Conjure Women: A Novel by Afia Atakora

neww

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

 

 

 

Love is a Rebellious Bird: A Novel by Elayne Klasson

49291665._SX318_SY475_

“Judith, sometimes it’s hard to be objective when it’s someone we love.”

With the years gone faster than the blink of Judith’s eye, she finds herself thinking about the same person she has since childhood, the one person whom has occupied the biggest room in her heart, Eliot Pine. The most pressing question of all, beyond why and how we love the people we do, is can you love someone who doesn’t love you with the same devotion and passion you feel for them? Is true love only measured in equal parts? Worse, can you stop yourself from loving a person who can never return your own? Judith is over seventy, and “trying to make sense of what I did with my life”, knowing her obsessive love was “consuming, painful, and, ultimately, unsuitable.” Here she presents her story of unwavering love for Eliot through her marriages, births of her children and her career.

Judith first meets Eliot Pine, a beautiful boy, when she is ten years old and transfers to Pratt Elementary School in Chicago her fifth grade year. The reader learns, just like Judith, through a fight he is in that his mother is in the mental hospital, again. His pain and sorrow becomes Judith’s own. Immediately her heart belongs to Eliot. First it’s love from a distance, each with their own little boyfriend and girlfriends until they begin to compete academically. Impressed by her intelligence, the two become fast friends, earning her even a special nickname from Eliot that sticks for life. She inserts herself in his passionate causes to be closer to him, getting to know even his mother, for a time. But she always seems to be asking him for more than he can give, their relationship one of imbalance. A terrible tragedy takes place, and Judith is only too eager to be Eliot’s solace. Through the years and difficulties of life, Eliot and Judith turn to each other as something far more undefinable than friends.

As growing up does, experiences change Eliot and Judith just can’t seem to keep up. As he changes, Judith longs for him in the Ann Arbor Gloom, focusing on her education, waiting for that ‘some day’ he always promises when she can finally, fully give herself to him, body and soul. Judith immerses herself in psychology and social work. The two meet up again and again through life, keeping in touch through letters before emails take over, their life circles different as Eliot’s in more affluent, and yet there are times they are unavailable to each other as he graduates Harvard Law and she travels the world with someone else.

Judith and Eliot’s life paths split in different directions, he with a career in law, she with a career in social work and later raising children as a single mother after a tragic turn. Eliot gives her mixed signals even after he is married to someone else, and all she can ever feel is “if only” about everything involving Eliot. Is Eliot moved more by their shared history and her utter devotion and attention to him? In love with the intensity of her love for him? She promises him to always be there for him, even when they’re old and she keeps that promise, which in fact may be the most beautiful part of the story and the most pure example of love.

The novel is Judith’s journey through life, always on the edge of Eliot’s as he goes on to do great things. Using her other loves and marriages as a means to have a life of her own, separate from Eliot. Her own love life comes with it’s own issues and temptations like any marriage. There are betrayals and losses, brutal days. It is with startling honesty that Judith tells her story of how she humiliated herself for love, which a woman once she reaches old age at some point has done over someone. Not every great love story is mutual nor mutually exclusive. Love is sometimes one sided, but is it any less true? Even when she tries to push away, there is always her heart beating for Eliot and it is tender until the end, loyal if not returned. Eliot, again and again ‘not choosing me’ and yet not quite ever releasing her either. She is the constant friend, and in old age, let her children think she is crazy, she will not refuse Eliot when he needs her the most. It may be painful to recognize yourself either in Eliot or Judith, the worshiped or the devoted. The end was tender and sad, dare I say beautiful?

Published November 12, 2019

She Writes Press

 

 

 

Love After Love: A Novel by Ingrid Persaud

44307131._SY475_

Thing is, worse than the pain in my arm is Sunil’s spirit in the house. The man in the walls, on the stairs, in the rooms. Before he passed he must have put the bad eye on me for truth. 

