms. Not all marriages are for love. Sometimes, fate takes the strongest of us all and leaves us fragile. Peggy Guggenheim helps artists, labeled degenerates and enemies, escape to America. Max is is dire need of her protection, but what is the cost for them both? When Max and Leonora are once again in each other’s orbit, everything that has happened since they last saw one another has changed them both, maybe even their love. Who is she without Max? How will she ever learn where he ends and she begins, must they remain intertwined for all eternity? What about the others who are left cold by the glow of Max and Leonora’s love? In truth love, just like man, is never an island. How can either of them make a life worth living? Max is free to experience whatever tickles his fancy, but often at the expense and pain of the women who love him. He may have helped Leonora tap into her artist’s heart, but there was already a master within her soul waiting to be released. She will become a great artist in her own right, making thousands of works of art before her death, living to the ripe age of 94. Their love will be stretched as if on a torturer’s rack before fate is through with them. For a time, they will carry each other in their hearts, but love- is it enough?

This isn’t really Max Ernst’s story, it’s Leonora’s, who in the end may be the wiser lover, despite her youth.
Perfect for art lovers and an engaging story about the resilience of one woman who would fight to live the way she wanted, unapologetically in a time it simply wasn’t done.

Publication Date: May 1, 2021


Avid Reader Press

Annie and the Wolves: A Novel by Andromeda Romano-Lax

The predator can spot weakness. The world was full of wolves.

Annie Oakley, born Phoebe Ann Moses in 1860, went on to become a legendary sharpshooter charming the world over, performing in Wild West shows and even meeting royalty. A mean feat for a girl whose early origins were brutal, whose very hunting skills provided food and money for her family at a wildly tender age. This novel, however, is not solely focused on her fame but on the wolves that haunted her mind. She was a survivor, first and foremost, and this novel takes us through the real event of a train accident she was injured in and how it derailed her life, for a time. Annie’s injuries were severe, leaving her with yet another mountain to climb in a life full of obstacles. Yet, this novel is about the wolves that haunt us all and parallel to her tale is the very woman obsessed with researching Annie, through combing through Oakley’s past she exhumes deeper truths she has been avoiding about her own sister.

Ruth McClintock has ‘lost herself in the weeds’ of her work on Annie Oakley, wanting desperately to explain what drove the icon to encourage women to arm themselves. Ruth is sure that Annie’s suffering, poverty, abuse, starvation, and other far more sinister transgressions against her during her childhood is the seed that drove her to want every female to protect herself from the wolves of the world. The pressing issue is, how can she prove it? No one wants to focus on the ugliness of the legend’s past, allowing it to dim the shine of her amazing rise and success. Ruth is coming up empty, despite her search for evidence to back her claims. With an unfinished autobiography and a bit of correspondence remaining before Annie’s death, there is very little to find. Fate may be in her favor, an antique collector is sending her photocopies from a journal that, though not authenticated, could be Annie Oakley’s. This takes her down a rabbit’s hole, desperate to find out if Annie was ever secretly being treated by a psychoanalyst. Surely such visits are evidence that Oakley was suffering mentally about what happened in her youth. Ruth is dealing with her own demons and strange episodes of ‘out of body experiences’, changes in memory, time, events not unlike those Annie experienced. Her fiancé Scott has given up on her, on their life together, blaming her obsessions, her very negative views of life gone sour for ruining everything. Her life has slipped from her hands, and it’s time to confront the wolves of her own past.

High School Senior Reece offers to fix Ruth’s laptop, a whiz at tech stuff, her ex fiancé assures her. When Reece confides he is a problem solver, she lets him in on her research of Oakley. Already she feels a comfortable familiarity between them and he aides her in her pursuit of authenticating the journal. Without knowing it yet, he may also be a link in the tragic suicide of her younger sister, a past she has chosen to lock away inside of her, refusing to confront. Strange things have been happening to Ruth, uprooting her life, making her question reality and time since she survived an accident of her own. Life no longer seems to be keeping order , events and memories aren’t quite solidified. Could it be that Annie Oakley, through her own trauma, experienced the exact same uncontrollable escapes from her body and time? Is it a simple slip of the mind, a delusion? Why is Annie’s dark past, her tormentors so important to Ruth? What truths are Ruth, herself, avoiding?

