The Book of Katerina by Auguste Corteau

I’ve no idea how it is to lose your mind, but never in my life have I feared anything more: the mere thought, the energetic verb to go insane is worse than death and to die, its black vortex more horrifying than nonexistence.

This isn’t a happy book, in fact the generations of the family living in the Greek city of Thessaloniki have suffered through serious miseries, to which there seems no end. Katerina may not endear many readers, but if you are paying close attention, every incident in her life (much of it tragic, despite her social standing) has led to her disturbing, sad end. In fact, none of her siblings really escape the viciousness of their fate, their family malady. The tale does jump about, and usually choppy writing and such timelines drive me nuts, but it relays to me, in a sense, the state of Katerina’s troubled mind. She never makes you feel sorry for her and for some reason that made the character study far more riveting. Is the family genetics to blame for the mental health issues, the environment, the neglect, the family pecking order? More like a disorder.

There are many truths silenced within this family, even before Katerina is born. Her grandmother was Jewish, but that ‘shame’ had to be disguised, hence her name was changed. She had three children, all girls. The eldest Irene “Irini” is Katerina’s weak and self-indulgent mother. With her first child, a son, born with a condition that didn’t make itself known until he was five, one that wasn’t diagnosed correctly back in those times, he is sent to a children’s institution- one she never visits, as there are other children that follow. He is the first defect, but he won’t be the last. How can a woman who clings to the exquisiteness of her youth, the former grandeur, the social privilege bear the stigma of a defective child? Are the times to blame for such rejection? The second may be challenged in other ways, but she will have her favorites. More offspring follow, some die, some are born with their own stigmas while youngest, Katerina is the “accident” and the jealous sister before her makes life hell. But who is the real devil? Irini cannot cope raising her brood, and brings her niece Zoë into the household, an angel, a source of never-ending love and the only mothering the children will know. A protector and an unlikely one whose own unfortunate origins should be reason enough to be as maladjusted as the family she becomes a part of, Zoë is like a saint but has her own irrational fears. Irini can be brutal when facing her children’s weaknesses, her reaction when Katerina suffers a mental disturbance is to shut up, keep it to yourself, likely out of fear and half out of shame. This is a defining moment, one that makes the monster in Katerina’s mind grow far bigger, chaining itself to her future. Despite life going against all her wishes, Katerina’s mother has high ambitions. Even if fate deals her cross eyed children and a lackluster love life. A life without romance can always be filled by cheap junk.

Katerina and her siblings want for nothing but it cannot save the Horianos from ruin, which will follow them into adulthood. Even a cousin is wrecked by the ravings of the family, born to a beautiful mother and fated to be plain. Back we go into Katerina’s past, learning all the distorted happenings. A mother who cries behind closed doors, unable to attend to her parental duties, what sort of mark does this leave on Katerina, what sort of mother does she herself become? Madness is always nesting in this family. What is to be done with frayed nerves, mental torment? The church has an answer, beg Jesus for mercy. It doesn’t help. Neither does her last resort, a medical doctor, who violates her. This violation forges Katerina’s distrust of the very people who should be helping her manage her bipolar disorder. Is it this unforgiveable act that set the stage for her final scene so many years later?

Ill advised love, miscarriages, marriage, political upheaval, pregnancy and an earthquake… then Katerina’s beloved son, the child she carries to term, Petros, is born. He is the light in the darkness of her depressions, even able to transfix his mean grandfather. The old man’s heart is hooked, earning Petros adoration, allowing the dark episodes of Katerina’s life to subside for a time. Hypersensitivity arises, breakdowns occur, she becomes a suspicious, jealous wife and at times an inept mother. Her love is diseased and she fears her son may be a lover of goats and that’s a whole other tale. Her rough edges are never smoothed, she has spent her life dealing with the horrors of others and the horrors in her own mind. She has many faults and confronts them all. She is a force until the very end, and this book will tear her apart from the moment she gives birth to her son until he finds her body on sad display.

Her brain turned against her and she was tired of fighting. Here, her beloved son speaks for his mother, in a retelling of her life and intimate thoughts. Katerina was a product of her time clinging to old fashioned views, but that’s how people were, blunt, callous, narrow minded about different lifestyles and choices. She isn’t always likeable, certainly her own parents aren’t either, knowing they sent a child away to an institution. Mental illness is not new and if you consider today’s treatment, you can see how impossible getting things right had to have been then. She is arrogant and yet deeply insecure and damaged. How can her son not be affected by her clinical depression? Maybe not for every reader but I was engaged and moved, thinking of the reasons the author must have decided to write about his mother. Maybe by bringing her to life he can put her to rest.

Publication Date: June 1, 2021

Parthian Books

The Atmospherians: A Novel by Alex McElroy

Absolution has to be earned. I treated the phrase like a mantra.