Love After Love is an interesting title for this novel, because it is about love but not the sort we tend to seek out with romanticized notions. Love here is far stronger between friends and family than in lovers, forced into terrible situations and entanglements for passion. Written in Trinidadian dialect it may take some readers time to get into the flow, but I feel it lends a more authentic flavor to the tale. It begins with Betty Ramdin’s husband Sunil, stinking of rum and feeling big and mean after ‘working hard all week’ he is taking everything out on Betty and their little boy Solo. From the way Betty caters to him, the ugliness spewing from his hateful mouth and her terror as she watches him bully Solo it’s obvious she is like a beaten down dog, trained on the scent of her husband’s brutality. It’s for her son that she fears, who she tries to protect, often inserting herself to do the things Sunil demands of Solo, so that when his clumsy little boy hands fail he won’t get punished. To think people told her she was lucky, looking at Betty with Sunil by her side, but what sort of lucky leaves you with broken bones and a cowering child? Sunil may be dead in a few pages, but his poison has spread and his death will have damaging consequences through the years, testing the bounds of love between mother and son.

Betty is a good mother, trying to raise her boy right once she’s free from the imprisonment of a bad marriage but living in the big old house she could use money and a lodger would be ideal. After giving Mr. Chetan (her co-worker) a ride one morning, Betty mentions she needs a lodger, if he knows of anyone needing a place, particularly a mature woman, it would help her greatly. This in turn becomes the perfect opportunity for Mr. Chetan, as fate would have it, his landlord is selling everything thanks to the misfortune of crime. A gentle, quiet, private man he will be no hardship, though Betty herself seems to be talkative and possibly a meddler in time the two come to mean as much to each other as devoted spouses.

Both Mr. Chetan and Betty have shameful secrets, even criminal to some minds, but in life we are pushed to make choices to save ourselves, and others. There are rules about love and in Trinidad trying to embrace who you are under the condemning eyes of the people can be one’s ruination. People are fast to talk, Betty learns this all too well as she ventures out for a man’s touch, much to her son Solo’s humiliation. Despite Mr. Chetan’s role in his life, a type of surrogate father and a far better one than his own departed dad, when Solo discovers what his mother has kept hidden from him he concocts a plan and with his savings soon abandons their life and flees to live with his paternal uncle in New York. Betty thinks it’s temporary, but he wants nothing more than to be free of her and her lies, to cut her out like a cancer. In the process, he pushes Mr. Chetan to take a backseat role too, and the thing about leaving is that you can’t always return to the people you have left.

The dynamics change once Solo is gone, Chetan is living his life more freely, maybe more for himself finally when someone from the past is again in his life. Betty is yearning to hear about her son’s experience in America, jealous of the closeness he has with his uncle while she is again like a dog begging for a bone, resorting to sending letters to the boy who refuses to see sense in her explanations. He is keen on his pain, and finds many outlets for it.

Solo struggles in New York but feels good being a part of the Ramdin men under his Uncle Hari’s guidance, and no longer under the ‘suffocating’ care of his mother, who kept him a blind fool. Hari tells him it won’t be easy working hard jobs, he should stay in school as his dad would have wanted that but having Solo around he tells him ‘Every time I look at you I seeing piece of Sunil.’  Solo cannot go back to Trinidad and his mother’s lies. Through Uncle Hari, Solo can get to know the father who is just a fading memory and cling to the toxic blame he feels is all his mother’s due. The truth, the same as people, has many faces and may well turn us against the very people who made dangerous decisions for our sake. It will cost Solo, his mother Betty and Mr. Chetan time that they will never get back.  Solo has a lot to learn and finds he is more like his mother than he thinks; getting a mother who has cared for you all your life out of your system isn’t so easy.

In this story some people’s love is so pure they are willing to risk their very soul and yet others can’t find enough heart to accept their child for who they are. Some are so hungry for love they will tolerate any sort of arrangement just to feel alive, to be near their beloved and society itself forces people into dangerous situations just to feel the burn of it. Love shouldn’t cost this much. Shame weighs more than the soul can bear, but how do you release it’s grip? “The moon can run but the day will always catch it.” There is family dysfunction, grief, abuse, distorted memory, mother’s pure love and then some. Here, Mr. Chetan is the glue between Betty and Solo, for that it is a savage and beautiful love story.

Publication Date: April 14, 2020

Random House Publishing

One World

A QUICK NOTE: There are sexual encounters that may put off some readers but it is not the sole focus, keep going with the novel. It broke my heart.

Writers & Lovers: A Novel by Lily King

GUEST_e0634ed9-caba-4acd-9d2e-4906cab1577d

‘How’s the novel?’ He says it like I made the word up myself. 

