The Eighth Life: For Brilka by Nino Haratischwili

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And, in tracing the path of this ghost, she hoped to find redemption, and the definitive answer to the yawning emptiness inside her.

This is the book I have been needing to steep myself in all year. It’s about the revolution of the Janish family, which really begins with a secret, irresistible, seductive hot chocolate recipe that tastes like a blessing but bleeds into their lives like a curse. Surely a cup of warmth that fills the belly with such promise can fix an entire empire and yet how could they possibly know what destructive forces a red century has in store for them all? That they will become knots in a horror story of sorts, isn’t history full of those? Who is ever truly spared the cruelty of wars, within a country or a family? The beautiful Anastasia “Stasia”, ‘who came into the world already dancing’ is oblivious to the power the secret recipe her father (a famous chocolatier) gives her. “He guarded it like a secret of war.” He makes her promise to never allow the recipe to leave the family nor use it lightly, it is meant only for rare, special occasions. Does she heed his warning? From the moment it touches her tongue “it was like a spiritual ecstasy”, her fanciful dreams of life as a ballerina in Paris dissolve, but that is the least of the miseries and sorrows to come. In marrying a friend of her father’s, lieutenant of the White Guard Simon Jashi, she is bound not for Paris but for the cold climate of Russia- a country troubled with unrest. Meant to join her husband who left ahead of her, things run amok and fate teaches her a lesson.

There is no time for innocence nor clumsy dreams. It is only a relative that keeps her alive and later, when everything sours and the October Revolution thunders on, tragedy strikes. Fleeing destruction and death she finds her husband and gets pregnant with their first child ( Brilka’s great grandfather), returns back to Georgia “to the bosom of her family”, only to see the Chocolaterie fall into the state’s hands. Joined together again, she and Simon live in the countryside as a family where her life no longer feels like her own. Her sister Christine comes of age, blossoms and makes a very successful marriage. Stasia’s family grows as she gives birth to a daughter, and refusing to visit her husband in Moscow, instead moves into her father’s halved house. Later, she and her children live with her beautiful sister Christine and her husband Ramas. Christine catches the eye of her husband’s superior, the Little Big Man, awakens his animal urges, and sets in motion a horrific chain of events that will near destroy their entire family.

Then there are the children, Kitty and Kostya and how their lives play out. They both find themselves tied up in Andro’s own future, the son of Stasia’s dangerous friend, Sopio. How did I keep up with every character without notes? That’s how enthralled I was with the family and I began to feel like I was living through it all alongside them. This is a novel rich with history but nothing is more domineering than the fate of these characters. The dust never settles, the devil always seems to be at someone’s heels. But just which devil? There is no monster nor darkness more terrifying than human beings. Betrayal, starvation, treason, infidelity, war, dictators, torture, pogroms… and “Men always want to be in charge of you. What kind of life is that? I may as well have been born a dog; even as a dog I would have more freedom.”  It’s not only women who ‘Little big men’ are in charge of, but countries full of doomed people. It’s as if another character may as well have been death, because it’s a constant presence.

If you’re unfamiliar with Russian, German, Georgian history then you will be better informed after reading this novel. I can’t imagine a reader unfamiliar with it being able to understand the choices made nor the traps the characters all fall into. It makes for a more involved investment not all readers are interested in making. I, however, ate these pages. The horror of the times isn’t lost on me, my family has a history rife with Russian occupation and bullets, after-all Russia invaded Hungary. Poverty, hunger, cruelty, war, death, civil unrest- it feels like my own family history. Choosing which side your loyalty lies in a divided country is like choosing your own poison. People talk big who don’t understand living in fear and this novel certainly sheds light on the terror of the powerless.

There is a line about Kitty branded in my head, ‘she was a survival artist’, and the truth is every woman in the Jashi family has to be with their rotten circumstances or curse… “tomato, tamahto”.