This story turned out to be richer than I imagined. It’s not your typical historical fiction at all as it plunges the reader into the low bellied monsters that hunt the young. It attempts to explain how these dark souls escape the radar, how the victim is locked away in fear of exposure. It challenges how we cope with revenge, what it costs to fight smear campaigns in all their devilish forms. How do we push the dark forces into the light, when they are so good at protecting themselves? How do we make things right without ruining our own lives in the process? How does one truly move beyond the trauma they’ve experienced, be it violence at another’s hands or any other obstacle? This is why so many people prefer to remain blind or ignore the ‘red flags’. It was a heavy read and every character matters. Time, how we experience it, what we envision or dream, imagine or conjure… it’s all personal in the end. I need to read more by this gifted author.

Available Now

Publication Date: February 2, 2021

Soho Press

Vera: A Novel by Carol Edgarian

An unearthly stillness preceded and followed the shaking. It’s what we did and didn’t do in the stillness that determined the rest of our days.

Vera makes no qualms about her blood, she is a mutt, a bastard and an almost orphan. Her mother Rose, a legendary Madam, birthed her but left the raising to a Swedish widow named Elsa. In doing so, this guarantees she will never become a hooker nor bear the stain of her mother’s sins. The earth is about to shake the ground beneath their feet and alter all their plans days after Vera’s fifteenth birthday in San Francisco 1906. With Rose’s blood running through Vera’s veins, she has two warring natures inside of her but which will win out?

Her mysterious mother Rose lives a lavish life in Pacific Heights within a great house of many rooms upon which Vera looks at with deep longing. The time she spends with her mother are rare, and all her wishes are centered on being with Rose. With Vera’s dark looks, it’s impossible to truly pass as Elsa’s daughter and Piper “Pie’s” sister. Rose’s life revolves around meeting the desires of men, in the oldest profession in the world and Vera’s father? Well, he’s not even a factor. Her loneliness is overwhelming, feeling like nothing more than “a madam’s mistake”, Rose’s great shame and yet there lies freedom in being a secret. Vera learns early in life that her mind is her greatest company, and is the very thing that will help her survive and thrive when their great city and its citizens crumble.

San Francisco and Vera could be the same entity, both inhabited by secrets, henchmen, painted ladies, sleazy politicians, and all manner of celebrity and scandal. Vera learns discernment is the name of the game early on, and works hard to earn her keep. Despite Rose’s attempts to see Vera become first class, Vera is oddly proud of what her mother has accomplished as a Madam of the brothel (off limits to her), running the best place downtown. If only she would stop sending Vera away, if only things began making sense. Rose is privy to everything happening in this fine city, from the belly crawling scum to San Francisco’s mayor, she has eyes and ears everywhere. She doesn’t suffer fools and in her own way is teaching Vera how to be strong, a survivor. Vera wants nothing more than to prove herself to her mother and by choosing to shamefully out a liar she proves even she has a price. She may never be as beautiful as her mother, but she can be smart…

There it is, she is not beautiful, a crushing truth but she will need her smarts to survive the destructive forces of the coming earthquakes of her long life.

Rose exemplifies the times and what a woman without many options resorted too. Rather than being beaten down or waiting to be rescued, she used her wits to climb out of ruin, reborn again and again. Her moves are full of calculations and ones that Vera can’t always comprehend. But there are hard lessons between want and desire she is bound to absorb. The Chinese man Tan, her mother Rose’s butler and cook is the kink in the chain, the cause of confusion and anger. Tan, her mother’s spy- the very man who, though resentful of Vera’s very existence, can sometimes be bribed into revealing secrets to her. He will play a far greater role in all their lives, despite their shared mutual hatred.

Vera is learning she isn’t as far removed from the rest of the filth as she once believed. Everything in life is a game, she learns this the night of the opera, a game she has to learn to play and this she does on the streets of the glorious city. A city that is an orchestra that the mayor controls. Just as she is chewing on thoughts of that night, the city cracks. Everything falls upon them and it is up to Vera to save both she and love-sick, heart-broken Pie. Vera has no choice but to lead the way.