Sasha Marcus is a victim of cancel culture, after a horrifying incident, leaving the former “internet sensation, social media sweetheart and the face of Abandon” (a skin care and wellness regime), forced into taking a job at a fusion restaurant to ‘cushion the blow’ from the fall out. There is nowhere to hide, though, from the raging, men’s rights protestors shouting outside her apartment, causing even more conflict in her life. Everyone has turned on her, believing Lucas Devry, whose act has spoken brutally and violently loud. With her future hanging by a thread, she turns to her old friend Dyson- who comes to the rescue just when she lost hope and thought that he, too, had turned away from her.

Dyson, the man who shared their moody teenage years in a solidarity of suffering. Dyson was once a chubby boy whose self-debasement made his ‘fat boy body’ less of a target. Laugh with them and you’re ahead of the cruel game. It is Sasha who was privy to his real world, the toxicity of a father who can’t seem to stomach a ‘soft bellied’ son. Body issues have followed him like a mean shadow into adulthood, and could well be the seed for birthing a cult. With his acting career built mostly on commercials and background roles, and the brief stroke of inexplicable success in small appearances having eventually dried up, he has an idea burning within his brain that may save them both! This, this is going to be more than just a new passion! Dyson is going to open a rehabilitation community for men, having inherited land through his father’s parents. A secluded place that was once intended as a summer camp, can easily house clients. It is perfect for his plan, here twelve men will detox from society, be handled with love and care and finally escape the world that has deeply damaged them with it’s demands and hard luck. Angry, emotionally stunted men that can be rehabilitated before they alienate their family and the rest of the world. Away from the rage triggers, they can learn to love, thrive in structure, learning to be tender human beings. He is invested in society’s men, and she can help him!

With “man hordes” taking over the country, this is a cause that may help her star rise again, but how will she handle being surrounded by men as toxic as the protestors who have been stalking her? Dyson isn’t without fault himself, despite his passion, he too can be manipulative, a trait she blames herself for. But there is nothing to be done, there is no other life waiting for her beyond this chance, which may well be her last. What follows is a provocative, intelligent story. Who really knows how absolution is earned and more importantly, who gets to decide the people that deserve it? Is masculinity a ship to be steered? Is Sasha a victim or a bully herself? Many lines are crossed in looking for salvation. What is pain for men? How do they process it, what does it mean to be tough? Are women, like Sasha, as tender and fair minded as she thinks? Does she ever empower herself at the expense of a man? What could the world be like without masculinity? Isn’t ambition, too, a toxic thing? Should anyone attempt to refine another? How much control does it require, and what must those seeking rehabilitation sacrifice?

This is artful manipulation, and it is a novel with interactions that are agonizing in many respects. Provocative, engaging with parts comedy and horror, at least in my mind. What a unique read! This could kick of some interesting conversations.

Publication Date: May 18, 2021

Atria Books

Unsettled Ground: A Novel by Claire Fuller

Sometimes, I reckon, we need something to come along and trip us up when we’re not expecting it. Otherwise, one day we’re kids playing with the hose pipe, and the next we’re laid out on an old door in the parlour.”

The incident that comes along and trips up twins Jeanie and Julius, aged 51, is the sudden, unexpected death of their mother Dot. The family of three have lived in “rural isolation and poverty” in a cottage since the death of the twins father when they were still children. It has been Dot who has faced all of life’s difficulties keeping her beloved children in a safe bubble. Dot, whose secrets are now going to force Jeanie and Julius out into the world, has kept them tied to the only home they’ve ever known, for better or worse. Jeanie has never been healthy enough to face the challenges of life, learning too was a struggle, unlike her brother who has been the one venture into town taking on jobs here and there, she has spent her life feeling this crumbling home is their only sanctuary. Debts have been collecting, all the things Dot sheltered and hid from her children are knocking at their door, as threatening as monsters. Figuring out how to afford to bury their mother is the least of their woes. Julius has never really had a relationship, and suddenly he thinks about a woman named Shelley Swift who has hired him to fix the window in her place above the fish shop. With their mother gone, his attention isn’t focused solely on whether or not they will lose the cottage, though it is a screaming fact that troubles him along with fears for his needy sibling. How has he let 51 years go by with nothing to show? It disturbs Jeanie, the time he is spending away from her but she isn’t his mother…it’s his life.

Suddenly, the locals don’t feel so forgiving, nor willing to let the pair go on living on their charity. Jeanie feels like their lives, their very way of existence, is being stolen from beneath their feet. Who is she without her daily routine, without her vegetable garden, without chickens to feed, without her mother Dot? Why didn’t they know their mother was sick, when it seems everyone else did? Suddenly every hour seems swollen with worries, all the things Dot protected them from has come home to roost. Jeanie and her brother Julius deal with it in different ways, distance grows between them testing their co-dependence. They will be humiliated and enraged by the actions of others, forced into a different life, lost in their new surroundings. Will they falter or thrive?