I was riveted from the start and urge readers to dig into this novel full of riches. You can’t shake more story out of it. I was exhausted with all the emotional hijacking and I loved every moment of it. I won’t gush in a long winded review, because you need that precious time to invest in this novel. The characters fall into such a deep abyss that it’s a wonder there is a descendant (Brikla, for whom this is all told) that made it through her family’s traumas at all. It’s hard to feel sorry for myself looking back on history.  I don’t say this often, but Nino Haratischwili is a hell of a writer. How do her characters occupy her head space, with all their desires, regrets, rage? Yes, read this book! Remember you have been warned, it is not a light read.

Available Now

Scribe

 

 

 

 

 

Sin Eater: A Novel by Megan Campisi

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I only follow that I am not to be hanged or fined. I am to be given a different punishment. 

The punishment May receives for stealing warm bread is to become a sin eater. A clever, original idea for a historical fiction novel, I’ll give Megan Campisi that! Sin eaters, however, are not made up in the writer’s imagination, they actually existed. Said to go back as early as 1600 (in the British isles) it was a job where sins of the dying/dead were consumed in the form of food, hence allowing the sinner a sort of absolution that allowed them into heaven. As is human nature, the sin eaters were outcasts, damned by the very absolution they provided, swallowing poisonous sins. “The sin eater walks among us, Unseen, unheard”…

Once the Makerman places a collar around her neck, so long as she serves faithfully with true piety and obedience, keeping silence, carrying the heavy sins of others to her grave,  her soul may rise to the Maker. Easier said than done. May stumbles home only to learn that her punishment bans her from the life she knew before. No longer will anyone talk to her, not even her own kin, nor will anyone explain to her what she is meant to do. All she knows is she is meant to go to the other. There is another in the village damned just like her.

It is through this other sin eater, also a woman, for only women can eat sins, that May learns the way. Mouth shut, and nothing to look forward to, no husband, no children, not a lover nor friends. It’s like being the walking dead. Soon after she attends a dying man as he confesses sins, and foods are called out to cover each sin. Such as Oat Porridge and dried raisins for holding a grudge and faithlessness. At least there will always be food, she will never starve.

When the Queen’s messenger calls them to the castle, May discovers there is a deception taking place. A deer’s heart represents murder, a sin the royal governess never confessed. The elder sin eater’s refusal to devour it seals her fate, she is taken away and May knows she herself must partake of the deer’s heart if she has any chance to save her mentor. But nothing ever goes to plan, and she has become trapped herself in the deceit at the royal court. How can someone who cannot communicate, who others shun so as not to be cursed get to the bottom of such treachery?

One thing is certain, there are many sinners at court and lies can alter even the fate of one’s people. There are many reasons for lies, hunger, fear, pride, vanity, and our own safety.

I enjoyed the story, and the choices May makes in the end. Sometimes we have to embrace what’s thrown at us. It’s a rotten existence, but more than anything it was a unique idea for a novel. I had never heard of sin eaters, just another page in the strange history of human beings. I am always tickled by the old superstitions and folklore and wonder what people of the future will think about our beliefs, traditions one day. I wanted more from May, more fight, more anger and life. I wanted to care about her more, and I was expecting the tale to turn out differently in regards to the mystery at court. Still it was a strange journey and a decent read. And a nod to the book cover art.

Publication Date: April 7, 2020

Atria Books

Coming Up For Air by Sarah Leipciger

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Maybe life could be like this, like a finger broken and never treated, healed but crooked. Or a leg. You could walk with a limp forever. You could get used to anything.

Can we truly get used to anything? To a life spent craving the taste of air, as you fight your own lungs to stay alive? Can you get used to a quiet place when you crave the city, noise? Will you ever get used to the absence of your greatest treasure, as it slipped away one quiet brutal day? Does being an unwanted child, under the charity of your ‘keeper’ until your free to earn your own keep as a lady’s companion, ever becomes as natural as breathing? What happens if you discover even this freedom can be weighted, and water so welcoming? The novel opens with a drowning death and it is a passing that echoes all throughout history.

