If I Had Two Lives by Abbigail Rosewood

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

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

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

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

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

Publication Date: April 19, 2019

Europa Editions

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The Ash Family: A Novel by Molly Dektar

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“Why would you want to leave, when you’ll have more freedom here than anywhere else?” He said. The family’s father, Bay said, was Dice, and Dice would understand me the way a lightning bolt would understand a rod.

At Nineteen years old Berie doesn’t intend to go to college despite the plane ticket to Richmond, Virginia. That is her mother’s plan, not hers. She leads her mother to believe in it, going so far as to say goodbye at the airport, her mother secure in the illusion that she’s left. Ex-boyfriend Isaac doesn’t believe in her hunger for a more essential life, but someone does. All she wants is to leave the bustle and noise of modern day life behind, the path to her desire comes in the form of a stranger she meets at a bus station on her way back to Isaac and Durham, hoping he will let her squat. The scarred stranger’s magnetic presence draws her in, before long she finds herself enthralled by his tales of the Ash Family, named for having started in Asheville, North Carolina. The members all sustain themselves and each other in an old farmhouse in the holler, their own utopia with animals, a vegetable patch and an orchard. “Thirty people and growing”, she could be one of them if the family accepts her, but three days and either you leave or stay forever. Three days, no exceptions.

Everything starts out with such promise, living off the grid among brothers and sisters, what feels cold at first turns into beauty, “I was awestruck under a wild star-smeared sky.” Of course, things fall apart as they always do, rules seem to bend and stretch for some people and cruelty rears it’s ugly head. Why would you ever leave, right, when you are with the people who really love you? Who needs medical care in the fake world when they have Pear and her natural healing ways? Listen, I am all for natural medicine, but I sure wouldn’t take an herb to cure a brain tumor or ignore it if my appendix burst, how about you? I’m more inclusive, nature embracing science, why must it be one or the other?  The problem with utopia is power and control because there always seems to be a leader that wants to give you rules. Being at peace is easy when you don’t have to interact with others and their ideas. Is it freedom if punishment and acceptance is meted out under the critical eye of a ‘father’? Father’s need obedient children.

Berie is a lost soul and for a time, she chooses to acquiesce. “The gale came into me, and blew all my doors and windows open.”  But being blown about by the wind and putting your faith, will into another’s hands never bodes well and surely can’t last. They don’t need anything that nature doesn’t provide, though over time hypocrisy shows itself. The rules don’t always make sense, what begins as a back to earth experience seems more tests of loyalty to the cause. The rot sets in, Berie finds serious flaws and weaknesses within herself and the family. Dice demands sacrifices. This peace loving community is at war with those that would destroy the environment and be the Ash Family’s ruin, even if they must turn on their own people, ignoring illness, letting nature take it’s course… so be it.

Oh boy, will she ever leave? Will she remain a sort of pawn for the ‘father’ of the Ash Family’s plans? How did Bay get those scars, by the by, she wonders. What worked about the novel is that it exposes the ugly side of commune living, while also telling the story of how easy it is, when lost, to latch on to something dangerous. Sometimes searching for a more authentic life can be ruinous, particularly if it means letting go of your will. Berie’s desire for more than what is on offer, her need to journey down an unexplored path is a struggle for many people. The need to be inspired by something bigger than what other’s expect of you burns within us and is at its strongest when you’re young and just beginning to question your place in the world. Berie has other issues that complicate her relationships, Bay seems like a gift from the universe. But her eyes are clouded over with weariness for the world, one she needs to reject, she is so tired of trying so why not hand the wheel over to someone else. It’s easy to remain a child and allow others to push you along, that’s how cults work you know. Believe in something or someone else when you don’t believe in yourself. What can you do when you feel like you don’t fit the times? Don’t go into this novel thinking it’s going to be a happy back to nature story, it turns ugly.

Publication Date: April 9, 2019

Simon & Schuster

Sabrina & Corina: Stories by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

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She said people will find the loveliest part of you and try to make it ugly. “And they will do anything,” she always said, “to own that piece of you.”