Soon the city is alight with fires, the dead lay buried, and society is suddenly equal, at least in their devastation. Everyone is a target for criminals, Rose is nowhere to be found dead or alive, and Vera is motherless as always. There is no gas, no running water, no electricity, no food but some grit has entered her soul, and in Rose’s house she and Pie become squatters. No telling how long before the world will right itself, she grudgingly allows Tan into their lives again, but he isn’t alone. He has brought a beautiful girl with him. It is because of him that another usurps her place as her mother’s daughter, and it’s a crushing blow. Everything is burning, and follows suit with history. Nearly 500 city blocks destroyed in the span of 3 days. The Palace Hotel, Chinatown… everything engulfed. Vera is only 15 and full of pride, but she is about to grow up fast. How will it all end, where will this event take them all and will Vera reunite with her mother Rose? Will her mother always reside in her head, watching over her, there to impress?

Vera is first and foremost about reinvention, Rose was already planning her daughter’s future before her birth, deciding what path would be better, but never could she have predicted the forces of nature, the earth’s or her own child’s. The best laid plans and all that… nature, nurture, pride, class, love, lust, desire, all these things build a city and bring it down. Vera and the city of San Francisco are both rebuilt but each retain the memory of what the destruction cost them, regardless of how much time passes.

Yes, read it, it is engaging historical fiction.

Publication Date: March 2, 2021

Scribner

How to Order the Universe: A Novel by María José Ferrada, Elizabeth Bryer (Translated by)

I liked breathing in the smoke from their cigarettes. Watching the salesmen order one coffee after another. Listening to their lies, time and again.

In María José Ferrada’s fictional coming of age, seven-year-old “M” tells us she has inherited the gift for persistence from her father. What better way to use it than to go on the road with her Dad “D”, a man who travels from town to town selling Kramp brand products to hardware stores. It only seems fitting a child born into a home made from said products would follow in her father’s footsteps, learning his finely honed skills. It is a partnership her mother is unaware has M dodging school and hitting the road with D. The youngest among the old-timers, she begins to shine in the middle of their universe, the coffeehouse and absorbs the ‘first laws of sales, and of life.’ Through the men and their polished lies, she is privy to the broken families, the roles they perfect to make a sale , their scams, comedies, dramas and their hard-knock life wisdoms. For her father, it’s about the money but for M it’s about expanding her small world and her comprehension of it. No one is a better teacher than D. Maybe too, it’s about feeling connected to someone.

M masters her role and obtains an education that has nothing to do with school. This early lesson in the art of a lie entails going home and deceiving her mother by letting her think she has been at school, rather than making a living alongside her daddy. D isn’t invested in fathering but as his employee they develop a bond little M can cling to. The novel takes place during Pinochet’s dictatorial reign in Chile, who left behind a brutal legacy, and may well be a piece to the puzzle of a mother who seems to be incomplete and sad. M’s tough, intelligent act can’t last forever when “E”, a photographer who hunts ghosts with his camera, disrupts the harmony of their routine. Nor can she fail to notice the strange effect he has on her mother. While she may not know what M and her father have been up to, there is a lot about her mother’s life before she gave birth to her that M is in the dark about. Like many children, she is blind about the dangerous world of grown ups and politics as much she fails to comprehend the foolish decisions of a father whose skills she greatly admires.

M’s place in the ‘floating family’ of salesman is threatened by events beyond her comprehension, and the bubble they’ve been living in is about to burst, putting distance between she and D. As time passes, so too does the charm of world she and her father shared on the road. M learns a strange lesson about time and space, that you can’t go back, that nothing is truly set in stone and it may be impossible to understand the innerworkings of things, especially one’s own father. How to Order the Universe is a father/daughter relationship on the edge of a cliff. It is about a clever, little girl whose bottomless emptiness she tries to fill with purpose by traveling on the road with her father.