This novel takes the true story of L’Inconnue de la Seine (the unknown woman of the Seine)  dragged out of the river Seine in Paris around the 1880’s, and breathes life back into by creating a backstory for the mysterious lady. The dead woman’s face was said to be so beautiful that a death mask was made. This sweet face went on to become popular in the art scene serving as a muse for artists and writers. Later, she is of interest to men of science and medicine as well. The mask having a much longer life than the woman behind it, almost begs her story to be told. How does this unfortunate young woman intertwine with the other characters within the story? Through love, loss, illness, desire, grief, hope, and science. How does a Norwegian toy-maker find himself inventing something life altering for future generations on the tide of his grief? Why does he matter so much or his memories?

Leipciger writes about the many faces of love, and not all of them are romantic. The biggest pain in the heart can be for a child. Places factor into the story as much as circumstances. Where we stay, why we leave, how we fail our children and ourselves. In this novel water is always waiting, both as friend and fiend. It expresses the brokenness we feel, whether due to a failing body or the inability to remain steadfast in a marriage. Suffocating in a place where every single thing seems barren, or under the thumb of the person we owe our livelihood to. There are so many ways a person can drown, in and out of the water. Drown in the heart, the lungs, under the relentless scrutiny of the public eye.

1898: A young woman works as a lady’s companion for one Madame Debord, a nervous Parisienne whose had enough excitement for one life. Through Debord we get a taste of what it meant to be a female back then, as she speaks of her past and shares confidences about miscarriages, her husband, and how his family was a looming threat once.  Her lady’s companion knows all too well what it means to have no choices in life beyond mean survival, after-all it is why she is here herself, working for Madame. She will soon make discoveries of her own, of the body, and the heart. Someone will awaken her desires, but they are forbidden ones.  Her soul will sore above water, but one must always come down. The water is always waiting, and people are always watching, ready to take advantage.

Anouk’s story expresses what a family goes through when a child is diagnosed with a serious disease. The symbolism cannot be lost, that a person can drown on dry land and do very little to prevent it. The helpless parents are living as if on the precipice of a cliff, waiting for the moment that could be the last, yet maintaining the discipline they must adhere to in order to keep their heads for their cherished daughter. It takes its toll on a marriage, more so when each long to be in different places. We get both Nora and Anouk’s perspective and it is painful. Nora begins remembering the early days of the late 1970’s when due to faulty genes Nora and her husband Red are initiated into a life they never expected with Anouk’s birth. Nora is “a fish swimming against the current”, the current is their family living in a place that to Nora is isolation. All the snow, nature, distance from other people, like a dead zone. The Canada she longs for is Toronto, where the hospital is closer, and everything is far more convenient. Should motherhood be a price paid, giving up all desires, needs? Anouk is like an amphibian, who loves the water and has desires of her own, saddened by the demands her illness makes on her parents and worse, trying to have normalcy, never knowing if she has a future at all. Weakened by disease, made fun of by the other children, is there a point in looking to the future, one that may never exist?

Tender is the tale of the toy-maker and his sweet Bear. A man reminiscing about his childhood, memories of his grandparents and now his own family. How the wind blows, and every dream can scatter into the water, with no rhyme nor reason. Nothing to be done, nothing to predict, no way of knowing when tragedy will strike. Just a family filled with happiness, until…

 

It is through one person’s grief that another’s salvation will be born. A tale as old as time itself. Life is a river, and water is a lover or a grave for each character in this heartbreaking novel. It is about our first breath and our last. Beautifully written.

Publication Date: March 3, 2020

House of Anansi Press

 

These Ghosts Are Family: A Novel by Maisy Card

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You remembered having laughed at the thought that getting down on your knees could redeem you.

It’s hard to believe this is a debut novel. Maisy Card’s dialogue is written with authentic accents , which seems necessary to flavor this story as it pulls the readers through the dirt of history. As she exposes the deceptions of a Jamaican family through generations, we travel through time from Jamaica to Brooklyn. The characters can be downright devilish or desperate. It is a brutal tale, that begins with Abel Paisley faking his own death and assuming another man’s identity. The ghosts in this family aren’t all dead, and those who have been long in the ground refuse to remain silent. Secrets have a way of climbing out of the grave. Abel’s abandonment of his wife Vera steals all smiles from his children’s lives, puts an end to their mother’s tenderness. The daughter he raised under his assumed identity Stanford Solomon, fared no better and is nothing but an embarrassment. Her own child will wonder “if there is someone out there who could wear your life better.”  Her grandfather knows that answer best.