It seems like such a simple, quiet story, but the tale escalates with each challenge, every uncovered lie. How did they get through 51 years of life and never really know who their mother truly was? Why did they remain needy children far beyond an acceptable age, never forced to face reality? It gets a bit dark too, and sometimes the weakest link in the family chain is the one who life challenges the most. I was engaged, and admit there is a certain appeal to their self-inflicted isolation, keeping your beloved children near, but it’s a grievous wrong. You can’t hide from life, though they had quite a go of it for 51 years. Trouble will find you in every corner of the world. How much do we owe our family? What do we owe our children? One would think, at the very least, we owe them the ability to stand on their own two feet, if not our truths. Dot was quite a complicated lady. A novel of strength, loyalty and betrayal.

Publication Date: May 18, 2021

Tin House

Madam: A Novel by Phoebe Wynne

“We shall need you to start impressing us, Rose, rather than having us tidy up your mess.”

Rose is stunned to learn she has been hired to teach at the grand, all-girls boarding school Caldonbrae Hall, an ancestral castle that looks down upon the world from its proud perch atop the rocky Scottish cliffs. Known for its excellence, churning out the cream of the crop, she has been chosen as Head of Classics. It all feels like a strange and yet happy stroke of luck. Her mother is pleased as punch that Rose will be earning her living at one of the most famous, prestigious schools and Rose is thrilled to be getting out from under her mother’s control. Her career is full speed ahead, even if she is more than a little intimidated and full of doubts that she is up for the challenge.

Once inside its great walls, she feels swallowed up by the great swarm of girls, all eyes upon her. Already shame rises, feeling shabby by comparison to these fashionable, fresh-faced beauties. On her first day teaching, despite her experience, she finds herself slipping with little mistakes. Caldonbrae isn’t a place that allows for failure, nor for one to question how things are done. Rose is on her own for the first time and is set on giving her all. She manages well enough until her class with the older girls, bursting into puberty, challenging her from the start. She looks young herself, at 26, and the students test her right away, madly curious of why she is teaching them when she isn’t even married. As if having a husband is a requirement. She feels like she has been thrown to the wolves and knows she must gain the upper hand, or she doesn’t stand a chance.

She takes her job preparing the young ladies for their bright futures seriously, and what is better than a top education? Yet her ideas may be a bit too liberal for the lives these daughters of Caldonbrae Hall are meant to lead. Every school has its traditions, and for 150 years Caldonbrae has produced young women who serve society to make for a better world. As a trip disrupts her teaching, Rose wonders what exactly the students are being presented for, what could be more important than their classes? What has their young, impressionable minds so preoccupied? What is it exactly they are really busy with? She stumbles across a desk drawer with a mysterious handkerchief, remnants of the former teacher she has replaced. There are traces of the woman everywhere, and the students don’t hold back in comparing her to their previous Madam, Jane. The place feels completely out of touch with time, it’s far more “old world” than she could have imagined. As she tries to gain solid footing, she learns there is no limit to the school’s reach. Caldonbrae asserts itself like a master in her entire life, everything within its walls is an old relic, it’s unnerving.

There is a student following her like a shadow, and the former teacher’s absence haunts her. Something is very wrong here. Feeding the girls a diet of classic, feminist heroines, like Dido, Rose is teaching the students to take their lives into their own hands. But will the expectations of their school, parents, and society erase any hope for freedom they may entertain? Can courage be taught, particularly by Rose whose own life has been guided by her mother? Is it possible to imagine a life outside the path laid for them? Rose’s own road has ‘diverged’ with a troubled student, Bethany. Suddenly she is preoccupied with the girl’s tortured mind and disturbed by how the school handles such a delicate situation. Rose starts making a mess of things, risking her future as a Madam, poking her nose where it doesn’t belong. How far will she go in following in the former teacher’s footsteps, will it lead her to the real story of why Jane left?

Institutions like Caldonbrae demand their staff adhere to its strict traditions-with such impressionable, fragile, young, minds it’s always best to maintain an outward display of self-control and respect of the old ways. Rose just doesn’t understand, her modern beliefs don’t fit the mold that has thrived behind these walls for well over a century. Is she really strong enough to handle the truth? More, is she brave enough to confront such a challenge? Does she know best what’s good for the ‘lucky girls’ anymore than those in charge of the place?

There is a gothic feel and with the school cut off even from the locals, it’s a world unto itself. It’s a funny question, how does a woman serve society… hmmm? I agree the tale seems so far from modernity, but the timeless feel is a way to show how sheltered and controlled everything is. How easy it is to do whatever you please when those in charge are complicit in what they believe is for ‘the greater good’. It was a decent read, and the feminist theme using classics to start a fire in young minds was clever. The ending was interesting. I think Rose is meant to be odd herself, afraid of life, seemingly unadventurous, hence she appears to be someone that would easily fall into line with the school’s rules and demands. We wonder, does she have her own flame burning? Curious what others will make of this mysterious, dark tale.

Publication Date: May 18, 2021

St. Martin’s Press

The Secret Talker: A Novel by Geling Yan

Rather, he was like a ghost, secretly taking part in her life, undetected.