In this fantastic collection of stories by Kali Fajardo- Anstine about the experiences of Latina women indigenous to the vast land of the American West, characters range in age and life situations. Beauty can’t save any of them from the violence of bad men, nor can it guarantee a better life , “they look at us like we’re nothing.”  In Sugar Babies, a restless mother leaves while her daughter cares for her own school ‘baby’. Sabrina & Corina is one of the saddest with a bad ending for a much admired Cordava cousin. The loss finds Corina using her make-up skills to tend to Sabrina’s body as she reminisces of her deep love  for “the family beauty”. Too, she shares the distance between them before everything went wrong, before her cousin’s ‘carelessness’ began to disgust her. This family of women  have lived with nothing but tragedies, how can anyone hope for a happy fate with so much evidence to the contrary?

In Sisters, Dotty has her sight stolen from her and thinks about a missing girl, about survival and thus begins the story of what happens when women say no and bruise a man’s ego, inciting his rage. This is the sort of story that makes me think of Margaret Atwood’s biting quote,  ‘Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women  are afraid that men will kill them.’ What happens to the women in each story can knock the wind out of you, and though fiction, it’s not one bit fantastical and that is frightening.

In Remedies, lice are the monster. I adore characters that understand natural medicine and for some, home remedies was the only cure. Too, a young girl struggles with a half-brother in her life, the father absent for both of them but why should she have to share her own mother? The writing is gorgeous throughout, I kept breaking my heart against each one. Just when I thought it couldn’t get sadder, I was gutted again. ‘Cora and I had been around sick and dying people our entire lives. People, we learned, weren’t permanent and neither were their illnesses.’ Characters are all struggling to keep things together through illnesses, death, grief, and the aftermath of prison. Some deal with their own shameful pasts, others with the inevitable trajectory of what’s to come. The Bob Dylan quote before the stories begin is spot on, these are certainly sad-eyed ladies. Yes, read it!!!

Publication Date: April 2, 2019

Random House

One World

Driving Into The Sun by Marcella Polain

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They go to work and they don’t come back. Everywhere there are cracks in the world that other people can’t see.

The story takes place in Perth, Australia 1968 and one day Orla’s father Dan, a shining sun in her world, doesn’t come home. With his death, everything changes for Orla, her little sister Deebee and their mother Henrietta. The world becomes a threatening place without the protection of a father, there is nothing left to save them, financial hardship is that much heavier a weight, and as their father’s thoughts fade, the last are those of shame as the reader is privy to his regrets, that he left his wife nothing, that he is so sorry…  The novel flows between memories and the aftermath of the shift in their family structure. Before, there are problems, they aren’t able to stay in their house in the hills, the money isn’t coming in. Her parents must leave the hills for a cheaper living situation, they move to the ‘only-for-a-year-house’, but another house will be built. No longer surrounded by the vast wilderness, closer to the beach but in a more suburban setting they are closer to neighbors. People that are better left unknown, those you avoid. Their mother works weekends to help them stay afloat, until the death of their father makes the neighbors people to rely upon, when there is no one else. There are to be no more riding lessons for Orla, who has a head full of horses, which the family couldn’t really afford while her daddy was alive, but how could he deny his girl such a desperate desire? Left with their mother, who has always been far less patient with the children, missing the father who ‘never shouted’ they are all vulnerable to the threats ‘out there’ in the big bad world. There is never true closure for Orla and Deebee, without the finality of a funeral (as the girls weren’t allowed to go) Orla is sure her daddy will return, like a moth to a light, despite the visit from the reverend assuring her ‘God only takes the best first.’