Vera is nothing but an angry ghost now, born to the knowledge of  her husband’s deception only after her own death. But what can a ghost do but watch and remember her life, now vanished from her hands? She can only simmer and focus on revenge. We the reader can go back through the years to see where the betrayals first began. When Abel shucked his life, Vera became a young widow ‘drowning under the weight of keeping a house and tending two small children’, and hired Bernard. A teenager himself, not yet a man, she finds uses for Bernard that keeps him obedient. What cost is there in so much loyalty, all the years he made this family he worked for his life?  The rest of the family see him as nothing but a servant, Vera’s yard boy, a modern day slave. Slaves just like the ones once kept in Harold Town. Bernard has his own secret history, jealous of a dead husband, taking his place in his own way but always an outsider, never granted full entrance into the house nor within the family. Grieving harder for Vera than her own blood. The searing pain of loss forces him into his own brand of madness, and the choice Abel made still keeps spinning everyone’s lives.

Further back still we reach looking for atonement, hoping our DNA tells the tales of our ancestors but not quite ready for horror stories. But it is in the heirlooms, such as the battered leather book that one’s great -great -great -great Grandfather, Harold Fowler’s, sins are recorded. Here, Debbie reads about the running of his Jamaican sugar plantation in the 1800’s. She isn’t prepared to digest the horrors of slavery, nor the nightmares that are visited upon her that feel more like possessions. History cannot be denied.

As Vera’s children sort through their childhood differently, one clinging to the good memories, another to the rotten ones, they must face what their mother was. Superstition runs rampant among the people, but what is reality, what is folklore? Adultery, unwanted children, drug addiction, blood thirsty little girls, secret histories, lies, slavery, rape… every single character is a trembling branch on the family tree. The truth is elusive, as solid as ghosts.

This debut is disturbingly engaging and one hell of a complicated tale. If we picked the bones of our own family history clean, would we too feel poisoned? Is this why it is often said to let sleeping dogs lie? It’s a shamefully dirty history, but makes for captivating fiction!

Publication Date: March 3, 2020

Simon & Schuster

 

 

Conjure Women: A Novel by Afia Atakora

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More profit to be made in curses than in her work mixing healing tinctures. More praise to be found in revenge than in birthing babies.

Slaverytime 1854 we meet Miss May Belle, a slave woman well known for crafting curses, because as she tells it, “Hoodoo is black folks currency.”  What other power is to be found than in such things? It’s another form of hope when drowning in desperation. In a time when other slavefolk were forced to work in  the fields, or on carpentering and cooking Miss May Belle has her hoodooing and healing (for various afflictions) as well as midwifery skills. She is the one the slavefolk turn to, and sometimes the white man as well; when what ails him is a shameful thing. Her own daughter Rue comes of age at her side, learning more than healing wounds, and birthing babies. She learns first hand about true love and passion watching her parents during her father’s brief visits and the abysmal pain and suffering of its loss. She also learns about the cost of freedom and ownership. Then she witnesses the consequences conjures take on a person’s body and soul. Through her mother’s gifts and skills she is able to weave in and out of the lives of their people as well as the home of their master and his family, prosperous landowner Marse Charles.

As a playmate to his spoiled daughter Varina, Rue has more freedom than afforded girls like her and is privy to a different life. Yet Rue learns her place well, always watching from afar the life that she knows divides them. When she forgets her place her mother is sure to do the reminding. Miss May Belle may be freer than most, but she still must abide by the unspoken rules of the white-man. The master’s child Varina loves to be wild and who better to be an “accomplice to witness her rebellion” than Rue. It always turns into punishments for her alone, for her mamma Miss May Belle has eyes and ears everywhere, and an uncanny way of knowing everything her girl gets up to. In order to keep her safe and under the care of Marse Charles she must teach her everything she knows, whether Rue wants to learn or not and that includes behaving properly, and colored little girls can’t run around fancy and free like Varina.