It is interesting it takes a secret talker, a seemingly ‘infatuated’ stranger, to force the real Hongmei out of her safe little exterior. She isn’t as self-possessed as she seems, as happy with the state of her comfortable marriage, which she admits cost she and her husband so much at the start. A relationship that was itself once dangerous. Hongmei begins to correspond with a stranger through email, a man who seems to have gleaned a lot about her emotional state, her very soul even, just through observation. It seems harmless as she carefully responds to him. His attentions become unnerving, though he says he doesn’t want to cause trouble between she and her husband Glen, a professor she once risked her entire life in her native China for. But the probing, the intimacy that is budding between them, is reminding Hongmei of her real self, the woman she has buried behind the quiet demeanor of a devoted wife. His questions are reminding her of the village where she was born, the secrets of her childhood that she has never shared with Glen, and making her question every choice she made, every step she took to escape herself and her origins. She shares the history of her village with the secret talker, about the Chinese resistance, all the things she had erased. Shocking herself, she speaks truths that have never been revealed to Glen because so much between them has been built on her own lies, and how can you open yourself to vulnerability with your husband when deception is the glue of your love?

Ending up in America, sunny California doesn’t seem like the world she was desperate to be carried away to. Every world she has imagined, outside her little village, has brought nothing but disappointment and the same can be said about men. When she first set eyes on Glen, an older, western, foreign professor, she is a first lieutenant working as a military interpreter while taking classes to further her education. Her life then, as now, was going well, including her the life she had with her then partner. Something about Glen immediately bewitched her, and her beauty made her just as irresistible to him. Their pursuit was reckless, dangerous. Looking at their life now, there doesn’t seem to be even a remnant of that passion. So much has happened between them since then allowing a distance to grow, impossible to traverse. Glen isn’t the man she once hungered to conquer, isn’t forbidden fruit any longer. He is still a good man, a provider, solid. While she is still beautiful, intelligent, she finds herself in a numb state, but with the confessions she shares with this nameless person, everything feels charged with eroticism. How can she engage this man, with her husband often a room away? How guilty she feels, how elicit an act secret talking can be, and yet it feels like she is stepping back into her true skin. Why is she revealing so much, stripping herself naked, to the bone? Is this a foolish mistake? For once, she isn’t in charge, she isn’t the one in pursuit. “How could she have sunk so low? Her body had run off, miles away.” Where is this betrayal going to take her? She is tormented by guilt, shame and anger- lots of anger, at the stranger and curiously, at Glen too! Isn’t he to blame for the state they are in too? Will she unmask this person, this stranger who is like a ghost, creeping along her skin, privy to her every secret?

Hongmei enlists the help of her friend, thinking to outwit the man who has been ‘hiding behind a shelter of words’, it only serves to complicate things more, makes the truth so much harder to discern. Hongmei begins to obsess over their interactions, to dismiss her own reality again. There is so much she herself is blind to. Her cultural identity isn’t a separate thing from her identity as woman, a wife. For Glen, as much as herself, their culture has molded them and yet their emotions aren’t really as divided as they imagine. Her past was one where people are always watching, an attention that becomes expected, everything one wants felt dangerous. That was one thing I thought about, regarding the start of she and Glen’s love, the constant eyes, the threat that always loomed based on cultural demands. It’s important, I believe, to why she is numb when things are stable. Maybe I am wrong, it was just my take away. I think being older, having been married a long time, I am reading this book from a different perspective than I would at say, 20. Fresh love is about the thrill of the chase, seduction but as love matures it is a different animal. Hongmei has needs and rather than confront them it’s easier to escape what has been built. Things settle and often we bottle up things that gnaw at us just to keep the illusion of contentment, as to not rupture the peace we think we’ve made. But delving deeper into the life of the person she has been communicating with could be the final straw in her marriage… dare she go down the rabbit’s hole?

This was an engaging read and I actually loved the ending, one I didn’t expect. The emotions are beautiful and sometimes biting. As more about Hongmei’s past is revealed, you begin to understand the reasons she seems to be willing to turn away from Glen but she turns away from herself just as much. Mysterious, quietly suspenseful, and heartbreaking. It is a psychological tale where the main character gets lost in a maze sometimes of her own making, not just the secret talker’s manipulations. A beautifully written slow burn.

Publication Date: May 4, 2021

HarperVia

We Trade Our Night for Someone Else’s Day: A Novel by Ivana Bodrožić, Translation by Ellen-Elias Bursac

“The worst part is realizing you can’t open the door from the inside,” was the first thing she said.