Publication Date: February 16, 2021

Tin House

The Mermaid from Jeju: A Novel by Sumi Hahn

After she coughed the ocean out of her body, her mind cleared, leaving behind a clear picture of everything that was going to happen.

Jeju is south Korea’s ‘Island of the Gods’, but the sun has set on paradise. We begin in 1944, Goh Junja longs to be a haenyeo just like her mother and grandmother before her, women who make their living plunging into the dangerous depths of the sea, collecting it’s bountiful blessings; abalone, shells, food and pearls if they’re lucky. Their sleep is filled with sea dreams, for they are mermaids that walk the land, visiting the sea king and his maidens. On Junja’s dive, she goes too deep but the sea king spits her out alive, she is a woman now, carrying on the tradition of the haenyeo. Having survived her near-drowning she is one of them, joining the women at the shore, no longer left behind to care for her siblings at home. When her mother is worried about leaving her work of leading the women divers safely to a fellow diver who has been spooked recently, she relents and allows Junja go in her stead on her annual trip to Hallason. Tasked with delivering abalone to the pig farmer’s wife and securing their own pork (piglet) for the winter, Junja is thrilled to climb the mountain on her own. She couldn’t imagine that she would meet Yang Suwol and fall in love. While surrounded by the lush beauty of the mountain, visiting the shrine of the gods she and Suwol encounter a soldier, searching for communists. It’s a prelude of what’s about to come. Something terrible has happened at home, in a rush she arrives to be at the side of her dying mother. The sea will take her, but the mystery is far deeper.

In a day, the world they’ve lived in has changed. Her dream speaks of a future far from the island, of marriage and daughters. Soldiers are taking over, American and Korean, the mountain is no longer safe and worse, her little brother and sister will no longer live with Junja and her grandmother. The old woman is acting strangely, she has befriended a constable, but she has secrets of her own and the death of her daughter has her hungry for answers. Junja is still in the dark about her family’s true history, and grandmother can’t keep her safe forever. As the threat of political unrest burns closer, it is up to grandmother’s sharp intellect to keep Junja alive but horrors and misfortune are on the horizon. It isn’t the first time, for Japanese occupation had invaded their lives before, so long ago- demanding sacrifices that grandmother carries within her. Through cunning, she will see that Junja doesn’t drown on land. But what will become of her, what will happen between she and Suwol when he is arrested and accused of working with communists?

Part Two it is 2001, we come to know Dr. Moon and learn what has become of Junja. Dr. Moon has carried ghosts and torments of his own, never imagining in his youth that he would one day raise daughters in a foreign land “American girls”, no longer holding to traditions or “superstitions”. He is mourning a great loss, and haunted by the voices of spirits demanding he ‘go back’- the dead will be honored. “There’s a space inside you waiting for the spirit, and if you do not fill it, that space will gather darkness instead.” He will return to visit Korea, much to his children’s shock. “Everything that has been forgotten about the mountain must now be remembered, what had been taken from the sea must now be returned.” Time is vast as an ocean.

Junja is naïve at the start of the novel, through no fault of her own, it’s for her protection that some truths are hidden but the ravages of war steals innocence and shallows lives whole, by part two we get to know her a little better but the strongest characters end up being her grandmother and Dr. Moon. The myths, legends and traditions of the haenyeo make for a beautiful, “magical saga”, that they are real is a nod to the power and strength of women. The bonds of family, their power and status as divers does feel magical but the story is dark as a fairy tale when those leaning toward communism go against the American troops establishing their presence on Jeju. Escape is the only option, if you can make it out alive. I went on to read about Jeju and it’s ‘independent spirit’ throughout history, it made for a richer understanding of what happened in this novel. This is quite a debut that feels magical, but the magic is smothered by the harsh brutalities of war and politics, turning it into heavier read.

Publication Date: November 10, 2020

Alcove Press

How to Make a Life: A Novel by Florence Reiss Kraut

In Kotovka she had been Chaya Amdur, but when the clerk asked her name she said, “Ida. Ida Amdur.” She changed her daughter’s names as well, Beilah to Bessie and Feige to Fanny. They would be Americans now.