Orla isn’t quite a teenager yet, still a little girl awakening to grown up things, and of course far less sheltered after she loses her father. The author did a wonderful job of getting into a young girls mind, everything is murky when you’re young. It’s like trying to understand words while swimming underwater. Nothing is fully explained, nor fully grasped when you are not quite developed in body and mind. But you sure grow up fast when your home is no longer made up of capable, loving parents. Henrietta, due to this tragic unexpected circumstance is now both mother and father, frustrated by Orla whom she doesn’t understand, a little girl she has always felt lacked ‘guts’, something all Australians need, but she will have to learn, she will have to learn to be harder in this place. What is she going to do, left with no one but the children, and how is she, a widow alone in the 1960’s, to keep them fed, housed, clothed? Then there is a prowler lurking about, and women just aren’t taken seriously, they need a husband for everything, how is she to secure a better home for her girls when women need men to be approved for such things? A woman alone with little girls is a target! The odds are always stacked against her. Dan left them nothing! He didn’t prepare for such things and she is paying for it all, she and her girls. Another betrayal she has to stomach, and there were other betrayals. She hates the thought of it all, trapped, a mountain on her shoulders. Would it have been better if she died? After all, people rally behind men who lose wives, forgive them anything, not so for a widow! It’s probably her fault he is dead! These thoughts are absolutely genuine of the times, it was the same with single mothers even when I grew up in America during the late seventies and early eighties, there was a ‘they probably deserve it’ mentality. There wasn’t empathy for single mom’s whether due to the loss of a husband or divorce.  Being in Henrietta’s shoes would be terrifying and there are pages dedicated to her head space, though Orla dominates the novel.

With their father gone, a young mother named Cora comes into their lives too, not as coarse as they once believed but talking about adult things Orla doesn’t always comprehend, with so much life in her, confidence, a fun person. Her mother has different views on ‘unfortunate’ Cora, jealous too of the amount of time her eldest daughter chooses to spend at her house but Orla thinks she is lucky, with both her mother and father still alive. Little sister, wild Deebee feels caged when she has to stay with the Thompsons while her mother is at work, absolutely hates it. I adored Deebee, she is feral, she isn’t a ‘good girl’ but that doesn’t make her bad. She is a fierce little thing, even less aware of what goes on around them all.

Through the novel there is a threat simmering, but threats always simmer for women living on their own. The ending really hit me between the eyes. The novel may lose some readers because often people get lost in internal dialogue, particularly when it’s the worries of an often anxious young girl. I think it actually works for Orla’s character, because with the difficulties and grief she feels, the longing, the fear of the future, her mind wouldn’t ever be at rest, her thoughts wouldn’t be linear. That’s how we are when we’re trying to make sense of our place in the world. A sad novel.

Out Today   February 1, 2019

Fremantle Press

 

 

The Age of Light: A Novel by Whitney Scharer

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Or Lee could tell the real story: the one where she loved a man and he loved her, but in the end they took everything from each other- who can say who was more destroyed.

Man Ray was an American visual artist who spent much of his career in Paris, France and was a part of the Dada and Surrealist movement but this is about his love affair with Lee Miller. Lee Miller was an American who began as a fashion model in the 1920’s, her passion was photography leading her to become a serious photojournalist in her own right for Vogue during World War II. Certainly photographing horrific carnage, Nazi horrors is a far cry from her days of posing nude, her wild nights of partying and lovemaking while she was working in Paris as Man Ray’s assistant and lover. Being a man’s muse wasn’t ever going to be enough for Lee, whose beauty betrayed a talent that could rival the men she worked for.  Man was seventeen years Lee Miller’s senior, photographed her obsessively, hungered to understand her beyond her flawless, ‘ideal’ beauty. Her beauty was overwhelming, blinding, a thing most people cannot look past. One must imagine she was a fascinating woman, Man Ray photographed some of the most famous people of our time and yet couldn’t get enough of Lee. Their love blazed for years, and in that time both betrayed each other in love, and in career (Man failing to credit her in famous work).

Their love seems to move in phases, sometimes he seems like her father, sometimes like her child, at other times an erotic lover hungry for all sorts of playful exploration involving pushing the edge of each other’s boundaries.  Speaking of fathers, ruminating about the relationship between Lee Miller and her own father Theodore, one can understand where the rumors of possible sexual abuse by him was born. It’s no secret she was sexually abused (raped) when she was only 7 years old while in the care of a family friend, contracting gonorrhea, a downright horrific disease for a child to suffer but that nude photos followed that event, that her own father snapped of her “as art”, can’t help but leave one feeling disturbed. Their relationship was strange, he seemed at times more a lover than a father, which comes into play in the novel when Man finally meets him. Her beauty and body didn’t belong to her in the early years, it’s hard to understand how free and open she was about nudity and sexuality after such a traumatic violation. Maybe being raised as her father’s model made her body become an instrument for her? We are the sum total of our experiences, whether we like it or not, we can let the horrible trauma we suffer be our ruin or we can decide to own our destiny. She had some serious grit! This wasn’t a woman who was going to cower in the presence of any Master.