War, displacement, emigration, ethnic cleansing… Vukovar, a city in Croatia, saw one of the biggest battles since 1945 in Europe with the siege by the (JNA) with support by paramilitary from Serbia. Croatian soldiers and citizens were outnumbered but defended against the Serbians, the battle was bloody and ended in people being killed or thrown out of Vukovar. You can go further back in history with the dissolution of Austria-Hungary, the tensions didn’t simply begin with the Yugoslav Wars. Ivana Bodrožić was born in Vukovar, lived there until her own father disappeared then she and her family moved to a refugee hotel in Kumrovec. Though this is a fictional story of an unnamed city, the events within are based on actual historical events that touched the author’s own life. I asked my father, who escaped his homeland of Hungary as a young child during communist occupation, a lot of questions about the creation and history of Yugoslavia. He knows a lot more than me about the division between people there than I can even comprehend. This novel deals with the aftermath from nationalism and those who wanted independence, the splitting apart of Yugoslavia and how it effected the next generation. It is what remains after children grew up segregated, Serbian and Croatian, what happened during ‘peaceful reintegration’ when the rubble was cleared away and what clearly remains are the ruins within the hearts and souls of the people. Can you simply unite after the bones of your family has been cleared away? People long for a reckoning after every horror and humiliation has been committed against them and their loved ones. The anger stays after being expelled, imprisoned… What happens to rumored criminal networks? When “gangsters gain legal footing” for their businesses? Money, blood, and power. The people were left to suffer from political and economical damage long after the war ended.

In the middle, always, are the children trying to move forward into a future where division has been set by the adults. Dejan is a perfect example of cultural identity and who you claim allegiance to.

Nora Kirin is a journalist chasing a story, and a juicy one at that, at least for those hungry for tabloid fodder. It began with a sordid affair that ended in a murder, but it is a political fire too. Kristiana is a Croatian- language teacher at the general and vocational high school working with ethnic Serbian students. Her Croat husband Ante (a war veteran, formerly in a prison camp) has been murdered by her lover, seventeen-year-old Dejan. Dejan is a Serbian, whose Grandfather was one of the Chetnik leaders. The salacious story is already making the rounds, a woman seducing a teen to kill for her, “one of theirs”. Nora would far rather expose the system, like the dirty Mayor but is resolved to do her best with her current assignment. What she wants is to tell the woman’s (now a prisoner) side of the story, not just continue to smear her. Her work and this city is taking her back to the past, remembering what she’d rather forget, like the disappearing children from her heavy youth. She must seek out people to interview, despite her discomfort moving through the city streets and every memory it evokes. In interviewing the victim mother, one can grasp the sentiment behind “one of ours” and “one of theirs” that isn’t erased, despite the push for unity, integration. When the war ended, new battles would eventually ensue amongst the people, often through political manipulations , of course. Children of all ages are divided at daycare and school by fencing, Serbs one side Croats on the other. Brigita is the high school principal with bigger ambitions also tied to Kristina’s story, the corrupt mayor and bribery. There are singers who ‘toy with politics’, a PTA president who is a ‘self-appointed guardian of ethnic identity’, a friendly taxi driver Marko-whose story about life in the city during the war engages Nora, a philosophical poet, and many people who have dabbled in the war with no “proof” of any crimes committed. Those in power do not take kindly to being publicly disgraced. The love triangle murder she is covering may well become an “interethnic conflict”. But it is the pursuit of truth, for her father, she is most concerned with.

This is a place where their entire world, for all the people involved, has collapsed even down to their very language. Nora is warned to stay away from dangerous men, who destroy everything, but she has to know why her father was murdered, who did it, regardless of her own well being. Not even the light of blossoming love can stop her from getting justice. What she doesn’t know is so much worse than she can imagine. Everyone is strangely intertwined. A turn of fate, helping someone can lead to more suffering. Unimaginable suffering. “Everything is linked to everything else,” even things that seem inconsequential and so much of it is a part of the war.

You have to pay attention, there are connections you will miss if you don’t read closely. It might help you to research about the wars in the 1990’s in what was once Yugoslavia. Some wanted to keep it a country, others wished to become separate countries. Reading different sides is truly only going to give you a basic understanding as an outsider. The line I quoted is brilliant too, ‘you can’t open the door from the inside’, because it’s hard to comprehend war at all, or even ourselves and everything that happens when we are in the midst of it. Those who are in the war have far more experience, but may not necessarily be able to make much sense of it either. A whole generation can be destroyed by bloodshed. Childhood, community, family, innocence, the future- all of it swept from beneath your feet. War makes prisoners of us all. Yet there are still things worth fighting for, aren’t there? For Nora at least.

Publication Date: April 20, 2021

Seven Stories Press

Something Unbelievable: A Novel by Maria Kuznetsova

“And soon I will evaporate and you will have no story to remember.”