Ida Amdur is fleeing a pogrom in Ukraine with her two daughters, Beilah and Feige in 1905. They will be Americans now, but to do so means closing the door on the abominable horrors her family suffered. It is also an end to her prosperous life, her very identity. Names may change, but it is more than tickets for the ship and a few personal belongings they bring with them to their new life. The memories are sealed tight in her eldest child’s brain, haunting even her dreams and keeps the pain Ida suffered fresh in her mind. It is the youngest, the beautiful Feige, nay Fanny, with her delicate beauty and mind untainted by the past who is her shining hope, her angel. Ida, however, doesn’t have the gift of leisure to spend her days and nights with her girls, she must toil to put food on the table and a roof over their heads in this new country. It is Bessie who must be a little mother to Fanny, feeding her in the evening and putting her to bed while Ida works. Life is coming together again but not seamlessly, and fate isn’t done with them. No matter how much she sacrifices, it never seems to be enough. The only thing she knows is, she must never look back if she is to survive. Naturally, Bessie is the daughter who carries the past into the roots of the future through her own children and everyone who follows.

The roots are stronger for growing in the darkest of years but survival comes at a cost. Bessie knows better than anyone that there is no escaping your origins. Taking on guilt, regret, shame that she didn’t ask for but must carry seems to be passed down to her children just like genes, one must wonder, does trauma, life experience travel through the blood too? What about someone’s namesake, can it too carry sorrow, joy? How else to explain her own eldest Ruby’s strange spells? The things she knows without understanding? Bessie is doing her best for her mother Ida, her husband Abe and their five children (Ruby, Morris, Irene, Jenny and Faye) but she feels so much older than her years. No matter how vigilant she is, she knows how quickly things can turn to tragedy and Ruby seems to be a catalyst for danger. As the years pass, the children come of age and find themselves tied in the knots of their family.

There is love and resentment when responsibility falls heavy on the shoulders of certain children. Despite the silence of the past, the choices they make as they fall in love and attempt to build their own futures, drudge up memories of Kotovka, Ukraine and the brutal murder of their people. Memories that Ida and Bessie have kept locked away from the delicate ears of her American children. It is as if the past is a poison, one that can vanquish any person or thing they hold dear. Yet, what people refuse to remember will always come to the surface.

The dynamics between the siblings is evidence that it isn’t only Ida and Bessie who have sacrificed. So much is out of our hands, and when mental struggles engulf one sibling, it is an undertow that takes everyone with them. In being the rock, one sister has buried her own desires, and when they awaken she can’t seem to steer them in the right direction. Sins seem to echo through time.

Once inside Ruby’s mind the reader can’t help but feel the chaos in her head and Florence Reiss Kraut’s incredible mastery of writing characters whose every emotion flows within the reader makes you feel they are your own. Each character has struggles, grudges, needs, wants, connections, and shame, so much shame- deserved or not. Sometimes we burn everything down around us through no fault of our own. Ruby and Jenny’s tangled lives evoke the bond of sisterhood but it’s not all glory and grace, anyone with a sibling knows this too well. How much should it cost to be a good sister, brother, mother, husband, wife, daughter or grandchild? What do we owe our ancestors and must history keep taking a pound of flesh for every child born?

Ruby and Jenny aren’t the only siblings struggling with each other. When Ruby’s adult son Michael decides to better understand his Jewish identity, embracing his religion it too creates waves of dissension between her and his sister Abby. Can you navigate faith when way those around you live their lives against your beliefs? Do you cut them free?

It’s not all doom and gloom, every family has it’s free spirits. There is Woodstock and detours, cross-country travel, Spain, India, Israel, faith, college, marriage, divorces, children, careers, love affairs… all the joyful and disastrous events in any life. Naturally mistakes are made, some unforgivable that push the family apart, sometimes with good intentions and at other times born out of old hurts and jealousies. This was not a light read, it will break your heart and hang you out to dry but I was riveted. A heavy read for the fall. Yes, add it to your list!

Publication Date: October 13, 2020

She Writes Press

The Dazzling Truth: A Novel by Helen Cullen

You never have to lose anything, or anyone, ” she often said, “if you just change the way you look at them.”