‘You know,’ he says, pushing himself off his car, waiting for my full attention. ‘I just find it extraordinary that you think you have something to say,’ may well be the most condescending, snide thing to say to a woman, especially one that is writing a book. Casey Peabody is a writer, even if she is blocked, even if she never finishes more than eleven pages. Published or not, she writes because if she doesn’t ‘everything feels worse.’ The fellow writers she once shared an apartment with when she was young and fresh have dropped off their writing like dead flies, moving on to more practical careers, choosing instead to lead real adult lives. To think she once had such promise, a child prodigy playing professional golf, talented beyond her years, means nothing. That’s all dried up now. She’s traveled, had a romance (if not with the man, then with the language they shared) only to return to all her debts, particularly student loans. Life was once free and easy when the answer was credit cards, but those happy days are over and bought happiness, like everything else, comes due. She certainly didn’t mean to move back to Massachusetts, but without any other plan, here she is, living a life in default. After the crushing weight of her mother’s unexpected, sudden death life feels far more rudderless. The one salvation and bitter sweet victory is the artist’s residency at The Red Barn, and yet…  a man and messy love finds her there, when she is at her most vulnerable.

In the aftermath of loss, riding her bike (salvaged from junk) to work, living in a side garage her brother’s friend ‘graciously’ rents to her, working in a restaurant barely making enough to survive, we find Casey longing for her mother during the day and burning for the man she met at Red Barn in the night. Emotionally wobbly, hungry to finish her novel and yet doubtful it will happen as she gets older and older, Casey spends more energy torn between two men than creating a great work. The men she must choose between are at different points in their life, complete opposites, while she herself is anchored in past hurts and many disappointments. Who is she, where is she going? Does she just need to grow up and find something more ‘stable’, realize the artist’s life of writing isn’t viable for her? Does either man have a place in her life, or she in theirs? Which man is the right one? Is there such a thing as ‘the right one’?

How do you heal from the wounds of the past, find a romantic life without sacrificing yourself and not waste the few chances laid at your feet that could lead to a successful career? Is it easier to just forget your dreams, as others have? Why must the people you meet and love on the way be as messy as yourself? Why must relationships cloud your mind and knock you off your track? Her own parents relationship isn’t exactly the model to follow.

Regardless of your age, social status, career and the people in your life, you are never finished nor completely sure everything will end in your favor. Casey is at a turning point, a moment that leads to the bigger decisions, but how can she know if her choices will lead to the desired outcome, especially with dwindling confidence? We are along for the ride, sometimes along a bridge, as Casey tries to define her future. Everyone is a complicated mess at some point on the timeline of their lives, we just happen to step into Casey’s as she is lost in the confusion of heartbreak and loss.  Will she give up her dreams, or find her way around the obstacles, the biggest one being herself? It is a story of youth as it leaves and what sacrifices must be made to finally become a real grown up, whatever that means. Lost in general, but there is hope. A solid read to add to your TBR list.

Publication Date: March 3, 2020

Grove Atlantic

Grove Press

 

 

 

 

Shuggie Bain: A Novel by Douglas Stuart

47364233

He felt something was wrong. Something inside him felt put together incorrectly. It was like they could all see it, but he was the only one who could not say what it was. It was just different, and so it was just wrong. 

Drinking and Drugs as escape during a time when people are out of work and downtrodden happens in any country. In this moving novel, Shuggie Bain comes of age during the 1980’s in Glasgow, Scotland. “Thatcher’s policies have put husbands and sons out of work”, which is bad enough but with a taxi driver father loose with infidelities and a mother sick of living a crammed existence at her parents, who gets angry ‘with littered promises of better things’ , the future doesn’t look good for their children (Catherine, Leek and Shuggie). Agnes Bain enjoys the taste of drink as much as she loves attention from men, envy from women. She wants a better life, even if it means beautifying herself while women in the same circumstances as her laugh at her, or feel insanely terrified she’ll steal their men. She had fun once, before life meant struggle, poverty. The past was full of carefree dancing but those times are over.