Time has been brutal for widowed Larissa, and now approaching her ninetieth year, living in Kiev she video conferences her granddaughter Natasha, who lives in America- which may as well be another planet altogether. Natasha’s emotional state is harried dealing with the exhaustion of caring for her newborn daughter, burdened by her husband Yuri’s friend Stas (who is currently crashing at their place) and juggling motherhood while auditioning for parts. The truth of it is, she is barely clinging to the end of her rope. The only saving grace is that Stas is great with children, her and Yuri’s baby in particular. When she asks Larissa if she will finally tell her the story of her own grandmother, the whole story about her life during World War Two, she is surprised her grandmother barely puts up a fight. Larissa wonders if her granddaughter really cares or is just using it as a distraction. Larissa admits to herself she has told it in bits and pieces, not all of it, it wears on her heart to remember. Tonya was a spoiled woman of wealth who married a banker, misfortune came to call with the Revolution in Ukraine, and the couple’s ‘fine apartment’ was seized by the Bolsheviks. It is everything that followed after, when the plan to flee their homeland with their children is altered after her husband’s death from typhus and Tonya is forced to make big decision on her own. This choice changes the course of her two sons lives. This is how Larissa’s father and uncle, as children, were sent to an orphanage. It is also how the weak, spoiled Tonya was able to maintain her lavish lifestyle.

Years later, Larissa’s mother and father meet at the Polytechnic Institute in Kiev, marry and have two daughters, Larissa and her younger, achingly beautiful sister Polya. Naturally their shallow grandmother adores Polina and lavishes attention on her, which doesn’t endear the sisters to one another. Life goes on until threats of Hitler invading the Soviet Union begin to take hold and the family must evacuate by train to the remote town of Lower Turinsk. Larissa’s family tale spirals into darkness and raw brutality. They are not alone on this uncomfortable cargo train, joined by their father’s brother and his family along with another couple and their sweet little girl. Soon, they will be “as beaten down as mushrooms stocked away deep in a forest.” Hunger, fear, jealousy, desire and death shadow their flight to safety. Larissa opens up about her love for two brothers, wildly different in personality and temperament. Remembering being driven to distraction by the crying jags of her silly sister and grandmother, of being wearied even of the terrors visited upon them, tough as nails Larissa lets the memories flow despite the ache. Everything she thinks she understands about her silly sister is challenged over the years, turning her bitterness into something inexplicable. She has many regrets and is visited by the spectre of death, outliving even her own daughter, Natasha’s mother.

Natasha is ashamed, at times, of her own weakness and struggles, particularly knowing her ancestors were made of sterner stuff. Just imagining everything they lived through makes her feel like a pitiful creature. Motherhood hasn’t come as naturally as she expected it to, Yuri is no longer interested in her as a woman it seems and the only roles she fits the mold for are those of proustite or spy. Her body hasn’t felt like her own since giving birth, and the memories she’s suppressed about her dead mother and her own hidden talent has her struggling with the past. She needs to feel like herself again, to have something that is her own. She needs to work, it is acting that fills her with purpose! Can’t a mother have a life too? Though the challenges Natasha faces are nothing near as severe as war, starvation, and the horrors her grandmother Larissa confronted, there are still parallels. The telling draws them closer and the struggles of what it means being a woman with passions, while mothering a child, is a bridge to understanding the choices we make. Even when there doesn’t seem to be a choice, beautiful new stories can be born from the ruins.

As Larissa passes down this inheritance, her story, it reverberates through time. Natasha takes the tale and reshapes it to fit present day, and share the meaning, the very truth that is the beating heart of Larissa’s life. It is about being vulnerable, selfishness, love, desire, war, death, how we judge others and ourselves and all the misunderstandings in between. It is where we go with what we have when we arrive in unexpected places. It is beautiful but make no mistake, Larissa’s past is hell, one that is witness to the ugliest of humanity and still she goes on in spite of a world that tries to break her, carrying her ghosts with her.

It is a harrowing tale of war and family. Gorgeously written, I can’t wait for her next book, this one left me breathless. I really enjoyed Maria’s previous novel Oksana, Behave but this one is a punch in the gut!

Publication Date: April 31, 2021

Random House Publishing

Three O’Clock in the Morning: A Novel by Gianrico Carofiglio

You know, when I look at you grown-ups, I think you’re trapped by things you don’t actually care about. How does that happen? When does it happen?

Three O’clock in the Morning begins with Italian born Antonio in 1983, struggling with epileptic episodes since he was a child. Comforted that his scary, strange fits were simply a thing that happens to some children, life went on with these odd moments occurring once a month or so until his teenage years when the epileptic bouts become more severe. Antonio feels his world shrink with a list of things he can and cannot do, places he should avoid, things he shouldn’t eat. Treatments are causing him to feel apathetic, as much as the changes forced on his young life, and it is why his divorced parents decide, together, that he must go to Marseille, France to see the best epilepsy specialist. With is parents beside him they take the trip together, and discover he will have to return in three years time to see what course his illness will take, as he ages. His life seems to level out so much that at eighteen he’d rather not even bother with the three year checkpoint. His parents are having none of it. More confounding is that it is his mostly absent father (a successful mathematician) who will be accompanying him this time, minus his mother who has an important conference to attend. This father, who he doesn’t really feel he knows, even resents for leaving his mother is the last person he wants to travel with back to that gritty, gray city. Antonio doesn’t even realize how hungry he is to bond with his father.