The Moone’s first meet in 1978 when both are students at Trinity College in Dublin. The thing Murtagh notices initially is Maeve’s tomato-red suede platforms, her beauty, her low pitched whine and her American accent. He doesn’t realize it yet, but this woman from Brooklyn is fated to be his wife. An actress on scholarship for the summer is about to fall for Murtagh, future potter studying ceramics, and her future husband. Something about the man softens her rough edges, and he has no idea how much she has endured just to get to where she is now standing. In short time, Maeve decides not to return to America, to make a go of schooling at Trinity for her final year and to invest her heart in Murtagh. It is the first time she has been free of her former self, here she can become something other than the troubled girl.

Murtagh would have her even if she were a complex puzzle missing all the vital pieces. He is besotted, even if she seems to push him away, mysteriously. He is going to learn how to love her, he won’t be put off, and it will be trial. Her truth will bond them closer, they will both be better for it.

They were Moones now and a whole new life awaited them.

They make a decision to move to a cottage on the island of Inis Óg, a chance Murtagh would be crazy to pass up. Even if it means Maeve has to alter her plans, so he can have a thriving pottery business. Through it all she sees her dream of the stage fading away, but from the first this cottage feels like home. She refuses to indulge her sorrows, but they do return. The island itself lends a moody atmosphere. She finds an outlet for her creativity, her love of the acting, but will it be enough? Of course Murtagh feels it’s important for her to have something of her own. Years pass…

2005 It’s Christmas Eve and Queen Maeve, as as Murtagh affectionately calls his wife, overseas their family’s many activities and traditions. Their children Nollaig and Siv (girls) and their twin boys Mossy and Dillon, are well tended by their mother who reigns supreme. Maybe it isn’t perfect, but it is a home of love, warmth. This morning as everyone awakens, Murtagh’s wife isn’t on her side of the bed. Surely if she slipped out for a walk, she’d be back by now. His nerves begin to rise as they look for her.

We start at the beginning of their love, and the many trials in between. The family crashes into a wall of grief, but Murtagh’s journey must continue on and his heart alters them all in unpredictable ways. Shaking the foundations of the island and his grown children’s world, his affections give rise to many torments. Maeve may well have had many periods when ‘the crow came to sit on her shoulder’ (I can’t think of a more fitting symbolism for depression) times that stole her focus away from everything in her life, but she knew her family better than they knew themselves, her beloved Murtagh in particular. The children suffer, through no fault of Maeve nor Murtagh’s, how can you lay blame on a disease that most of us don’t understand. It’s the illness, there are times it overtakes despite her best efforts to remain on an even keel. There are good times, there are bad times. ‘These thoughts run relay races in my mind’, and Maeve can’t always master them. Pills aren’t always the answer, so she attempts to expunge these thoughts through her own methods. Sadly, some ‘spells’ last longer than others, and it’s exhausting for her. It’s so exhausting pretending she is fine, hurting those she loves. It’s nothing new, it’s always been a part of her life, the very darkness that worried her parents when she first traveled to Dublin as a young woman.

Other strained relationships make more sense as the novel goes along. The beauty of the story is the hope of love, the refusal to abandon it. Loving people even when darkness descends, selfless love. We can’t cure all that ails us, anymore than we can save those we love from themselves, from their afflictions. But we truly never have to lose people if we can accept them, broken, lost, confused as they may be. Murtagh’s love for Maeve is never in doubt, not even at the end when it changes direction with the wind. It’s heartbreaking, Maeve’s dark crow times, how it affects the entire family and the struggles Murtagh confronts in trying to hold them all together. How he doesn’t always see what is in front of his eyes. It’s not about pity, it’s about one family’s journey. A story of loving differently, and how that challenges us all.

Publication Date: August 18, 2020

Harlequin

Graydon House

Estelle: A Novel by Linda Stewart Henley

He can be very abrupt in his manner and has quite a reputation for rudeness in Paris. But perhaps here, among family, he’ll make an effort to be agreeable.