Man Ray’s own sexuality was a curious thing for the times, rumors swirled about him, naturally he used his love of Miller as a shield. Certainly that didn’t endear him to her, nor the ways he tried to control and manage her. She was a young woman, not quite resigned to a life of staying in and playing at the ‘happy couple’ he wanted to be, she hungered for experiences that would fuel her artist’s mind. There is a line in the novel, “Their gaze made her into someone she didn’t want to be”, and Man was guilty of molding her into some ideal too. There was always a distance within her, she loves him and questions that love, sometimes you can feel a hesitation in giving all of herself to him. She has made this happen, she was the master of her own ship, famously telling him she was to be his student, mind you he wasn’t taking any students.She wasn’t a woman who waited for things to happen, she pursued her desires whether it was for flesh or photographs. Such ambition and commitment is difficult for any of us, but for a woman in the 1930’s, wildly admirable. She needed open love, needed to fall into bed with whom she pleased, separating love from sex when it came to different people. Not such an anomaly really, plenty of people are into open love, and her youth and beauty certainly provided her a smorgasbord of opportunity and temptation, is just doesn’t bode well in a relationship with a man who wants promises.  Man was possessive and jealous, he began to need her and desperation is never attractive to the young. She has her warning early in the relationship upon meeting another of his muses, a former lover Kiki (sultry performer and dancer) who causes a jealous scene. Man tells her his former relationship was simmering in jealousies.

As with any love, the cracks begin to appear. Lee’s fresh ideas are in contrast to Man’s own lack thereof, then comes their perfecting a technique called solarization, based on her discovery, but it is the bell jar photo series that is at the heart of their relationship’s decline. Masters can’t let their students eclipse them completely, right? It’s his studio, his name… Throughout the novel he wants to possess and consume her, crack her skull open, know all her secrets and dissect her because he never seems to reach the center. Man becomes a vulnerable mess, a beggar, desperate that she never leaves him. He loves her, they have fierce passion for each other, but sometimes love that starts as a fire can fizzle out, and all that’s left is ash, smoke.

The story flows between the past and the future where Lee Miller is working as a photojournalist for Vogue, where some of her most famous, shocking  work was produced, during the Second World War. The woman she became seems nothing like the beautiful muse of the past, but she was always there inside, waiting to break free. Then she reinvented herself into a wife, Lady Penrose. The attic becomes the keeper of her past. What a hell of a story! I am going to read her son’s (Antony Penrose) memoir about his ‘unconventional’ mother, The Lives of Lee Miller.

This book has quite a bit of sexuality, of course it does, this is Paris in the 1930’s following a Bohemian set. It’s all sex, art, and libération! Much of Man Ray and Lee Miller’s relationship was about their sexual need for each other as much as their creative life together, it is said Man couldn’t get enough of her. This really is a brilliant book!

Publication Date: February 5, 2019

Little, Brown and Company

Pickle’s Progress: A Novel by Marcia Butler

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A worm in Pickle’s brain told him this was reasoning he should bite on. Everyone was entitled to a breakdown or a breakthrough, and if he were honest with himself, Pickle wasn’t sure which he were facing.

What did I just read? Twin brothers Stan and Pickle McArdle are just as connected, though grown men, as they were in their toxic mother’s womb. They don’t live together anymore, which is a bit inconvenient for Pickle and Karen, but when Karen and her husband Stan get in an accident intoxicated out of their minds (a common occurence) a mixed up young woman named Junie becomes a strange catalyst for some serious sibling rivalry. Does it count as sibling rivalry if you’re unaware of it (Stan)? Is this entanglement a New York thing, kidding… It’s handy that Stan’s brother is on the police force, Pickle always comes through and cleans up their messes. This time the mess is coming home with Stan and Karen, Junie “a woman standing directly in front of them, perhaps five hundred yards away, with her hands at the side of her face, mouth open, like the Edvard Munch painting”, the reason for the accident. Boyfriend Jacob jumped off the bridge, but she didn’t follow. That’s the problem with pacts, someone often opts out after you’ve already committed, or chooses to do it without you. June is Pickle’s favorite month, could love be on the rise? Karen’s reasons for helping out a stranger in dire need of support begins to make sense as she befriends Junie, who feels like a freeloader. Stan isn’t thrilled about the young woman living in their brownstone, his nature is ‘odd’ but Karen seems more overbearing mother than wife.