The story goes back and forth between slavery and freedomtime, Rue’s childhood and her turn at caring for the people her own mother gives up on after a horrific tragedy. Superstitions seem to guide the people, especially when a baby is born more like a pitiful creature, something that everyone feels is more like a curse than a bundle of joy. She has birthed every child in town since the end of slaverytime, more intimately involved in all their lives than anyone. But she knows firsthand how fast praise can turn to hatred, more so when a religious man comes to town. Everyone needs someone to blame their bad luck on, it’s so much easier than looking within. When the old ways no longer save you, maybe God can, but the bible doesn’t take with Hoodoo. Love itself can be as potent as a curse, as too can harboring secrets about the people in the town and Marse Charles’ family. Someone is always scheming, there is little comfort to be had. Gossip can cost anyone their standing, especially Rue. Running away can be dangerous but so can ‘digging in’, making a stand and fighting for your small place in the world. Rue will not run, even if Bruh Abel is set on her ruin. Even if the bible marks her as evil, fallen, in need of redemption. Maybe Bruh Abel isn’t so pure either?

Fear runs rampant among the people, curses aren’t enough, and every affliction can’t be cured. The woods are not always silent nor still, they too are haunted by memories, and possibly something else. Secrets seems to go there. So many decisions Rue is forced to make to protect others, so many wrong moves and yet nothing for herself. Will it ever change? Is she forever trapped in this life rooted in whispers, secrets, gossip, grief, curses, and conjures? What will the price of freedom be for Rue? Life is a heavy weight and what comfort can be found in her mother’s words? “Fix what you’ve done. Or live with it quiet.”

There are some things that one cannot live with and everything you have done will rise up. It’s an interesting historical fiction with a taste of magical realism, people help each other but also harm one another. Rue carries many burdens and tries hard to make things right. It’s written from the perspective of slavery, rather than ownership and it lends a far more authentic experience. This is a writer to watch! For those who are into cover love, how beautiful is the book cover? As I read it, I kept thinking someone will make this into a movie. Who knows? It’s a fantastic debut!

Publication Date: April 7, 2020

Random House Publishing

 

 

 

The Great Unknown: A Novel by Peg Kingman

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Nothing happens; and nothing happens; and still nothing happens. Everything remains the same… or so it seems. But the truth is that everything is changing imperceptibly all the time.

The Great Unknown set in the 1840’s Britain and France, forces one to confront the question that has haunted us all from the dawning of time. What does it mean to be me,  to be a human being at all? Who am I? What is meant for me? Where do I come from? What does it all mean? Am I superior to animals, after-all, aren’t I an animal myself? This was a time when everyone alive was challenging the religious beliefs in the name of scientific discovery. This could be seen as dangerous, questioning what we’re meant to blindly believe. Science vs God, even now is rocky terrain but then it could be downright sacrilege.

Then there is the Chartist movement, whose goal during this time was to gain rights and political influence for the working class, which naturally upset the upper classes. Surely you can’t let just anyone have sway in politics, how can the average man carry any weight in the important decisions of one’s time? Everyone has their own view on this.

The novel begins with wet nurse, Mrs. Constantia MacAdam, providing milk for an infant born to a merry, wealthy family- the Chambers. Welcomed into the fold more like a  friend than a servant, she grieves the loss of her own twin infant boy while nourishing her surviving twin daughter and the Chamber’s son, born with extra fingers and toes. We learn her name isn’t quite her own, for her past is shadowed by the loss of her mother when she was a little girl, while  no true history of her real father remains. Living in a household filled with people of a curious, questioning nature, it’s impossible to not be disturbed by her own bottomless pit of mystery. Separated from her own dear husband, in order to give birth to their twins,  and for reasons she will keep to herself, communication is precarious between them.  Tormented by her mother’s secrecy before her tragic death, her deep love and memories flit about, unable to secure any solid evidence of her own origins. Her beautiful mother, who lived a bohemian existence, raising her in India, keeping her past veiled left her with endless questions.  Is life a twist of fate, are we guided by god, is it orderly, disorderly?