Estelle is a moving historical fiction story about Edgar Degas, French born artist known for his drawings and oil paintings of ballerinas, during his stay with French Creole relatives in New Orleans from 1872 to 1873. It is interesting to note that despite being considered an impressionist, he wasn’t, as it is apparent to those in the know (which I am not) that he didn’t use the same colors as impressionists and he bucked against that very label. It’s a fascinating history to research for curious minds. The title character is his cousin and sister-in-law Estelle, married to his brother René. The eldest of five children and born into a family of bankers, it’s his family’s hope he will take in interest in their business dealings (cotton/textile merchants) and the beauty of New Orleans. If only he would stay, make roots, marry. His brother looks down on his chosen profession, as Edgar has not yet achieved recognition for his hard work. The more popular artists of the times paint outdoors but not Degas, and is it possible there is a reason? A malady he shares with dear Estelle that could make painting in the bright outdoors an insurmountable difficulty?

The moments of familial intimacy between Estelle and Edgar reveal a bit about their disease. Estelle is far more supportive and kind, encouraging Edgar’s passions, than his own brother just as her dear cousin gives her much needed attention. She pushes him gently to paint, but he seems hesitant. Although not his usual subject, he is soon painting the children and Estelle. All isn’t as well as René pretends either in his own life, and worse, his attentions towards his wife and children is waning. Heavily pregnant, Estelle does her best to manage her family and see that Edgar enjoys his time with them, despite her own fractured, wounded heart. The charm is in the food he eats, the local culture he takes part in while visiting and the bound between family. Henley made me feel like I was there, feasting my eyes on the surroundings and filling my gut with delicious New Orleans favorites. Of course, there are sorrows, the trace of romance and silly, humorous misunderstandings.

1970 is where the novel first opens, with Ann Gautier at the end of a late, summer morning run on Esplanade Avenue, returning to a house she has inherited from her mother’s estranged side of the family. Once an elegant house on one of the finest streets of New Orleans, it is howling to be brought back to it’s former state of grace and beauty. With a passion for art, it is her desire to restore it, but she has to juggle her own budding career at the same time. Being an artist doesn’t always feel like the best choice for a lucrative career. Luckily for her, she has the help of a seductive, attractive older man named Sam but can she trust her heart? The area has become crime ridden, and it isn’t the safest place to be, as she soon learns that not all the locals are keen on her restoration plans. It seems there are several puzzles to solve, not all of them about her family’s past. Discoveries within the crumbling home give voice to her long dead ancestors, and nothing delights her more than the revelation that her own family had ties to Edgar Degas. No one has more import, though, than Estelle whose namesake connects Anne to her deceased mother’s shrouded past, full of cold consequences that cost her greatly. When Anne reaches out to a family member, one discarded by the clan, she questions her motives. This other Estelle “Stella” knows quite a bit about her kin’s less lustrous facts. Two worlds collide, and with it preservation groups face a fight as the city plans for urban renewal projects , and the wealthy butt heads with the poor. Her family wasn’t always upstanding, and racism rears it’s ugly head.

The story stretches back through time reaching out to Anne in the present. Estelle and Anne may be a century apart, but their lives touch each other. The mysteries grow, the greatest though living within Anne’s own heart. At times, her sheltered reactions, her assumptions about the other “Estelle” can be infuriating yet perfectly fitting for the times. Schemes, betrayals, serious crimes, a social class divide and muddy family history, all bound together by a great artist. It was a delightfully engaging read. How stupid people can be, that’s one solid fact about history that seems as evident today. When I read the epilogue I felt such sorrow for the characters I came to love- I don’t include René here! I went on to look into René and his debts, abandonment, and about Edgar’s generosity in righting his brother’s wrongs. I feel the author rendered René perfectly, with his wandering eye, cruel humiliations towards his pregnant wife and looking down on the very brother whose ‘silly career’ he benefited from! See, this is what happens when a novel stokes my curiosity; I look into history and feel offended for those who are wronged. Of course, looking into any historical figure you read unflattering truths, like Degas and his misogyny but no one can deny when it came to family he was stellar- it warmed me to his side more than his beautiful works of art. An engaging read.

Publication Date: August 25, 2020

She Writes Press