Born with bad teeth, she was so sure dentures would glam her smile like the movie stars in Hollywood. She is beautiful but doomed by her drinking, and her constant hunger for more.  Shug senior is nothing but a selfish animal, but something about him made her hunger for him so much she left her first marriage for him, despite him being a Protestant and she, a Catholic. A steady husband didn’t give her the thrill a woman of her beauty deserved! Ending up back at her parents is not the life she had in mind, there is nothing dazzling about a handsome husband rutting with the women he drives on the job. When he promises a fresh start, instead they land in the ‘plainest, unhappiest looking homes’. The neighbor women don’t like her nor her fancy airs. Worse, Shug senior has made other plans for himself, and off he goes, blaming it on her weakness for drink, her refusal to give it up for love of him. Her vices cost her children more than just their image within the community, there is no money to stretch, nothing to eat. She isn’t adverse to pawning even her son Leek’s work tools!

As Agnes unravels, her children feel the worst of it but none more than her youngest, Shuggie. Without proper care and supervision his belly often goes empty, his ‘otherness’ making him a target for the other kids torture before he even knows what he is. In fact, adults even understand his sexuality better than him, in one horrifying moment he loses innocence, looking for his mother. His brother and sister both have different plans to escape this hellish life. Shuggie remains steadfast in his devotion to his mother, despite her humiliations and the added abuse he gets from adults and children alike for her actions. All manner of degradation enters his life too, and poverty isn’t just an aside in this story. It is ever present and suffocating. The story begins with Shuggie in a tenement, doing all he can just to survive, to feed and house himself despite his youth. Still striving, despite life never having given him one solitary gift, blessing. Maybe this strength is one inheritance he got from his mother Agnes, who even at her lowest went on with her head held high, kept going despite all the blows she received. You should hate her, you really should, but instead you just feel immense pity.

How does a child hold his own, with a mother who is always embarrassing herself and a father who is absent, uncaring, off making other families? Not every child can cling to the sinking ship, oldest sister Catherine has her own secret life with one Donald Jnr ‘away from their disintegrating mother’. But Leek was the one who wants to disappear the most! Leek, too, has too much to bear with his real father, who also ‘disappeared’ in his own way, or was pushed away. Whose to say? Leek is too young too feel so tired, so old trying to learn at the YTS site with the hopes of making a living, when in truth it is his art that is the only thing that can make him drop his shoulders in relaxation. So tired of his drunk mother and her poor decisions. Feeling abandoned too by his sister Catherine, in her new life abroad, he has nothing, no one. He can’t stay back and care for his sloppy mother nor his little brother, he too is striving for a different life. Living with Agnes is like doing time.

It is Shuggie who is her constant companion, and as the years rush on, each time he has faith she will quit drinking she fails, the dream collapses and not even fresh love can save her. Don’t expect salvation nor happy endings, this is based in the real world, not fantasy. Struggle makes you stronger, but you don’t magically get liberated from poverty with wishes and prayers. Shuggie is a survivor, and nothing in his life is easy but he just might make a friend along the way.

A heart-wrenching read that makes your problems seem flimsy. It’s not a glimpse at poverty and addiction, it is an extended stay and beautifully written despite the miseries visited upon the characters.

Publication Date: February 21, 2020

Grove Atlantic

 

The Hills Reply by Tarjei Vesaas

45726421._SX318_.jpg

Yet the face is deformed now, distorted and unlike itself, the result of the misfortunes that have come like avalanches- there behind him, where he has left his half-lived life. 

In prose and poetry this is the last book by Norwegian Author Tarjei Vesaas, said to be one of Norway’s greatest writer’s of the twentieth century. Memories flow, with nature ever present, indifferent to human longings, joys, love, and sufferings. Nature both capable of beauty and brutality,

As It Stands in the Memory, a father and son stand in the “sifting snow and sifting thoughts”; the silence of the snow disrupted only by the sternness of the father and his failure. A boy who doesn’t know his father, who keeps his thoughts, his forgotten dead dream to himself. A moment, when the son is shamed and will carry it on for the rest of his life, snow and a wounded horse as witness.

In the Marshes and on the Earth he feels eyes upon him, and these eyes belong to the cranes. The beauty of the birds so beautiful he wonders, is this a dream? He is the eyes now, the watcher, delighting in the dance of the cranes. He is in thrall of the flock.