Upon Arrival, they are informed that Antonio appears to be doing good but only one test can really supply them with answers. The test requires he doesn’t sleep for two nights, inducing sleep deprivation to see if it will cause epilepsy. It is during this time that he and his father share intimacies getting to know each other for the first time, walking along the city streets, drinking in the scenery, the sea, the food, jazz music, the people, and his father’s favorite subject, mathematics. Normally that’s off putting to someone like me, whose math skills are abysmal at best, but Carofiglio’s musings are lovely. A harmony blooms between them and Antonio sees his father as so much more than he imagined him to be. Surprising details arise about his parent’s youthful relationship and marriage and his father’s reason for leaving. The story he imagined doesn’t line up at all with reality. As their connection grows his father imparts everything he has learned along way, including mistakes, and how his incredible mathematical gifts have changed with time. It’s just what Antonio, entering the rocky terrain of manhood, so desperately needs- this window into his father’s soul, that may help him understand himself. Sexuality, regrets, shame, what we do with our talents and love, it’s a beautiful father/son tale in a “modern bohemia” world. It is an easy pace, like a conversation with your best friend. A once in a lifetime meeting of the souls. Lovely.

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Publication Date: March 16, 2021

HarperVia

Lurkers: A Novel by Sani Tan

It was bad enough they already thought in English. He sensed trouble farther down the road. Already they questioned him and disrespected them at every turn- this would mutate into hate and shame.

An apt title, Lurkers. On Santa Claus Lane, Korean American sisters Mira and Rosemary are growing up in a home where their father is a mystery, someone they imagine wanted nothing more in life to be somewhere else, or better yet, anyone else. Their mother is clueless about the realities they will soon face. If they lose their home, the girls fear they will have to move back to the one place their mother is comfortable living, Korea. The idea horrifies the two, who can’t even speak their parents native tongue. Long ago, Mr. Park ( their immigrant father) showed promise with his engineering degree but life snowballed and fate led him to work as a busboy at his cousin’s restaurant. Later by marrying their much younger mother, life led him to take the place of his wife’s minister father and become one himself. His daughters don’t understand him, they are too American in their speech and thoughts, disrespectful, and no one realize he has a secret dream of his own. If he can just produce something of value, then things could be different! Misfortune visits and a suicide leaves the Park family reeling.

By the time the girls discover what he was working on, it may be too late and just confound them even more. The Park’s neighbor, Raymond Van Der Holt, a gay horror writer, finds himself on the hook helping Mrs. Park. Her visit is a strange disruption but nothing as odd as his intruder/ghost and at least the Korean housewife comes bearing food. Before long, the strange neighbors infiltrate his quiet life. He doesn’t realize just how deeply he will be connected to them.

Rosemary takes up theater to spice up her college application, under the spell of the seductive Mr. Z, who pushes trust exercises on the students and urges them to let go of their inhibitions. He hones in on Rosemary, paying her the attention she desperately craves but it’s a dangerous game. He demands raw honesty, but he himself is anything but honest. His workshop is a hothouse of sexual innuendos, and he himself is corrupting youth, grooming them. Youngest daughter Mira wants to conjure an entity to haunt their home. She is coming up with strange ideas to stop the sale of their house, tormenting their mother. When a termite inspector visits, her mind strays to devious plans.

Mary-Sue lived a life away from the poisonous chaos of her brother, spending years in a colony of modern ascetics trying to be a better, calmer version of herself. Family intrudes, as does the Vietnam war, and when she finally makes her way home she gathers the last remains of her family. She decides to adopt a Vietnamese orphan. This child, Kate, grows up feeling shadowed by her tragic history. A sullen girl who feels more like a lodger than her mother’s child, despite Mary-Sue’s love, there always seems to be a vast distance between them. Kate’s best friend is Paul, a kid just as disaffected as her. The two spend their teen years never turning romantic, all those should haves. After college she moves back home, years roll on and the two cross paths again. Paul has fifteen year old girl at his side, she assumes it’s his child. This is where it gets seedy and weird, and his explanation for being with the girl is warped.

The stories merge on Santa Claus Lane and at times it’s hard to keep track of. I didn’t much care for the sisters, Mira and Rosemary. Sure, their exasperation with their parents is understandable but they come off as cold fish. Kate and Paul’s tale makes for an uncomfortable read, not because the younger girl as a mirror/ode to Kate was surprising but I was disgusted with the whole mess of it. That Kate isn’t appalled is shocking. It’s a perverse bunch. Honestly, in the end, the saddest thing is I felt sorry only for the characters who aren’t given much space- Mr. and Mrs. Park. If there are redeeming qualities here it is in poor Raymond. The supernatural bits confounded me, sort of threw off the story. The letter at the end would have made for a far more meaningful, affecting story I would have gobbled up. It had all the emotion I was searching for in the rest of the book. Why I liked parts of it has to do with the immigrant experience, leaving behind their origins, the feeling of searching for an identity and how Kate never felt she belonged or deserved anything was rich writing. Too, the struggle Mr. Park faced trying to fit into this American life. It’s awful, honest. What I could do without, the sex which was not erotic, just felt voyeuristic and not at all my cup of tea. The sleazy men dominated the tale, my God, it’s low belly bastards haunting the book and I could not stand it. The writing is at times intelligent but a lot of the uncomfortable stuff doesn’t sit well. I think Tan can write, but I felt like the characters just kept running away from me. When it comes to Paul and Mr. Z- don’t get me started.