Pickle, cleaned up all nice, takes in interest in Junie while also making demands on Karen, and what a deceptive piece our Karen is. Secrets, betrayals and at the heart of it all it began with a mother who chose one twin as her favorite. I kept having to remind myself this was written by a woman, Pickle has plenty of reasons for his rage towards Karen, his envy toward his brother, resentment too but I didn’t feel there was a woman’s voice, isn’t that odd? We’re meant to have empathy for Karen, but in my mind her arm didn’t take much twisting and certainly she isn’t as smart as she plays up when there are a million ways she could have handled everything. I know, it makes no sense until you read, but I refuse to post spoilers. Junie is this mess that could have been a hell of a character but instead spends more time in retreat.

I hate you, I love you would be the perfect summary for what is going on between all the major players. Karen has the perfect setup, she has Pickle right where she wants him but he isn’t playing her game anymore. Her control is dimishing. It’s that ‘breakdown’ or ‘breakthrough’ thing racing through Pickle’s veins, plans swirling through his mind that won’t allow him to live in shackles anymore, funny for a cop, how captive he’s allowed himself to be.  Junie, despite Stan’s resistance, could be an antidote to all his misery. Stan is the most believable character, his artlessness, his lack of self-awareness, it’s obvious he doesn’t slip out of his own mind enough to wonder at everything happening all around him. It’s hard to hate him, there’s something childlike about him. The twins are wildly different, Pickle is abrasive where Stan is diluted in his ‘masculinity’ so to speak. Which unraveling Stan makes it easy to understand why their twisted mother favored him, if she had a bone in her body of maternal love, which is doubtful, it’s possible there was fear he would be lost on his own. Junie, I don’t know, she was more a presence than a character I could connect with. Pickle and Karen, those two are absolutely their own problem and each other’s. I just could not like either of them. I still don’t have a clue who Junie is, to be honest. I keep going back to her angry because she should have blazed brighter with such a wild start.

The ending, maybe a little too neat for me. I mean, all’s well that ends well, really? I want to witness the confrontations, you’re telling me everything just lines up? Who are these people?

Publication Date: April 9, 2019

Central Avenue Publishing

 

The Embalmer by Anne-Renée Caillé, Rhonda Mullins (Translation)

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You have to be true, to be faithful to the photograph the family sometimes leaves. I am surprised to find out this is not done consistently.

Most of us don’t like to think about what happens after death, how the embalmer prepares the body, the work required to make our loved ones look as they did in life, our ‘last look’ at our beloved who is both present in body and yet not. In this literary fiction, Anne-Renée Caillé’s narrator plumbs the depths of her father’s experiences during his time as an embalmer. What seems like a macabre subject is handled with a far more matter of a fact manner. We modern-day people are removed from death, out of sight, out of mind. While a book of only 96 pages, some of the telling made my skin crawl, not so much for gruesome horror but that lives end in the strangest and saddest of ways.

Her father, at times with ‘a list of cases on hand’,  makes some of the deceased become more real by saying their names. His job, to make them who they were before the ravages of disease, accidents, murder, or even combat had his work cut out for him, and certainly there are cases where there isn’t the possibility of make-up saving the day, because only a closed casket is the option. There are indignities in dying, most of us just have to look away and let others handle the ugly details, never once giving it a thought yet knowing our time will come. Who can bear to ponder such things with so much living to do?

“The story is sensitive, they all are, but some are more disturbing.”

Through listening to her father, she wants to understand him, his choice of jobs where things are underground. Then there is illness in her own family, in her father just like his father before him but death’s movements can’t always be tracked and sometimes surprises us with the age old question, “Who is next?”

I can’t wait to read more by Anne-Renée Caillé. She is an author I will be following. I read this in one night.

Available Now

Coach House Books