Spring in Winter is about snowdrifts, heartbreak and the bewilderment in the holding of hands. How can one burn when they are so frozen by the elements, chilled by waiting for the heart’s desire? Sent as the bearer of bad news, only to see a beautiful girl in a different light?

Smashed mirrors, kicking out blindly for survival, the danger in the reflective surface of bodies of water, the “wet body is as heavy as stone”, so easy to drown. A thing (a person) can drown as easily as be saved. Rain falling upon the dead, “Five men. That’s not many. One for each finger on your hand.”  How did those five men end up where they are, forgotten, nothing. “No one will find them but the flies.”  Lyrical writing for so brutal an ending. A deadly ‘quiet’ in a grove. Nature absorbs what a young man feels, about a blushing girl.

It is a book moving through an old man’s life, I think. What better way to tell it then through lyrical delights? Sure, ‘the heart grows lonely’ and everything changes with time, ‘laws, highways, waterways’ and yet the memories plant themselves and remain waiting to be plucked.

I am also, after reading this fine book, very interested in reading The Birds by Vesaas, about a disabled man being cared for by his lonely older sister in an isolated land. I think nature as character is one of the hardest and yet most rewarding works one can conceive. It feels like a mystical experience, a dream (as with the cranes verses within) when one moves with nature, and it is perfectly captured here. A beautiful literary fiction book for anyone who loves lyrical prose. Tarjei Vesaas (1897-1970)

Publication Date: December 10, 2019

Archipelgo

The Fortune Teller’s Promise by Kelly Heard

47589442._SY475_.jpg

Not there, she thought. You don’t have to go back there. Not even in your mind. Not ever.

Dell’s childhood in the forest of Blyth, Virigina with it’s magnificent natural beauty and calm is the opposite of life inside her house. Born to a flower child mother Anita, whose beauty is the center of her life more than her son and daughter, and her father Gideon, a ‘dark-eyed’ construction worker suddenly laid off after an injury that relies on pain pills to get through his painful days, leads to nothing but chaos and storms between them. Mother longs to maintain the beauty queen status of her early days, and nothing can keep her anchored to her family. Longing to be free, she moves to a rented bungalow. It is here, when Dell should be spending quality time with her mother because ‘she needs a bra’ and it’s a mother’s place to teach a young woman everything she needs to know, that the fault line appears. Anita would rather her time be filled entertaining men who are dizzy over her beauty than playing mommy. It is these types of men who have an edge that can cut. Anita’s reaction to her daughter’s confession is met with anger and blame rather than comfort, and outrage. It is also when Dell learns that people like her have to shut up and take it, because those in higher standing have the power to hurt those you love. Especially when your family is covered in dirt, unwilling or unable to climb out.

Growing up under the cloud of the shame of her parents, the town doesn’t let Dell forget her place. But it is love that ruins everything, her one chance to be a single mother, better than her own ever was, is impossible when he mother urges her to give the baby a better life, put it up for adoption. The church can find someone better suited, and what is someone like Dell to do without the support of the child’s father or even her own family? She could never afford to support her baby, girls like her don’t have options. There is no way she can remain in this flea-bitten town, nursing the ache in her heart where her baby girl has nestled in. There’s nothing for her to do but abandon the past. She sets up shop as a psychic as she leaves the town, and her family, behind. Though she doesn’t consider herself a ‘proper psychic’, she is skilled in knowing what troubles others, uses the tools of the trade to get a clearer picture. If only she could intuit her own needs, heal her own wounds, clean up the disaster that has become her reality.  She will never return to Blythe, nothing can make her… except learning when her mother tracks her down that her child has gone missing! The problem is, within moments of that revelation, silence overtakes her mother and life seems to have no end of testing Dell’s merit. She must return to the scene of her most heartbreaking acts, and discover that the past is never done with us. Is it possible, dare she hope to make things right?

This was novel didn’t have as much ‘psychic’ steam as I thought it would from the title. The promise is much more about motherhood. Love swims through the novel, as does the murky grime of disappointment and narrow minded ways of some small towns. The haves vs the have nots. It was a decent read, but it’s not what I expected. I was thinking there would be at least a little more focus on how she ‘knows’ how to fix other people’s hurts. The psychic bit is pretty mild but if you are looking for a story about motherhood, difficult dysfunctional families and a little romance, this is it.

Publication Date: October 30, 2019

Bookouture