Publication Date: March 30, 2021

Soho Press

Astrid Sees All: A Novel by Natalie Standiford

I lost my mind; I can admit it. If you don’t go at least a little crazy when your favorite person dies, something is wrong with you.

A story about “It Girls” in the 1980’s living in East Village, New York City. Meet Phoebe Hayes, twenty-two years old and desperate for experience, excitement and a thrilling life that only the city can offer, especially under the guidance of native New Yorker Carmen. Moving to Manhattan not far from Carmen after college graduation, Phoebe works at a bookstore biding her time while others around her seem to be living the dream she yearns for. Carmen herself is wrapped up in her boyfriend Atti, and Phoebe’s Baltimore roots provides very little experience helping her navigate her new life in the city. One day she meets an older man named Ivan, a seductive doctor. When she gets in a jam, pride be damned, she must accept his money. Then her father dies, the heaviness of her grief causes her to lose her grip and behave strangely. She is desperate to get back to her life in New York, despite her mother’s protestations to the contrary. She is hungry, for distraction from her misery, for the glittering life that thrums in the gritty places only those on the inside haunt and for the chance to deal with Ivan and pay him back for his ‘help’.

Salvation comes in the form of Carmen, who is a lighthouse in her fog of grief. Together, they go underground. Carmen is spellbound by drug addicted Atti, the very person her parent’s want to keep her away from. She swears isn’t using drugs anymore, but like Phoebe, she wants to steer her own life and with Phoebe by her side, no one can stop them. If they leave it all behind, they will finally meet their fate. Through the bad luck of a drug dealers arrest, they grab up an apartment and thanks to Carmen, Phoebe lands a job telling fortunes at the downtown nightclub where famous people party, the Plutonium. Soon she will rub shoulders with people like Andy Warhol! Since college, Phoebe has believed if she could just hook Carmen and be interesting then her sophisticated friend’s ‘ritual of disappearance’ would end. In becoming Astrid the Star Girl, she’s entered Carmen’s world of drugs, sex, and the nightlife. Her world is fresh and new! Finally, she too is someone worth noting. All that glitters isn’t gold, faking it to fit to make it in the presence of celebrities, and secrets, Carmen is keeping secrets from her that casts Phoebe in a role she doesn’t like.

The relationship between Ivan and Phoebe is more tawdry than sexy. She’s playing at being someone else in the hopes to become wild, world-wise, alluring. Channeling movie stubs as a fortune teller (unsure if she has a gift or it’s all bull), lending a little theater to her act as much as she plays the sex kitten pretending ugly sexual encounters are thrilling, chalking it all up to experience, but beneath the surface she’s fooling herself. That whole scene isn’t quite as satisfying as she imagines it and she comes away with huge regrets. There is a disconnect in her life, between who she wants to be and who she is. She spends a lot of time running away from herself which comes off as genuine, it’s the price of youth, these burning lessons. Carmen isn’t as wise and cultivated as she appears either. If anyone has a warped vision of love, it’s her. Neither is truly in charge of their story, for now.

Worse, a shadowy figure is following Phoebe, she isn’t sure who but it can’t possibly be the man she thinks it is. She has got to be losing her mind. Carmen suffers her own loss but Jem, an artist, is there to comfort her, spending his time at their apartment, making Carmen ‘incandescently happy’. A distance is forming between the friends and she is ignoring all the signs that something is troubling her. She has needs, as much as Carmen, but the choices she makes may well drive her best friend away. When Carmen vanishes after their fight, she lies to herself that everything is fine, as the world she has created is crumbling around her. She can’t avoid the truth when she notices flyers of missing young women, it’s a dangerous time, surely nothing untoward happened to Carmen, right? In order to figure out what has happened, she has to wake up and face the heavy past she has been running from. She may just become famous in the end, but the universe has a strange sense of humor.

A coming of age about friendship, glamour, sex, drugs, and betrayal. It’s an ode to the 1980’s New York Bohemia scene. It was a solid read, one that strips us down to who we really are underneath the façade we show the world. In the end, both Phoebe and Carmen are young and vulnerable, despite the grit they sharpen their souls on. Both are liars, inventing who they wish they were, ignoring the truth of their struggles, their weaknesses, two drowning girls trying to save each other and failing miserably.

Publication Date: April 6, 2021

Atria Books