Others think of Mrs. MacAdams as a French hussy, whose terrible fashion sense certainly speaks loudly for her worth, or lack thereof. Good women do not go by false names, and can it be trusted that she is even married at all? But Mrs. Chambers knows that “folk may have perfectly innocent reasons for preserving a discreet anonymity”. In this household too, children are permitted to read scandalous books, such as the Vestiges. An anonymous book published that dealt with speculative natural history, embraced by polite society, inspiring people’s thinking to turn towards science, before Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published. Naturally to the clergy minded, it was criticized. Nature should be proof of God’s existence, not an argument against it!  Throughout this book, evolution is a theme but so too is the strange happenstance that occurs in so many of our lives. Which do we cling to? Is it like Lady Janet believes? That “incalculable harm may be wrought by such a book”? Certainly there can be nothing evil about looking to fossils, to trying to find answers and meaning? Nothing wrong in studying the evolution of creatures, plants…  Just as intelligent and progressive as the family, she fits in perfectly- sharing a love of fossils with Mrs.Chambers.

It is a novel of not just self discovery but of trying to embrace some sort of order in this, the great unknown. Everyone in the book engages in the new discoveries, even debating geological matters. Each has their say. Political matters account for much of the novel too, as all men who work this earth should have a voice, and risk death to use it. To think what we read can be a threat to the old ways.

There is scandal and shame in Mrs. MacAdam’s single mother’s past, but she will, as the strange whims of fate have it, get to the root of the truth.

The book began slowly and eventually I began to be more invested in Constantia’s story. There are deeper questions that may exasperate some readers and it can feel like a lesson at school which is great if it’s your fancy and you want to learn about geology, and the shift of scientific thinking among the masses.

Publication Date: February 18, 2020

W.W. & Norton Company

 

The Way I Heard It by Mike Rowe

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I had a pedestal once. I put a pig on it. You can google it. Go ahead, do it- I’ll wait.

In The Way I Heard It, Mike Rowe shares stories about famous people interspersed with tales of his own fascinating journey, from his youth cutting trees with is Dad, his days at QVC selling all sorts of odd products (I recommend his Katsak clip on YouTube), the famous Dirty Jobs (which many of us sorely miss) to his current podcast, The Way I heard it, you will be riveted.  Did I read with Mike’s trademark sonorous voice in my head? You betcha! In fact, I should be writing this is my own voice and yet here I am using his! I could spend all day pondering what it is that draws people to Rowe, his charm, charisma, self-deprecating humor and wisdom, like putting a pig on a pedestal  (he admits he is best when he gets out of the way and shines a spotlight on others) instead I will say this book is fantastic. Though it is perfect for those with ‘short attention spans’ or people too with busy their careers or families to sink into a long novel it is also the right fit for readers like me, who eat books every single day. The tales are short but rich in the telling, I was surprised by the many things I didn’t know about certain celebrities, particularly ones I admire- how did I not read about it on the internet where we are inundated by strange trivia? Rowe humanizes folks in the telling, and I find admirable qualities which can be surprising and a few that were downright heartbreaking.

There are winners and losers, because life is also luck as much as success requires cleverness and a fierce heart. How did we get here, how does one person’s idea change the world we live in? Why do some people push themselves hard and honor their promises much like a debt? Why do some give up? One’s fame can hang on a pretty face, but behind it there can be brilliance that no one can dim, though we see the world try. Fame for others can remain out of reach, until they take a plunge. Not all of the subjects are still alive, and often they had a far richer life, a more generous nature than the cameras or history revealed. Not to say some didn’t make mistakes or downright asses of themselves in the process, Mike included!

I spent time after finishing this uplifting book thinking about the strange turns of fate, the vital connections we often don’t even realize until later that are being made, and how we can set sail on a plan but find ourselves blown off course and yet right where we’re meant to be. As Mike Rowe himself has proven in his own full life, what looks like disaster on your worse day can lead to something far greater. That’s the way I heard it, anyway.

Beautifully written, kept me smiling and I am recommending it to every person I know.

Publication Date: October 15, 2019

Gallery Books